Remember in elementary school when you had to wait in line for lunch, and there was always that one kid who would try to slip in ahead of everyone by striking up a casual conversation with a friend at the front of the line? Suddenly someone would shout, “No cuts!” and the whole gaggle of children would go wild, pushing and shouting, until a grown up would sort out the trouble, and, with any luck, send the sneaky kid to the back of the line.
I was reminded of that scenario last weekend while hiking with my family at Hidden Falls Regional Park. I noticed that all along the switchbacks were steep trails straight down the mountain. Some of them had been blocked by branches or brush, but that wasn’t stopping the hikers from taking the short cuts—or “steep cuts” as I will now call them. (For a helpful image of switch backs versus steep cuts, check out Back Country Attitude.)
My seven-year-old son is a bit of a pokey hiker, so I had a lot of time to consider the situation. I’ve seen a lot of these “steep cuts” in my hiking days, and I understand the desire to arrive at one’s destination, for sure. I have even attempted to hike the steep cut a time or two. Why not? Well, they tend to leave me breathless and unable to continue, so they don’t save me much time on the uphill. That’s one reason. Also, though, I wondered why I feel the need to save time. I’m out in the woods for my very own personal enjoyment, right? I’m there to get away from the crowds and admire the critters. Do I need to do that faster?
Next I considered the branches and shrubs blocking the steep cuts. Obviously someone wants to keep the hikers on the switchbacks, but why? If athletic people want to hike straight up and down the mountain, shouldn’t they be allowed to do that? In fact, maybe there should be two trails: the slow and easy switchbacks and the speedy steep cuts.
This is where my husband came in handy as he’s just become a docent for Placer Land Trust and knew the answer to my question. It turns out that those steep cuts are not only bad for the vegetation that gets trampled there, but they are also bad for the trails when it rains. Trails are designed with switchbacks so that paths are not easily washed away by rain water. Water seeks the most direct route downhill, so when hikers create steep cuts, the rain gullies down those paths, washes out the trail, and then time and money are needed to repair them. Bummer.
So when is it OK to take the steep cut? Unfortunately, if we want to continue hiking on those trails, the answer is never. We need to stay on the switchbacks, enjoy the wildflowers, birdsongs, time spent with people we love. Besides the trail isn’t like the lunch line where there’s a fear the cafeteria workers might run out of chocolate milk. There also isn’t a herd of disgruntled children booing and hissing at us, or an authority figure to send us back to the trailhead, so it’s up to us to take the high road. We have to trust that whatever is there when we begin our journey will be waiting for us when we arrive, and in the meantime, enjoy the hike.