“The sunshine coming overhead, the sky lit up like a cigarette.”

The trail is always shorter
on the way back

The entrance to the trail from the road was through a tight little stand of small cedars, dark and dreamlike. The trail then cut through a thick swath of gray, leaveless, alders. Then it went up through a forest mostly of birch. And it went up, climbing the lake side of the Sawtooth Mountains. It rose toward the ridgeline over undulating smaller ridges, always going up, but slowly, with occasional relief as we descended the backside of one of the smaller ridges or dropped down into the little gullies where water trickled toward the lake.

Looking up the hill through the woods I could see a long ways. There were acres of bare birch trees, their bark hanging off in big sheets. Behind them was a stand of maples showing a thick curtain of yellow leaves. Behind it all was the hill, a solid, dark leaf-covered red mass.

We hiked mostly in silence, feeling close enough together in this big wood that talking wasn’t necessary, and with much to think about. I was thinking about the trail. The Trail. For a long time, I’ve been trying to figure out what it means, what it represents, what it is. In the past, I’ve come up with little sayings about the trail, truisms. All I could think on Sunday was that the trail is too complex for one phrase to describe it. The trail under your feet is a haiku that can never be written.

As we walked, I wondered again about why I can’t write characters with any depth, why I strive to describe the natural terrain but have given up on describing the human. It seemed like it must be fear, but I don’t feel afraid of the human. Thinking more about it, I came to understand that — unsurprisingly, if you know me — what I am really afraid of is failure. When I write of the woods, I am really writing of my senses, my eyes, ears, nose, and fingers are fairly consistent and arguably reliable. One’s senses are inconsequential in understanding — and thus being able to describe — a person. Only honesty and openness can perceive the soul. I thought how I am afraid that there is some shell around me, some lens, that filters my perception of men and women and that will be revealed if I try to write about them.

When we scrambled up the last steep, rocky section to the top of the ridge my legs burned and I was sweating. I certainly thought some about that too.

On top we were rewarded with one of the things I had come here looking for. A view inland of miles and miles of woods, mostly gray, silver and white leafless trees but scattered with dabs of red and green. A pond and a bog in the middle of the hills. We stood on top of a bluff of granite, surrounded by a few scrubby pines and bushes. I took off the backpack and we drank some water and tried out the binoculars. On a far horizon we could make out an abandoned radar station towering over the forest.

It wasn’t long before the sweat on the body turned very cold in the breeze. We hiked along the ridge, coming to the top of the bluffs a few more times. The area is reportedly popular with rock climbers, referred to for some unexplained reason as “Section 13.” Our destination was a beaver dam described in the guidebook as a three mile hike from the trailhead. High up on the cliffs we figured that it had to be somewhere near the bog we could see a long, long ways down there.

A little while later, we started going down. After a short, steep pitch off the rocks, the trail cut down the backside of the ridge, then turned and dropped over and around it. After this, it began a long descent down the valley in front of the ridge we had just been on. A little creek ran along the trail, just barely enough water to keep moving, and we could rarely see it, hidden down in the rocks and behind the trees. In several places cedars clustered on top of the rocks along the water. In a few wet places the trail crossed rough-hewn boardwalks, just a single tree halved and anchored with the flat side up. The rain the night before and the generally cool, damp air made the log surfaces greasy and we crossed them slowly.

The woods were incredibly quiet. Down here, there was no wind. We didn’t see a single other person all afternoon. Most of the songbirds had left for the winter and whatever remained were keeping their thoughts to themselves. All the insects had been silenced by frosts. Certainly, life stirred in those woods, but it did so invisibly and silently, like it would until spring.

5 thoughts on ““The sunshine coming overhead, the sky lit up like a cigarette.”

  1. Deb

    That was a wonderful read. Simply wonderful. I was there, or I wish I was.

    What a great way to spend your first anniversary. Back when anniversaries meant something, we used to go up to the Gunflint Trail, in February, and cross country ski for miles and miles.

    Amazing how the leaves are so different once you get north of the cities. Our leaves are pretty much gone, although a scattered clone of aspen, a rare young oak tree, and the tamaracks, still have some color.

    Anyway, I really enjoyed reading this.

  2. Terry

    A great tale, the best part being that it’s all true. I especially liked the incorporation of your photos and the multi-page approach.

    I’m struggling with recounting my recent trip (I went shutter crazy and ended up with 30+ photos that I consider keepers, not to mention what ended up on the cutting room floor) and this post gave me some good ideas.

    I enjoy your descriptions of nature because you write with an honest an unpretentious voice. It’s a quality that I would like to do more to aspire to.

    Keep up the good work.

  3. the dharma bum Post author

    Every time I click “Publish” to post something on here, I just kind of say to myself, “Well, it is what it is.” It’s still a little surprised sometimes when anybody takes the time to say they enjoyed it. Thank you.

    I’m also a little surprised that you guys made it all the way through this one… I’d say 2800 words is pushing it for a blog post. That’s why I went with the multi-page approach, too. Terry, I’m glad it worked for you and hope it gave you some ideas. I have to say that the two posts you did put up about your trip up north were really, really enjoyable too. Sorry I haven’t taken the time to say so on your blog (though I have noted the name of the lake where you camped!).

    Deb… what are you saying? One of these years October 23 will just be another day? I can imagine that’s true. Thanks for sharing your memory of your anniversaries.

  4. Deb

    dharma bum…I really hope it’s never just another day for you two. What I’m saying is, lately it’s been just another day for me. But that’s something for my blog, sometime.

  5. Crystal

    wonderful and eloquent as always. don’t underestimate your voice and how your characters come to life. it’s always a struggle, let me know when you figure out “how” to make complex characters! besides, it’s good to acknowledge that humans aren’t always the most interesting or important part of the story.

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