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The Joy of Bushwhacking

by Emily Gindle » on Dec 03, 2010 0

The most foul word in any language is not a swear word, it’s this:


I hate bushwhacking. Nearly every instance where it has been required of me in the past, I last about five minutes before I break down into an agitated, whiny puddle. Sometimes I cry. Don’t get me wrong, I’m an adventurous person. At times I’ve even been called hardcore. It’s not like I’m worried about breaking a nail; my nails are always a ragged mess. It’s just that something about being off a designated path and charging through the territory of cat claw and cholla and any number of nasty, prickly things trips a wire in my brain. I get annoyed and then exhausted and then I cry. It’s automatic and uncontrollable.

This week I interviewed this guy Marty for a magazine. He’s 62 and he said if he thinks he’s leaving any legacy, it’s as a bushwhacker. He told me about this time he hacked 20 off-trail miles through tangled manzanita to summit Mica Mountain; he said he felt accomplished but that it was just awful and he’d never do it again. I kind of chucked and asked him why, then, did he love it so much?

“You learn to read the terrain and you develop an expertise,” he explained. “It’s the basic skill of hiking.” And it’s not just a skill of picking the right line, its also a skill of dealing with yourself out there. The wilderness doesn’t care if you scratch yourself up or trip over a rock; it’s indifferent and neutral, Marty explains to me, and you define yourself against that mirror.

Okay, then, I thought. I hate that my mirror reflects a crabby, wimpering little girl. Time to change that.

That afternoon my boyfriend and I went on a little trail run, just an hour because it was getting close to sunset. Now I’m not a fast runner at all; I get passed up by all kinds of people who don’t work at it as much as I do, my boyfriend among them. But I’m good at it regardless; it usually feels natural and comfortable. Something was off this time. I got tripped up on rocks, and my legs and feet felt heavy and sluggish, even though I was in my light Fivefingers, as usual. I caught up to Logan, who was taking a breather a little bit up the trail.

He pointed to a rock wall on a ridge above us. “See that little cave behind the tree?” he asked, “My dad used to take us up there all the time. Want to go check it out?” Not really feeling the running vibes, I said yes. So we dove into the trail-less desert, picking our way down to the wash and scrambling up the steep rocky slope on the other side.

Fivefingers are both great and awful for this sort of thing. They’re light, which is a huge plus when you’re pummeling your way through brush, but grass seeds love to whittle their way through the nylon, get embedded in the toe sock, and needle at the skin. Since I hate big boots and can only chose between my Fivefingers and some meshy trail runners for this sort of thing, I’ll take the Fivefingers and just watch my step. I find myself picking through the terrain pretty nimbly; it’s kind of fun, actually. It’s a game where the consequence is getting stabbed by a shin dagger for the wrong move.

We get up to the tree Logan had pointed out, and it’s so cool up here. The tree is not just your normal oak tree. It’s been growing under a cliff face for years and years, and it’s twisted out from under the overhang and sprawled its thick limbs over the canyon side. It’s a storybook oak. Beside it is a jumble of grey granite slabs that make a natural fort, with a tunnel out to the tree. The sun is filtering in through the leaves a little now, close to sundown, but this spot must be shady most of the day. We hunker under the rocks and crawl around. I swing myself up into the tree. I do not recommend running tights against the gnarled bark, but I get up anyway and walk out on the sturdy branches hanging over the canyon. This has just become my favorite secret spot.

Logan notes that this area isn’t disturbed anymore; as kids they could see evidence of people coming up here from time to time, but it seems like it’s been a very long time since anyone has fought their way up here. Either the people who knew about this spot have all gotten too old to make the trek, or people are losing their sense of adventure.

Our sense of adventure is strong, and our feet wrapped in their Fivefingers are ready for anything. We follow the terrain back down the ridge, where after missing so many prickly pear I finally graze one on accident and it embeds my thigh with fifty little needles. It doesn’t make me cry. In fact, I’m having fun. Logan helps me get the needles out and we race back down the canyon.

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