A modest rearrangement keeps me upright

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I hadn't made the connection until recently, when I hiked up to the ridge behind the condo complex where I live. The ridge isn't much more than a six stories high. But it leads up into a small wood and then to a clearing looking south over a horse farm and east toward a protected wetlands.

Between the sparse tree trunks along our parking lot you can just see the horses as they march up the hill on their side of a barbed-wire fence. Atop the ridge the fence is broken down in places, so I have felt little guilt in climbing over it with a bag of small apples and summoning the herd for a handout.

Last winter, after leaving the telltale prints of my snowshoes around the farm property, I asked the only person I've ever encountered there if I were trespassing. He was a workman perhaps with no authority, but he assured me it was OK. So the ridge, the woods, the horse farm, and the wetlands have been my playgrounds in all weathers.

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Compared with the great outdoors, it is definitely less, but it's deliciously at hand - or foot.

I hiked up the path a few weeks ago. The first incline is about 40 degrees, so it takes some striving. Then it levels off and meanders among the trees. Nowhere is the path more than a foot wide, and in some places it slopes sharply downward.

But even for a tenderfoot, it isn't too intimidating.

Or so I thought, as I headed back from my first reconnaissance since the onset of autumn. I planted one foot - and sat down with a thud. The cause of this event: a carpet of acorns, damp leaves, and pine needles. I had a wrestling match just to get to my knees and then to my feet again.

I finally had to remove my shoes and finish the descent barefoot, feeling my way for toeholds. It wasn't comfortable, but it was infinitely preferable to sliding all the way down on my bottom.

That's when I connected the terrain with my slips and slides in snowshoes. Last winter was my first experience with snowshoeing, but I had expected the high-tech arrangement of tubing, ratchets, and crampons to serve me well. Instead, I often had to pole myself out of precarious positions in the deep powder.

I soon learned that while there were only two paths up the ridge, there were numerous ways down - evidenced by the trail of sitzmarks I left. Sometimes, with low branches rushing toward my face, I just leaned back and slipped under them, fully prone.

Now I understand why. Beneath all that pristine powder was a slippery bed of acorns, leaves, and pine needles. The snow would give way - taking me with it.

So today I borrowed a rake and clambered up the hill. The air was heavy, with rain forecast that night, so I wondered how far I'd get before the first drops splattered down. I started by raking acorns, leaves, and twigs out of the path. I gathered downed branches and laced them among the young trees on the downhill side of the path. I raked still more leaves from the uphill side and left them in piles atop the branches to buttress the camber of the path.

The result of my several hours' work was to transfer most of the detritus on the path to the downhill side, where the first snowfall would create a soft mound delineating the edge of the path. That should keep almost anyone from stepping out into a white void at those times when one can't distinguish the snow in the air from the snow on the ground (which had happened to me a few times). The only caveat: Don't step on my barricade, because all that supports it is a treacherous carpet of acorns, leaves, and pine needles.

I had a slightly guilty feeling that I'd re-engineered nature, but I was also satisfied that the effort would benefit humankind on a small scale.

The first few raindrops were bouncing noisily off the little pink plastic "tails" that warn the horses away from the barbed wire when I finally came down the newly raked path. I got back inside with a pocket full of pine cones, resin sticking my fingers together, and one audacious raindrop on my nose.

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