You never know what you might find when you leave the trail and strike off to explore trackless territory.
My friend Dianne Howard and I were reminded of this lesson last weekend as we hiked in the White Mountains of east-central Arizona. We were exploring the Railroad Grade Trail, west of the town of Eagar. It’s a long, relatively flat trail that begins at a big trailhead on State Route 260. The trail led us out into the high grasslands. We amused ourselves by scanning for hunting northern harriers and other grassland birds. But it’s late in the season, and there weren’t many birds out, so we decided to explore the nearby woods.
After a mile of walking, however, it was clear the trail was not going to take us there. So, we left the trail, striking off across hillocks of waving, golden grass. Entering the forest fringe was like crossing the threshold to a new world. Edges are such fascinating places. The edge is where we found this tree. The fallen aspen was at least 30 feet long, and every square foot of its surface had some sort of marking.
According to biologist Randy Babb, the marks are probably signs of bears and porcupines at work. He thinks the claw marks were made by a bear, while the teeth marks were made by a porcupine.
Fascinating, isn’t it? Yet we never would have seen this tree if we’d stayed on the trail.
Whenever I leave a trail, I’m careful to avoid harming the habitat or leaving signs of my presence behind. There are fragile soils on the Colorado Plateau that should never know the press of a human foot. These living “cryptobiotic” soils, aka “the crust,” are important members of their ecosystems. One service they provide is keeping dust out of the air. When you think about leaving a trail, look before you step, and make sure to stay off these soils, which take decades or longer to heal.
But do leave the trail, when you can. Amazing stories are waiting to be told, and you never know when you might find one.