A trail is a dynamic thing. We forget this fact when we live in town and the trails we visit are regularly groomed by park employees. There, space seems to be our right, as if the tree branches and bushes and rocks naturally know to clear themselves from our human paths. But country folks, especially those with a parcel of woods, know different. Moose or deer might break a branch and inadvertently help make space for hikers, but for the most part, space means saws and weed-whackers and clippers. Just like yoga: creating space requires work, regardless of whether this space is in the body or in a forest.
This past weekend I signed on to help a friend on his annual “Summer Trail Maintenance Hike.” Steve is a steward of the Long Trail, the hiking route that forms a spine through the state of Vermont and traverses the Green Mountains. The Green Mountain Club maintains this trail, the oldest long-distance hiking trail in America, with support of seasonal staff and volunteers like Steve who take on the responsibility of keeping a trail section clear.
I confess that I initially signed on because I like Steve, and because he buys his trail workers breakfast. It wasn’t until the day before the hike that I learned the event would be an eight-mile trek, a minor detail that had been left out of the email invitation. I consoled myself with the fact that Steve has lots of friends, so I could probably slack off when necessary by dropping back to the end of the line.
Or not. When we met at the carpool spot at 8 am, I discovered that this year, most of Steve’s friends had other plans for Trail Maintenance Day. We were a group of five, and I, the only female.
I imagined myself spending the next several hours struggling to keep pace with the guys as I fended off a jungle with my clippers. “Maybe I should drive myself to the trailhead,” I volunteered to Steve. “In case I need to turn back.”
“Ah, once you’ve gone halfway, it will take you just as long to get back as it will to finish the hike,” Steve said.
I couldn’t argue with that logic, nor was I any good at faking an injury on the spot. Sighing, I got into Steve’s car.
A mountain-man breakfast of eggs, potatoes, toast, muffin, juice, and coffee helped my morale. Then, as Steve’s Subaru took us over a tough class-four dirt road that would have sunk my little Honda had I tried to drive myself, I remembered that sometimes one just has to surrender to the situation and simply enjoy the ride. It was a beautiful day, sunny and low 70s, and the trees and foliage shimmered in the fresh green of new summer.
The Long Trail wasn’t as accessible as I’d thought; we parked the car and then piled into the back of another guy’s truck for the next leg of the journey. A bumpy ride brought us to our parking spot in the middle of nowhere. We still weren’t at the Long Trail; we had to hike uphill to it.
It was a fine climb on a lovely day, but as our hike extended to close to an hour, I piped up. Despite my resolve not to complain (as the only girl there, I refused to be the weak link) I did have to ask if our hiking to the trail would be counted as part of the eight miles or if it was simply the preliminary.
Fortunately, it would count. The eight miles was a loop that included the two-mile trek inland from the truck to the Long Trail, over the Long Trail itself, and then down another trail to get back to Steve’s car.
This plan got me thinking about the nature of a loop. I route most of my Yoga Hikes to go around a loop, not only because it’s logistically easier to finish where one starts, but also because a loop has a completeness that I find satisfying. However, as I now walked through totally unrecognizable forest, I realized that a loop also requires trust. Unlike an out-and-back trail where one can note landmarks to help retrace her steps, on a loop, every sight is only seen once. The satisfaction of completing a circuit, that wondrous moment of recognizing familiar territory, doesn’t come until the hike’s end, and until then, one has to trust that the leader knows where she or he is going. Trust does not come easy to me, but Steve’s been doing this a long time, and besides, I had no other choice but to keep hiking.
Before long, we made it to the famous Long Trail, up at an elevation around 2600 feet. I was ready to start clipping, but we weren’t yet on Steve’s assigned section, so even though this part of the trail needed attention, I followed the others and simply brushed past the tendrils of eager undergrowth.
Finally we got to the intersection of the New Boston Trail and the Long Trail, and we could start clipping. Steve instructed that our benchmark was to clear the path so that on a rainy day, a hiker could pass and not get wet from plants brushing his or her clothing. I began clipping where I could, mostly nipping young maples, hemlock boughs, and an aggressive, bushy plant with heart-shaped leaves called “hobbleberry,” so named because its rampant growth hobbles hikers.
Then I got a turn with the “grass whip,” a long stick similar to a golf club, except that its “club” has two saw-toothed sides to hack away at vegetation. Like a golf club, one can chip or swing the grass whip, and I preferred the latter, which not only provided a satisfying range of motion for the shoulders, but was the most therapeutic work I’d done in a long time. For expelling tension and latent anger (and who doesn’t have plenty of both?) I wholeheartedly endorse the grass whip over cursing, punching, or even pharmaceuticals.
Our outing marked Steve’s 20th anniversary of maintaining his section of the Long Trail, a fact that became obvious when comparing his section to the previous one. Steve leads a crew on his trail three times a year: late spring, summer, and after foliage in the fall, and the consistent upkeep meant that despite my newfound joy at hacking plants, there weren’t that many to hack. (I would be remiss if I didn’t make another yoga comparison in how consistency in practice creates easeful execution.) So we probably did too good of a job, clearing out farther back from the Trail to prevent plants from creeping forward. And when the crew came across a fallen birch tree (which I simply climbed over, not realizing that the guys had saws), they were excited to have a significant project.
I am fortunate to hike often in my day-to-day life, but most of my hikes are an hour or two snuck in between the usual daily demands of email, chores, and work. However, to be in the woods for a stretch of several hours provides a deeper sort of magic. Reality changes. Problems disappear. Even as legs get tired and feet become sore, these sensations are less relevant than the softness of moss under one’s hands or the possibility that the dark spaces under tree roots could be portals to new dimensions.
By the time we made it back to Steve’s Subaru to soak our feet in clear cold water of a brook, we had been on the trail for six hours and twenty minutes. We had created more space in the world, yes, but also more space in ourselves, with clear minds and empty bellies ready for the final leg of the journey. This would be the Locust Creek Diner patio. There, they sell Maple Creamies out the window, soft-serve ice cream flavored with real maple, because that’s the kind you get in Vermont.