Monday, June 23, 2014

96. Switchbacks

This past weekend I went with some friends up to The Forks in Maine, which is just south of the 100 Mile Wilderness, near the AT crossings at Moxie Bald and Caratunk. We went on a few little day-hike jaunts on the AT, which was weird, to say the least. There were no-thru hikers, as I think we were before the Northbound bubble. I thought perhaps we'd see at least one Southbounder, but either there is a decrease in Southbounders this year or there is an increase in velociraptor attacks. The trails felt quiet and lonely, a beautiful tranquility which we summarily destroyed by singing and laughing for the entirety of our hikes.

The one difference that I found most startling was my physical ability (or lack thereof) to hike straight up a mountain. We went up Pleasant Pond Mountain, which is only 1.4 miles up, but which gains 1,200 feet in elevation in the last mile. I don't have any distinct memory of Pleasant Pond Mountain, which means it probably passed as little more than a tiny blip on my "difficult hike" radar. The last time I was there I'd already been hiking for 5 and a half months, and my body was like a coiled spring. A hungry, malnourished coiled spring, but a coiled spring nonetheless.

But this was my first time actually hiking since finishing the trail. I've been running long distance on a consistent basis since September, but I haven't hiked. You know what they say about different muscle groups being used for different physical activities? THEY ARE CORRECT, WHOEVER THEY ARE. As soon as the trail started ascending straight up, I had to stop every 0.2 miles or so to breathe like a lumbering rhino and chug water. I was covered in sweat, and I began to seriously question the sanity of my previous self for doing something like this for over nearly 200 days in a row. Those muscle groups in my rump which have oh-so-happily settled back into atrophied slumber were rudely slapped awake and sent groaning and grumpy into action.

But about halfway up the mountain something glorious happened: A double blaze on a tree, indicating a turn in the trail. I didn't want to get my hopes up, because I thought perhaps this was just a trail redirect for a fallen tree. But, no, it was an honest to god switchback. A switchback, for the uninitiated, is when the trail curves in several back-and-forth S-shapes. Do you remember that scene in Return of the King when Elrond rides his horse up that cliff-face to bring the sword of Elendil to Aragorn so he can ride away from the riders of Rohan and get those Dead Men of Dunharrow off their sorry ghost butts to save Minas Tirith? If you don't remember it, you can instead imagine just beating the snot out of all of us nerds. Anyway, when Elrond is riding his horse up that cliff face, there's a series of intense switchbacks, making it possible for a horse to go up an otherwise impossible ascent.

There are several motivations for trail maintainers to add switchbacks to the trails. The most important reason is that it does a better job at stopping erosion. When the trail goes straight up a mountain, when it rains, the rain naturally finds the easiest route down the mountain, turning the trail into a waterfall or aqueduct. Firstly, this causes that section of the mountain to turn into a trough, and secondly, less experienced hikers may hike on the side of the trail to avoid the water, causing even more erosion. Rerouting the trail into a switchback may mean that the trail covers more ground, but overall has a smaller environmental impact. The less important but bonus consequence of this is that it makes the trail a little more manageable for us wimps.

Some hikers dislike switchbacks, expressing that once they have their trail legs, they'd rather be able to just go straight up and down the mountains without being forced to dither around. But I think that if you're tired, or if you're just starting out, switchbacks are the perfect training ground to build up muscle without making you realize how far you've actually ascended. On Sunday, when the vertical ascent turned into a series of switchbacks, everyone was able to breathe and talk again, and we got to the top at what felt like a much quicker pace, because it wasn't a brutal uphill anymore.

I think it's also nice to have something built into your day that forces you to slow down. Once I got used to hiking, I would sometimes go entire days without looking up from the trail (although, as you know if you've read any other parts of my blog, I had to hike looking down, because as soon as I looked up, I'd immediately trip and faceplant). I think this happens to us a lot in our daily lives. We get used to a routine, we get proficient at it, and we get it done without letting ourselves enjoy it. Switchbacks make us slow down, whether we like it or not. And sometimes just that little dip in speed allows us to see things we otherwise would have missed.

Clever Girl

1 comment:

  1. Another great post! Do you know how to tell the difference between a stream and a trail in Maine during the spring runoff? The trails don't have beaver dams. Love you! Mom and Dad