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)