By Michael Garrigan

Ritual of the Trail

September 24, 2021

Cedar quickly became my favorite. I loved the way it smelled as it opened to the chainsaw, the way it fell through the overstory and rested in soft duff like it was meant to be there, the way it so easily and willingly shucked its skin with each pull of the drawknife. Out of habit, I take a few moments to sit with the freshly felled tree, drink some water, and breathe in as much of its longest and last exclamation to the world before heaving it trailside. Due to its remote location, the need for the material, and its resilience to rot, this cedar was chosen to be used as a stringer. Once skinned, we float the twenty-foot-long log through the woods using a pulley system and grip hoist before rolling the stringers onto the sills with peaveys. After checking the level, we nail in the deck planks. Now there is a bridge across a stream that will last for decades, like a capillary to the heart, opening a pathway through this bog for visitors, towards the peak of Katahdin.

We rest easy back at our quiet cabin on Kidney Pond, despite the constant skittering of mice, eating a big communal meal is our custom when celebrating the end of a hitch and the creation of a new passage. Maybe it’s just a way to make the sweat and aching muscle worth it, but I like to think that these trails we’re building and maintaining are more than just routes through the woods, but also to the inner and outer unknown, a chance to see the landscape from the vantage point of a granite glacial erratic — a rock whose erosion has been a ceremonial witness to the transformations of this ecosystem.

I came to the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) with little hiking experience, an old Ford Ranger pick-up truck filled with everything I owned (not much), and a deep desire to get out of Pennsylvania and explore the world. I didn’t spend a lot of time outdoors until I graduated with a degree in Creative Writing and, after reading everything I could by Gary Snyder and Rick Bass, decided I needed to get out into the woods to shed my suburban skin and figure things out. “Wilderness” seemed to offer the best place to do this — vast, mysterious, far from home — so I signed on with The Student Conservation Association and took a trail crew position with Baxter State Park.

In the blackfly-infested north woods, covered in sweat and mud, building and maintaining trails, I fell in love with a rich, diverse landscape of elder mountains in their slow decline back to sea, pine and birch, and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers and Northern Parulas. Our hitches consisted of clearing blowdowns, brushing trails, and installing bog bridges through thick mosquito hazes. By the second week, all our steel-toe logger boots were broken in and I had put in more miles of hiking than in the past 21 years. The Trail offers things you never thought you needed until you’re on it, and each offering is different for everyone. For me, it was the chance to break the routines that had been established by other people and, for the first time, to create rituals that I still practice to this day: catching first and last light, keeping slices of beef jerky in my pocket, muttering John Prine songs to myself whenever I get to the steepest part of a climb or the hardest part of the workday, reading maps and tracing topographical lines as if they’re a language to translate, searching endlessly for another swath of woods or a long stretch of river to get lost in.

That first season in Baxter State Park cutting trails, cursing at no-see-ums, falling into the slow, steady rhythm of rock work as we built out sections of the long staircase the A.T. takes up Katahdin took me out west to work trails on the Pacific Crest Trail and in Rocky Mountain National Park. I grew more feral, closer to the ground, and further away from home, forcing me into wherever I was. Sleeping in a tent for ten-day hitches in the backcountry will do that. Waking up to frozen logger boots and a thick blanket of snow at 8,000 feet will do that. Writing letters by the light of a headlamp as you watch the Perseids Meteor shower on a remote Maine pond will do that. For three years, I counted my days with how many miles of blowdowns or waterbars I cleared. For three years, all I owned fit inside a Gregory 80 liter pack. For three years, I knit scarves in a tent before bed, each finished row a gesture towards home.

I fell in love with the McLeod and how it gently cut into the sandy Pacific Crest Trail through the Hauser Wilderness. I fell in love with the slow morning protocol of boiling water on a camp stove and pouring it over coffee grounds the color of lithium grease. I fell in love with the way the crosscut we carried deep into the Siskiyou Mountains to clear Douglas fir forced us to learn the pull-push collaboration it demanded. I’d wake up and watch Shasta each morning, trying to decipher what it was chanting as clouds lifted up its waist and onto its peak. For six months, I couldn’t take my eyes off the snowy peaks of Never Summer Wilderness as I taught myself how to fly fish in the headwaters of the Colorado River.

I eventually moved back to Pennsylvania to teach. I explore the woods close to home along the Susquehanna Riverlands in search of wild trout, drawing deeper into the Kittatinny Ridge and Allegheny Front. The further I go, the more I learn about my family’s history in this watershed. I hike along these rivers and mountains that were once logged and mined and find forests reclaiming old industrial sites and rivers slowly healing from acid mine drainage — a liturgy of recovery. Trail work was the first time I was a steward of something other than myself, an active participant in the conservation of a landscape, which cut a path through life that I’m still walking full of rituals I’m still performing. It was on the trail I first understood that I’m not the center of an ecosystem, but a small part of it, a citizen of a never-ending, infinitely intricate, beautiful environment.

There are countless rituals we choose to perform with landscapes. The act of using a place — damming rivers for electricity; hiking trails to get to a good view; letting trees give us shade. The act of knowing a place on its own terms — naming flowers that bloom each season, learning who has lived and shaped this land long before us, studying how the climate changes over time. Then there is the act of being of a place — stewarding the land so future generations can sink into its soil, letting a trail change the rhythm you walk through the world, recognizing how the landscape molds and changes us. To know a place, one simply needs to name it — a ritual of observation. To be of a place, one must get their hands dirty — a ritual of the trail.

Michael GarriganMichael Garrigan writes and teaches along the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. He enjoys exploring the riverlands, believes that every watershed should have a Poet Laureate, and is the author of two poetry collections — Robbing the Pillars and What I Know [How to Do]. His writing has appeared in Orion Magazine, River Teeth, The Flyfish Journal, and The Hopper Magazine. He was the 2021 Artist in Residence for The Bob Marshall Wilderness Area. You can read more at