Out There: Rocks on My Mind

So what did you do this summer? Me, I mostly thought about rocks.

Specifically, those rocks that always seem to be perfectly and evenly spaced, and are at the right height, at places where creeks cross trails. 

I had never given much thought to how the rocks got there, although I am sure they did not roll there on their own, equidistant from one another. Surely someone looked around for rocks that were the right size, with a flat side, hauled them to the creek and, using a tape measure, put them in the cold, rushing water one by one.

But I didn’t think much about this until now. I just stepped on them, my thoughts occupied by important matters such as figuring out when, exactly, the Mets’ season was lost.

That all changed this summer when, for a few days here and there, it was my job to obsess over geologic aesthetics. 

The ultramarathons in which I partake are increasingly requiring that participants, besides lacking common sense, volunteer their reed-thin, spindly arms for trail work. Despite taking advantage of the trails of the Northeast for 40 years, I hadn’t done much to maintain them aside from picking up the occasional water bottle.

I did have a growing sense of shame about that, but the longer I went without helping, the harder it was to get started — like when the trash is full but you keep stacking new trash on top like a putrid game of Jenga until one morning you wake up and the kitchen is full of raccoons.

Tools of the tradePhoto by B. Cronin

Tools of the trade (Photo by B. Cronin)

I’ve found that the best antidote to shame is a sledgehammer, which is why I was thrilled when someone put a heavy one in my hands at Minnewaska State Park and told me to start turning big rocks into smaller ones. A section of trail had been washed out, and a group of us spent several days in the early summer restoring it. Once I had smashed a good quantity of rocks, we used them as the foundation of the new trail. 

I was expecting to enjoy smashing rocks. I was not expecting to get so interested in micro-managing a hiker’s experience of the park via rock placement and slope calculations. How steep was too steep? How rocky was too rocky? Did this rock look good here? Did it look so good that it was distracting? Is the rock too ostentatious? Would a sledgehammer fix that?

I came to realize that building a trail was like creating stop-motion animation. It took a lot of us, working hard for days, moving at a snail’s pace, to create a section of trail that will take a hiker five seconds to walk over. If we did good work, no one will notice. 

So maybe the fact that I never noticed the ground beneath my feet wasn’t because of my absent-mindedness but because of the excellent work that people who came before me did laying that ground. At any rate, should you find yourself crossing a local creek and suddenly there’s a strangely animated man pointing at the rocks, imploring you to admire their perfect shape, texture and placement, that man will be me. I apologize in advance for interrupting whatever important matter you were thinking about. (The Mets’ season ended, by the way, when Edwin Diaz was injured in March.)

The New York-New Jersey Trail Conference is always looking for volunteers for trail work in the Hudson Valley. No experience is necessary, which explains why they let me help out. See nynjtc.org/volunteer-now.

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