I walk the dogs on a dirt access road beside the railroad tracks. It’s one of the few places left in this county where my dogs can run free while I wander without worrying about them. A dry creek overgrown with willow and coyote bush separates the road from the tracks. The other side sprawls off into an old California rancho still home to oaks and cattle.
The road is shaped like a lollipop; straight like the stick until it becomes the round candy, looping around a stand of oaks to rejoin itself. The dogs and I park at the railhead, the bottom of the stick, and skirt the locked gate. I usually stroll, hands in pockets, while they race ahead smelling rabbits, bobcats, and the occasional other dog, but today I am gloved and carry loppers.
During the first storm of the year an oak trunk snapped and fell across the road, right across the middle of the candy. Now, instead of completing the loop we have to turn around and retrace our path down the lollipop stick. The candy is the best part of the lollipop, not the stick, so I am determined to cut a tunnel through the downed branches.
When we get to the fallen oak I study the tangled limbs. They seem too inaccessible from this side so we run through poison oak to the other side of the loop and come up on the back side of the deadfall. Here there is an easier place to start lopping and I clear a space from one gap amid the branches to the next. The tunnel grows crookedly but far more easily than if I forced a straight line. It seems I must be about halfway through when I get to a limb too thick to lop. Instead I trim the branches over it so I can stand and step across the limb. I can’t see how far I have to go so the dogs and I dash back through the poison oak and start tunneling in from the opposite side. I snip bough, branch, and limb into tiny pieces, making a carpet of leaf and wood.
I’m deep under the tree, the dogs lying behind single file, when I get scared. Over our heads is at least half a ton of dying tree. If it shifts… If a supporting limb suddenly snaps…
I squat in the leafy tunnel and consider what I’m doing.
Is it really dangerous? Yes. The tree is newly cracked and though it appears stable the trunk is still attached to the base of the tree about ten feet up, supported only by two stout limbs jammed into damp ground.
Is this reckless? Unequivocally.
Is it necessary? Not in the least. I can turn back to finish our walk or twist past the poison oak to get to the other side of the loop. But that shortcuts the loop. Its like only eating half the lollipop. The dogs couldn’t care less but to me the complete circuit is integral. The oaks are thickest here along the loop. In summer they are cool and shady; in winter, dark and mysterious. The loop completes our journey, and marks as all circles do, a simultaneous start and end. Without completing the circle the walk is lifeless and lacks symmetry.
I look at the snarl of twig and leaf before me. I’m pretty sure if I can just get through the next six feet or so I’ll get to the other side of the tunnel. But this is undoubtably stupid. The snarl unnerves me and I back out.
But I can’t quit. The dogs and I run through the poison oak again. I crawl through what I’ve already cleared and from here I can see where I stopped on the other side. It only needs a couple more feet to be complete. I stand over the uncuttable limb and see the route to take. Clip, clip, clip and I am through!
I crouch and emerge victorious on the other side of my “trunnel” — the victory not in reestablishing the loop, but in the lessons of the task. As I walk back to the car, loppers over my shoulder, I hope some kids find the trunnel and scramble through. I hope they are a little scared but even more intrigued and delighted, for it’s only in risking that we are truly alive.