I needed to get out of the house and stretch my legs, free my mind of words, after a day of editing, so I headed for the trails along the top of Red Mountain, the long ridge on which we built our log home 25 years ago.
These are the trails we walk when we don’t wash our hair, when we don’t feel like changing out of our fleecy pants, when we don’t want anyone to see us. It is our place to hike when the winds are too wild down across the road and in the open valley, or it looks like it might rain, (like this afternoon) and we want to stay protected and able to get back home quickly. This forest is my literal back yard.
We come back here to search for pink lady slippers in May, mushrooms in the spring, deer tracks in the snow in January, reading them to see where the herds crossed like grand highways and intersections, where they yarded up in the snow, creating community and helping one another get through the snowy winter. We search for owl pellets along the edge of the Christmas tree farm on the border of the large evergreens where the owls love to roost. Sierra found crystals on these woods trails- hunks of white shiny hexagonal tubes sticking out of the loamy dirt. She always looked for them instinctively and always found them.
Our favorite destination is the open field about 1 ½ miles out. Here we can look over the valley and the rows of long ridges and not see a sign of man. We stand there and gaze, search for deer or turkey in the field, before turning around and heading back. There are many different loops to take but the open field is our favorite.
But on today’s walk, about ½ mile too soon, I suddenly see open sky ahead. It looks oddly strange and I feel disoriented. Have I arrived so suddenly, lost in my thoughts that I was unaware that I had crossed that last stretch of forest? I came to the edge and could not believe my eyes. A massive clear cut, with nothing left but flat wide stumps. I had not seen the likes of a clear cut this large and final since we walked through the clear cuts in the national forests in the Washington Cascades on the Pacific Crest Trail. They broke our hearts walking through deep forest one square mile, surfacing into a barren devastated clear cut for another square mile. It is the abruptness, the extreme from one to the other, from deep lush forest to death. And to make matters worse, this was my back yard, my home forest.
I walked to the end and there I found the house that was just built on the ridge top. This new homeowner did not cut the forest. Another land owner who owns a huge parcel did the deed. But he came to this top of Red Mountain to build his home, I am sure, because of this beautiful forest. He moved in so recently that his yard is a mud hole, with the excavator’s machinery still parked there.
He built his house spitting close to another home nestled in the forest on the other side of him, in trees which are still standing. This unhappy neighbor who suddenly has a neighbor up his butt posted large homemade signs stating “NO TRESPASSING” and even built a crude plank fence nailed to the trees on their border, keeping his neighbor from entering his woods. Two unhappy Red Mountain ridgeline inhabitants.
The neighbor down below who cut the forest around these two homes probably slashed the forest for he feels he needs the money. Rumors flew around that he was in a nasty divorce and lost a lot to his ex, so the forest has to go in order to maintain his lifestyle.
I was heart sick crossing back through the clear cut to find my way back to the trail but what I saw on the return trail made me almost cry. Orange flagging ribbon, for close to a mile, marking nearly the whole top of Red Mountain is slated to go, to be leveled, probably by this spring. My daughter will return from Colorado in May and find her forest world forever gone. She won’t even have the opportunity to walk it these last months as the saws chip away at it.
I knocked on the door of my immediate neighbor when I got back to our little settlement of 4 homes on Red Mountain. I wanted to know if he had any information about the future of “our” forest. He did know. He chatted with the clear cutter. My neighbor did not seem phased. He said , “It will grow back. Well, maybe not in our lifetime.”
That wasn’t good enough for me. This neighbor just moved in two years ago. He has no history in this forest. He has nothing to mourn. My neighbor reminded me, “He can do what he wants with his land.”
I guess the problem here is it has always felt like it was my land too. I feel possessive ownership of it. Not because I purchased it with my hard earned money but because I created memories on it. My children grew up on it, creating their own memories.
Twenty five years ago, I walked the short forest loop when I wanted to convince my first child who had taken up seemingly permanent residence in my body and would not come into the world although she was two weeks late. I hoped the hiking would rouse her and prevent me from chugging a bottle of castor oil. The walk was not enough. It was not enough for my second child either, two years later as Todd and I with Sierra walked the same forest loop hoping to rouse her brother out, who was also two weeks late. Another bottle needed to be chugged.
I used to get turned around and nearly lost the first years that we lived here. I would come to an intersection and it looked different coming at it from a different trail. As the trails are on the top of the wide ridge of Red Mountain, there is no mountain side that is visible to gauge your direction. It used to excite and frighten me that I could be so close to home and yet get so turned around. The idea of getting lost in my back yard made me feel as though I lived in wild country, where in reality , I would not have to travel far down the side before I hit a blacktop road.
When the kids became old enough to chart their own mini adventures, they went out with their mountain bikes, crossing the woods trails, finding access, creating a loop back to home via the road, all on their own without their parents’ direction.
We walk our goats on these trails. They are able to do a 3-mile loop, sticking close to our sides, stopping to nibble, never thinking of chasing a deer. They HATED to go for a hike if it were raining and stalled and stalled and needed to be coaxed. This was our forest to exercise the goats so they stayed healthy and fit long into old age and continued to grace our lives.
But all this is coming to a rapid close. Bryce and I and the goats need to walk these trails as often as we can in the coming weeks, covering shorter and shorter distances until there are none left, eaten up by the saw and the chipper.
Jerry & Renny Russell wrote in their classic Sierra Club book, On the Loose …
One of the best-paying professions is getting ahold of pieces of country in your mind, learning their smell and their moods, sorting out the pieces of a view, deciding what grows there and why, how many steps that hill will take, where this creek winds and where it meets the other one below, what elevation timberline is now, whether you can walk this reef at low tide or have to climb around, which contour lines on a map mean better cliffs or mountains,. This is the best kind of ownership, the most permanent.
It feels good to say “I know the Sierra” or “I know Point Reyes” (or I know Red Mountain). But of course you don’t- what you know better is yourself and Point Reyes and the Sierra (and Red Mountain) have helped.
I guess my only fault is I have not lived long enough to be good at saying good-bye to things like people and backyard forests, although I suspect in the coming decades I will become greater skilled at it. Has Red Mountain served its purpose, providing a playground for both my children who are moving on in their own adult lives? The trails of Red Mountain will live on in their memories as they move away from home. It is a good thing memories can not be slashed and killed. I am the one who will feel the loss of the forest the greatest when Red Mountain is slashed and raped of its timber. The deer and I will have to find another place to seek refuge when the need comes to leave my desk and walk and think and decompress from a life of writing. It will not be happening in my backyard forest.