To Build a Trail

I'm building a trail in the woods across from my house. It's a town park, so the legalities involved are obscure (to me, at least; I thought it best not to ask). The idea for the trail had been burbling in my mind for years. There's a fire road at the crest of the ridge, but the thickly wooded slope is nearly impenetrable tangles of manzanita, Scotch broom, and poison oak. I am fortunate enough to be nearly immune to poison oak, so I did some exploring up there, duck-walking along the maze of old deer tracks, forcing my way through the thickets.

One day I finally broke all the way through to the open hillside at the far end of the park. I came out right at the top of an old set of steps, and just below a particularly steep and slippery section of the fire road, where I have seen (and had) more than one nasty fall. My new path bypassed the dangerous section of the road and ascended gradually to the road that led to the summit. Most of it was through thick oak and madrone forest, dipping into shadowy ravines, but here and there small clearings permitted sudden glorious views of the hills across the valley. The full distance was about half a mile. I determined to build a trail.

The deer have no concept of contouring a track into the hillside; they go straight up and down the most precipitous slopes. Their tracks are low, narrow, and so steeply sloped that it is difficult to stay on one as it cuts across a hillside. Much cutting and filling would be required to build a trail convenient for walking. I also wanted to minimize the ups and downs and sharp turns, and I didn't want to cut down any trees, so I am frequently cutting virgin trail, only now and then following the original deer track I first traversed.

Over the next few Saturday afternoons, I first cut my way through with garden nippers and a hand saw, making an opening large enough to walk through. Then I cut back the brush and poison oak to a safe distance for those not blessed with my immunity.

I build the trail in short segments of five or six feet at a time, so I can finish one in the hour or two I can get away in the evening or after weekend chores. Each day it's a slightly longer walk along the finished trail. It is a distinct pleasure to walk on the new trail. I stride along with my mattock and shovel over my shoulder, admiring the smooth trail before me. I remember each segment clearly; how hard it was to work on the steep slippery slope here, how thick the brambles were in that section - and how easy it is to cross now. Then the smooth new trail shrinks to a low overgrown deer track, and I set down my tools and set to work.

First I stand back and study the hillside, evaluating the obstacles, choosing the best path. I visualize the trail ahead, seeing it curving away through the trees. Then I get to work. I scrape the ground clean with the shovel, use the mattock to cut the uphill edge, then go back to the shovel to fill in with the dug-out dirt. Finally I tramp out a smooth path two feet wide. After twenty minutes of hard work and many slips on the steep leaf-covered slope, I can stand on a firm and level trail that only moments before was merely an idea. I take great pleasure in standing there and looking back at my new trail curving away through the trees.

Only the two tools are required, the mattock to break up the forest soil, the shovel to shape the path. They are simple, ancient tools, and neither job is difficult, but I find that I much prefer the shovel to the mattock. The ground ahead is a carpet of living things. They are small, but each has germinated against overwhelming odds and forced its way up through the leaf litter. They have survived the rabbits and the deer, the caterpillars and the beetles. As I cut them down, I can't help but think of the terrible havoc I am wreaking on this tiny community. Who am I to judge it insignificant merely because of its size? Do I stand so tall in the galaxy myself?

And so there is a certain grimness in my mood as I swing the mattock. Iris bulbs are rooted out and thrown aside, tiny oak seedlings are chopped down, worms are hacked in two to lie writhing at my feet. Countless creatures scuttle out of my way, driven from their homes as I move along. Behind me is a trail of destruction. My environmentalist conscience winces with each stroke.

After I've gone a few feet, though, I take up the shovel with relief. Now it is a creative task. Now I am building instead of destroying. I take the jumble of broken soil and smooth it into a path, something aesthetic and useful, something people can use with pleasure to enjoy the quiet forest hillside. The mood of the work is completely different. I shovel and tamp, scrape and fill, until the path is smooth and wide. A last few touches, and it is done.

Then I lean on the shovel and admire the new path. The destruction is no longer evident. The flora and fauna I've killed lie hidden amongst the other detritus. The next person to see this section of trail will never miss them, will notice only the easy trail and the lovely forest on either side. My conscience is little troubled. I know I have done no real harm to the forest, certainly not as much as the deer do. And yet, when I take up the mattock again, I often stop and admire some tiny flower for long moments before I can bring myself to swing the heavy steel again.

It is a pleasant physical and mental exercise, building a trail. It allows a great deal of time for musing. It strikes me as a particularly human endeavor: taking a complex fractal natural surface and imposing upon it a simple mathematical shape that exists only in my mind. And of course it is not possible to simply draw out the curve on the ground and cut it. I was determined not to cut down any trees, and the irregularities of the hillside forced the path to wander.

But it is not simply man again forcing his will on nature. The finished trail is not a natural feature of the woods, but it is also not exactly the way I had imagined it. Its course is the result of thousands of small decisions, each a compromise between my wishes and the needs and realities of the forest. And these are compromises in the best sense of the word: not man conquering nature (as if such a dichotomy were possible), but man working with nature, finding a solution that allows both hikers and oaks to coexist, meeting the needs of both.

As I stand there sweating in the dappled light, admiring my handiwork, it comes to me that building a trail is a metaphor. We all have ideals that do not match the realities of the world around us. We must learn to adjust both, doing what we can not only to change the world to match our hopes, but also modifying our dreams to conform to reality. When done well, when our many compromises are made wisely, the result is both self-evidently correct and aesthetically pleasing, whether it is a trail in the woods or the course of our lives.

copyright 1989 by Brian K. Crawford