Mysterious wood spirit carvings appear along area bandit trail
It’s a trick of the eye. Just some ultra-bright western Colorado sunlight on grayish brown shreds of juniper bark.
But wait. Noooo. It’s a nose. A nose?
It is a nose! And a long, full beard. And eyes, looking up the trail ...
What is this? Who is this? This is amazing!
And there is another face over there! And another!
And suddenly, your hike/bike ride/trail run is transformed into a rather magical treasure hunt in which it is perfectly reasonable to stick your head as far as you can into a high desert juniper, tangling helmet or hair with the stiff branches, so you can get within inches of the carved whiskers of an old man.
“I’ve found 12,” said Terri Ahern, of the wood spirits that have shown up along a bandit trail behind the Renaissance and Trails West Village subdivisions off South Camp Road on the Redlands. The trail is an informal one that’s been created by foot traffic over time.
She’s heard as many as 16 spirits have been spotted.
Carved into pieces of different kinds of wood with bark still showing at the tops and bottoms, each has a bearded expression, prominent nose and cheeks, and eyes looking south or north or west to admire Colorado National Monument. Some faces are 3 inches long, others about 8 inches long.
They are attached to various junipers by wire, many tucked into the trees so well it makes you wonder if they’ve been there forever, laughing at those who breezed right by.
Ahern has photos of some of the wood spirits in three different seasons. At one point someone put glasses on one of them, said Ahern, a former nurse who now coordinates the Walks and Talks program for the Colorado National Monument Association.
She first heard about the wood spirits last fall from a local pediatrician who runs the trails in the area and had found one. He showed Ahern a photo, and she could see the monument’s Liberty Cap in the background.
So she went wood spirit hunting.
“I found them when it was snow-covered and icy in November,” she said. “They are really cool to stumble upon. You find a treasure that you least expect. It brings out the childlike qualities in me.”
Sometimes, when she goes back to visit them, she finds rock cairns marking the junipers where the wood spirits live. Other times, the rock cairns are gone.
She has no idea who puts up or knocks down the cairns. Maybe it’s other hikers or bikers. But maybe it’s the woodcarver who created the wood spirits. Maybe he wants them to be found? Maybe she doesn’t? She? He?
“We have about 20 members, and I’d say at least half of those would have the ability” to carve wood spirits, said Buck Taylor, president of both the Grand Valley Woodturners and the Grand Valley Woodcarvers.
“Whether any of them have, I doubt it,” Taylor said.
He didn’t make them, and another local guy who likes to carve wood spirits has been gone all summer “and I would doubt he would do that.”
But whoever is carving them clearly is having fun.
Perhaps he or she is a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien and the carvings are intended to resemble wizards Gandalf or Radagast. Or maybe the carvings are based on Leshy, a Slavic spirit of the forest.
Perhaps the carver went to Mesa County Libraries and checked out “Relief Carving Wood Spirits: A Step-By-Step Guide for Releasing Faces in Wood” by Lora S. Irish.
And then she or he watched online videos or stopped by the numerous websites that offer directions and tips on carving wood spirits.
Perhaps ... perhaps ...
Oh, wood spirits go back to the Middle Ages, Taylor offered: “People were pretty superstitious. They believed there were evil spirits in the woods that came out at night.”
There were benevolent spirits in the trees, but they were asleep at night, so you had to knock on wood to wake up the good wood spirits, Taylor said.
And with that history, the trail and the wonderfully carved — and mysteriously appearing! — wood spirits are all the more delightful.
The well-worn trail where the wood spirits live is on private land.
“I think from a legal point of view it’s trespassing. I believe the property is properly noticed,” said Robert Macgregor, managing partner of Grand Junction Land Co. LLC, which owns much of the land in the open area where the bandit trail is located.
“We would have the same position as the land company,” said Brian Stowell, agent for Camelot Investments LLC, another landowner in that area. “The only easement, when we purchased (the land) years ago, is the canal. It’s a clear trespass.”
Grand Junction Land Co. has worked with two local groups that have sought access to its property legally and annually make sure their paperwork is in order, Macgregor said.
Kids Aid Colorado has received permission for trail runs as fundraisers, and the Grand Valley composite high school mountain bike team can use the land for training purposes.
Fortunately, it would seem those who have trespassed on Grand Junction Land Co. property in the past “have generally been very respectful” and not damaged property or dumped trash, Macgregor said.
The area isn’t policed — bandit trails clearly climb and cross the landscape — but the wood spirits are watching.
“I don’t want them to be damaged,” Ahern said.
And neither, it is hoped, does anyone else.
Because even benevolent spirits could get angry at vandalism or wire cutters or being moved from a contented spot hidden among the tiny leaves and dusty blue berries of a juniper along a bandit trail.