Keep it free!

A view from a backyard trail.

There is a system of trails in the foothills near where I live. Really, I’m pretty sure there is just one official trail, but there are countless spurs, social trails, old double-tracks and jeep roads that lead up and over ridges, down steep gullies, traverse rocky hillsides and lead up and down the various peaks. Most of these are the most direct route, very steep, often loose and, if they get well used, sometimes closer to trenches than trails. The farther you go from the trailheads, the narrower and fainter the trails. But only once have I run out of trail.

I got into a tiny bit of a social media spat a few weeks ago when I defended the freeform nature of these trails. To learn where they go, you need to walk them. There is no map, there are very few signs and only one trail has a name that everyone agrees on. And yet, last weekend RK and I climbed to the top of one of the local peaks and the trail was not uncrowded. Dozens of people were climbing up to the high point and across the ridge. There were trail runners and dogs and older folks with trekking poles and packs, young couples hiked in t-shirts and string packs. All kinds of people knew the trail and knew where they were going without signs or designated trailheads.

Part of the social media argument was centered around maintenance, and the massive ruts in some places might suggest this is a good idea. I’m not a fan of ruts, but there are sections of trail that have been “maintained” with water bars (railroad ties dug into the trail) and almost all of them have severe erosion below the bars and the trails have been widened by people going around them. Maybe they have better ways of fixing trails these days… There is a steep one that I take the dogs on (the one where we found two deer carcasses last winter, and where the red tail hawk nest was, with two baby hawks), where people have pulled large branches into the ruts and it kind of seems to work. Or maybe it doesn’t matter all that much, because where people go, erosion will happen.

More importantly, it took years of exploring to connect all the dots, to make my own mental map of the mountains. I know where *that* trail goes because I took the time to follow it one day. Along the way I encountered coyotes, spooky encampments, trees with spectacular qualities, wild flowers and probably no one else. I don’t think people have to earn their knowledge. I am not a cairn kicker. But the time I spent in exploration and discovery, of finding ease in these semi-wild hills, gives me comfort. I know how to find solitude in a matter of minutes from most parts of town.

View through a canyon looking at SLC
More solitude in SLC

I also know that with maintenance and improvements comes rules. There are other trail systems nearby with lots of regulations and signs, including helpful tidbits like “Don’t skid!” There are online Facebook groups with cyclists arguing about when to ride, how to ride, and in what direction. It seems like signs and rules give otherwise friendly folks permission to be righteously indignant. I know I don’t enjoy my morning walk when someone is yelling at me about my mostly-well-behaved dog being off leash. I also know I don’t enjoy being the person who is mad about the biker who didn’t give me right-of-way. Good morning! We can all get along!

There are a lot of us that use these trails daily. We encounter like-minded strangers in the early morning with a smile and nod of recognition and have a better day because of it. Some of us take time to do our own bit of trail maintenance, or pull an invasive species or two, but this is not required.

There aren’t a lot of rules on my local trails, even fewer that are enforced. It is like the wild west out there. Just steps from the city.

Laurel Hunter

Laurel Hunter

Central Oregon, USA