With only a little cajoling, our six-year-old son, Jake, and nine-year-old daughter, Dory, grant their mother's request for a Mother's Day hike with her family on the Bonneville Shoreline Trail in the Wasatch Mountain foothills above our Salt Lake City home.
My wife, Joanne, walks the trail several times each week—for exercise, for quiet, and to encounter the undeveloped landscape that recharges her. It's so easy to not go, she says, to allow the tyranny of small demands to fill up every day. She is fierce about carving out time for walks, and in spring she always comes home gleeful with the rhythm of the changing season. One week she announces that the glacier lilies are out. Soon arrowleaf balsamroot covers the hillsides. Next, blue lupine mixes in, and the yellow balsamroot begins to fade. Another flashy yellow flower, mule's ear, leads the next wave of bloom.
Although this sounds like a smooth progression, in fact spring comes to northern Utah in fits and starts. Winter ends with a joyful syncopation, 70-degree days alternating with blasts of cold air, and it is on a cloudy and rainy Mother's Day that Joanne and I and our children head off from the Terrace Hills trailhead, just over a mile from our home.
The kids scamper through fields of big-blossomed balsamroot in unknowing mimicry of a scene from The Sound of Music. We contour above the tangles of Gambel oak in Perry's Hollow and skirt the steep drop of Lime Kiln Gulch, looking down on its namesake stone oven in which Mormon pioneers baked limestone into chalky powder for cement. Despite the weather the day delights us, and we grin at the other families wandering the flower-banked trail. Finally, leaving the views of the city behind, we hike down Dry Creek canyon to the edge of the University of Utah campus. After three miles on the Bonneville Shoreline Trail the kids are no longer frisky, and we happily head home for hot chocolate.
When completed, the Bonneville Shoreline Trail will run 100 miles north to south along a foothill terrace where the Wasatch Mountains meet the bustle and boom of modern-day urban Utah. The terrace was created by prehistoric Lake Bonneville some 15,000 years ago, when the shallow puddle of the Great Salt Lake deepened to a thousand feet and filled western Utah with a freshwater lake the size of Lake Michigan. Largely complete in the section that overlooks Salt Lake City, the trail that now traces this old shoreline brings wildness to our doorstep. With a single step we leave the city and enter the mountains, exchanging pavement for dirt and bluegrass for oak thickets, abandoning schedules for an hour or two of freedom.
We share a special bond with friends who use the trail. We meet on hikes and share wildlife sightings. We pass on discoveries of new gear—from snowshoes to collapsible walking sticks. As a professional photographer I'm always torn: do I take my cameras or do I grant myself the freedom to revel in uninterrupted time with my wife and friends? Do I experience the trail or do I photograph it? Either way, the trail gives all of its devotees an easy ration of wild places as well as companionship and beauty in all seasons.
The eyes glowed in the darkness—yellow, wide-set, and unblinking. My friend Ron came to a stop, heart racing, his headlamp pointing 30 feet into the brush, where it illuminated the motionless face of a mountain lion.
Ron often used to run before dawn on the Shoreline Trail. He used a headlamp not to see the path, which he could pick out by starlight and by the glow of the city, but because he didn't want to be surprised by animals—or to surprise them. He fantasized about meeting a mountain lion.
And then, one summer morning, his fantasy became reality. Ron slowly passed the lion, locking it in the beam of the headlamp as he walked backward up the trail, then finally turning and continuing his run. The lion never moved. At first Ron was excited to complete his run and drive home to tell his family about his encounter. Afterward, the fear hit. He has not run in the dark, or alone, since.
We encounter creatures on this trail, and over time we extend our mental map to include them in our neighborhoods. This is the turn where the rattlesnake lay coiled beneath an oak. This is the slope below the water tank that harbored two moose last winter. This is the sunny ridge where spiky, elegant horned lizards nest. In this gully tarantulas often methodically cross the ruts of the trail. We repeatedly see animals at a place we've named Critter Gulch—a pair of denning red foxes that challenge our dog, mule deer bounding away, a stunning, strong, dark coyote racing uphill across our path.And now here—this is the thicket where Ron saw the mountain lion.
