The Map to Trails Untried, Untrod

“It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond side; and though it is five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct. It is true, I fear; that others may have fallen into it, and so helped to keep it open. The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn, and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!”

Thoreau

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It’s probably fair to say that we fall into patterns in all areas of life, as old Henry Thoreau observed quite a while back. At times we fail to see that the patterns around us have changed, the paradigm has shifted and new opportunities have opened. We want to continue in ways we feel we’ve tested, following the path of comfort and security. And in so doing, we to often deprive ourselves of opportunities to learn, to expand our versatility and to otherwise expand our horizons. We can see this very human fallacy crop up in all areas of life, even the ways we approach the out-of-doors.

What, exactly, am I talking about here?

Well, the first way we miss out on opportunity is by following the recommendations of others. We find the right car lot to buy from this way. We choose a decor for our homes. We choose an appropriate trail up the mountain for the view of a lifetime, because so many others rated it as excellent. But here’s the thing: We are not them, they are not us. So long as you are an individual, you’ll see things others didn’t and you won’t value aspects of the recommended product, adventure or sales experience the way your friends did. We force ourselves into narrow channels when we follow the masses. Nothing incredibly original here but how many of us remain followers?

We commute to work by the same route day after day. And so we begin a new day with a numbing 45 minute prison sentence, stopping and going perhaps to the mindless prattling of a radio DJ. We set the pattern here perhaps of following patterns, setting ourselves onto a daily conveyor belt that will deliver us home by the same route and later into bed. But have we spent time thinking about other ways we might take? Little joys that might be found along the way. Another, more profitable or inspirational, audio sensation to begin the day with? Could we take a bike? Is there a way to run to work (and shower)? And how much better would we be for this? But here’s the really important thing: Have we given any of this serious thought or do we drift, one day into the next?

We’ve come to love credentials in modern American society – perhaps a way to quickly know all we need to know about another human, a way to conveniently establish trust and credibility. I think there are several problems with this way of thinking about people but another issue, I believe, is the way we come to look at learning. Learning is disincentivized if our focus is on credentialing, if the diplomas and certificates are where we find value. Why bother to read the foundational philosophers, why learn the life cycles of common amphibians, or why even learn the geography of your own state? No-one else will be able to see these things on your resume, no-one will hold you in higher esteem for carrying all these with you deep in the wrinkles of your cerebral cortex. And this too, holds people back from experiencing all they could experience, venturing all they could venture. And it’s not easy to break from in a world of computerized resume screening and hyper-specialization.

We worry about using the right words or about how every individual we can imagine will feel about what we write and this diminishes our honesty. It deprives us and our audience of the chance to encounter new ideas, to have to wrestle with concepts they might only encounter from you. If you are truly unique, why re-hash boiler plate lines found in the media or even college classrooms? You can do better, and live a richer, and more expressive, life for it.

We want a home in exactly the right kind of neighborhood, the right school district, around our kind of people. Perhaps so that our children can grow up to buy the correct credentials, speak the right words, commute to the right kind of job and also enjoy a perfect pre-fabricated vinyl siding home in a safe cul-de-sac in the burbs. We imagine, in this realm and many others, that we’re entitled to certain outcomes, in this very uncertain and malleable world. And what have we deprived ourselves of as we’ve sought our “perfection” here? And how have we imprisoned ourselves and our children?

Hopefully, we all want to learn. Too often though, we want to learn only about what fascinates us, what grabs our attention and doesn’t “hurt” a little to struggle through. Imagine if we exercised the same way, perhaps doing comfortable laps around a track day after day after day without speed work or treacherous trails in foul weather. Try reading some of the “treacherous trails in foul weather” books. I don’t need to recommend them to you either, they’ll be different for everyone, but if you’re not struggling, having to look up words and check the foot notes, you’re not reading hard enough. And it’s not just reading hard I’m referring to. Read outside of your field. This is how cross-pollination of ideas happens, how great sparks of insight come along that could have perhaps only come to you.

 

We vote for the men and women who, in the realm of politics, promise ever more fairness, security and comfort. And in so doing, we unwittingly gut our own precious freedoms. We ask legislators to fix our problems and in so doing move our focus from fixing ourselves and our families. And many citizens lose opportunity when the world is made a fairer, safer place for you.

 

After spending a great many years roaming broadly in the eastern forest, it’s been my observation that outdoors people only make use of a fraction of the wild country that’s out there. I took my nephew a year and a half ago on a December camping trip into the heart of the Smokey Mountains and, this being a weekend, he was disheartened to see the crowds filling the parking lot nearest our prospective campsite.

“Don’t worry, Stevie,” I assured him, “We’ll hike a mile down the trail and there’ll be almost no-one.” And, sure enough, we followed this plan, crossed paths with virtually no-one and shared an expansive back-country camping area with only one other small group. We had the forest to ourselves the next day.

This experience was very typical – 90% of the pressure on 10% of the woods, even in a very popular place like the Smokey Mountains National Park. Mostly, I think this has to do with physical ability and aging but even among people who think of themselves as lovers of the out-of-doors and adventurers, they usually only see a fraction of the wild space out there, and normally the same places and few trails that all the other adventurers see. But why? Do people not want to get off the beaten track?

So, here we are again back to comfort and familiarity and the recommendations of the people who’ve gone before us. But the indoorsmen of today also, almost invariably, flock to the official, state sanctioned places of recreation: official trailheads, state fishing access sites, and the canoe launches of official “water trails.” This must seem safe, a sure bet for a fun day in the sun and some good photos. Maybe people don’t really want to wander off into the dark recesses of the forest, into the unknown. Maybe it’s just me.

But if you also want to see the places almost no-one else will see, those deep hollow where fisher, porcupine and bear might have their dens, then there is a simple method: Begin with a map. The map is not sentient – it won’t tell you all the “great hikes” that might be right for you. Neither is the map authoritative, it won’t tell you where you can and can’t go. It just opens up a world of possibility. High, steep ridges can be found as can the sources of streams and the shores of lakes. What to do with any of this is up to you.

There’s a lot more I’d like to share on the topic of breaking away from the masses, the hackneyed patterns and established trails, but I’ll have to get back to it in another post. I’m kind of an expert in this area, if nothing else. And to part with one final practical thought; if you do nothing else to enhance your outdoor experience this year, go out and get a topographic atlas of your own state. You really don’t know how much you don’t know until you open it.

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