Monday, June 10, 2013


The Palisades
John Muir Trail

Fr. Dale Matson

As someone who has searched for lost individuals off trails, I know how foreboding and difficult it can be to navigate the wilderness without trails. Trails are highways through the wilderness. They are a thin ribbon often called ‘single tracks’. Trails are the shortcut. They are the way into and out of the wilderness. They take us to a timeless time zone. Most often they are ‘use’ trails headed over a mountain pass, to a view or to lakes. Trails frequently follow the course of a creek or a river which is also good for necessary hydration. As you proceed, there are signs on trees called reassurance markers or blazes. When the trail is faint, they reassure the traveler that he is headed in the correct direction. On large stretches of open areas there are often cairns made of stacked rocks. There are other more subtle signs for the experienced traveler. Trails are also used by pack animals and their scat can help when the trail is uncertain. It is also common to see deer and bear track on human made trails.  The residue from soiled boots leaves a telltale travel sign on smooth granite. Trails through meadows are well worn, deep and certain. Trails on steep climbs and descents zigzag in what are called switchbacks to make the climb less steep. One must be careful on a descending trail not to follow the waterway diversion path, designed to keep the trail from washing away during spring runoff and thunderstorms. Ferns open as you approach and close like curtains on the trail behind you.

Trails lead us deeper into the wilderness and deeper into ourselves. Suddenly you are so small and insignificant. You are like the protagonist in the movie “The Incredible Shrinking Man”. The surroundings are timeless and indifferent to your presence.  Your footsteps will be erased by the next storm. The granite in sunlight is warm to the touch on a cool windy day. The wind at high elevations blows continuously and makes a narrow knife edge trail a test of courage too. Our hearts pound like a drum in our chests in an uncustomary way as we climb in thinner air. Trails along water bring mosquitos in the early and late hours and deerflies and horseflies and gnats in the hotter part of the day. Thank God for Deet.

Trails bring surprises. All you have to do is turn around and your view can be even better than the slow motion wonderland you are walking into. A partridge flies up and startles you. The brush cracks and a deer bolts into the trees. A coyote (God’s dogs) barks and grudgingly gives ground. So often our ears perceive things before our eyes do.  Fresh bear scat steams in the cool morning air and you wonder if he is just around that big boulder up ahead. You see a stick and then it moves and then it is a rattlesnake and you give her the proper distance. After days on the trail, you hear an uncustomary sound at a considerable distance. It is a human voice and it is out of place. We expect the scolding jays and crows but not a conversation between other humans.

There are sections of trail that are not so pretty. A long ago fire turned a beautiful section of forest into a long lasting black skeleton. Switchbacks on the face of an open section of mountain are exposed, hot and dry at mid-day. There are sections of trail where the forest was flattened by avalanches and landslides. Downed trees across the trail force climb-overs and walk-arounds. Where did the trail go? They also give a renewed appreciation for an unobstructed trail.

Twenty years ago I ran trails and traveled fifty miles in a day. I was light and younger, fast and foolish. Today, the views most often require an overnight. An overnight requires a pack and a pack makes you heavy, old and slow but realistic.  As long as I am physically able to move on trails and have sound judgment, I will continue to use them to plan, dream and explore the wilderness.

Thank you Lord for the trails in the wilderness created by pilgrims before me and maintained those who follow after me.      


No comments: