Keep Off the Grass

desire path 1“In every town and city today, cutting across parks and waste ground, you’ll see unofficial paths created by walkers who have abandoned the pavements and roads to take short cuts and make asides. Town planners call these improvised routes ‘desire lines’, or ‘desire paths’.”

~ Robert Macfarlane

In the mountain parks I know, one rule is to stay on the path — don’t create your own trails. Of course, if enough people wander across natural areas, vegetation can be destroyed and erosion begin. Maintained trails have mechanisms to deal with erosion, and also avoid sensitive areas. Log or rock barricades are usually sufficient to deter wandering off the path, but sometimes paths get unofficially widened due to the environmental conditions.

At one park, the trail cut across an open hillside. The ground was spongy with seepage and the trail was a swath of mud. Others’ efforts to avoid the mud showed smashed grasses and plants to the side of the trail, so, heeding the rules, I walked straight through the morass.

Thankfully, the standing water and mud reached only just below the top of my boots, so I was able to walk carefully, but swiftly the thirty yards to where the trail solidified. I stopped to breathe, and realized that a family of four was standing on the trail in front of me, obviously horrified at my performance. I tried to smile as I nonchalantly kicked the mud and water off my boots.

“It’s a little wet that way,” I noted needlessly, grinning foolishly.

The parents gathered the kids and moved them rapidly away down the trail, keeping an eye on me the whole way.

But human nature prescribes that we want to stray off the beaten path. Matt Hickman reports, “Desire paths — or desire lines, as they’re more formally known in urban planning — are the well-worn pedestrian pathways formed by simple erosion and a successive line of people deciding: ‘Nah, I’m going to go this way’.” He notes that Reddit defines them as “the paths that humans prefer, rather than the paths humans create.”

Hickman goes on, “No matter their intended purpose, desire paths can develop pretty much anywhere people want to walk. You see them in parks big and small. You see them in cities, small towns, the suburbs and crisscrossing a variety of public spaces. You see them in parking lots, along the sides of roads and creeping between buildings.”

Walking in farmland or the woods, it is easy to see the paths made by animals moving through the country. Cow paths almost always lead to water or shelter, and there is a simplicity in the cows’ adherence to the same path. In the forest, I can tell deer paths because they use the more direct, but easier ways.

Robert Macfarlane wrote, “Humans 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.”

We humans are animals, too. Our human ‘foil’ is marked by our passage: footprints, concrete, asphalt, litter and sometimes, destruction. It’s not hard to tell where humans have been.

Maybe that’s why many of us work so hard to leave the beaten path behind.

Additional information:
Matt Hickman, Desire Paths: The Unsanctioned Shortcuts Crisscrossing Public Spaces, March 18, 2019, Mother Nature Network

Reddit, Desire Paths,

Robert Macfarlane, The Old Ways, 2012

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