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The Tao of Back & Forth

A homage to a great Western hiking innovation

October 29, 2006|John McKinney | John McKinney is the author of a dozen books about hiking, including "The Joy of Hiking" and "Los Angeles County: A Day Hiker's Guide."

What's wrong with this trail?" the perspiring young sportsman in the Boston Red Sox baseball cap complains to me as I catch up with him at the one-mile marker on Echo Mountain Trail, which ascends the steep slopes of the San Gabriel Mountains above Altadena. "It doesn't seem to be leading anywhere. And it's got too many of those . . . turning things, those--"

"Switchbacks," I offer.

"Don't you just hate them?"

Caught between the urge to lecture him and the urge to whack him with my hiking stick, I do neither, and simply stride past him with a smile. "I like switchbacks," I call out over my shoulder.

"Yeah, right," he mutters.

As I zigzag along on a perfect winter day, savoring the alternating vistas of mountains above and metropolis below, it occurs to me that lately I have encountered a great number of people who are unaware that the switchback is the hiker's best friend and one of the West's greatest inventions. Worse, there seem to be increasing numbers of hikers like "Sox" who hate switchbacks.

Perhaps such bias arises from ignorance. While most hikers can define a switchback (a trail that follows a zigzag course on a steep incline) and know one when they see one, it's obvious that detractors don't grasp why the switchbacking way is so wonderful: it's a lot easier zigzagging up the shoulder of a mountain than taking a straight line up it. California's recreation trails are ranked among the world's best, in part because they use so many switchbacks to reach so much beauty.

Ah, the beauty. Switchbacking up Saddle Peak in the lovely Santa Monica Mountains. Switchbacking up Mt. Whitney on those 97 superbly graded curves--hewn out of granite --at sunrise when the switchbacks slowly turn pink, then a magnificent fiery orange, one of the finest examples in America of the trail builder's art.

The sound of a cellphone ringing ends my reverie and draws my attention down to Sox, two switchbacks below. As I zig north and he zags south, I overhear Sox tell his caller: "This crazy guy I met likes these *#$@@% switchbacks."

Switchback haters seem to be divided into two camps: Some would prefer to eliminate them altogether in favor of straight Point A to Point B style pathways; others regard them as an unavoidable necessity that gets you up a mountain at a maddeningly slow pace. Sure you gain elevation, but so slowly that the trail becomes repetitive and the trudge becomes a drudge.

I never fully appreciated the switchback until I hiked in the eastern U.S. About a decade ago I was commissioned to write a book about the great hikes of New England. Before hitting the trail I wondered: After ascending the West's great mountains, how difficult could it be for me to summit a piddling 3,000-foot peak?

Very difficult, I discovered, because New England trails lack switchbacks. In fact, New Englanders take a perverse pride in the steepness of a trail. Slogging straight up a trench-like trail eroded down to the bedrock is true hiking because it's such hard work. Apparently, switchbacks would add ease and pleasure to the journey and run contrary to the Puritan ethic. Idle feet are the devil's playthings, or something like that.

I feel blessed to have been born west of the Rockies, where trailblazers took a different approach. Many now-popular pathways were first prospectors' trails constructed with switchbacks for the use of pack animals. This switchbacking tradition continued when trail use changed from business to pleasure. Traditionally, Western land was cheap and there was plenty of room to roam, so that a trail builder could afford the luxury of long, meandering switchbacks.

A few switchbacks from the top, my thoughts drift to friend and fellow Californian Greg Miller, now president of the American Hiking Society and stationed in Washington D.C. "I'm going through switchback withdrawal," he confessed recently. "Where are my beloved switchbacks? Philosophically speaking, what's wrong with hiking back and forth in a never-ending zigzag pattern?"

Yes, that's it. Switchbacking is a philosophy. Sure I appreciate, more than anyone, the switchback, the noun, the thing; but it is switchbacking, the intransitive verb, that literally and figuratively gets my heart pumping. When we talk of the trail switchbacking over the mountain and hikers switchbacking up the trail, we are talking about a philosophy that values the journey as much as the destination. Switchbacking is more than a better way to build trails; it's an approach best studied and practiced in the West's wide open spaces. California is all about creative movement--in the performing arts, on the football field with the West Coast Offense, and on the hiking trail.

Switchbacking, as in life itself, is not all about getting from one place to another as quickly as possible; it's about getting there in the best way possible.

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