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Stories of the Wild

Anthology of nature writing and art by contemporary authors and pioneering naturalists of the early 20th century. Below is an excerpt, by Susan Marsh.

Abandoned Trails

Near Spread Creek, on the northern edge of Jackson Hole, I happened onto an abandoned trail. Ancient blazes marked the route, each closed into a pitchy fist. Logs cleared long ago lay dark with moss. Pale conches billowed from their sawn ends. The trail was so overgrown I stayed on it only by squinting for blazes as I shouldered through buffaloberry and climbed over fallen trees. Drawn to whatever is abandoned, I followed the trail to where it vanished, at a ridge-top logging road.

The blazes led into a land made wilder by neglect. Though I enjoyed having it to myself, it felt like a place forgotten. The trail seemed to welcome my feet as if it missed the company of travelers. I wanted to assure the trail that it was not abandoned after all, to bring it offerings of appreciation. I brought my memories as offerings. Memories of respite from the square-cornered, stay-in-the-lines world. Memories of winding forest trails, with their wildflowers and smell of sodden leaves on an autumn day.

As I walked, I wondered how many decades had passed since the blazes on that trail were freshly cut and hoof beats drummed along its tread. The first forest ranger in the Spread Creek country, Rudolph "Rosie" Rosencrans, arrived in Jackson Hole in 1904. He surveyed and drafted the first maps of the Buffalo Valley, part of the original Yellowstone Forest Reserve. The wide switchbacks and regular grade suggest the trail was once laid out with skill and care. Had Rosie himself, an engineer by education, defined the tread I followed? Rosie left a record of his daily work, glimpses of a ranger's life a century ago. His diaries are on display in the historic Blackrock Ranger Station at Moran. I spent a day last winter looking through them, entranced by the stack of lined yellow pages that once passed through Rosie's hands. On his frequent trips from Blackrock to Antelope Springs, Rosie must have used the long-abandoned trail in Spread Creek, a shortcut through the foothills. In his diaries I searched for mention of the trail.

Rosie wrote with a fountain pen in elegant formal script. He wrote of boundary marking, fence-building, trail-clearing, and backcountry patrols. He recorded each day without embellishment or emotion, regardless of what happened.

"April 14, 1908. Started for the upper Yellowstone country, made camp at 3 p.m. on Two Ocean Pass. Started again at 6 p.m. and arrived at Shoshone Cabin on Throughfare at 11 pm." Thirty miles that day, on skis.

"July 9, 1907. Started in the afternoon for my district [from the Supervisor's Office near Jackson]. Crossing Grovont found mail driver drowned, thus helped to hunt for him and also to save one of his horses. Being wet, stopped with Ranger Lee for the night."

The wild frontier of Rosie's day has now been rendered safe. Technology has left little chance of such a drowning; mail arrives by electron. The rivers are contained by dams and dikes. We have tamed those parts of the world we use, and have left the wilderness to reclaim abandoned trails.

In 1912, Rosie exchanged his fountain pen for a typewriter. By 1919, he traveled mostly by automobile instead of on skis or horseback. Over the years, his diaries recorded more days of filing reports, fewer dramatic rescues and marathon patrols. Work, even for an early forest ranger, was on its way to becoming what it is today--time at the telephone and computer, attending meetings, keeping files. Safe, civilized, indoor work.

I first worked for the Forest Service in the summer of 1974, drawn by the romance of a job outdoors. My first season, I went into the office for about an hour a week. There I posted my time and picked up equipment for my work in the woods. Now, after many moves and so-called career advances, I attend meetings, talk on the telephone, and sit in front of a computer. Now when I clear trails, I do so on my own time, as an unofficial volunteer. Unlike attending meetings, trail work leaves me satisfied. At the day's end, I am sticky with pine pitch, and the trail is cleared of logs. I use the same tools that Rosie used in a time when clearing trails was important, vital work.

"September 9, 1907. Sharpened my saw."

The task could well have taken Rosie all day. A crosscut saw, with its five-foot snagtoothed smile, has multiple teeth set and beveled to cut the wood with great efficiency. Despite the nickname misery whip, a two-man crosscut gives a lesson in rhythm and grace. Each sawyer rocks back and forth, swaying to the saw's gentle rasp. It is a dance.

Rosie retired at 55 because of failing eyesight. When offered surgery to correct the effects of snowblindness and years of mapmaking under dim light, he declined, saying he had seen enough beauty for one life. He saw it still, in his mind's eye, a beauty that kindled great fondness for the place where he had spent his career.

Rosie's diaries weave a story of a life spent in the mountains, lived at the pace and rhythm of a crosscut saw. When I first sat down with the stack of his field diaries, I paged through them impatiently, disappointed that so many of the entries said only, "Put up hay," or "Cut fence bucks, 9 hours." In the summer of 1912, Rosie made the same simple entry every day for two weeks: "Worked on telephone line." No hint of boredom or restlessness. But each day's record did not stand alone; what mattered was how that day fit into the year, how each year fit into all the others. Over time, Rosie, an Austrian engineer, became part of Buffalo Valley and its community. He felt no pressure, as rangers do today, to move on and up in the organization, to abandon each place rather than become a part of it.

Rosie's diaries, like a slow procession of days spent on forest trails, drew me into their pace. After reading them, I found my pen trying to mimic Rosie's ornate script. I tried on his quaint and formal manner of expression like an antique dress: "Worked cutting deadfall from the old Spread Creek Trail, finishing same."

No longer do rangers work nine hours cutting fence bucks, or spend a summer stringing telegraph line. Now, while rangers sit tethered to computers, the old buck-and-rail fences sag. Abandoned trails disappear into the forest. The ranger station Rosie built is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. When I peer into its doorway his diaries come to life. I see him on his hands and knees, scrubbing the floor in anticipation of a visit from the Forest Supervisor. I see him on the day he spent in bed, recorded thus: "October 31, 1919. No service on account of sickness, presumably due to opening a bad can of fruit the evening previous."

The words of Rosie's diaries, and the gentle song of the misery whip, are lullabyes from an earlier time, when days stretched long enough to allow the use of hand tools and travel by ski and snowshoe. In our quest for speed and efficiency, we have traded the quiet of the forest for beeping, blinking office machines. It is a rare treat to spend an afternoon going nowhere, hiking abandoned trails.