Squiggle Engineering

In a comment on a previous post, Dan asked what the hiker term was for “a long, sinuous, snakelike alignment like from Idyllwild….” Thank you Dan for your question and the excellent use of sibilants. The short answer is “Squiggles,” which are the modern replacement for the historic and sensible “Switchbacks.” The PCT is a patchwork of trails connected by a name threading through assorted county, state and federal jurisdictions. Some of the oldest stretches were designed and constructed by actual engineers in an era where algebra, dynamite and slope gradients were commonly deployed in transportation projects. Trail users in the heyday of 1930’s trail making included mules who are particular about walking on no more than an 8% grade. Humans needed mules to carry canvas tents with wood frames, canned goods and heavy woolen outerwear. Thus, the engineers calculated the pitch of the slope, the vertical distance between top and bottom, the width of the terrain, and some other very important stuff like how much dynamite was needed to blow chunks off the mountain. They came up with a formula multiplied by the coefficient of evil to get a plan for sensible, sinuous switchbacks suitable for man and beast. An excellent example of this approach is Forrester Pass in the Sierra. In the modern era of trail building, as evidenced by the descent from Idylwild to Cabazon, the State of California, or its consultants, developed a series of 10-Year Plans each requiring 1000 page Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) and extensive public review, to determine the best possible method of trail construction for new or replacement links in the mighty PCT system. The State of California replied, “OK, will do,” to a comment made by Mr. Robert Basilovitch on page 632 of the revised, amended Appendix H of the EIS, “Respect the environment, every rock, every bush, has a right to exist in the exact spot where nature put them. The trail needs to avoid each of nature’s little babies.” This was the turning point in the evolution of trail building. Also the cost of the pre-design and pre-construction process was so high that few funds remained for the actual construction process. The modern construction contract specifies the Squiggle Method be used to design a trail: “See that mountain? Cover it with trail and avoid every rock, bush, squirrel hole and sacred spot. Construction equipment: One pair of shoes, Men’s size 8 maximum. Construction method: one human in specified shoe size walking heel to toe all over the mountain so as to cause maximum mileage with minimal trail surface. If hikers could just walk in a straight line, they’d be climbers.”

2 thoughts on “Squiggle Engineering

  1. Interesting. Yet I can’t help believing there is a variable, context sensitive trail design that, on one hand, does not require assigning rights to a rock while on the other hand, does not necessitate blowing off chunks of the mountain. A design solution resulting in a trail that all you PCT’ers can still hike rather than climb!


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