Saturday, May 28, 2011

Trail Sense

"Either you have it or you don't," John said. We stood on a grassy knoll, searching for remnants of trail tread. Far, far below the muddy Snake River rolled, chewing away at the banks. An abandoned line shack, a relic of the sheep herding days, sat among the whispering grass.

He was talking about trail sense, the ability to read the landscape like a map and figure out where a trail should pass through. The ability to find old sections of trail and where to build new ones so they flow through, not fight, the country.

In Hells Canyon many of the trails are no longer used. They were built from the high places, down through the benches and eventually to the Snake. Heat that presses like the palm of a hand, breathtaking elevation change, the disappearance of the grazing allotments and the growing unwillingness of people to get out and exercise have all conspired to hide these trails. Built on open slopes, the bunchgrass has grown in--"Haired in" as John called it--and it is anybody's guess of the actual trail location. The maps are often wrong. It takes trail sense to find them.

We combed through a vast, open country. What I love about the canyon is how big the landscape is and how small it makes me feel. There is something I like about being humbled by sky. All of your problems and heartaches seem insignificant. Standing there I realize the bare bones of importance--clean water to drink, clean air to breathe, big swatches of country wild enough to hold all of us.

John has trail sense. He spent several minutes searching the tall grass and found ancient switchbacks. We dropped steeply to Salmon Bar, going from winter to summer in a few hours.

I'm not sure about my own trail sense. I am more likely to be seduced by a game trail or an interesting feature on the landscape. I have been momentarily lost in the canyon, confused by its many wrinkles. Instead of looking back the way I  have come, I look forward, wanting to know what lies ahead.

What I do know is this: Loving Hells Canyon is like loving a difficult but fascinating man. Exasperating, perplexing, and strangely wonderful. It hides its secrets--its old trails, its line shacks, its precious water--and it takes patience and trail sense to find them all. I hope I never find everything.

1 comment:

  1. Beautifully written - as usual.

    I don't have any trail sense (thank you GPS for saving my butt ever so often!)
    I notice repeatedly that men are usually hunters, with maps in their heads. We, women, gatherers, noticing and remembering features of the landscape.
    On snow covered parts of JMT I will be relying either on my son's hunter's brain or a GPS.
    It is snowing there again. :(


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