Trail Tribulations: Deciphering Trail Descriptions

funny hiking quotes

I am a big fan of hiking. Some might call it an addiction and, with what I’m going to share, you might agree. But I hope you find it useful enough to join us in our shared misery/ecstasy.

Where else can you experience the thrill of a bear encounter and the possibility (no matter how slight) of being a bear’s meal?

But that is a minor consideration. Almost every time you see a bear, it is a fleeting glimpse of the hind end running away. (The almost part was deemed necessary by the bear’s lawyers, sometimes food is scarce.)

The real challenge is not if you should hike, but where you should hike.

The most confusing part of hiking is reading the trail descriptions. They come in three varies; easy, moderate, and hard.  Despite these simple-sounding appellations, they require some translation and dissection.

Trail descriptions involve several elements, elevation, terrain, and distance. I’ll explain each in context of the trail description.

Elevation gains happen where the trail is mostly straight up, with the occasional descent to give back the hard-won elevation. At the moment, it seems like a pleasant respite. It is not. Because on the way back, when you are exhausted, sweaty, muddy (more on this later,) and considering throwing yourself off a cliff, this will be a section you have to climb up on the way down. It is all part of the diabolical joy of hiking.

The elevation gain, which may seem gentle at times, is not. Despite all scientific evidence to the contrary, as you climb higher in the mountains measurements stretch out.  And there is one consistent  aspect of every trail in the world, the last half-mile is always steep and muddy.  Even when you’re coming down, I think they change out the trailhead once you’ve started up the trail. It’s the only logical explanation.

Terrain descriptions are notoriously inaccurate. Some rocky sections mean all rocks. May be muddy when wet means always muddy. There are sections of some trails that have not dried out since the Jurassic Period.  Some sections require scrambles means hanging off the edge of a cliff.

In a nutshell, the terrain will give you the experience of an enhanced interrogation session.

Distance is deceptive.  One foot at the trailhead becomes a yard at 3000 feet. This is borne out by the signs placed by the US Forest Service. If the sign says 1.5 miles to a waypoint, it works out to be 2 miles or more. NEVER BELIEVE THE SIGNS. They are like spectators shouting at marathoners in the 20th mile. “You can do it! Push, Push!” Easy to say when you’re sitting in a folding chair drinking a beer, not so for the guy actually running, or in this case hiking a mountain.

Combining these elements together you have a trail description which tells you nothing.

There are no easy trails. There are easier trails which are dependent on your own ability to tolerate pain.

Each of the descriptions—easy, moderate, or hard—are relative to the person who wrote them. I’ve often read of a trail described as easy, and it was not. It was clearly written by a sado-masochistic person trying to make up for his (and it almost always a him) inadequacies by pretending to be superior.

The opposite is also true. Trails described as hard are often written by people who think getting out of their car to walk into Dunkin’ Donuts constitutes strenuous exercise.

So how do you know what to hike? Just do it. There are easier trails and harder trails and you will know them when you see them.

I can sum them up as follows.

Easy trails are like when a doctor says, “you may feel slight discomfort.”

Moderate trails are when the doctor says, “this is gonna sting a bit.”

Hard trails are when the doctor says, “Hold him down.”

Here’s a word about roots, rocks, and other inhabitants of the trail.  They move. Roots and rocks adjust themselves to be in the perfect position to snag your foot just as you attempt to jump over a stream, a rock, or muddy section. While they appear dormant and in a fixed position, they are not.

They hear you coming and maneuver for their chance to strike.

On a positive note, when you do get tripped by a root—and it is only a matter of when, not if—one of two things will happen, you will fall forward or backwards, each has pleasant possibilities.

Falling forward, a sharp rock will rise out of the ground allowing your shin to absorb the force of the fall. Or, if for some reason, you miss this safety feature, a sharp-pointed yet deceptively flat rock will position itself so your knee can absorb the force of the fall.

Falling backward is even better. Since the shin is no longer available, your butt will absorb the fall and it will feel like you have as many cracks in it as the San Andreas Fault. Or a certain anatomical aspect of your butt will land on a sharp pointed rock with the precision of a cruise missile. For those of you of a certain age, your next colonoscopy will not require anesthetic, for the others it will be an eye-opening experience.

And just like the nuclear trigger in our military arsenal, roots have a failsafe mechanism in the event you’re able to avoid being snagged by one. The roots manage—perhaps aided by the Elvish folk who inhabit the woods—to subtlety snag your bootlaces until one has come loose. Then, just as you try to step forward, you’ve tripped yourself into the cascading process of falling.

Now a word about bugs. They are one of the constancies of hiking. Even if no one wants to hike, bugs will come with you. There is a progression to your tolerance to bugs. First, they are annoying, then the are infuriating, but, like attaining Nirvana, if you hike enough and swallow enough bugs (again, when not if) you come to consider them bonus protein.

Now before you get disgusted by such thoughts, I am sure many of you eat oatmeal. How you manage this I do not understand, but you do. You realize people once used oatmeal to hang wallpaper, right? You’re eating wallpaper paste so you have no room for haughty superiority.

I think those little gelatinous sacks frog eggs come in that appear in murky ponds every spring likely taste like oatmeal. Bugs taste better, require less preparation, and offer themselves up willingly.

Bugs are just an underappreciated food group

Mount Pierce looking toward Mounts Washington and Eisenhower

Despite all of this. once you reach the summit something magical happens. The spirit of the mountain infiltrates your soul, erasing and easing all the pain of the effort. You see things most people never see. You look out on a vista of nature undisturbed.

It makes it all worthwhile.

Reaching the summit is better pain relief than Ibuprofen. Something those of us who’ve hiked the Appalachian Trail called Vitamin I. (But just in case, have some Ibuprofen to wash down with your celebratory drink at the trail’s end.)

This intoxication—or temporary insanity—lasts just long enough to carry you back down the trail and then goes dormant. After the muscle aches fade, and the mud is washed from your clothes, and the bruises have faded, it re-emerges and whispers in your ear…

“Let’s find another trail to hike and another mountain to climb.”

Adopt the pace of nature. Her secret is patience. —Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

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