By Ellen Creager
Detroit Free Press
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Inspiring article out of the Detroit Press on the subject of hiking. While I am not a big hiker myself, I found the author’s argument for taking one quite persuasive.
Detroit Free Press
“A trail is a happy promise to the anxious heart that you are going somewhere and are not aimlessly wandering in a circle.” -Novelist Ernest Ingersoll, quoted in “On Trails”
I’ve been thinking a lot about the news of a woman who got lost while hiking the Appalachian Trail. She died after 26 days, zipped up in her sleeping bag in her tent. Despite an extensive search by Maine authorities, the woman, Geraldine Largay, was not found for two years. Her body was finally found at her campsite just 2 miles from the trail.
How could that happen?
New details are coming out. Apparently, Largay had no compass, no GPS beacon and a terrible sense of direction. Her cell phone couldn’t get a signal. Instead of continuing to hike she stayed put. For 26 days she wrote in a journal until she died quietly of exposure and starvation.
To city folks, this story likely will reconfirm a belief that nature is scary and that it’s better to stay put in our air-conditioned homes.
But to Robert Moor, author of the fascinating new book “On Trails: An Exploration” (Simon & Schuster, $25), her story means something different: that more of us need to experience trails and hiking at a young age, including developing skills in finding our way back to the trail if we get lost.
“The wilderness shouldn’t just be an abstract concept,” says Moor.
Trails, Moor says, are ways to create order out of chaos. Trails are made by lowly fire ants and great elephants, by herds of bison, by cows and sheep, by humans, but all for this purpose, to lead others somewhere, to food, water, home, or over the mountain.
In many cases, animal trails were used as footpaths by Native Americans. They then morphed in use to become rutted trails for wagons, then turned into roads.
In every culture in the world, the trail also is a metaphor for life itself. So people go off the beaten track, or in a vicious circle, or along fairy paths, or come to a fork, or take a desire line (which is a cool name for a shortcut).
Moor hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2009. White blazes marked on posts or trees point the way along the trail. But up in Maine, the blazes can be far apart, lending an air of uncertainty even for highly experienced hikers. There is nothing hikers hate more than losing the trail, which means backtracking or even tragedy, as in Largay’s case.
If one gets lost, according to the U.S. Forest Service, one should stop, then make a plan. Try to find a trail because it is sure to lead somewhere. Moor, who has hiked all over the world, has been lost himself off-trail up in Newfoundland and confused by forking trails near his home in British Columbia.
“The really creepy sensation is when you are on the trail and you lose it,” he says, and that has happened to him, ironically, in Maine, while hiking at dusk. “You are following your headlamp on the trail, and it is easy to wander off the trail,” he says. “Your brain tries to make sense out of chaos, so it starts imagining trails where there are no trails. Then you realize you haven’t seen a blaze in miles. It’s a sort of creeping horror. A creeping dread. You get an existential fear of being lost, not just geographically, but in a more profound sense. ”
People do not actually walk in circles when lost, although this is a common belief, Moor says. They more often wander in squiggly lines, not straight lines, sometimes bending back across a spot they already crossed.
People who truly are lost in the wilderness rarely travel farther than 100 meters in any one direction.
Authorities told the Portland Press Herald that Largay should have found an open area, or written “help” with fir branches, or done something so she could be seen from the air. On the other hand, she was an experienced hiker who already had made it 950 miles on the challenging trail. By staying put she likely thought she would be found.
The concept of trails and hiking as a sport developed mostly in the 19th and 20th centuries, around the time when much wilderness was tamed, Moor says. The concept of hiking as tourism developed both before and after the Civil War as people began worrying that they were losing touch with the American spirit, getting weak and feeling disconnected from nature.
Those concerns are even more urgent today,
The book, however, is far beyond a treatise on tourism or a call for more of us to learn to hike. The concept of a trail is “one of the most profound and universal metaphors,” he says.
Find a trail, Moor says, and you make sense of the universe. You are not alone or lost.
“You stumble on a trail. You don’t know who made it. You don’t know where it’s going, but there’s a comfort in it, that someone made it, and it must lead somewhere. And maybe there is a sign post,” he says. “There is a comfort in knowing someone has figured it out, and it’s continually updating and getting better over time. There is a security and utility there.”
I just wish Largay had been lucky enough to find one.