Zen and the art of trail maintenance


The tools of trail work: the Pulaski, a Janus-headed half-axe, half-adze; the adze hoe (ain’t gardening); the pick mattock, which will pick your eye out if you lose your footing. Hard metal tools, forged in fire and originally designed for wildfire-fighting.

The tools are hard, but the work is soft. You can’t just hack a trail up the side of a mountain. According to to the Student Conservation Association’s trail manual, Lightly on the Land, early trails in the Northeast U.S. used to be built this way–hacked hurriedly straight up to the summit. This was because in the Eastern U.S., most of the trails being built were recreational, e.g. from a Catskill inn up to a viewpoint, and because people had to worry more about staying within property lines.

But now the “horizontal vision”–winding, low-grade trails that obey the contours of the land–of the Western U.S., where trails were originally more logging- or mining-related, is the favored method of trail building.

You could say that building a trail through woods tells the tired old culture vs. nature story, but it’s more interesting than that. It’s a big struggle to change the way land will behave. So trail work is all about studying the way the land already behaves and insinuating a path into the land.

The biggest foe of trails: a liquid. Trail builders have to learn to think like water. Do you ever, in the shower, watch water droplets detour over your belly and think, “That is inarguable proof, I am getting fatter.” Water proves the curves. Trail makers have to shape the trail to shed water, and the behavior of the water will prove their success or failure. It’s more of a martial art than a bloody Coliseum match.

Trail makers worry about drainage. Ridge trails are always slanted downhill, enough to shed the water, but not so much you feel like a pegleg on your hike. Gentle drain dips are carved across the tread to escort water off the trail, and wooden water bars are laid across to interrupt gravity-happy torrents. For more desperate situations, there are culverts, stepping stones and turnpikes. But the less engineering the better.

I recently spent four days doing trail work on a section of the 2,650-mile-long Pacific Crest Trail. Mostly I was alone with my pulaski, in the dim wet Washington woods, regrading the trail and in the process discovering little pleasures like the confetti beargrass makes when you sever it at the base, the bright yellow stains underneath Oregon grape bark, and the varying degrees of sting when different soil types fly into your eyes.

I also met two wacky people, Bryce and Bruce, both PCTA volunteers. Bruce was probably in his 40s and had a lovely, shiny head of hair that looked as healthy as a five-year-old boy’s. His entire face was also covered with hair, and he had a mountain-man beard coming down to his chest. He had a habit of talking nonstop about anything, and he especially liked to antagonize Bryce. His voice was constant but it was hard to tell where it was coming from what with all the hair.

Bryce was (I’m not lying!) 87 and his head was on a horizontal plane with his shoulders. He was a former ranger who didn’t start hiking until he was 65. Then he hiked the freaking Triple Crown! (That’s the Pacific Crest Trail, the Continental Divide Trail and the Appalachian Trail–7,900 miles in all). He had a work ethic and a row of square yellow teeth that he would bare in a grin when he thought we were making the trails too pretty. I’m not sure if either of these men had interpersonal relationships, but they both had a knack for carving drain dips.

Next time you’re out on a trail, try to see how it works, how it is convincing the land and the water. The line of the trail is like the line in Yeats:

“A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.”

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