The Anthropology of a Trail

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Home Forums Campfire Editor’s Roundtable The Anthropology of a Trail

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    Ben Kilbourne
    BPL Member


    Locale: Utah

    Companion forum thread to: The Anthropology of a Trail

    When we trek, we are taking the paintbrush or pencil that is the foot to the page that is the earth.

    BPL Member


    Locale: The West is (still) the Best

    Many trails used by Spanish, English, or other mostly European settlers likely started out  from Native tribes.   It’d be an interesting tidbit to post on those trailhead signboards if not done so already.   There’s also an extractive history  (out west mining ..  you can still find old primitive electrical components on some of these streamside trails ..or perhaps grazing).

    Also the CCC expanded and improved many of these during the Great Depression.
    Nowadays, some high use trails (especially near the eastern population centers) are reportedly requiring some sort of concrete  acccording to an article in Backpacker a number of years ago.
    Also mountain bikes, getting ever more popular, often require their own special trails as tire wear and the curves needed when barreling downfall differ from hikers needs (as Ben found out … this from a 29” rider).

    Thinking these are all areas that can require more journalistic investigation (and maybe prolong chaff’s shelflife … lol)

    Ian Clark
    BPL Member


    Locale: Cntrl ROMO

    True story, trail is now an a obscene 5 letter word in the world of western wildlife conservation. The pirate trail becomes the mountain bike trail becomes the trail network becomes the former sage grouse lek

    Paul Wagner
    BPL Member


    Locale: Wine Country

    As someone who often volunteers on trail crews, there is s world of difference between a hiking trail, a MTB trail, and a trail made to withstand the impact of an off-road motorcycle.  Lots more heavy rocks on the water bars for the latter…sigh.

    But I can also attest to the amount of trail work needed to remove the improvements and additions that amateurs make to our trails, from cutting switchbacks to “improving” a creek crossing to the point that it changes the course of the creek.  And don’t even get me started on fisherman trails along creeks and rivers–often more heavily used than the actual trail itself, and leading so many hikers astray.

    The forest service distinguishes between trails–maintained by them for hikers–and routes that are essentially use trails that have become established, perhaps by cairns, but also by visible tracks on the ground.  Not maintained, but still clearly evident, and often used by those trying to get to a specific destination or to cross an obstacle.

    We try to give the trails we work on moderate gradients, and manageable steps.  We’re not always successful.

    Michael B
    BPL Member



    There is always a best way to transect a landscape, and most creatures intuitively find it.

    and this.

    I wonder if my individual agency—my desire to create—is really all that different from the collective agencies who drafted these other trails. Likely it’s not.

    I don’t think I agree on the first quote, as concept of “a best way” must always be followed up by “best for what/whom”. It implies a value system which will differ from person to person. One might be able to argue some sort of objective “best”, but I have found that for many, many things, this often involves weak argumentation.

    For the second quote, there are many different reasons for why trails are the way they are. You have alluded to many possible reasons for why in your article, many of them very different from each other in their origins (human paths vs animal paths vs natural formations, etc). So I would not have to wonder whether your agency is different than that of an animal or a consistent weather pattern: I know they are different, there is no denying that. Maybe I missed your point. I often do that.

    I really enjoyed your writing, thanks for sharing.

    Ben Kilbourne
    BPL Member


    Locale: Utah

    Michael B – The rest of that paragraph explains that I was referring to the “most permeable route”, the “route that expends the least amount of energy”, etc. I’d agree that “best” is subjective, and those phrases were the sort of subjective claims I was making.

    As for agency… I’m really just trying to decenter the human in this piece. By making a case for the agency of the landscape (entire ecological systems of interdependent geology, weather, climate, plants, animals, temperature, bacteria, and so on) I’m hoping to remove the human as arbiter of trail-making. In so doing, I’m trying to make human actions appear equal to the actions of supposedly nonsentient systems like an ecosystem. I really am saying that my agency is no different from that of weather patterns or bacteria. I can’t say I wholeheartedly believe this way of looking at the world every single day (because I think we do need to act as if we have free will), but I believe it wholeheartedly in this piece at minimum for the sake of conversation and also in order to move us toward a less anthropocentric world.

    Thanks for reading!

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