Same Old Trail

Jeff Nichols
Feb 19, 2016 · 8 min read

“Where are you going?” Cheryl asks.

She always asks, although she knows there are only a handful of options when I pull on my wool pants and vest and whistle for the dog on a winter afternoon. I’m heading up Trapper’s Loop toward Snowbasin, a ten-minute drive, to snowshoe a network of trails that snake across the foothills of Mt. Ogden and Strawberry peak, partly on Snowbasin property and partly on the Wasatch-Cache National Forest, the same trails we run and bike in warm weather. Hogan and I have been on some piece of these trails maybe 250 times in all seasons, and Spiff, the Australian shepherd, came before Hogan. Cheryl sometimes joins for hikes or moonlight snowshoes, but not today. So I answer her: Green Pond, up; Green Pond down (right or left); Maples; Ogden Overlook; or Sardine Peak. All are linked and looped up, so I might start on one and end up on another. The choice is by whim, informed by the number of cars in the lots and a vague desire to mix it up.

Cheryl’s not exactly worried. This is not the Himalaya; most of the time you can see the road or ski trails or the resort buildings a ways off, and sometimes hear traffic. These are popular trails. On warm weekends you can’t find a space to park at the Green Pond trailhead for all the hikers, bikers, engagement photographers, and horseback riders. Still, I could fall and break a hip. I’d probably be found 5 minutes later by the next guy; but maybe not — maybe not until tomorrow, when I’d be frozen to death. The dog is too small for much bodily warmth and I’d rather not kill and skin him and crawl inside like Jim Bridger and his bison in a plains blizzard. I don’t carry any water or food, and wear just enough clothes for the conditions at the start. It’s nearly always dusk, the trail a reward for a day’s work and in the summer, cool enough to be comfortable. We are sometimes out until full dark, when the snow glows and the stomped-out trail is easy to follow. Once I dropped my wallet, that holds my phone, at the top of Green Pond trail, probably on the resort’s fire road when I took a photo. (I have also been known to throw up my arms in triumph at the top of a hill and dance around like Rocky Balboa.) I realized the phone was gone back at the car and trooped up to search the ground. By the time I got to the top, turned around, and came back empty-handed, Cheryl was pulling into the parking lot. A security guy at Snowbasin had found my phone on the floor of the ski shop where someone had dropped it, either meaning to turn it in and changing their mind, or trying to buy a $1,200 pair of skis with my credit card and chickening out. The security guy scanned through my (un-password-protected) contacts, found the entry “parents,” called my 80-something folks in Saratoga Springs, New York, who called Cheryl in Utah, who came looking for me. Everyone seemed cool and laughed about it but perhaps they all entertained a moment’s frisson thinking I was head-down in a tree well.

Hogan is 11 and I am 55, so we are neither of us exactly rocket ships on feet, wheels, or snowshoes. The old bullshit about converting human to “dog years” would put him at 77, which is silly, because 77-year-old humans cannot sprint back and forth, ranging twice as far as I do, and still be sparky after. Hogan is the default feral dog, the ones you see in packs in bad neighborhoods, the result of generations of promiscuous crossbreeding, about 40 pounds, erect ears, curly tail, long nose. A coyote, dingo, jackal; what Cheryl calls the “island dog,” a sturdy, medium-sized mutt brimming with hybrid vigor. Such dogs stay strong and rowdy sometimes into their teens. Hogan won’t play keep-away at the dog park anymore and has lost his patience with dominance humping; that brings out a snarling reminder of the Navajo rez dog he was. He likes other dogs a little less and people a little more now. I believe he’s still younger than me, but not for long. He struggles to his feet when he’s been sleeping in a tight spiral and limps for a moment before he’s warmed up. Me too. My friend Dave scoffs at me when I call myself “middle-aged”: “How many 110-year olds do you know?” Dave, to my mind, is not exactly a “new guy” at Westminster but he’s new-ish. Actually he’s been there for a dozen years and his own stiff brush of hair is going gray, and he can go to hell. Hogan is also grayer around the muzzle, and so am I. For my 50th birthday Cheryl took us on a Grand Canyon boat trip. We came out after a great week and walked around Las Vegas. My patchy stubble grows in dark on the cheeks with spots of snowy white on my chin like a comic-book villain. A stranger walking down the street looked me straight in the eye and said “dude, you look creepy.” He did not break stride, perhaps on his way to go fuck himself.

