Over the weekend I got to run on a recently re-opened trail, one that I hadn’t been on since before the summer’s fires. I was prepared for things to look different than the last time I ran the trail — in early July, when the underbrush was thick and green, with damp, mossy sections, the root ball that looked like a bear, and a creek crossing requiring a big leap.
I was not prepared for the visceral reaction I had to the experience of being completely disoriented on a trail I know intimately. My root ball bear is gone, as is the understory, as are most of the trees. Through the middle of the ashy moonscape winds the trail, a gray ribbon threading through charcoal sticks. Open pits gape, surrounded by tentacled negative space where roots once grew. I could place myself along this familiar trail only a handful of times — the distinctive stream crossing now dry but still recognizable, a particular set of serpentine curves, a moderate section of climbing. The devastation is breathtaking.
But I kept running, and as I ran I noticed things that I had never — nor could never have — seen on this trail. Without the trees and understory, the topography of the area is apparent. A rock band previously hidden by the forest is now laid bare; a steep bank leading into a ravine is now visible; boulders are everywhere.
It is starkly beautiful in those charred woods. They’re no longer “lovely, dark and deep” but instead wide open, filled with light, haunting in their severity.
In areas where the fire was less intense, the understory burned but the trees did not, and after the fire passed they dropped their needles on the forest floor, a uniform carpet of rusty yellow. In such places you can’t so much see the trail as you can sense it, feeling the firm earth under the needles, sensing how the path would naturally bend and wind through tree stands. You experience the trail instinctively, your feet intuiting the route rather than your eyes seeing it.
Some of these forested trail areas won’t recover in my lifetime; at least, not to the condition I’ve known them in for so long. But new green growth is already starting to push up through the ash, fireweed will bloom, animals will reclaim their habitat. And as bikers, horseback riders, and runners resume using these trails, the pine needles will get pushed off to the edges and blackened branches will be cast off the track, revealing the path forward once again.