There is an emerging consensus is that 23% of the land on earth (excluding Antarctica) remains “unmodified by the direct effect of human activities.” In a similar vein, the mass of humans on earth is, currently, “an order of magnitude higher than the mass of all wild mammals combined. ” Thus it seems in retrospect appropriate that several hours before dawn, we hit a deer driving to the trailhead, and equally appropriate that my shoes proved so satisfactory on the walk which followed, after we left the deer behind to die.
There is a long ridge in western Montana that runs north to south for a good distance. It is high, by Montana standards, enough to be alpine in weather and thus rockiness, above treeline due to climate rather than sheer elevation. And it is very rocky indeed, stunningly so, in a way which quickly ground us down once we left the limited stretch with a trail along the crest. You can’t really see this ridge from the highway, from any direction, unless you know where to look. The foothills are big enough and the trees in the valleys more than tall enough, things which combine with a locale just far enough from anything easily recognized and make for a place minimal presence on within the information economy. It has plenty of trails, but almost all of those go up a valley, generally stopping at the largest and lowest lake.
The overwhelming majority of that remaining 23% will not surprise, in that taiga, desert, and high mountains are the places on earth whose utility humans came to last. And even then, now, the Alps are run through with lifts and roads, and the Sierra covered in trails. A hiker has to work to find a place outside the great north which isn’t predefined by human development, however threadlike. And it should be no surprise that hiking shoes reflect that.
By late morning we had been on our feet for 6 hours, gained 3000 feet (via trail, albeit an obscure one), dropped close a thousand several times, gained it back several times, lost a trail that was on the map, found a trail in a different place that it was supposed to be, then found a trail where it was supposed to be, making fast progress again. It was hot for autumn, hot for any time really, and we could look west and see well into the vague fire haze and feel not a breath of wind. The whole world seemed to hold its breath, save the squirrels and pikas. They had no distracted moments, prepping for the winter which might begin next week, but we needed water, in a desperate, midsummer sort of way. Well off the ridge we went, with a steep climb back up, and then into the sidehilling.
We’re well past the golden age of trail building, and likely to the point where in developed, official wilderness (upper or lower case) new trails will happen rarely if at all. 90 years ago the CCC proved that given enough hands and money humans will build a trail anywhere, but extending this trail onto the steeper sections of the divide would have been up there with the West Rim trail in Zion. It seemed a chicken or egg question as we picked or way across, alternatively dodging shifty blocks and tight trees; was it the slope, too steep and rocky to hold together, or was it the added height, just too far up into the weather to grow more consistent and predictable vegetation? No answers emerged, as we continued on, learning to favor clean talus on the lee side, and to not underestimate the number of cliff bands or size of boulders which strafed across each descent. I appreciate how my low shoes made friction moves reliable, how the cushion was just enough to blunt poor footfalls without dulling feel too far, how the tread had enough live edges, particularly side to side, and sticky enough rubber, that sidehilling beargrass and granite slabs were easy enough that I could exploit both of those for the relative flatness they provided. The next morning, as we bushwacked down to the exit trail, hauling the shreds of our ambition, I appreciated the flexible yet padded ankles, fending off snagging alder, and again the sticky rubber, as I played across ladder logs to dodge another 30 feet of chin-high fireweed.
I was left thinking, for hours, how long it would take to train my patience back from trail pace. We knew days before that fitting my schedule into the whole ridge was likely an impossible prospect, and my thin justification for trying it was built, without critical consideration, around extrapolating down from trail miles. If we put forth X effort over these given hours, then dock ourselves down by a certain percentage, maybe we’ll be as close to as fast as our legs and eyes think we should be. Those estimates ended up being very well short of what we managed, and it seemed like the opposite mentality will in the next few years be the project.
Tom’s shoes did not treat him so kindly. Altra Olympus’s, which in the five years since I tried them have not become any less even-trail specialists. In retrospect I’m rather shocked by my optimism, having so recently witnessed Tom’s ankles fighting the stack height, his balance fighting the rubber, and the rapidity with which the foam part of the sole wore flat over less than 36 hours.
It is illustrative to read about biomass on earth and see that for all our supposedly reckless omnipotence, we’re less than a 16th the mass of all the bugs on earth, a third of all the segmented worms hiding where we rarely care to look. I should have expected those deer to leap out of the darkness, crossing ditch to field, because I’ve hunted them and thus took notice of when and where they eat. So too with the elk we heard and whose trails we followed, highways of light undergrowth following the most mature canopy from stream to bench. I can’t see the canyons and ridges as an elk, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try to guess where and if they choose to tolerate the rocky crests, or where they’d be spending this hot autumn if humans hadn’t come and built so thoroughly through the bottoms and meadows and low forests. If days walking in the woods has any potential to go beyond solipsism it is in showing us, implacably, where our understanding of the world fails. With that quest in mind, I’m beginning to see human trails as actively counter productive.