Trails on the ground give me hope. They point me in a direction. When I’m on a trail, I’m on a path to a destination. But, the common wisdom among hikers is that it’s not the destination that matters as much as the journey. It’s walking that has allowed me to expand my calm through a sort of meditative state, stand face to face with wildlife, read the weather, learn the trees, and breathe deeply to take in the sweeping views. I gain the perspective of time ticked out in birdsong rather than cell phone rings. For the time it takes me to tap out this entry on my computer, I certainly could have walked a mile, perhaps three.
Trails in the wilderness hearken back to a slower time. Trails help us look back to see things the way they might have been.
This is in part what National Scenic and Historic Trails have to offer – a step back in time as we move along their paths. That is what I find exciting. The path provides the avenue through which we can connect people to these places and their history.
Congress has designated nineteen National Historic Trails since 1978. All to often though they are trails in name only.
While there are efforts being made to interpret specific sites along the route, the route itself is an anomaly. As an example, people can visit some of the Spanish missions along the route of the 1774-1776 Anza Trail route between Culiacan Rosales, Mexico and San Francisco. Today there are but brief sections of the Trail that can be retraced.
Similarly, the historic trade routes from Santa Fe to Los Angeles, now the Old Spanish Trail lights upon paths used by American Indians, fur and livestock traders, soldiers and merchants, but its interpretation and visitation is largely at road waysides and museums. Organizations and Federal partners are focused on verifying the historical importance and site-specific significance rather than laying a path that resembles or retraces the route itself.
These trails are largely a memory. They are history recorded in journals. They are debris buried in the earth over time. They are wayside exhibits of arduous journeys. These are but illusive examples of what life was like. A path that connects the significant points for present-day travelers makes it real.
There’s conflicting interest in establishing on the ground trails. Some advocate that the history of the trails is the most important aspect. These people feel that there need not be a trail on the ground for the history of the line to be shared with people. You don’t have to walk the Trail of Tears to know its history, and yet how much more powerful it would be if you could.
We can retell stories. But, we can retrace the trail, literally or figuratively, if a semblance of it was on the ground. That experience of five miles, twenty-five miles, or 1,200 miles speaks volumes to the hardship of travelers on this way. It speaks volumes of extremes in heat and cold. It brings the history into an experiential plane where we can imagine how our ancestors felt. When we have an experience like that, that place becomes our place. It becomes as much our story to protect as it is the role of archeologists and historians to protect.
I see value to both preservation and recreation. Preserving the ancient sites along the original routes for their archeological significance is important, but so is bringing people to a trail in the middle of a desert to capture the truth of travelers in this place. It gives people the opportunity to connect to the landscape, to the history, and even to the scenic beauty found along historic trails.
In 2002, the Overmountain Victory Trail had 16 miles of the 300 mile route on the ground. This year they have 76 miles of trail. Actualizing the re-creation of the trail allows for the connection to it. It makes reinactors walking from Abingdon, Virginia to King's Mountain, South Carolina realistic in their retelling. It makes the challenging journey over the Roan Highlands a rewarding experience for those who follow in the footsteps of our Revolutionary forefathers as they topped the highest elevation on their journey, and marked the third day of their quest to find and defeat the British loyalists. The act of walking the trail brings the story to life for anyone who follows it so that they can relive the hardships, revel in the beauty along the way, and celebrate their arrival at the destination.
Establishing the literal trail is also a means of providing a corridor of protection to the historic route and an awareness of its importance within the surrounding communities so that if threatened it will be heralded as a valuable asset. Or, if the opportunity arises to acquire private property for the protection of the route, the awareness of what this trail could be drives the call for funding and support for its purchase.
It’s also a dutiful way to give back to nature by establishing a swath of land for use by wildlife within a protected corridor. The wild lives on the path were significant to the people before us and are as meaningful for us today. Since we no longer depend on them for our survival we marvel at their survival, their adaptation and their role in our natural world – that helps us develop a deeper, wondrous connection with this place.
Far from being complete, the Overmountain Victory Historic Trail gives me hope for the actualization of historic trails on the ground. For that matter, so does the Old Spanish Trail, the Anza Trail, and El Camino Real de los Tejas.
What to you believe? Are historic trails meant to be trails in name only? Is the absence of a physical trail necessary for historic resource preservation? Does having an on-trail experience enhance your connection with a place? What perspective do you gain from trails?