nature, self

national trails day

today, june 3rd, is National Trails Day! to celebrate, go for a hike, paddle or ride; attend a workshop in the great outdoors; or volunteer on a trail project near you! check out the link for local listings. Ii honor of NTD, I present to you a piece i wrote simply titled: “Why I Love Trails”

Trails are so deeply embedded in my life that it’s impossible to imagine a day I don’t spend time on or at least thinking about a trail. In my employ, I supervise 45 miles of trail, but that hardly does justice to my involvement in trails. Work is just paid employment, and it’s almost happenstance that I came to work with trails. My love for trails stretches way beyond paychecks. Trails have been ubiquitous throughout my life, always bringing me to the places where I feel most like myself.

As a child, trails were a fascination. My parents would take us to a riverside park by our house and let us walk on the natural surface trails that followed the river. We called them “Indian trails” and the image of the winding dirt path is ingrained in my mind. The trails took us to a magical pipe (which I now know as a culvert) with a sandbar nearby, where we could rock hop out into the middle of the Olentangy River. We would stand out there, surveying the river like a kingdom, until my parents dragged us home. I thought of these walks as the greatest adventures of my childhood.

We also had a short trail in the swath of woods behind our house, and my siblings and I would spend hours in those woods, feeling removed from the world and lost in our make-believe play. Walking into the tree line on the trail felt like walking through a gateway to a strange yet grounded world. I remember sitting in the brush, feeling connected with nature and letting the civilized world wash away. Those woods were important to me- all of my childhood hamsters and guinea pigs are buried alongside that trail. The trail can’t be longer than 100′, but I still go back there every time I visit home, amazed that I was so enthralled with such a small natural area.

As a teenager, trails were an escape. I would ride my bike to the nearby greenway, ditch my bike at the tree line, and wander through the woods and along the same Olentangy River. Sometimes I followed game trails, other times I followed what I now know as social trails. All of them led to the river, where I would skip rocks, write second-rate teenage prose, and simply sit and enjoy the quiet. Eventually, I collected my spots and I came to them often, usually in the throes of heartbreak, anger at my parents, or boredom. The trails and the river they led to were my sacred place, somewhere I could be alone and among the flora and fauna that felt like friends. At that point, I couldn’t identify anything in the natural world – I didn’t know tree names and I probably couldn’t tell a hawk from a vulture. That didn’t matter though. All I knew was that there was something about the woods that I deeply, deeply enjoyed. The aesthetics were perfect.

As a college student, trails were an adventure, explored on road trips out West. I came to know the Rocky Mountains, the deserts of Utah, and the old-growth forests of Oregon. Trails were a challenge, something to be conquered in the name of free-spirited nature worship. Trails led to peaks with sweeping views, waterfalls to swim beneath, and ledges to climb. I was living in Chicago, and the trails out West along, with the people we met, provided the perfect contrast I needed to city life. They fulfilled me, in a way Lake Michigan and the many beautiful city parks just couldn’t, because they weren’t wild enough. I still spent almost every summertime day in the city at a park, daydreaming about the mountains and the next adventure.

Then I moved to Georgia and fell in love with the AT, which I viewed as the ultimate challenge. My trail experiences became “how many miles can I hit today?”, and I hiked with wild abandon all over Georgia and North Carolina, kissing blazes and singing bluegrass. I had few friends back then, and ran away to the mountains whenever I could afford the gas money (usually twice a week). The trails, woods, and trees were my dearest friends. I wanted to hike every trail in North Georgia, and I’m proud to say I came close.

As I became more familiar with the outdoors, trails were a school. I hiked with others who taught me how to identify trees, plants, and mushrooms. I volunteered, learning trail maintenance and working as a trail guide at our nature center. I paid closer attention, and started observing nature’s cycles. I was inspired to read books like The Forest Unseen by David Haskell and Bartram’s Travels. The forest soon became my teacher, and trails were library. They enabled me to get closer. To touch the knowledge first hand. I learned many life lessons on trails, too, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.

Now, trails are my home. All these years, one thing or another has drawn me to trails. Fascination. Escape. Adventure. Knowledge. Commune with nature. All these years, I knew I loved being in the forest above all else, but I never identified why. Last week I had the privilege of backpacking on the Art Loeb Trail with my brother. As we summited Cold Mountain, I was at peace with my thoughts, and it was then that I knew – this is my home. This is where I belong. I cried the whole drive back to my homestead and my job, knowing I wouldn’t get to feel the trails under my feet for days. Knowing I was leaving my only true home.

I have moved around a lot in my adult life, and no city, town, or apartment has really felt like home. But you know what does feel like home? Resting on a mountain peak and taking in the vast expanse of forest. Slogging through a wetland with soggy boots. Floating down a river and watching the canopy pass overhead. Sitting quietly on a good looking rock with no particular view, just open woods. Without trails, I couldn’t do these things. Trails are the places I feel deep down that all is right, that I am exactly where I need to be. Trails are the paths that allow me to connect my longing, my homesickness, to the places I call home.

There are so many more reasons I love trails. I fell in love with my partner, Andrew, on trails. I have made many friends and memories on trails. On trails I have laughed, cried, sang, danced, collapsed, conquered, sulked, sweat, pondered, and daydreamed. On trails I have overcome great personal losses and celebrated great personal wins. On trails I have come to know myself deeply. And for that, I am forever grateful.

I am grateful to all the other trail professionals – the planners, the middle managers, the maintenance workers, the packers, and the trackers. I am grateful to all the volunteers who contribute millions of hours yearly in the name of trails – building, maintaining, rescuing, running campgrounds, and being trail angels. I am grateful to all those who have donated to have a trail built. But most importantly, I am grateful to all the hikers, bikers, paddlers, riders, runners, cavers, and climbers – you are my favorite people in this world, and it is your support that keeps our trails running through our nation’s treasureland.

Happy National Trails Day.

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