I jog up the road, past tourists and folks enjoying the weekend sunshine. Eventually the road dead ends and I shuffle past a gate and along a little footbridge. A faint trail guides me up to the railroad tracks and I spot the fence posts marking the trail on the other side. The fence posts are new, someone taking the care to formally mark the exit from the tracks. Once I get on the trail, I feel my anxiety of navigating the traffic and people melt away. This trail has long been a favorite that I’ve been running since late in high school. When visiting my dad, I always pay it a visit.
It’s quiet and much the same as it used to be when I first found it. Which is a miracle in the days of Strava. Just across the gully, there are a couple of extremely popular trails that see hundreds of people on the weekends and are constantly buzzing with runners and hikers. Needless to say, I am pretty grateful that this trail still flies under the radar. As I reach the snow line, I suddenly am on top of some bear tracks, something I definitely wouldn’t have seen if the trail was busy with people!
Yes, sometimes I can admittedly be a curmudgeon when I run across people in places that I don’t normally see anyone, but at the same time those people are often much the same as me. Last summer I was camping in a basin in the Wind River Range of Wyoming that is off the beaten path, and as I set up my tent an older gentleman came hiking down. We were both surprised to see anyone, but his story was interesting. He was working to rephotograph all the disappearing glaciers in the Winds.
And again, in the Grand Canyon of Arizona, I ran across Ralph, someone who I’d seen on a scouting trip a couple of years before, but this time he was camped in a secret overhang camp and I laughed when I wandered into it that he, of all people, was there! There is the old adage that “birds of a feather flock together,” and how true that can be when we stumble upon people in big, wild places.
Sometimes I fear, with the advent of the internet, that all secret places will be discovered. But honestly, I don’t think they will be. Even today there are places you can go and not see another person. Certain peaks or routes or canyons have just enough barrier to entry that will keep the crowds away. Getting “out there” isn’t for everyone, but for some it’s the spark that keeps our fire lit.
I recently finished the book “Canyons and Ice,” by Kaylene Johnson, who chronicled the adventures of Dick Griffith. Dick lived and breathed wilderness, making first descents of the Grand Canyon and Copper Canyon in Mexico, both in a rubber boat and packrafting, and then went on to hike thousands of miles across the Arctic. In the epilogue, Johnson concludes in an eloquent way:
“The footfall of the human step is roughly the same rhythm as that of a beating heart. When you look out over a vast distance — row upon row of canyons in the blue light of dusk; or frozen mountain peaks stretching from one horizon to the next; or the endless white of the Arctic plains — the expanse seems impossibly infinite. Hopelessly large in the scheme of human existence. But when you traverse that expanse, the infinite becomes finite; a quantifiable thing. It can be measured by miles and minutes, and days. Mostly it can be measured by moments savored. And by moments when the razor-edged knife between life and death presses against the thin membrane of your own existence. Moments when everything hangs in the balance; so that when you eat your next meal, you savor each mouthful because you feel damn lucky to be alive …
“What feels infinite now is the soaring capacity of the human spirit. What becomes endless is desire. An incessant yearning to put comfort, assurances, and yes, even common sense aside to just go. Human existence — when done mindfully, with courage, and a good measure of luck — can be as expansive as any landscape.”
On a recent backpacking trip into a remote pocket of the Grand Canyon, my hiking partner Stephen and I came across a cerulean creek with numerous big swimming holes. He had gotten some water pins from a friend who’d been there before, but nothing mentioned this creek. I said maybe someone left it out on purpose so it would feel magical and mysterious when happened upon. Or maybe it isn’t always flowing, the large amounts of precipitation this winter could be feeding it. But either way the surprise, and beauty, of this unnamed, unmarked side canyon felt like our little secret and it felt special to say the least.
Looking at and reading maps is still a skillset required of any wilderness traveler and is the place where imagination and creativity unfurl into the contour lines. Rather than a GPS track that we blindly follow, getting out and finding your own path through a tricky, convoluted landscape is both fun and rewarding. Sometimes you nail a route and hit the flow state of hiking and running off trail, other times you run into cliff bands, thorny bushes, downed trees, or raging creeks. Some folks do crossword puzzles every morning to keep their mind sharp, I just prefer to bushwhack.
Solitude is good. Obviously, I like it. But on the flipside, getting more people outside and motivated to share and protect the outdoors is also good. And I think like everything, there is a balance we all are navigating. We don’t have to keep everything a secret and we don’t have to share everything either.
Call for Comments
- Do you have any secret trails?
- Do you like to keep them that way, or enjoy sharing them?