The New Trail: Finding a way while keeping apart during the pandemic

By Hugh Rogers

            Twenty-some years ago, Ruth and I led a hike for the Highlands Conservancy’s “Mon-a-thon” program. We brought tea. When we reached some flat rocks off the Highlands Scenic Highway, our friends Young and Chung Moon demonstrated the Korean tea ceremony. The tea and company spurred a lively, wide-ranging conversation. 

            Now I remember that event not so much for the tea and company as because it was so exceptional to hike with a group. We don’t even hike with each other! 

            These days, staying home, no arrivals, no departures, our different hiking styles are in sharp contrast. She likes to wander around the woods above our house. I like to find ways and improve them. She finds herself stuck in brier patches and I’m no Br’er Rabbit. But I think my avocation is more than practical. A well-drawn line on the landscape can enhance it: show possibilities, suggest a rhythm, sing a song that was waiting to be heard. 

            As we’re sharing from solitudes, I’d like to offer, if not a virtual tour, at least a verbal one.  

            To get to the new trail, we begin on the old trail, which was here when our family arrived in 1977. It goes to the top, elevation 2300’ (the house sits at 2000’). The trail along the ridge, ignoring deed lines, is used almost exclusively during deer season. In forty-three years of walking on the hill, how many times have I met another person who wasn’t hunting? Twice.  

            We follow a mowed path uphill and enter the woods. The trail climbs a sort of dike alongside the eroded remnant of a track to the upper pasture. No tractor has used it for more than half a century; now the pasture is all poplars. Elsewhere, tall oaks stand on a carpet of leafmeal. Multiflora rose wants to move in, but only on one short stretch does it encroach on the trail. 

            After five minutes or so (I haven’t measured distances), we come to a junction. To the left, a trail heads off on the level; it will drop twice to cross tribs that debouch into Leading Creek. Our new trail stays above those hollows.

            From that first junction, the main trail is steep—every creature seems to leave skid marks. This section concludes with a couple of down trees, easily stepped over. A cairn on the left marks the new trail. It begins on a gentle downgrade, a relief after the climb. 

            A stone’s throw from the junction, raggedy grapevines crawl across, loom over, and hang beside the trail. This whimsical gate could have been put up for Halloween. We’ll encounter more grapevines, some thick as your arm, others like computer cables, weaving arabesques through the tall poplars and oaks. 

            A little further, beside the trail, is the lone leaf of a putty root orchid—not really rare, but interesting. The leaf stands up all winter while other plants are bedded down. It’s longitudinally pin-striped, like an origami tightly folded again and again until the green has worn away along the folds. 

            Past an old fence post, we’re on Cutright’s land (with permission). The trail gradually climbs as it negotiates the head of the hollow. Gazing down the steep canyon, we can spot the lower trail. Between the first hollow and the larger second one, the trail crosses a flat where beeches congregate, their leftover leaves fluttering like confetti. 

            After we pick our way over a clutter of grapevines, the way seems blocked by a large root ball, which is just as well since beyond is multiflora all the way down. Our trail’s sharp right turn is marked by rocks stacked against a sapling. 

            The trail climbs again to stay above the hollow. Better-behaved patches of multiflora are keeping social distance. Among the older trees are many amputees—this area was hard hit by Superstorm Sandy. 

            After leveling out on a narrow shelf, the trail climbs more gradually as it curves around the far side of the hollow. Ground cover is more evident: trout lily, bloodroot, yellow violets and many more, along with the ferns the deer won’t eat. 

            Past a giant vine’s contortions around a double poplar, there’s a patteran pointing uphill. It’s too bad that word doesn’t appear in our abridged dictionaries. I learned it from Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons books for children and child-rearing adults. A patteran is simply an arrow made of sticks laid where the way might be obscure. We go left at the other end of a short connector. After circumventing another root ball, we come to a spot where the trail passes on both sides of a tree, like a cartoon of separated ski tracks. 

            For the most part, once I found a way, I did little more than move deadfalls and clip branches. Just ahead, though, I had to saw through a fallen trunk that was suspended hip-high with no good way around it. Now it serves as a gate to a large flat. The trail picks its way across blowdowns. One patteran guides us where the trail swings closer to the eastern, downhill, edge.

            Shortly before the ridge drops to this level and the flat ends in a tangle of brush, a cairn at the foot of an oak marks the final junction. To the left is a steep descent to the lower trail; to right is a connector to the ridge trail. We have a good view of Bickle Knob, northern Randolph County’s presiding mountain spirit—a fine place to stop and reflect on re-engaging with the natural world as we’re isolated from society.