Old trails never die, they just get harder to see.
Their names did, and still do, an excellent job of describing them in a few short words- The Puke Loop and The Meatgrinder. While their heydays of being a few open and pleasantly flowing pieces of path connecting extended sections of tight turns, horrendously steep climbs, and complicated descents have long passed, the poorly angled roots, cactus, unfortunately placed rocks and riding/hiking/trail running memories remain. More than just a few body scars remain on people to help tell something about what the two were like back in the day and undoubtedly there are those that still think of mountain biking the Puke Loop whenever they find themselves hugging a commode.
I remember those times of daily use well. Back then, many of the misplaced rocks, logs, and limbs scattered here and there along the way were mostly moved to where they were on purpose by users trying to improve a particular line. While most people didn’t consider either to be particularly well groomed, aside from the purposefully placed rocks and limbs, they actually were. There was certainly some regular maintenance performed to keep them “clean,” but like many regularly used trails, the two were kept in their prime condition by constant use. Hikers moving fallen limbs out of the way, runners beating the tread in deeper and mountain bikers flicking loose rocks off to the side with their tires all did their part. Any sort of unintended or unplanned obstacle that could get in the way of good trail time was not allowed to be there for long and was ultimately cleared out of the way.
There are two types of trails. First, are ones that link places like towns, mountains, and river crossings. They came to be where they did because they connect things.
And then there are others, including the two I’m talking about, that don’t connect anything except a starting point. They’re perfect loops. If they go up, they ultimately have to go down. There are both short and long ones. There are those that are mellow, while some are extreme. There are flat and fast ones, but others that are hilly, grueling, and brutal. They can flow smoothly or be choppy, can be easy or difficult, and can either require constant focus or allow for daydreaming. The best ones have aspects of all of the above and combine the physical part with where and how they go to create a pleasant and memorable journey. Loops express the thoughts, hopes, and fears of the people who created them. They become whatever their builders and users want them to be.
And so, I walk the Meatgrinder, eight years after it was last really used. I hike the Puke Loop one last time, at least for me. As I go around a tree that’s fallen and blocking my way, my first inclination is to want to cut it up or drag it out of the way. But then, I think “why?” and realize that there must be thousands of old, overgrown, and forgotten trails out there that people unwittingly cross or follow every day, without ever even knowing it. And, undoubtedly, many of those are just like these two. And so, I leave it where it is.
Some of that first type, which I call “connector trails,” persist, at least partly because of where they go and what they do. But the loops…..outside of a few which just happened to end up being in the right place at the right time, mostly just end up reverting back to being a part of the landscape from whence they came. That thought initially saddens me, but as I keep walking, I come to the realization that while neither of the these two is as clean, free of debris, or obvious to follow as they once were, the actual paths they created are timeless. And so, I conclude that I won’t battle the forces of time and Mother Nature as they do their work, but instead embrace the fact that these two trails had their day, carved their niche, said their piece, and can now rest.
Just in the nick of time, I duck under a limb that’s recently grown over the trail and laugh aloud as I think of various characters who would’ve been caught off guard by it. A little further on, deer have created a shortcut around a fallen log that looks as if it’s part of the main trail. And then, just beyond that, rain has washed a few rocks off of a ledge and into a line which creates what looks to be, at least for a short distance, the logical way to go. Near the bottom of one of the gullies, another big tree has fallen and blocked the way, but once again, something has beaten down a poorly conceived path around it which, while cumbersome, does a decent job of connecting back to the real trail. I chuckle as I think of the chaos that each “situation” would’ve created back in the day. I imagine a line of mountain bikers following their leader on an errant detour, a group of hikers coming face to face with a Gooseberry or cedar thicket, or a trail runner suddenly wondering where she lost the trail– and my mouth curls up in a smile.
Eventually, I come to a long stretch of perhaps an eighth of a mile in length, that seems to be almost untouched by the 8 years of idle time. My pace picks up as I walk effortlessly on its well-beaten tread and find myself mentally setting up for the sharp turn and climb that will soon follow when I come around a corner and meet a small tree head-on that shouldn’t be where it is. My first thought is one of outrage and chainsaws, somehow combined, and I stop to look it over. I see that while it’s out of place and blocking the trail, when I squint my eyes and make the trail go away, look at the hillside as a whole, and squash my past prejudices about the way trails should look, come to the realization that it’s probably growing up right where it should be.
I go around it and continue on. Soon, I come to grips with the fact that while the two trails are no longer as I once envisioned them, they are very much still there– they’re now just different.