“Wanderer, your footsteps are the road…”

Caminante, son tus huellas el camino y nada mas.
Caminante, no hay camino,
se hace camino al andar.

trail at Sleeping Bear Dunes-Michigan

Some time ago, a friend sent me a quote that I found quite thought-provoking, and in fact, I’ve been thinking about it ever since. After some googling (silly verb; useful process), I discovered that it is from a poem by the major Spanish poet, Antonio Machado.

Here’s how the whole verse reads:

Wanderer, your footsteps are the road and nothing more.
Wanderer, there is no road; roads are made by walking.

Since I’ve spent quite a lot of time walking on road, paths, and trails, I’ve had some opportunity to to test the truth of this statement.

no footprints--rocky scramble in Canyonlands, Utah

Trails ARE made by walking. Literally. No walkers; no trails. Sometimes the trails are worn several inches into the surrounding earth from the pressure of many feet over many years; other times, on rock, for example, a trail may be virtually nonexistent. On a few “rocky scrambles,” as the trail guides euphemistically refer to them, I learned to look for dirt left by the feet of previous scramblers. Those faint smears were a guide to the easiest route over the rocks.

I always stick to trails because I’m afraid of getting lost, and I’m not good at “bushwhacking.” I don’t have a good sense of direction. I can’t read “topo” maps, and I don’t really know how to use a compass. On poorly marked trails when only the footprints of a few previous hikers are legible in the dirt, I am comforted by those silent but eloquent footprints, and grateful. “This is the way, they say, “take heart.” But I’ve also had the frustrating experience of losing the trail where the footprints fan out onto many paths—or simply disappear.

faint trail in Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

I’d LOVE to be confident enough and skilled enough to blaze my own trail—but that might not happen in this lifetime.

Trailmaking, of course, isn’t limited to humans. Who hasn’t followed a game trail, or at least noticed the propensity of animals to create paths? Who hasn’t noticed that the family dog follows the same trail to favorite spots in the back yard? (Read “The Cow Path” for an enlightening take on this phenomenon, and let me know what you think.) People who love routine are referred to (disparagingly?) as following a dog path.

But of course, our poet Antonio had a more metaphoric meaning in mind, and I think it is

then it disappeared

that each of us creates our own life journey by walking it, day by day. While we have no choice about whether or not to make the journey, we have a lot of choice about the trail we blaze. Here in the US, where rugged individualism engenders a near-religious fervor, taking the “less traveled road” is a mark of valor. But most of us don’t.

Most of us live decently and quietly. We love our families. We go to work and live according to whatever moral framework we’ve managed to patch together. And if we don’t strike out over paths untrodden by the majority of humankind. If we choose to create our own little dogpath in the back yard, what’s so wrong with that?

I can tell you that the less-traveled road creates problems and distractions of its own. It’s riskier, as my recent hospital stay reminded me. The less-traveled road consumes a lot of energy that could be used for other things, more productive things, and sometimes the less-traveled road requires that you ask others for help.

I don’t know how to balance the equation, but whether we seek out a well-trodden cowpath or forge a trail for others to follow, the road is ours to create. No one else can walk it.

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