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Following Trails Through An Unstable Future

Climate change is rendering some of our most beloved landscapes unrecognizable. How can awe and wonder cultivated on the trail help us navigate the earth’s transformation?


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My first run after moving to California’s Eastern Sierra was up a steep trail in the Pine Creek Canyon. Over the years, I would return to it again and again. It was my heartbreak trail; it was my good news trail; it was the trail I went to when I wasn’t sure how I was doing, and wanted so badly to know. Without thinking, I’d hop in my car, and suddenly there I’d be, standing in the shadow of the trail’s three thousand vertical feet of switchbacks.

I had probably ran it fifty times before the rains came that washed away more than a quarter-mile of trail. It was a summer of relentless, monsoonal storms – unusual for that liminal space where the Great Basin rises to meet the crest of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

That summer, the first landslide ripped down from a gully in Lundy Canyon. Not even a week had passed since a trail crew rebuilt the rock walls that held the trail in place before another storm came to rebury those hours of labor under ten feet of muddy rubble.

 

It’s no wonder that I run when the world feels uncertain, as the body in motion can indeed change the physical expression of thinking. 

 

Big Pine Pass slid, mud running hundreds of feet down its slope. Parker bench was buried in car-sized glacial erratics. The road to North Lake was covered in a hundred-foot-wide debris flow that trapped fifty cars at the trailhead. And then Pine Creek slid – not with mud, but with talus, as sediment beneath the boulders became so saturated from the weeks of rain that its slope crumbled, slowly moving tons of boulders downhill, burying eighty-year-old sections of rock retaining walls.

RELATED: The Optimist’s Guide to Climate Change

Of course, trail runners – and indeed, all people – are witness to these relics of a changing climate. Who remains unaffected by the ways that, what was once familiar can become, in an instant, a stranger? As frequent visitors to these landscapes, we need to find ways to work through the coupling of a deep sense of place with the fear of it changing irreversibly, and the ways that coupling might harm us.

Photo: Wendy Bandurski-Miller

The first time I returned to Pine Creek Pass, the sky had a Cimmerian gloom. Only a few days had passed since the trail was buried in the slide and already, another monsoon grumbled overhead. I poked my way up the sharp granite boulders, wary of unsettled rock. It had not been long since a hiker on a similar slope had stepped on a two-ton boulder that shifted, trapping his body beneath the rock for sixteen hours before he was, miraculously, pulled out alive.

The scattered lodgepole pines thinned as I climbed. Above treeline, I could see more than a dozen gullies carved out of the high slopes, possible slide paths outlined in shadow, each one liable to dislodge above me. The sky ruddied and groaned. It started to hail. I was hesitant to continue higher, where my body might act as a lightning rod to the electrical storm I could feel building around me.

Retracing my steps to the sheltering woods, I watched as one after another gully started to release small debris flows, thin fingers of mud reaching down the mountain in stuttering creeps.

RELATED: 4 Ways Climate Change Affects You As a Runner

Running is my mind’s well-worn sieve; I rely on the familiar trail to beat order into unstructured anxieties. In college, a professor told me once that the neural pathways our brains use as we chart familiar thoughts – directions, a recipe we know by heart, the lyrics to a favorite song – change depending on whether our bodies are in motion.

With each mile, whatever uncertainty I’ve been stuck on shapeshifts and stills. Thoughts begin to congregate like starlings, murmurating into dramatic, dark shapes as they do. It’s no wonder that I run when the world feels uncertain, as the body in motion can indeed change the physical expression of thinking. 

What does one make of a trail that has become unrecognizable? How might we relearn to love when the object of our attention has been so altered? 

I am searching for ways for running to transform me – where I once looked for quiet, now I hunger for ways that my affection for landscape can extend beyond what environmental writer Elizabeth Rush calls endsickness in her book about witnessing America’s disappearing coasts. Endsickness is “its own kind of vertigo – a physical response to living in a world that is moving in unusual ways, toward what I imagine as a kind of event horizon.”

But what care, I wonder, can endure beyond that point of no return? What tenderness exists in the space between hope and fear? Maybe running – which has always acted as scaffolding for my disorientation – could be a way for me to see it.

 

What does one make of a trail that has become unrecognizable? How might we relearn to love when the object of our attention has been so altered? 

 

None of the Eastern Sierra’s trails that buried that summer were rebuilt the same, whether from a lack of resources or a lack of will. The endless storms gave summer a sharp edge which, by August, was replaced by the more familiar ache of wildfire smoke, remnants from the lightning that accompanied each storm. I wondered how long it would be until this rising awe would itself function as a familiar benchmark, the ledger against which I measure the turn of years to come. 

The smoke chased me off the trails for the rest of the summer, and in the fall, snow came early and kept me out of high places through the rest of that year. But when the days rewarmed, I found myself once again driving up the 12 percent grade through aspen groves unfurling their first green leaves of the season. Beneath Pine Creek Pass, the shade still bit with winter’s chill. Unsure of what the trail might hold, I started to run.