Hiking a designated trail involves prescribed origins and destinations, whether it be a four-mile jaunt from Clingman’s Dome to Siler’s Bald in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park or a 2,000-mile trek from north Georgia to Maine along the Appalachian Trail. The designation “trail” implies official recognition by mapmakers, hiking clubs, periodic maintenance, and state or federal authorities monitoring its use.
Trails are usually marked with guideposts and described in hiking guides. They involve advance planning, the accumulation of materials, and the toting of a load, whether it be a 60-pound backpack or a six-pound daypack. They mean driving some distance to a trailhead and departing with some objective in mind.
Mountain pathways, on the other hand, are the reverse side of the coin. They usually don’t have names and few are delineated in books. Rangers don’t patrol them asking where you’re going or if you have a permit. If they have destinations, they lead down to creeks or over the near ridge to an old homesite.
Many don’t lead anywhere. There’re just sort of there for no particular reason except enough people like a place well enough to go walking there from time to time. They’re maintained anonymously by succeeding generations. As such, they’re quiet links with our past and the people who have been walking these hills for many thousands of years.
The best are those just beyond your front door. You can walk them almost without forethought. All you need to carry is yourself. Without a particular destination or objective, you tend naturally to slow down and pay attention. My favorites are those that wind alongside the creek below our house. I’ve walked them day and night for going on 35 years. My feet quite literally “know” the way.
A mountain path has a life of its own. Darting here and there, it discovers the perfect route to a high gap. Have you ever marveled at the way paths merge and then diverge effortlessly? Or the way your feet find their way effortlessly over the softly worn ground? You can feel a good path in your bones. Each has a life of its own. Here’s a poem in which I try to say some of these things:
Don’t Walk Fast
At first just listen – after awhile
sound will distill in your body.
Slowly refocus mind and ear.
Attend the silences between
foot swings and boot falls.
Those spaces pulse making sound
complete and movement whole.
There’s the music – call it that.
It was not here before you came.
Won’t be here when you’re gone.
Do not avoid steeper slopes.
Against grade intervals widen.
In them you will feel the lovely
up-curving pathway arc in a manner
that is unrealizable coming down.
— By George Ellison from “Permanent Camp,” a collection of narratives and poems to be published in 2011.