Old trails never die, they just get harder to see.
The names of the two trails do an excellent job of describing them in a few short words- The Puke Loop and The Meatgrinder. 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. But the unfortunately angled roots, cactus, poorly placed rocks, and riding/hiking/trail running memories endure. 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, some 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 out-of-place rocks, logs, and limbs scattered along the way were intentionally moved to improve a particular line of travel. Most people didn’t consider either of the trails as well-groomed, although, in reality, they were. Regular maintenance was performed to keep them “clean,” and obstacles were moved around to create interest and make things flow better. And like many regularly used trails, both were primarily 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 each did their part. Any sort of unintended or unplanned obstacle that might get in the way of good trail time was not allowed to be there for long and was ultimately cleared out of the way.
As far as trails in general go, there are two predominant types. First are those that link significant places like towns, mountains, and river crossings. They came to be where they did because they connected things.
Then there are others, which include the two I’m talking about. They don’t connect anything except starting and ending points. They exist primarily because of the journey/recreation/experience they provide. They’re perfect loops; if they go up, they ultimately have to go down. There are both short and long ones. Some are mellow, while others are extreme. There are flat and fast ones, but others are hilly, grueling, and brutal. They can flow smoothly or be choppy, be easy or difficult, and may require constant focus or allow for daydreaming. The best ones have aspects of all of the above. Loops express the thoughts, hopes, and fears of the people who made them. And then, they become whatever their users want them to be.
So, I walk the Meatgrinder eight years after its last actual use. And I hike the Puke Loop one final time, at least for me. As I go around a tree that’s fallen and blocking my way, my first inclination is to cut it up or drag it out of the way. But then, I think, “why do that?” Then, after some thought, I realize there are thousands of old, overgrown, and forgotten trails everywhere. We all unwittingly cross or follow them every day without even knowing it. And, undoubtedly, many of those trails were once just like these two. And so, I leave it where it is.
As mentioned, the “connector trails” persist, at least partly because of where they go and what they do. But the loops, aside from a few that just happened to end up being in the right place at the right time, mostly end up reverting to being a part of the landscape they came from. Initially, that thought saddens me. But as I keep walking, I come to another conclusion. I realize that while neither of these two is as clean, free of debris, or as obvious to follow as it once was, the actual paths that each created are timeless. And so, as I walk them one last time, I decide not to battle the forces of time and Mother Nature as they do their work. But instead, I embrace the fact that these two trails had their day, carved their niche, said their piece, and are now taking a needed 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, and it almost looks like it’s part of the main trail. Just past that, the rain has washed some rocks off a ledge and into a line. The result creates what appears to be the logical way to go. Near the bottom of a gully, a giant tree has fallen and blocked the way. Once again, something has beaten down a poorly conceived path around it. However, this one does a decent job connecting back to the actual trail. I think of the chaos the “situation” would’ve created back in the day and envision a line of mountain bikers following their leader on an errant detour, and my mouth curls up in a smile.
Eventually, I come to a long stretch that seems virtually untouched by the eight years of idle time. My pace picks up as I walk effortlessly on its well-beaten tread. And I 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 growing in the middle of the trail. My first thought is once again of outrage and chainsaws, somehow combined. But, while it’s undoubtedly out of place and blocking the trail, I realize that, in reality, it’s the trail that’s getting in the way of the tree.I go around it and continue. I once again conclude that the trail isn’t how I remember it. A little further, I look at where it’s supposed to go. My first thought is that it’s an unrideable mess that I’ll barely be able to walk. But then, I see an opening through a cedar thicket that remains. I start sweating as I remember how tough it was to hack my way through it before there was a trail. And then, I see the five logs still in place that we stacked together to create a bridge over a deep rut, and then just past that, the rocks are lined up to mark the way across an open field. And my spirits start to pick up. I anticipate the 10-minute sweet downhill that awaits just over the next hill. Visions of sweeping turns winding pleasantly through the trees overwhelm my senses.
And then, I hear it- an indistinct rumble of voices coming from the direction of the downhill section. I’m not surprised by it at first. I’m used to it happening all of the time. But then, I realize that there shouldn’t be anyone else on the trail. “So who could it be,” I wonder?
I walk quickly, anxious to see who it is. But I don’t seem to gain any ground on them, and the voices strangely go silent. My first thought is that it’s one of those mysteries that’ll never have an explanation. But then, I look down and see fresh footprints, proving (or at least indicating) that there had indeed been someone there.
At the bottom of the downhill, I reach the trail’s end. I find myself confronted with an unintended choice. Since the ending point is the same as the start, I realize I can do another lap by turning left. Or, as planned when the hike began, I can turn right and return to the house. And so, partly because it’s early in the afternoon and a spectacular Fall day and partly because I just can, I opt to do another lap and turn left.