In the second installment of Dillon Osleger's insightful series, "Terroir of Trails," the focus shifts to the intricate relationship between geology and trail formation. Osleger, a scientist, environmental expert and trail builder, continues to guide readers through an exploration of how the Earth's physical structure and its long history shape the trails of today. As we continue to follow Osleger's journey from the rugged terrain of Italy's Abruzzo region to other global locales, we're invited to see trails as more than mere pathways - they are a confluence of geology, culture, and time, each with its own story to tell.
To keep in order with the series, make sure you read part #1 before you dive in.
Trails, from their beginnings, middles and ends, are the stories of human’s journeys. Their termini act as future goals to many of us, while their traces point backwards to all who have traveled the same path before. The history of paths is simply the history of us – our needs for understanding the world around us, our explorations, migrations, labors and travails. What is left is a net intertwined around the earth, meandering yet predictable, as if drawn from the thread of a ball of yarn fallen loose. The events of the past stay present, replaying again with each pass, a constant string of impressions underscoring that the world is made by - and of - time.
While there is indeed a human element to time, it feels most appropriate to begin this series on factors that influence trails with the component that is most literally made of time – landscape and rocks. Geology, the science of the Earth’s physical structure and substance, its history, and the processes that act on it, deals primarily in rocks. Geology, thankfully, nests neatly in the pyramid of terroir, through which we can draw correlations between the feelings drawn from trails and something that many of us know well – the taste and mouthfeel of wines.
Terroir, a word of French etymology six centuries old, is defined as a concept which refers to an area in which collective knowledge of the interactions between physical environment and applied cultural practices produce distinct characteristics for the products originating in said area. The tenets of terroir imply regional identity carried within the tangible goods of a place that can be discerned by anyone. Within terroir, geology acts as an overarching factor - it is the backbone supporting the world famous minerality of burgundy red vintages of merlot and pinot noir. It is also the backbone supporting the characteristics that make trails memorable in their pitch of slope, roughness of texture, and subtle shift in color.
The landscape around the Abruzzo region of central Italy – home to XTERRA Lake Scanno – is perhaps one of the best corollaries we can draw to how geology influences trails in a similar nature to wine.
The landscape of Abruzzo is characteristic with thousand-meter hillock peaks, amongst which Lake Scanno rests with the village of Scanno having been founded at the lake’s terminus in the 11th century. These mountains have eroded slowly over millions of years, largely due to their calcareous nature – a geologic term used to describe limestones and dolomites. Limestones and similar calcareous rocks originate from corals and shells of sea creatures accumulated and buried amidst sands and clays under changing sea levels. In the case of the mountains surrounding the Abruzzo region, these rocks were deposited on ocean floors between 200 and 20 million years ago. At the edges of these hard rocks making up steep mountain faces are the younger clay-based rocks reminiscent of a deepening coastal shoreline 15 million years before present.
All of these rocks were uplifted from deep below the ocean's floor to form the dramatic mountains of the Apennines during a period of great compressional forces from tectonic plates known as an Orogeny within the last 16 million years. The valleys between these high peaks were carved from great glaciers that melted away a mere 16,000 years prior to our views of today. Lake Scanno itself likely formed during this time, resulting from a landslide that blocked the Tasso River, flooding the valley below.
But what does this have to do with trails?
It was these slight shifts in geology from village center, across the lake, and up steep cliffs that drew people to high grassland valleys where sheep could graze, or into the deep mountains where marble could be mined. The people of Scanno, those who made it famous for its wool and goldsmithing prior to the ottoman empire, hewed trails and carriageways into this landscape, creating ribbons of exposed soil and rock that work with the few capitulations the landscape offered. Each trail, from its rough cobbled beginnings and square edged stone steps within the village center, to its ever increasingly steep ease into the mountains from soft clay based soils to steep and sharp faces of limestone laced with steel handholds of via ferrata, are all relic of geology and how earth processes millions of years old influenced human history and as such, trails as a whole.
This theme carries through to the Western Cape of South Africa, to the Lake District of the United Kingdom, and to the desert Southwest of the United States. Geology influences the characteristics that define terroir. The topography itself relies on the types of rocks making up the substructure, which in turn largely determines ecologies growing on varying soils and aspects. All of this influences human decisions, from those who formed the trails we recreate on thousands of years prior, to each of us laying out pacing strategies today.
The salty sweet taste of sweat running down our brows are simply the tasting notes of trails derived from the intricacies of landscape and culture just the same as a local wine. The trails of the Abruzzo region, with their steep switchbacks and ancient heritage, could easily be described as “rustic”, exactly the same as the Montepulciano d’Abruzzo – the Italian red wine endemic to the region. A red wine known for notes of pepper and spice, a dry character, and a heavy mouth feel. It is poor form to confuse this wine with that of similar vintages from nearby Tuscany, just the same as one wouldn’t compare their trail run along the cliffs of the Tyrrhenian Sea with a mountain bike ride amongst the Apennine Mountains.
"The salty sweet taste of sweat running down our brows are simply the tasting notes of trails derived from the intricacies of landscape and culture just the same as a local wine."
The millions of years of history can feel intimidating to comprehend, to the point of making our endeavors feel infinitesimal; however, it is exactly these trail runs and rides that wring out the flavors imparted by our geologic past. It is our sports that bring applied meaning to the sciences and continue the traditions of terroir – combining the earth and culture to make the best product possible, whether that be trails or the events that take place upon them.
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