Paths Less Traveled

centennial 2Humans are animals and like all animals we leave tracks as we walk: signs of passage made in snow, sand, mud, grass, dew, earth or moss. The language of hunting has a word for such mark-making: ‘foil’. A creature’s ‘foil’ is its track.

The path’s sediment comprised sentiment, and to follow a path might therefore be to walk up its earlier followers: this in the hunter’s sense of ‘walking up’ – to disturb what lies hidden, to flush out what is concealed.

~The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane

Scent was everywhere, according to the dogs, so we followed them as they followed the quail down the small valley. The birds had fanned out as they fed, so the dogs were separated, working both sides of the small stream.

We tried to stay behind, not too close to the dogs, letting them do their work. That let us pick our way across the grassy, shrub-dotted terrain, avoiding cactus and mesquite, and — only occasionally — pick up a faint path made by a larger creature.

These cross-country rambles brought us in direct contact with various aspects of nature — old bones, cobwebs, interesting animal, insect or bird nests and roosts, and curious rocks or fragments of old wood. Occasionally, we encountered stray creatures like snakes, rabbits, porcupines or skunks that the dogs announced, but were unsure about. We had to walk carefully to pick our way through the terrain and avoid any less desirable things we could run into. Every jaunt was full of potential discovery.

In contrast, today, I hike well-defined paths that many feet have trod before me. I see fewer undiscovered aspects of nature, but a lot more sign of humans — and their dogs — that preceded me. The trails are defined on the ground and on the maps, and in places where the ‘unexplored’ beckons, signs warn travelers to stay on the paths.

Sadly, it’s a function of traffic. The parks I hike (as a volunteer trail patrolman) are near metropolitan areas, and see millions of visitors each year, many accompanied by their canine friends. The combination of limited accessible land and high public interest place a pressure on the parks that can be destructive to both the resources and the personal experience. Defined paths and rules help to protect both.

It’s wild out there, but not the untrammeled wilderness I dreamed of as a kid. Back then, we hunted and fished on private lands owned by my father’s law clients, and they used the farms and ranches as farms and ranches, not wilderness to be explored. So, when we wandered across the terrain, we were usually the first or possibly the only one to be at that exact spot in years or longer. We could discover things long lost or previously undiscovered. Arrowheads revealed that Indians had been there a century or more before, and an occasional spent rifle cartridge or shotgun shell told of more recent hunters. Broken farm equipment and rusted barb wire indicated a failed attempt at taming the place and abandoned well-field trash revealed the riches sought. But even so, very little told of recent visits. It felt wild and unexplored.

Backpacking in the mountains through real wilderness, we usually followed established trails due to the rough terrain and need for an easier way. We scouted around camps or lakes and discovered new things as well as relics of past visitors. Working in the Arizona desert, I experienced vast emptiness, but also abandoned vehicles, rusty tin cans and ancient pottery shards — evidence of earlier occupants and travelers.

True wilderness is hard to come by, and we know that humans have traveled, occupied and effected every part of the earth for millions of years. European explorers in Africa, Asia, the Americas and Pacific were surprised at the evidence of previous civilizations, revealing European-centric racial and cultural biases. Ozymandias served as a lesson and warning to future humans that, in spite of humans’ ability to civilize, nature was unbound and persistent.

Seeking the wild does not necessarily equate to seeking wilderness, but to finding those places where we can encounter nature on its terms, rather than ours. We see bits of nature everywhere, in the flight of an insect or bird across our yard, the thrust of a weed or greenery along the roadway or the forest lining the ridges of the distant hills. We can choose whether to focus on the asphalt or on the flower.

We travel the paths along with others and other creatures. Our tracks mingle, our scents combine to make up the ‘new’ present. Like the hunting dogs who choose to ignore a skunk or snake as they pass, we can see past the asphalt and concrete to the nature that’s there now. I enjoy my hikes on well-traveled trails as a nature experience — in spite of the trash and dog poop. I revel in the green-ness of my yard and the promiscuity of my garden. I see past the buildings to the green and rocky mountains on the horizon.

It may not be wilderness, but it reflects the wildness of nature — if I just let it in.

The important thing is to touch the earth and stand in the wind, to know that you are part of the whole — not superimposed, like asphalt.

Gaydell Collier, Leaning Into The Wind

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