Most understandings of switchback have to do with human interventions—road cuts with their hairpin turns or hiking trails that reverse direction as they ascend and descend the sides of a steep canyon. The switchback trails of the Grand Canyon, for example, or Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, described by Rick Bass in Lost Grizzlies: “We’re climbing out of the valley, packs creaking as we switchback through giant ponderosa pines, moving from patches of warm sun to cool shade, brightness to shadow, hiking quickly up the mountains.” The term switchback also alludes to places where the flow of magma turns back on itself, and to the bends and crooks where streams and rivers meander, zigzag, through a valley. It’s also used as a mining term, to describe the appearance of certain compressed layers of rock, particularly where a seam of coal, bedded between other rock layers, has been folded back on itself, serpentine. The curves and turns of the past world.

Linda Hogan