Friday, January 15, 2016


So I've written a bit recently about our trails and the trailwork we've been doing. But a few days ago we did the alternative to trails, which is bushwhacking.

It's a weird word, oddly specific and descriptive, which confused me as a kid. I guess I heard it in the context of old movie westerns and TV shows, and took it to mean some kind of guerrilla warfare action. I might have conflated it with 'ambushing.' Anyway, it was an action that initially looked bad for the good guys but ended up worse for the bad guys, because those were the moral imperatives of the kind of movies in which 'bushwhacking' took place.

Bushwhacking, in obvious opposition to trail walking, is walking cross-country without the benefit of a path. We did this in two different places: the first was in the bottomland, the flood plain where our two streams converge. It's several acres of fairly flat ground, bounded on most sides by rocky hills that rise steeply and abruptly. It's a forested cathedral, populated with a variety of trees that don't mind having their feet wet--sycamores and planetrees, a solitary cottonwood, some black walnuts, the ubiquitous maples and yellow poplars. And the interstices are filled with a tangle of multiflora rose canes.

In the bottomland, bushwhacking is a slow, drunken meander where one foot moves forward and may make several feints before settling to the ground. The way forward through the canes is not easy to envision, and there are many false starts and backtracks for every foot of forward progress. A path may appear, only to peter out in a vicious tangle of thorns a few paces ahead. Trial and error is the method to use, and rather than a means from getting from Point A to Point B, bushwhacking often results in Point C being chosen as a perfectly valid alternative to Point B.

The second place we bushwhacked was on the eastern flank of the hillside, beginning from the stream trail just upstream from the upper crossing. Mary worked her way uphill through the woods; I could not see the way she chose from where I was. I chose to explore a small ravine (ravine may be too grandiose a word for it, really more of a rocky wrinkle in the hillside). The ravine, wrinkle, whatever, run with a small rivulet after heavy rains and in wet spells; it's the early expression of the low, damp saddle through the pines, which in itself is the early expression of a tiny spring somewhere on the neighbor's property just adjacent to our property line.

The ravine is rich with big chunks of white quartz, and runs pretty directly up the steep hillside. There appears to be a trail worn by deer or some smaller animal tracing its right bank; I begin working my way up the ravine along this route. Here is where upland bushwhacking begins to deviate from bottomland bushwhacking (...that sounds kinda dirty, doesn't it?). There are still stickers and vines to contend with, but your natural tendency is to pull yourself along from sapling to sapling. But you'd best look carefully, because what you find is that about half of what you're likely to grab are not saplings, but former saplings. Rotten little sticks that just haven't gotten around to falling quite yet. Grab one of those to hoist yourself up and you're in for a rude shock.

I've noted this little ravine since about the first time we walked the stream trail, nearly ten years ago. It amazes me it's taken this long to get around to exploring it--this is exactly the kind of place I would have lost myself in as a callow youth. The higher up the ravine I climb, the more the rocks beneath are exposed. Where the hillside meets the more gently sloping top, there are some impressively large quartz pieces, some mantle in rich verdant mosses.

I call out to Mary from the woods near the powerline, and am surprised to find that she is below me on the hillside, having followed a different path--possible an old cattle path or even older road. These woods have mostly swallowed up and obscured the traces of their history, of those who we tend to forget lived here before us. Some of the signs are right there to be seen in the scraps of barbed wire embedded in the tree trunks, on in one case, growing out of the inside of a hollowed out tree. If you look carefully, there are paths and trails to be seen; some might have carried horses or wagons or carts; some might have carried some of Stonewall Jackson's 70,000 who crossed at the ford just downstream. a century and a half ago. I'm sure some carried the barrow Indians heading down to the river to fish or swim.

Progress is slow when you bushwhack, nothing at all like hiking on a trail. It is a different experience; meticulous, time-consuming, thoughtful, not as energetic (though frequently much more strenuous and aerobic). Bushwhacking is contemplative, and proposes a different, nonlinear approach to exploring the world.

I rejoin Mary in the woods. From here it is just a short walk up through the cleared area and back into our pines. I'd like to make a point--maybe a New Year's Resolution!--to try and go out bushwhacking more often.

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