Forest Service Stories: Abandoned Trails by Susan Marsh

Susan Marsh

It’s been forty years since Susan Marsh and I worked together for the Forest Service on the then-Fremont National Forest in Lakeview, Oregon.  We always joked about the Fremont combining with the Winema and become the Fre-inema. Fortunately, though the Forests did combine, they go by the more professional-sounding Fremont-Winema.  Susan spent much of her Forest Service career as a landscape architect, and is also an accomplished writer, with several published books including War Creek, the winner of the May Sarton award for contemporary fiction. Here’s her website for more information.

here is a link to the whole story.

Abandoned Trails by Susan Marsh

Near Spread Creek, on the northern edge of Jackson Hole, I happened onto an abandoned trail.  Ancient blazes marked the route, each closed into a pitchy fist.  Logs cleared long ago lay dark with moss.  Pale conches billowed from their sawn ends.  The trail was so overgrown I stayed on it only by squinting for blazes as I shouldered through buffaloberry and climbed over fallen trees.  Drawn to whatever is abandoned, I followed the trail to where it vanished, at a ridgetop logging road.

The blazes led into a land made wilder by neglect.  Though I enjoyed having it to myself, it felt like a place forgotten.  The trail seemed to welcome my feet as if it missed the company of travelers.  I wanted to assure the trail that it was not abandoned after all, to bring it offerings of appreciation.  “Hiking is praying with your feet,” a friend once told me.  On that old trail, I prayed.

I brought my memories as offerings.  Memories of respite from the square-cornered, stay-in-the-lines world.  Memories of winding forest trails, with their wildflowers and smell of sodden leaves on an autumn day.

As I walked, I wondered how many decades had passed since the blazes on that trail were freshly cut and hoofbeats drummed along its tread.  The first forest ranger in the Spread Creek country, Rudolph “Rosie” Rosencrans, arrived in Jackson Hole in 1904.  He surveyed and drafted the first maps of the Buffalo Valley, part of the original Yellowstone Forest Reserve.  The wide switchbacks and regular grade suggest the trail was once laid out with skill and care.  Had Rosie himself, an engineer by education, defined the tread I followed?

First Ranger of the Teton Division, Rudolf (Rosie) Rosencrans

Rosie left a record of his daily work, glimpses of a ranger’s life a century ago.  His diaries are on display in the historic Blackrock Ranger Station at Moran.  I spent a day last winter looking through them, entranced by the stack of lined yellow pages that once passed through Rosie’s hands. On his frequent trips from Blackrock to Antelope Springs, Rosie must have used the long-abandoned trail in Spread Creek, a shortcut through the foothills.  In his diaries I searched for mention of the trail.

Rosie wrote with a fine-nibbed fountain pen in elegant formal script.  He wrote of boundary marking, fence-building, trail-clearing, and backcountry patrols.  He recorded each day without embellishment or emotion, regardless of what happened.

“April 14, 1908.  Started for the upper Yellowstone country, made camp at 3 p.m. on Two Ocean Pass.  Started again at 6 p.m. and arrived at Shoshone Cabin on Throughfare at 11 pm.”  Thirty miles that day, on skis.

“July 9, 1907.  Started in the afternoon for my district [from the Supervisor’s Office near Jackson].  Crossing Grovont found mail driver drowned, thus helped to hunt for him and also to save one of his horses.  Being wet, stopped with Ranger Lee for the night.”

The wild frontier of Rosie’s day has now been rendered safe.  Technology has left little chance of such a drowning; mail arrives by electron.  The rivers are contained by dams and dikes.  We have tamed those parts of the world we use, and have left the wilderness to reclaim abandoned trails.

In 1912, Rosie exchanged his fountain pen for a typewriter.  By 1919, he traveled mostly by automobile instead of on skis or horseback.  Over the years, his diaries recorded more days of filing reports, fewer dramatic rescues and marathon patrols.  Work, even for an early forest ranger, was on its way to becoming what it is today–time at the telephone and computer, attending meetings, keeping files.  Safe, civilized, indoor work.

I first worked for the Forest Service in the summer of 1974, drawn by the romance of a job outdoors.  My first season, I went into the office for about an hour a week.  There I posted my time and picked up equipment for my work in the woods.  Now, after many moves and so-called career advances, I attend meetings, talk on the telephone, and sit in front of a computer.  Now when I clear trails, I do so on my own time, as an unofficial volunteer.

here is a link to the rest of the story.
If you are interested in Rosie Rosencrans, here is a video that talks about Rosie and his life and his work, with Ranger Thomas Matza.

4 thoughts on “Forest Service Stories: Abandoned Trails by Susan Marsh”

  1. Lakeview, Oregon, is pleasantly remote and hushed. You’re nominally in Oregon, but you feel like you’re also in Idaho, Nevada, and Modoc County, California. I haven’t been there for years.

    Susan, if you happen to see this thread, I have a question.

    The overgrown trails you’re describing keep out all but an intrepid few, who I gather must be on foot.

    Is that a good thing, a bad thing, or a combination?

    What if the trails were restored to Rudolph Rosecrans’s 1907 standard, but human-powered mountain biking came with it? What would you prefer? Good trails with mountain biking allowed, or vanished trails that keep out mountain bikers, along with almost everyone else?

    I’d vote for the former, of course. If the pandemic causes extended mass unemployment, perhaps those trails could be restored. If they are, however, mountain bikers will be riding them, regardless of whether they’re in some off-limits zone like a Wilderness area, WSA, or RWA. Is that okay, if it does no harm?

    • I love hiking off trail and it’s fun to happen upon an old and disused one with ancient blazes, etc. This is how I found the old trail I wrote about, by accident. I am glad to keep it the way it is. It’s not as if the BTNF doesn’t already have about 3000 miles of trail to maintain, most (other than in wilderness) open to bikes even if the terrain and soils are not suitable. This trail was “the” way north to south before any roads went in. As soon as Rosie was able to drive to town, he did. I think this vanished trail is also good as is because it’s important wildlife habitat, for bears, wolves, elk, moose, etc. and these critters have to do plenty of bike- and people-dodging as it is. Thanks for the note, sm

  2. Thanks for sharing this story.
    Trails were essential in the early years of the USFS and many people like Rosie put their blood sweat & tears into building them.
    Trails are still important for access to the forest by visitors and agency employees. It’s a shame, more like a crime, that our society has come to a point of being so unwilling to invest in the maintenance of the trail infrastructure that Rosie and others left as their legacy.
    Too many trails have gone into the “abandoned” category!
    As a former FS recreation and trails program manager and current trail maintenance volunteer I hate to see the decline in appropriated funding for trails! We know that time spent outdoors is important for our physical and mental health. Why then are we as a society so unwilling to pay for the things that enrich our society?

    • I used to dole out the trail funds for the districts and hated to see how little there was to go around. Big fights with engineering who wanted to use trail funds for snow plowing at the office. If it weren’t for rec fees coming back to the forests, many grants and partners etc. there’d be no field work here at all. I’m not sure the general public knows how hard it is to get a dollar to the ground, but thank goodness we have a few FS employees willing to burn the midnight oil writing grants and grant reports. Some good work is being done out there in spite of the dismal budgets.


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