Flight Lines: The beguiling allure of trails (with video)

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It was likely during one of the annual family automobile treks to the Pacific Northwest to visit relatives that I first encountered the sign, "trailhead." Even as a kid I was intrigued. I didn't see them back home in the Red River Valley. No, these signs were reserved for rugged, forested areas, places that leant themselves to hiking, real hiking. Elevation stuff.

Sometimes there would be a car or two parked in the adjacent graveled lot and I would wonder just how far away the walkers were; yards, miles, days? Trailhead signs still make me turn my head when I see them. For it's here that adventure waits.

To this very day trail hiking is at the top of my list of favorite pastimes. Even the word, trail, makes me sit up straighter. Random House defines it as, "a path or track made across a wild region, over rough country, or the like, by the passage of people or animals."

There are trails as temporary as the faintly indented impressions a vole makes across freshly fallen snow and there are trails as old as recorded time. The Via Egnatia, built by Roman proconsul Gnaeus Egnatius in the first century B.C. over the mountains of the Balkan Peninsula, list the Romans, Greeks, Byzantines, Crusaders, and Ottomans among its travelers. On our continent the Oregon Trail is perhaps the most known, spoke of and taught to generations of school children learning of the opening of the American West to settlement.

A trail begins as an idea, a notion, an imperative. One must necessarily desire to get from here to there. From this desire is born a reasoned, thoughtful pathway. Grass is trampled, tree limbs perhaps removed, and rocks displaced in the effort to gain a logical point A-to-point B route. If, over time, the way is deemed useful in some manner, a trail is begun.

So grateful are we that we honor those who made those first steps. Daniel Boone is known for many things, none more than his blazing of the Wilderness Road through the Cumberland Gap in the Appalachian Mountains. Names like Lewis and Clark, Kit Carson, Jim Bridger, Jedediah Smith, and John C. Fremont loom large in our history texts as great pathfinders and trailblazers.

Many of these early trails are now roads or highways, their initial rugged allure paved over and tamed. Only with the occasional rusted historical marker, placed off the road and mostly ignored, do we have any notion of the origin or reason that gave rise to the route. So we speed along.

Maybe that's what has drawn me to trails all my life. It's the quiet, the unseen, the promise of something new and different beyond each bend. Trails represent hope, they represent mystery, discovery, even a good workout.

It was just a few weeks ago that I stepped out of a vehicle in the Tonto National Forest near Globe, Ariz., in hopes of finding a trailhead to a route I had pinpointed on a map some weeks before. At a mere five miles it wasn't to be a week-long backpacking venture but a solid day hike with considerable elevation gain.

The start of this trail was deemed to be "difficult to find," and I didn't. But I reasoned that if I simply hike up the steep ridge I would eventually bisect it. And I did. But only after an hour of scaling and scrambling up several hundred feet of loose footholds and deadfallen pines; heart pounding out of my chest, sweat pouring from my face, and breaths coming much too quickly. Oh for want of a trail, I thought.

Just outside of Jackson, Wyo., a couple weeks later it was different. It was winter chilly with a trace of snow. A bright morning sun cut through the crisp clean air. Apart from nearby stream water wending its way under an icy sheet, the only audible sounds were the infrequent croaking ravens overhead and pine grosbeaks piping from nearby trees.

There are many names for what is essentially the same thing. Whether it's a trace, a path, a route, a road, a highway, all are trails. Or at least began that way. The trails I still seek are the ones marked with that special guidepost, "trailhead." These are meant to lead you to places cars can't go; these are the symbols of what is possible. These are the trails that entice us to leave comfort behind and, at least for a while, challenge us in all sorts of ways.