Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Long Forgotten Trail

Maybe I’m old school. To me, a trail is a trail. It is dirt, has mud holes and roots and dappled sunlight, and has seen tiger beetles and humans and deer and fox walking upon it. It has no mile marker signs or fluorescent orange spray paint marking trip hazards. A good trail has only a paper map with dotted lines and it sometimes seems to disappear, only to reveal itself again a hundred yards away. The unknown, the challenge, the excitement is all right there waiting to be experienced. I want the unexpected when I go into nature. I want to be surprised and challenged. I want to know how to read the land and navigate by the stars.

Parks I used to frequent no longer give me the  “escape into nature” experience. Every root is painted bright blue or orange so you don’t trip over them. The forests are now managed and burned, with signs telling me all about it. The evidence of human management is everywhere. The trails are becoming “multi-use” so I have to always be on the watch for mountain bikers tearing down the path, whether they are allowed to be there or not, instead of focusing on the beautiful trillium or Dutchman’s Britches or Mourning Cloak butterfly. “On your left!” shouts a runner as they whiz by. Bet they missed the Trillium.

This is all a result of overpopulation. We are taking over every spec of land. I just read that visitors now have to make reservations to view the fireflies at Elkmont in the Smoky Mountains. Reservations to view fireflies. I used to hike there. How fricking depressing.

I have been fortunate in my lifetime. I have backpacked the Rockies, Smokies, Porcupines, and Green Mountains. I have backpacked across the entire State on the Michigan Shore to Shore Riding and Hiking Trail (God forbid they ever try to pave that one) and South Manitou Island. I solo hiked Isle Royal and walked so many of Michigan’s trails I would have to look back into my journals to remember their names. I have lived a month in the wilderness of Alaska, kayaking 200 miles through Prince William Sound. I have canoed the Okefenokee Swamp in the deep South and the Bog River in the Adirondacks Mountains of New York. I have searched for endangered species in caves and talus slopes, bogs and fens, swamps and barrens, fields and forests. All of these adventures were done without carrying a cell phone or a prescription drug. I didn’t die. I didn’t have separation anxiety. I was in heaven. So you can see where I am coming from.

I like wild and natural.

Sadly, I now live in the city. So I try to find places to go where I can at least feel some connection to nature without the presence of human hand. It used to be easy. Many parks in this area afforded the experience and I could wander off trail (violating park rules) and find a secluded place to sit and watch the wonders of nature. I could paddle down rivers without coming across flotillas of drunken partiers in their canoes and inner tubes. 

Things have changed. We are urbanizing nature.

I often wonder when the city folks decide to pave trails that travel from city to city if they ever ask the locals, the country folk and their kids. Really, it is like opening up a new road into their quiet country life. A new access point for the folks from one city or town to travel through the country to the next, a way to go from point A to point B. Gone is the adventure, the discovery, navigating your way down an unknown trail. You can download the app with a map to your smartphone, hop on your $1500 mountain bike wearing your brightly colored high tech biking gear (we used to wear tshirts, blue jean cutoffs, and sneakers which seemed to work just fine) and swiftly ride from one town to the next. Or you can walk it, your Nikes slapping on hot asphalt to the beat of Pink jamming on your iPod.

Your feet never once touch Mother Earth or step in a mud puddle where you might discover some tadpoles or a sipping Swallowtail. You never notice the flowers or the snakes, or the Emerald Jewelwing perched on a leaf.  You are just a body in motion. You don’t hear the song of the wind in the trees, or hop over a brook. It is another step on our journey toward utter detachment from nature.

Some will argue that these “trails” bring people into nature. I would say perhaps some, but for the most part when I have seen folks using them, they are completely tuned out of what is going on around them. They are either speeding on their bikes or snowmobiles or ATVs, jogging, running or walking with headphones on, or talking feverishly with their comrades. 

But Nature does not tune out of our presence. She experiences the interruption, the small scale fragmentation of habitat, the introduction of more invasive species, the increase in litter and noise, the destruction of kids with sticks and feet who like to smash things. Every living thing knows we are there whether we see them or not.

But perhaps the purpose of the groomed trail is not to bring people closer to nature but to provide a route of transportation. So call it what it truly is - a road without cars. Perhaps there needs to be a new movement for the preservation of trails, as in "keep your hands off them" preservation of trails. No grooming, no gravel, no asphalt, no bridges, no trail heads. Just little dirt paths full of adventure.

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