Hiking Or Designing

Trails have no authors, no pedi­grees, and there’s noth­ing too clever in how they are made. There is a democ­ra­cy of space to them; in state parks, in state wilder­ness areas, in the cut-throughs you find in sub­ur­ban woods, you can find every­thing impor­tant you need to find out about them. Week­ly walks on a close-by trail can grow togeth­er, in expe­ri­ence, to match any­thing you would see in one shot at a Nation­al Park.

On a trail, you take the world one point at a time. That is to say: a per­son will nev­er come clos­er to inhab­it­ing music than walk­ing along a trail. This qual­i­ty of being guid­ed along a line, match­ing what you expect next to what actu­al­ly occurs, lends some tremen­dous mean­ing to the slight­est details – the knob of a yel­low mush­room, or a wet spot bridged with loose pieces of wood. 

red river gorge
Red River Gorge, Kentucky.

When chal­lenged to get across an obsta­cle, you enter into what you will not find on a care­ful 3% walk­way: a bod­i­ly art that con­sists first of pro­ject­ing your body, mak­ing a con­jec­ture of what it would be like to move for­ward, and sec­ond in try­ing your body against the prob­lem, and putting your­self at actu­al risk, be it great or small. To see the path ahead dis­ap­pear­ing around a bend is to make a hypoth­e­sis of what you might find fur­ther along; and to see a wall of stone is to make a hypoth­e­sis of what it would be like to climb it. To see a trail in these terms is not very dif­fer­ent from blaz­ing it in the first place.

Using a sim­ple def­i­n­i­tion of place, where a place is only a space worth remem­ber­ing in of itself, we can say that places emerge where cir­cum­stances urge you to guess. Walk­ing around Nat­ur­al Bridge in Ken­tucky, I was over­whelmed by lit­tle places I found strung along the trails, as much or more than the nat­ur­al bridge itself. A step four feet up on a sand­stone ridge, sur­round­ed by blue­ber­ry bush­es in fruit; a shat­tered set of old wood­en stairs, next to their stand­ing replace­ment; best of all, a pur­pose­ful lit­tle right turn under the over­hang of a rock in the woods, where a stone step had been laid out over a lit­tle pool. 

quarry trails
Quarry Trails, Ohio.

Con­sid­ered in the light of the work tak­en to make these places appear to oth­er peo­ple, such moments radi­ate thought­ful­ness under the pres­sure of time, the pres­sure of hard labor, the pres­sure of bore­dom. Blazes laid only just where they absolute­ly need to be, bridges laid out far enough to demand the ques­tion of how the planks got there; maps made under the charge to pre­vent any seri­ous bod­i­ly harm. Eth­i­cal ques­tions rub shoul­ders with aes­thet­ic ones.

The rela­tion­ships we have with most arts depend on first amass­ing a store­house of expe­ri­ence to clas­si­fy new expe­ri­ences against. Hik­ing, like rhetoric, is an art that you pre­pare for with­out mean­ing to, through­out the every­day, and again, there is a democ­ra­cy there. Care­ful arts like that are like­ly enough to get lost in big ges­tures; as a straw­ber­ry gets lost on the side of a cake. 

blackhand gorge
Blackhand Gorge, Ohio.

(May 2022)