You only truly appreciate a good trail when you’ve lost it. Rocks and roots. Scratchy thorns, clingy burs. Mud puddles that last for hours. Avalanche chutes crammed with dead trees, blowdowns that are fun to scramble over and squeeze under… until they’re not. Scree fields, scrub grown high: arms overhead to squeeze through the belligerent density. And out east, of course, poison ivy.
I contemplate this as I embark on a side trail traced on the map not with the usual confident, dark dashes, but with an uncertain line of dots, indicating possible lack of maintenance. Will it be there? Will it peter out, or disappear? Aside from a sign inexplicably posted six feet above eye level, leading me to overshoot a turn by twenty minutes, the symptoms of tending are everywhere: logs chopped and rolled out of the path, or slanted and buried to wick erosive streaming. Slashed growth on either side. Even, sometimes, the starburst pattern of dynamite, rods still embedded in the rock. You’re here, I think, thank you!
Some people like off-trail travel: bushwhacking, the challenge of finding their own way. But I am all about the melody line, the plan. Because a trail cares. For nine miles, I meet no one, but feel the constant presence of those who designed and dug so others could pass. A good trail is the path of least resistance and most reward. Because it’s a big problem, especially when you’re the first: how to get through the vast, thick world? What takes minutes to walk took days to build… or centuries to evolve. Lewis and Clark blazed the west, but they used trails softened by American Indians, who used trails softened by elk and deer and goats.
(And who will use ours? Long after we are dead and the earth has begun to heal, they will swim over the heat-flooded continent: pods of unwarring dolphins thriving on a diet of #2 plastic and styrofoam beads. Besides subdivisions, snapped skyscrapers, and parking lots cracked with plankton, will they notice subtle trails through the underwater mountains? Will they wonder who cared there, and how and why?)
The JMT is the Bentley of trails. It is almost 100% well-maintained and well-signed. I meet at least six tool-toting, confident strings of trail workers. The California Conservation Corps slings saws and axes, picks and Pulaskis, despite their uniform of olive drab long pants in the afternoon heat. Its workers are all colors and sizes. A chubby, huffing woman. Guys with well-coiffed dreds. Heavy boots, sweat stains in the outline of sports bras.
As I pass, they pause their toil, shouting “Hiker!” “Hiker!” “Hiker!” down the line. I say how’s it going, the trail’s great, thank you. “Thanks fer yer thanks,” replies a gal with an unmistakably Minnesotan accent. They cast no nervous eye to the sky, just bend over their art and slog on. When it’s break time, their bodies splay against trees and they pull dusty Stanley thermoses from rucksacks. They let everything lay throbbing for a while and toss jokes across the trail.
The US Forest Service has a brochure detailing what they haul up the mountains. The table of contents reads like a song:
Tools for Sawing, Tools for Chopping, Tools for Grubbing, for Brushing
For Digging and Tamping, for Pounding and Hammering,
For Lifting, Hauling, Peeling, Shaping, Sharpening…
And Christine Byl’s memoir Dirt Work tells what it feels like to engage in so many verbs. This boggles a lightweight hiker. I’m tired just reading about it. How do they not break themselves? Am I not too old for that work, too weak, too pampered? No. I have no excuse. I pick up trash around the neighborhood, volunteer for river clean-up days where it’s mostly beer bottle retrieval, and the largest thing hoisted is a tire. I send a check to the Nature Conservancy. So bless these people. Let nobody disparage their generation, call them sedentary and screen-tied, dismiss hope.
I get where I’m going with daylight to spare. The trail is what makes quick hiking possible, and what I hope will allow me to make the necessary miles to my next resupply, Vermilion Valley, by sundown tomorrow. Shoes in one hand and poles in the other, I wade across a shallow creek and dry my feet on the other side, on a rock that seems placed for that exact purpose.
By now, I know how it got there.