My son rarely fills space passively. Even when out for a simple walk he ricochets off walls, leaps over fences, shinnies up columns, turns any street into a backdrop for elegantly performed martial arts. When Jake goes to the Shoreline Trail, he takes his mountain bike.
The trail has been created to accommodate as many nonmotorized uses as possible. Hikers, runners, bikers, and equestrians all use it. The mountain bikers liven the trail in late afternoon, after work, after the University of Utah turns loose the young and strong with energy to burn. The cyclists love the trail's variety, from level contour to steep hill, from loose rock to patches of ice, from wide beginner's routes to the challenging "Bobsled," a chute that drops off the trail in a gloriously steep one-and-a-half-mile banked descent to the neighborhood below.
I began mountain biking about the time my son Jake did, and I've watched him grow on this foothill trail into independence and confidence and mastery. The first time Jake and I approached the Bobsled together, he complained about the uphill grind until we both dismounted to walk our bikes to the top. But on the downhill run he was fearless while I was cautious. He kept saying: "Come on, Dad." I kept saying: "Remember to stay in control!" The most recent time we rode up to the Bobsled, Jake took off on his own, chasing older teenagers and passing them by.
My favorite time for bicycling is autumn, when late afternoon light angles in from the west over the desert lake, burnishing the golden grass of the foothills. As evening advances, Jake and I pedal through cooling air. Behind the backlit shocks of sun-cured grass appear startling splashes of color—garish spandex worn by gleeful riders escaping the cares of the city.
A cyclist's relationship with the trail is different from a walker's connection but just as intimate: a remembered map of roots and rocks and dirt banks and the locations of legendary spills. A hiker's map is more contemplative, with its wildlife sightings and wildflower patterns and views opening to distant peaks.
The Shoreline Trail brings open space to our daily lives. Kids can ride their bikes to the trail from home. University professors can walk from their offices. Families can reach it from familiar, close-to-home parking lots, venturing farther out as their kids grow older. In contrast with a backpacking destination defined by remoteness, this trail is both a respite from and an extension of home—a familiar "pauseway" from the demands of city life.
The Bonneville Shoreline Trail traces the boundary between mountain and desert, urban and rural, tamed and wild. Moose and mountain lion and deer do not respect this boundary and wander down into our neighborhood—especially in winter.
The crispness of the air, the brilliance of the sunshine make winter one of my favorite seasons on the trail. Leafless scrub oak and canyon maple etch a calligraphy of black lines against white snow. On snowshoes we claw our way up the hills. Some days we break trail, pushing our limits in aerobic exercise. On other days, as the snow melts quickly, snowshoes merely offer extra stability on the muddy trail.
Each year on the day of the winter solstice I try to arrange to be on the trail at sunset, on an easily reached knoll that commands a spectacular view. This appointment is part of the round of paying attention to nature and my place in it that pleases me—my seasons on the trail coming into focus at this moment, the shortest day of the year, the end and the beginning. This perch on the trail, where desert and mountains have equal weight, seems the perfect place to witness the year's passage.
The sun drops in the west, an orange ball over blue distance, closer and closer to the Great Salt Lake and its islands and the Great Basin mountain ranges beyond. At my feet the valley sweeps away in snow-covered white. Alpenglow flushes the peaks of the Wasatch Mountains to the east. The sun touches the horizon out toward Nevada, then slips away behind the earth.
The moment passes. The earth spins. Each day will grow longer, each revolution carrying us back toward spring wildflowers, summer birds, fall bike rides through golden grass. In every season the Bonneville Shoreline Trail connects me with my home landscape and carries me into wildness.
Stephen Trimble lives in Salt Lake City, just a few blocks below the Bonneville Shoreline Trail. Trimble's history of the Shoreline Trail appeared in Land&People in 1998. As writer, editor, and photographer, he has published 19 award-winning books, including The Geography of Childhood: Why Children Need Wild Places (with Gary Nabhan) and The Sagebrush Ocean: A Natural History of the Great Basin. His twentieth, Bargaining for Eden, will appear in 2005; check www.stephentrimble.net for details.