Happy Trails

It was usually apparent when you were nearing one of the farm ponds (we called them “tanks”) on the ranches we visited, hunted or fished when I was a kid. The ranchers ran cattle, usually semi-wild, and the pond was likely the only or nearest source of water. The cattle were drawn there and followed the easiest route, often having to avoid ravines and thick brush. As a result, they tended to create a path that subsequent cows used, and often the track would be worn far down into the soil. The ruts would widen to accommodate the cows’ upper bodies and after a while, a new ravine was created, not by water erosion, but by cow erosion. Sometimes there would even be multiple paths cut into the soil representing the approaches from various directions.

When I was at the University of Oklahoma, there was a big grassy mall in the center of campus, surrounded by various classroom or other buildings. Despite of the numerous concrete sidewalks that crossed the mall, there were always definite paths carved into the grass by foot traffic. I concluded that most students were just as smart as the cows.

In my college city planning class, I learned that these were called “desire paths” or “desire lines”, and existed virtually everywhere. Planners and engineers had been plagued forever trying to psyche out where to best put sidewalks to anticipate the desire lines. One approach tried was to not build sidewalks at the beginning, but to place them after desire paths had been created. Of course, the cows, I mean students, would ultimately short-circuit this process by cutting corners and creating new paths. Signs, barriers and fences were strategically placed to interrupt the short-cuts, but created more disturbances, and were considered unsightly.

It actually seems logical — if you want to go from point A to point B — you just go straight there. In school, we learned about origin-destination studies to determine how to plan out roadway systems. You figure out where the people are, and where they want to go, then develop a system to get them there efficiently. You need to determine the number of people, the timing of their travel (rush hour?), and what kinds of vehicles are on the road at any given time. Commuters? Heavy trucks? Local delivery trucks? Buses? Bicycles? Pedestrians? However, If you’ve ever watched a child, college student or cow, you would note that they tended to wander, to meander as their whim takes them, and not necessarily travel efficiently.

In western Idaho and eastern Oregon you can still see ruts cut into the soil by wagon trains in the mid-1800’s. I suppose it was easier to just put the Conestoga on cruise control and let the team follow the wagon ahead of you or even just the tracks from the previous wagon trains. It’s a long way from Missouri to Oregon by mule- or ox-drawn wagon and I suppose the view wouldn’t change very often unless you’re the first in line.

I worked on the Navajo Reservation in the Arizona desert across a huge rural area with scattered houses and occasional trading posts or chapter houses. There were only a few paved roads and some graded or graveled ones. Mostly, people cut their own tracks across the desert from the nearest road or well/watering point. Getting directions to someone’s house/Hogan or other point of interest usually involved lots of gesturing, some vivid descriptions of errant trees, structures or just land features. You couldn’t hurry, and got used to turning around to try another way. But you could usually get close, then just follow the rutted trails. Since many of the homes were near water sources, you could also spot the sheep and horse trails from a high point to spot where they converged.

I’ve noted desire paths in public parks or when hiking. It seems that we humans like to create our own paths, ‘break trail’ as it were. Sometimes we cut the corners and sometime we just go off in some random direction. Maybe it’s our desire to be free, to be unencumbered by those who came before us.

We can “follow our heart’s desire” and I know from experience that that is not a straight line. We humans may be more complicated than a sheep, horse or cow, but from the scars on the land, it may be hard to tell the difference.

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