On this day, I choose Green Pond down, the Forest Service side. The trail descends from the trailhead, then quickly forks to follow two branches of Wheeler Creek; the trails form a loop with its bottom at the Art Nord trailhead on the old Snowbasin access road, at the top of Wheeler Canyon. We go right. It’s a big snow year after four wretched drought winters, and there’s three inches of new on top of three or four feet of base. I float out across the open patches and between clumps of trees, for the exercise and the fun of wandering, following animal tracks. Without leaves the gambel oaks make a fairy-tale forest of crooked elbows and claws, each tree human-sized with gaps and paths. The big shoes let me go almost anywhere, although sometimes I sink ass-deep in soft snow, and the steep-sided creek banks promise flailing. Hogan struggles to follow my rough route, so I parallel the packed-out main trail, which he also prefers because it’s redolent of stinks from passers-by. He sniffs and pees and rolls in the snow and tries to tug branches from the frozen ground; if it were summer he’d fling into every stretch of creek and pond. We check on each other visually every couple of minutes, or I come back to the main trail and whistle for him, mostly to watch him tear back, ears plastered, scythe of a tail slashing, a giant rudder to keep his butt from passing him. He won’t actually come to me unless I insist, but shoots past and grins and dances just out of arm’s length. When we encounter other people he grins and dances at them; sometimes I have to leash him for a minute so he won’t follow them. But today we have the trail to ourselves.

Just below the fork a series of beaver dams humps up with snow like glacial moraines marking successive ice ages. An enormous lodge pokes out of the little pond, surrounded by gnawed aspen stumps and a fringe of cattails spilling gusts of seeds. The plumbing in this open meadow is complex, with shallow braided creeks and potholes. There must be warm springs since open water flows on the coldest days. The smooth, convex banks are stitched with twinned tracks with a vertical tunnel at each end at the base of a willow shrub. Ermine, probably; we saw one once in ambush position on a creek bank, unblinking black eyes in a white face. Every surface bears multiple tracks: this place is lousy with moose, deer, porcupine, skunk, turkey, grouse, quail, and a dozen kinds of little rodent, but tracks are all we get today. Hogan generally leaves animals alone, although he can’t resist making a covey of quail explode into flight. In the summer knots of cattle graze the mountainside. He runs and barks at them; they turn and run and shit and stink elsewhere. Good boy.

Halfway down the hill I decide we have enough light and legs to do the whole thing, the “big loop,” about six miles altogether. When I’m tired of breaking trail in deep snow I wander back to the main route. In warm weather the surface demands concentration; it’s a string of runoff ruts, baby-head rocks, deep hoofprints where horseback riders ignore the “use only when dry” signs, blighting the trail with ankle-twisters from May to November. I’ve gone over the bicycle handlebars, flat on my back, contemplating the sky and inventorying body parts. And I fell, twice, fifty feet apart, on the same uphill run. Hogan is always unsympathetic and cannot understand why we are not moving. Accidents are rare, though. Concentrating on the rough summer surface induces a pleasant trail coma, running or riding through warm green tunnels, emerging out of the woods into sunny grassy patches or head-high ferns, the trail lined with yellow arnica.

Today’s winter trail is packed smooth and firm, especially from the fat-tire bikes, and it’s safer to look around. The palette is all whites, browns, and blues instead of summer greens, browns, and yellows. We cruise long open stretches along meadows, climb switchbacks in the oaks, and descend again to the campground at Art Nord. Cars can drive up the old road to this point from Pineview Reservoir, but there are concrete barriers just beyond the campground. Up above, the earth slumped and wrecked the road in a couple of places and it’s never been repaired. They had similar problems with the new access road, built for the 2002 Olympics, with plenty of federal dollars to fix it up when the powers that be whispered the magic post-9/11 word “security.” The ski resort sends a cat down to groom the road surface for cross-country skiing, sledding, and running with no traffic worries. In summer the campground is full of tents. Signs tell about Art Nord’s long Forest Service career, including building much of this trail network. The dates indicate that Art retired and died two weeks later.

The return trail, of course, is uphill, and I slow down and start sweating in earnest. Hogan shifts from short sprints to the long-distance trot. The compensation is walking toward the lingering sunset behind the mountain and the piled-up clouds. We pass the turnoff to Icebox Canyon and the fork toward Maples, cross the old road again and labor up a steep stretch through Englemann spruce and aspen. We’re back at the car by dark. The trail was different today, again, but the same in the best ways, and so was the dog, and so was I, for now. The same old trail. Tomorrow maybe we’ll go left.

The Mountain Commons

A publication of the Institute for Mountain Research @ Westminster College, Salt Lake City, Utah

Jeff Nichols

Written by

Jeff teaches history at Westminster College.

The Mountain Commons

A publication of the Institute for Mountain Research @ Westminster College, Salt Lake City, Utah

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