A Touch Below Timberline
July 27, 2005
At a turnoff on Independence Pass, at 10,400 feet, a guide wire follows a quarter-mile looping trail through sub-Alpine spruce and fir forest. Twenty-two posts, at irregular intervals, support bleached wooden frames with parallel messages about geology, flora and fauna. Next to conventionally lettered signs lie weather-blackened copper plates whose raised dots look more like pointillist Hebrew. This is the world’s first Braille trail.
If you are reading this to yourself, you are among the sighted and will not be deciphering the copper. It is a comment on the primacy of sight that even visitations to this place by the blind necessitate drivers who have passed eye examinations. But on the Roaring Fork Braille Trail the visually intact will find themselves absorbing nature in a way that approaches the experience of the sightless, for the signs exclude visual information and refer only to sound, smell and touch. As soon as you have crossed a footbridge across the Roaring Fork River and started the loop, a sign in front of adjacent trees – an engelmann spruce and a sub-Alpine fir – invites you to crush their needles and notice how the spruce needles are sharp, squarish and relatively odorless, while the fir needles are soft and exhale a breath of turpentine. Shortly beyond, the trail passes between one of each species, so that you can feel their trunks simultaneously. The spruce bark under your left hand is rough, with tatters that flake off, while your right hand rubs a fir trunk whose smoothness is pocked with tiny protrusions in rows – rather like Braille.
Further hands-on invitations encourage you to feel the scaly lichen on granite, the prickliness of juniper, the scar where a tree has been gnawed by a porcupine. One stop arrays within reach the right-angled branching of bog birch, slender willow leaves and gossamer fronds of cinquefoil. You reach up to a lodgepole pine whose branch tips resist your grip like a bottle brush. You crouch by a bed of sphagnum, or peat moss, and palpate intricate, labyrinthine filaments that store water in cool suspension. Reaching streamside sand, you plunge your hands in the still colder river itself, numbing snowmelt that reminds you of the blizzarding drifts that close Independence Pass seven months a year – and of the Pleistocene glaciers that carved this valley, retreated, and left you this fragrant summer.Illiterate in Braille, a print-reading cheat doing signs on a loop trail, you ingest information so you can savor the trail’s distinctive feature. Returning to the parking lot and grabbing the wire, encased in soft plastic, you close your eyes and begin your stumbling attempt to taste – and hear, smell, and feel – how a sub-Alpine forest might greet you without the crutch of sight.
A quick, wobbly descent delivers you to the bridge across the river, initiating you with the trail’s most dizzying moment. Water beneath you spills over and around bulbous rocks while your feet become newly suspicious of the narrow, uneven suspended planks. Your eyelids remain a pink uninformative blank as you stop to savor the brawling stream on your perch over chaos. You venture forward only to step off the bridge, a tiny drop from wood to dirt that stabs like a split-second free fall. Securely steered to the loop, your feet become sensors as well as supports. You note how the velvety crush of pine needles, gritted with bits of cone spit out by squirrels, is tripwired by unpredictable protruding tree roots that ambush you as soon as you advance a few feet. The guide wire conducts your hand from one eye bolt to another, requiring you occasionally to let go and slide your hand over signs, posts – or tree trunks you can now identify by touch. As the clamor of the stream retreats, you notice that the racket over individual stones is threaded by a common midregister hiss. What previously seemed like a minor rise and drop in the trail’s elevation turns into a saga fraught with roots, drop-offs and a foundation that turns to mush near the bed of sphagnum. In a quarter-mile loop you will hardly gain the confidence of the blind but, hand on the guide wire, you will start trusting your feet to take you, sightless, through terrain less certain than the route from your bed to the john at night. You suspect untaken roads of feeling.Signs, eyed or fingered, don’t prepare you much for the unexpected, which can be squirrels or chipmunks or fellow visitors, but are primarily birds. You may know their sounds better than you thought. The raucous thug that lands on a branch a few feet away is surely a Canada jay, commonly known as the camp robber, a serial cadger looking for a handout. Another that rushes up from nowhere and halts midair gunning its gears will be a rufous or a broadtail – the Roaring Fork Valley’s two ubiquitous hummingbirds. A woodpecker drumming loudly and evenly is likely a downy or a hairy, or a flicker, while a soft irregular tapping will be one of the sapsuckers. A nuthatch climbing or descending insists on its one unvarying note like a far truck backing up. And while you are listening to birdsong, or the chatter of squirrels, you will notice how noise – from the stream, if nothing else is vocalizing – arrives slightly blurred as sound waves are deflected from tree to tree, reaching your ear in slightly displaced microseconds, hollowing space and depth in your imagination. How different is a breeze’s rush through pine needles, a smooth crescendo of indrawn breath, from the rustle of willows, leaf brushing against leaf in thousands of tiny percussive events. A fascination with sub-Alpine acoustics will not prevent you, before you regain the parking lot, from reaching down and letting pine needles run through your fingers like bran.
This unlikely trail has a place in human history. Conceived by wildlife biologist Bob Lewis as the world’s first nature path for the blind, it has served as a prototype for dozens of Braille trails in the United States and other countries. Established in 1967, built with volunteer help from the Roaring Fork Valley, it is named not only for its signs but to honor Louis Braille, who was born in 1809 to a farming family in Normandy, lost his sight in a childhood accident, and went on to develop the standard system for translating print into a code for the fingers. A lover of the outdoors, Braille said that it was nature that gave him his inspiration. Sun falls through fir trees on the blind and sighted alike. Both feel the flecks of heat, or sense the oddly metallic chill of snow and ice in a draft of wind, or – on the right day – inhale deeply the smell of spruce after rain, a pungency you can almost taste. The guide rail of a Braille trail is not a velvet rope marking off designated works of art your touch could tarnish. It is merely a support for one hand while the other reaches past to explore what is, in its habitat, common enough. It is said that vision is division, the partitioning of the world into compartments of space, whereas the other senses unify experience into the flow of time. While that distinction is interesting philosophically, I must admit that I am terrified of blindness and protective of my eyes, however myopic. But a Braille trail demonstrates to the sighted how much experience is continuously taken in by the other senses and ignored. Jazz musician Ray Charles was once asked how much of life he estimated he missed by being blind. “About five percent,” he replied.Bruce Berger’s books include “The Telling Distance,” winner of the Western States Book Award, and “Music in the Mountains,” a history of the Aspen Music Festival. This essay is from the forthcoming “The Complete Half-Aspenite,” to be released at the end of the summer.