By Patrick Dean
Photo by Ryan Thrower
In On Trails: An Exploration, Robert Moor describes the Appalachian Trail as a "miracle...which held us together in space like so many beads on a string." It seems to me that trails really are miracles, of time and commitment and vision.
Anyone who's wielded a Pulaski on a trail-building crew knows that trails don't just happen. As I learned one summer on the Cumberland Trail in northern Tennessee, to build them correctly takes muscle, sweat, and time, as well as expertise. Switchbacks, sideslopes, drainage, not to mention destinations and views, have to be considered.
As with many, many other things, a mediocre trail is easy to make; a good one is more difficult.
Imagine having to move through your favorite running landscape without a trail. Perhaps for some of you Westerners, that’s not such a distressing thought. Here in the South, I immediately conjure up poison ivy, thorny vines, and rhododendron ‘hells,’ not to mention ticks & snakes. Compared to that, a trail’s rocks, roots, dust, and mud don’t sound bad. I think a lack of trails would put me pretty quickly back on the asphalt — at least when running down here.
So it’s easy to see the importance, even the necessity, for trails. And yet, we can sometimes take them for granted. If we’re not careful, on our runs through the woods we can see trails as not much more than outdoor treadmills, or a scenic backdrop for the personal movie in our minds.
How can we counter that tendency? How can we cultivate, or refocus, a right relationship with these paths that nourish our souls as well as our bodies?
I suppose you could get down and dirty, finding a local trail-building organization and pitching in. It’s hot, dusty work, and will take longer than you would imagine. But there’s a feeling of satisfaction in making something well, that will give so many people joy for years to come.
If that’s not in the cards, then thanking and supporting trail orgs is another way. Nationally there are groups such as American Trails and the American Hiking Society. Both the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails have their own support groups. But almost every state or region these days can boast a trails org; search engines are our friends.
There’s another action, the easiest of all, that’s there for all of us. It’s about stopping to enjoy and appreciate, to look and listen, to be aware of the miracles that are trails. Take a moment, when you take a water or snack break, to look closely at the trail, how it flows, where it was placed. Remember that it took someone to decide to put it there, and then to make it happen.
“In bewildering times,” Robert Moor writes, “it serves us well to turn our eyes earthward and study the oft-overlooked wisdom beneath our feet.” I would add: and also, to have respect and gratitude for those who came before, and took the time and initiative to create the paths we travel.