Old trails never die, they just get harder to see.
Their names did, and still do, a good job of describing them in a few short words- The Puke Loop and The Meatgrinder. While their heydays of being a few open, flowing pieces of path connecting extended sections of tight turns, rocks, overhanging limbs, short and steep climbs, poorly angled roots, complicated descents, cactus and riding/hiking/trail running bliss have long passed, they can still be mostly followed. 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 heydays of everyday use, well. Back then, many of the misplaced rocks, logs or limbs scattered here and there along the way were mostly moved to where they were intentionally, by users hoping to improve a particular line. Many people didn’t think of either of the two as being particularly well groomed, but aside from the purposefully placed rocks and limbs, they actually were. There was certainly some regular maintenance done to keep them “clean”, but like most regularly used trails, the two were mostly kept in prime condition by constant use. Hikers moving fallen limbs out of the way, runners beating the tread in deeper and mountain bikes flicking loose rocks off to the side 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 linking places like towns, mountains, old homesteads, and rivers with other, similar places. That’s why they came to be where they did to begin with. Somewhere along their way, some end up passing through or leading to exceptionally magnificent or interesting places or for one reason or another, assume an extraordinary aura. The simple facts of where they go and what they do often contribute to their utilitarian purpose and often end up causing them to be more heavily used and/or memorable.
But others, including the two I’m talking about, don’t connect anything except a starting point. They’re perfect loops. When they go up, they ultimately have to go down. Some are short, others long. They can be mellow or extreme, flow smoothly or be choppy, easy or hard, flat or otherwise, require constant focus or allow for day dreaming. The best ones, combine the physical aspect of how to actually move along the trail, with where it goes to create a hopefully pleasant and memorable journey. Loops simply express the thoughts, feelings, 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, seven 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 other ones out there that people unwittingly cross or follow every day, without ever knowing it. And, undoubtedly, many of those are just like these two.
Some of that first type, the 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, or idea, initially frustrates and saddens me, but as I keep walking, I come to the realization that while neither of the two are 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 as my senses snap back to the uneven terrain of the real world, I duck under a limb that’s grown over the trail and, once on the other side, I laugh aloud as I think of some particular characters who would’ve been caught off guard by the thing and slapped in the face. A little further on, deer have created a non-system shortcut that looks as if it’s part of the main trail and just beyond that, rain has washed a line of rocks off of a ledge making it look, at least for a short distance, like the logical way to go. Near the bottom of one of the gullies, another big tree has fallen and blocked the way, but something has beaten down a poorly conceived away around it which, while cumbersome, does its job of connecting back to the real trail. I chuckle as I think of the chaos that each 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, and a 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 7 years of sedentary time. My pace picks up as I walk almost 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.