To say that we live in the woods is accurate enough, but after a couple of years in Vermont you learn that there are “woods” and there are WOODS. Behind our house is a long stretch of “woods” that rises up to a rocky ridge, and then slopes down to a small local road. Our official property encompasses 1.25 acres. In contrast, we know people who own 350 acres of WOODS, making our own woodsy setting seem tame and suburban by comparison.
Nevertheless, the woods back there are relatively unspoiled. Beyond our own property line the woods are protected land, which means no hunting or logging allowed. No trails, just pure forest.
Here’s what I’ve learned about trails during my time in Vermont: it takes BACKBREAKING labor to make them. Somebody — most likely our house’s previous owner — created two trails running from our backyard to our property line (where the trail-less forest starts), and it’s all I can do during the warmer months to keep these trails marginally clear of brush and saplings.
This past summer, I blazed my own trail. Because our dog is best friends with the neighbors’ dog, and our girls are best friends with both dogs, someone is always having to tromp through the woods that separate our house from our neighbors’. To make the going easier, I cleared a 40-foot path between the trees. After that, I declared my work done for the summer. Ever since, in order to enjoy trail hikes through the woods, I have to force myself NOT to obsess about how much work it took to create the trail.
On the other hand, whenever I hike a trail these days I appreciate the fact of there BEING a trail. As difficult as it is to create trails, it’s also extremely difficult to walk through the woods without them. Once our little backyard trails drop us off in untouched forest, it’s tough going. There are roots and sticks to trip you up, piles of leaves to slow you down, rocks cropping up every few feet, and branches smacking you across the face. Each time we decide to hike in “our” woods, we set off with the highest of family-bonding expectations. By the time we start heading for home, usually about 10 minutes later, 2/3 of the girls are being carried, 3/3 of the girls are whining about something (cold hands, sore feet, impending starvation), and Erick is cursing under his breath.
This winter, Vermont is doing its job and giving us some lovely snow; between Christmas and New Year’s, over a foot of powder was laid down in our woods. As we eagerly strapped on the snowshoes that we never got to use last year, I expected that snow would make our woodland trek much easier by leveling the terrain and making a path clear. It turns out that, NO: Snow only gives the illusion of level terrain and clear paths; once your snowshoe sinks into that powder, you’re just as likely to slip on a rock or get tangled in a root as when the ground is clear.
Trail-less hiking always makes me think of The Last of the Mohicans — the Daniel Day Lewis movie, not the book. Somebody in my college dorm owned this movie, and during the winter of my freshman year I watched it about 28 times. If you’ve seen this movie even once, you’ll probably recall that it includes numerous scenes of Mr. Day Lewis and his Native American counterparts running through the woods. Not stumbling, never falling flat on their faces, but RUNNING full speed ahead, gracefully dodging trees, in complete silence (save for the swelling music of the score).
Now that I’ve had my direct experience with trail-less woods, I wonder: HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE?!?!? I’m sure that the actual Native Americans who once populated Northeastern forests were amazing and knew the woods like the back of their hands, but I still can’t fathom silent, graceful running through the woods, no matter how much practice you have. For that matter, how did they even film those scenes in The Last of the Mohicans? The movie was made in 1992, which, as far as I know, was before post-production technology that allowed digital addition of trees. I can only assume that Daniel Day Lewis had to undergo months of tree-evasion training to prepare for his role.
But what do I know? Not a whole lot, as it turns out. One of the neatest things about snowshoeing in the woods is that you can see the deer tracks in the snow. And let me tell you: those deer and I are not on the same wavelength. Whenever I cross their tracks, I cross their tracks; I think I’m choosing the obvious, easiest route, and they’re going in a completely different direction. Granted, deer are created to know things about the woods that I never will. Granted, the deer were not also lugging Georgia behind them in her baby sled (as I was). But it got me thinking.
The next time I go snowshoeing out in our woods, I’m going to take a closer look at the deer trails. It could be that what I consider to be the path of least resistance isn’t the best choice after all. There’s probably a lesson in there somewhere….