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.