by Laura Crum
The other day my son and I found a new bit of trail across the road from our place—a trail that linked our favorite starting spot to a trail that we hadn’t used in a year or so—we call it the ridge trail. We used to have to access the ridge trail by basically sneaking through someone’s backyard, which didn’t ever feel very good, so we quit going that way. But now we had found some trail that led us to the ridge trail through the forest, skirting around the dubious backyard route—a new trail that was obviously created by riders from the local boarding stable. Yay!
We decided to make a big loop—riding up the ridge trail to the Lookout and coming back by our usual trail. Our friend Wally went with us. We headed up the ridge trail in good spirits, eager to see its particular views again. We had sort of forgotten exactly what this trail was like.
There are no photos—I never have photos of tough bits of trail because I’m just too busy riding. Maybe you endurance riders would scoff at me calling this tough—though in the endurance blogs I read, I have never seen any photos of trail that is more technical than this—except, of course, for things like Cougar Rock. Let me describe and see what you think.
The ridge trail is quite steep and runs unrelentingly upward for maybe a quarter of a mile. It is narrow singletrack and follows the spine of a ridge, so there are impressive dropoffs (50-100 feet) on both sides. In some places the trail runs right on the edge—the sort of place where a misstep or a spook could be, uhmm, bad. The brush is dense, and between the dropoffs and the thick brush, there is no possible deviation from the trail. All of this, by itself, is a bit unnerving, but quite doable. The footing is good—sandy ground. The real problem is the step-ups.
Because there are numerous (like maybe fifteen or twenty) places on this climb where tree roots and erosion have created big “step-ups.” When I was thinking about writing this blog post I asked my husband if I would be exaggerating to say that most of the step-ups were two and a half feet or so. He said they were more like three feet. Now this is really worth mentioning because my husband usually thinks that I exaggerate. So picture two and a half to three foot vertical step-ups all along this very steep trail. It’s daunting. It’s actually very hard to hike on foot (I’ve done this many times).
Our horses are not trail horse athletes by any means, but they are steady and reliable and they have climbed the ridge trail maybe a hundred times—but not in the last year. The trick is to take the sections with the step-ups at a brisk trot so that the horses can use their momentum to leap up the big “steps.” It is, well, a bit exhilarating.
Anyway, we headed up the ridge trail, and I will admit that I sort of sucked in my breath when faced with the first very steep section of step-ups. I’d just forgotten how hairy they were. My son said, “This looks pretty scary.” But we kicked our horses and up they scrambled like the good little trail horses they are.
On and on, up and up, leaping up the step-ups. We stopped halfway to let them breathe and I stared at the next steep section with even bigger step-ups, thinking that this might have been a bad choice of trail. But I didn’t exactly want to go back down. Going down the ridge trail is pure torture. It hurts my back and the horses really don’t like doing it.
Wally echoed my thoughts. “Have we ever ridden down this steep son of a bitch?” he asked me.
“Yep. Lots of times. But we quit doing it because we hated it.”
Wally shook his head. “I don’t ever want to ride down this trail again. Up is tolerable—barely.”
So on we went. By the time we reached the top of the climb the horses needed another long breather. But we made it, unscathed. I’m not sure whether any of us are game to ride the ridge trail again any time soon, though. I dunno—does this sound like fun to you other trail riders? I have to say that any trail that daunts Wally is a pretty tough trail.
The rest of the ridge trail beyond the big climb is gentle and uneventful, following the ridge along, until it meets up with the trail that we usually take (and then leads up to the spot at the very highest point of the ridge—what we call “the Lookout.”) Nice views from here.
We take another trail on the way back, also gentle and pleasant, following a very old road bed, and then, to get home, must take a narrow little singletrack for half a mile, once again on the spine of a ridge, through some dense woods. This trail has no step-ups and is not steep overall (just in a couple of short bits). But the trees are quite tricky.
The trail weaves in and out between various very solid tree trunks and branches that lean into and over the trail. Narrow and snaky, the singletrack must be adhered to—the slopes on each side are steep and dense with brush. Over and over again I have whacked my knee or shoulder on the oak trees that turn this trail into a pole bending course—with poles that won’t yield. I have learned the technique that works best—send the horse straight forward past the obstacle and then let him turn once your body is past—trying to bend the horse or sidepass away from the tree often backfires.
Anyway, we make our careful way along this trail until we reached the “headbonker tree.” The headbonker tree (and all of these trails that I am describing) is featured in my 11th and 12th novels, “Going Gone” and “Barnstorming.” This is a very solid branch that hangs over the trail. One must go under; there is no workable way around.
We have ridden under the headbonker tree literally hundreds of times, but every year it gets harder to do. It is amazing how much an oak grows in girth in just a few years. So after six straight years of riding this trail, this tree is far more challenging to duck under than it was when we started.
Wally and I may have grown in girth, too, and my son has gotten taller. The horses haven’t shrunk. And so today, for the first time ever, we stopped and dismounted and led our horses under the headbonker tree. There was a mere four inches or so between the top of my saddle horn and this tree branch. And I do have a photo of the headbonker tree—I took it just before I dismounted.
Ok, we got off, we went under, we got back on, and we descended the rest of the trail, which has one steep little 50 foot chute in loose dirt that the horses sort of slither and slide down, but is otherwise pretty easy. At the bottom of the trail we ride through a little meadow to wait by the side of the busy road that we must cross to get home.
This is actually the most dangerous part of the ride. The road is very busy—cars zip along at 50 miles an hour or so, with few gaps in the traffic. We have to stand right on the shoulder in order to see. There are city busses and logging trucks, bicycles and motorcycles…you name it, whizzing by not three feet from the horses’ noses. A spook in the wrong direction would be literally fatal. A helmet is not going to be of any help in this situation.
So we wait and wait by the side of the road, looking for a big gap in the traffic. The horses are flawless--patient, quiet as statues, waiting—even though they are perfectly aware that once across the road they are home again. It is as if they know the need for caution here as well as we do. I’m not sure this is the case, but I am sure that none of them have ever flinched or pranced, or balked in all the hundreds of times we have crossed this road. Either on the way out or the way back. But I still find it nerve-wracking.
Eventually we cross the road and head back up the hill to my front gate. I pat Sunny on the shoulder and tell him what a good horse he is. My son says,” Well we had a good trail ride adventure today.” And I think he is right.
So here’s my question to you more intrepid trail riders and endurance folk. Does this sound like a fun little ride to you? Or would you find the obstacles I’m describing to be a negative? I’m curious if maybe I’m just a total wimp.