There are some very good reasons to creep around in the woods: mushroom hunting, bird watching, berry picking… or maybe just looking for a private spot to pee. It can be very unnerving, however, to be on a trail and see someone poking around in the bushes nearby.
Trails provide clear direction, a path to follow, and a destination (even if that is simply a flat spot to stretch and turn around). Mountain bikers, hikers, runners— we tend to stick to the trail because we want to move easily and purposefully through the landscape. To leave the trail is to break with the norm, risk a bush-whack or a dead end, but maybe find something cool (or gnarly) that hasn’t been spotted by hundreds of other eyes moving past it.
When I began running on urban trails, I got very used to paying close attention to the presence of people in my surroundings. There are some unofficial singletrack trails in Golden Gate Park that make for a nice trail run… and there are some unusual folks who like to live/camp near them, too. The etiquette is to make eye contact (“I see you.”), say hello and keep on moving. I might have held my keys in such a way that they could be an emergency weapon — something I read about but fortunately never had to test for efficacy. In the Oakland hills, I would see some seriously odd dudes walking around, and the same rules applied. I still never, ever wear headphones. I like to hear the birds and the wind, and I also want to know who might be around me. Being startled (and startling other people) on the trail is unsettling, the opposite of what I am going for in my outside time.
In the mountains surrounding Salt Lake City, I occasionally see people (almost always men) creeping around in the trees and bushes off-trail, quite often in camouflage, sometimes carrying guns or cross-bows. Maybe hunters, maybe just guys who creep around with weapons. I always say hello (“You are dressed in camouflage, but I see you.”) and feel grateful that I can probably outrun them, and have a protective dog with me, even if these guys aren’t dangerous. There is something inherently suspicious about someone when you don’t know what they are doing. Not to mention that you can ask any trail runner and they will tell you a story or two about an uneasy encounter with someone who came out of the bushes near a trail.
The other day I was running on a mountain trail with my dog Mack. It happens to be antler shedding season, and though I have never found an antler when I was looking for one, I stepped off the trail and started poking around in the woods to see if I could find any. It is addictive and maddening — every fallen branch looks like an antler. I tried to read the topography and imagine where I would rub my head if I was a deer with an itchy antler. (Do they itch when they are ready to shed…?) I followed narrow game trails and crept around rocks and managed to get quite a distance up the hill when I heard the snap of a breaking branch. I stopped and held my breath. What was that? Was it a deer? A bird? Another creeper? I honestly didn’t want to know. I motioned to Mack and we headed back down towards the trail, not panicking but with purpose. A couple of mountain bikers looked up, saw us, and quickly looked away. “Keep moving, there’s someone up on the hillside,” I imagined them saying, even though my middle-aged runner lady-ness should identify me as harmless.
Not every mountain has a trail to take me where I want to be, and I am more than happy to pick my way through gullies, washes, scree fields, and boulders in the pursuit of a new vantage point. It’s a great way to find berries, antlers, feathers, paper wasp nests, rocks in cool shapes, and other natural keepsakes. And it’s the best way to satisfy curiosity about the shape of the land, how the rest of the animals move across it, and what else is out there. I can’t pretend to know the motives of the men I have encountered in the woods, I am too cynical to believe they are all just nice guys out looking for mushrooms or deer. But I have to admit, I can identify with the desire to leave a trail and see what else a hillside has to offer.
I was totally spooked that day, and the truth is I had probably scared some little squirrel. I left without knowing, even though I would have loved to be that close to a deer, coyote, or hawk. But I did not want that breaking branch to reveal another person. Creeping through the woods is best done in private.