The Pacific Crest Trail in the Northern Cascades of Washington has a surface that, when not scree, is soft, springy soil composed of fresh and decaying needles, cones, and wood from the giant trees that dominate this world. Dig down a few inches and you will find grey sand– fine particles of granite, the result of eons of erosion. It’s a beautiful but fragile surface to walk on. The high-traffic areas near entry points or where pack horses work quickly turn to dust or deep loose sand that slips under foot and settles into every crevice of your footwear, painting your calves to the knee. Still, a forgiving surface which reminds us that we may experience the great outside through our eyes, ears, and nose, but we come to know it through our feet.
Preparing to navigate a trail, hikers first think about distance, then elevation change. Those factors are well-represented by maps, particularly in profile, but there are few sources for an understanding of the third important factor: surface. Mileage/Elevation/Surface. The PCT is 2,650 miles long–a brutal distance made tolerable by it being more often than not “pack-grade” (no more than 6%). This accounts for its incredible length, as it takes lots of switchbacks to keep that grade (the trail’s distance as the crow flies is just over 1000 miles), but it also keeps the trail generally perpendicular to the direction of water run-off, making the surface much more stable. In comparison, the Vermont Long Trail seems to have been laid out by hiking next to or directly up stream beds, almost as if the designers had decided to use dry creeks as the base of their trail and which results in a washed out path–hard hiking over exposed rocks, more like climbing uneven stairs than hiking a trail.
Most of the trails in the various parks and wilderness areas across the USA are well-designed and maintained near their entry-points–because they get more traffic but also it is is easier to bring in crews and tools at those points. This is particularly true along the Appalachian Trail which is maintained by volunteer clubs. So, for example, a walker can leave Stevens Pass in the Cascades heading north and walk for miles along an old railroad grade wondering why anyone would think hiking is hard. Of course the deeper they plunge into the wilderness, the rougher it gets, but also more interesting.
These forests burn. Often a distance hiker will find a path through standing silver trunks, no bark, no needles, swaying gently but ominously, with an understory of shrub-like beech and a waving field of fireweed. One day, in a deep green growing forest I found on the path a cone with edges burnt. Puzzled, I thought back on tree stories I had read, concluding that this might be a cone from a tree that only opens in a burn, and, with the magic of ecological cooperation, some squirrel had dragged the now-open cone here for a meal and perhaps dispersal of the species. Across the Cascades, the trail is littered with strange white blossoms. Squirrels cut green Douglas Fir cones–tight cones with a thick green sap-like covering–then peel them, scale by scale, leaving neat piles of bleached white tinged with pink.
The thin soil of the Cascades supports trees of fantastic size and age– Douglas Fir, Western Red Cedar, Mountain Hemlock. Their roots spread out, sometimes covering boulders and, after centuries, they pitch over, heaving roots high, revealing eternity. Stones suspended high in the air, and surface rock, now exposed, reacting reacting to light it has not reflected for millennia.
T. Hugh Crawford