Why we’re drawn to trails

On the kinship between walkers.


Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage,

And palmers to go seeking out strange strands,

To distant shrines well known in sundry lands.

                                         —Geoffrey Chaucer, Canterbury Tales

Today, when billions struggle for survival, hiking the entire Pacific Crest Trail or climbing all of Colorado’s Fourteeners might seem like trivial pursuits. Unlike the long-distance treks of the past — Lewis and Clark’s Voyage of Discovery, Brigham Young’s Mormon Trail — our modern-day ventures aren’t about nation-building or the search for homeland; they are usually very personal journeys, undertaken to enliven our days and bolster our egos.

And so we pedal, paddle, walk, run, climb and motor our way through a bucket list of landscapes in hopes of achieving some tangible victory. Raft the length of the Grand Canyon? Check. Climb Mount Whitney? Check. Pedal the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route? Check.

A hiker at sunset near Kool-Aid Lake, North Cascades, Washington.
Stephen Matera/ Tandemstock.com

This consumerist approach to recreation brings clear economic benefits. That’s why, as Krista Langlois reports in this special “Outdoor Recreation” issue, many small Alaskan communities are keen to develop destination trails. As oil and mining falters, rural Westerners are cultivating tourism. Whether we’re miners, loggers or recreationists, it seems, we all want to eat the scenery.

But I like to think that, no matter how selfish our motives, something happens once we’re outdoors that touches our deeper human natures. As we encounter the wild, and recognize our own small place in it, we can’t help but be humbled and changed. In this issue, Caroline Benner, a Pacific Crest Trail enthusiast, awakens to the immigrant shadow-hikers who also navigate the first stretch north from the Mexican border. And Loretta McEllhiney, who has spent her life building trails to Colorado’s Fourteeners, realizes that, in the long run, her trails will fade away like a passing thunderstorm.

I recently took a long trek of my own, driving through seven Western states and northern Mexico. I set out with no particularly noble purpose — I just wanted to unplug from work, process the end of a long relationship and see some magnificent country.

Paul Larmer, Executive Director and Publisher
Brooke Warren/NewTowncarShare News

One bright Friday morning in April, driving through Española, New Mexico, I passed hundreds of people walking along the highway. They were not athletes; they came in every age, shape and size. A few held umbrellas to ward off the sun; others talked animatedly on cellphones. Then I saw a man carrying a cross, and it clicked: These were Catholic pilgrims headed to El Santuario de Chimayo, a renowned adobe church where, for more than 200 years, people have sought inspiration and healing.

I felt an unexpected kinship with these walkers — I, too, was on the road for inspiration and healing, and suddenly it seemed possible that the hundreds of thousands of people traveling through the West that weekend sought something equally simple and beautiful. In Soccoro, amid a fleet of RVs at the gas station, I got out my map and dreamed of the mysterious path ahead.    

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