Keep your eyes on the trail…

Hiking trail through an oak forest - "Kno...

Hiking trail through an oak forest – “Knorreichenstieg” in Germany (Photo credit: http://www.martin-liebermann.de (zeitspuren))

I drive to work everyday. I look ahead, see I need to turn right and turn the wheel to the right. A pilot makes small adjustments to the yoke to change direction as does a boat captain to the wheel. And a cyclist, of course requires, well, the bike and its handlebars for steering.

But hikers, walkers, runners – we look ahead, see the trail we want to take, and will ourselves toward our chosen direction. We look and our feet respond. A slight bend to the right, a hop across a creek, an off-trail trip up a hill through tall grass or over downed branches, roots and rocks.

No wheel or yoke or handlebars required.

Our eyes do the steering on the trail.  Eyes see. The brain generates the course corrections. The feet loyally follow directions.

Planning and navigating a route is indeed an intellectual endeavor. Following the path that lies ahead, however, is primal. It involves our core senses- the visual of course, our steering mechanism; the tactile-sensing the ground; the auditory-hearing our footfalls over leaves and twigs or the sound of splashing or crunching, say, hard-packed snow; and the aroma and taste of the outdoors. Now in the Fall the smell is of the denoument of fallen leaves, their final act before dissolving into forest floor.

Pay close attention on your next trail. Choose a route, begin the journey and your body appears to simply follow the path. But the walk ahead is never simple: It may begin with just a vision, a vision though that evolves to engage all of your senses.

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The Power of New Shoes?

Of course new shoes can make your feet feel better. But can they really help your soul?

I ran a trail yesterday I have run many times before. I did not see the Great Blue Heron I once saw there feeding not 15 feet away. Nor did I see the Northern Oriole building its dangling hollowed ball  shaped nest I’ve seen before nor the spring irises lining the trail here and there. Yet I felt newly exhilarated despite the sameness of the scenery. What was different?

Not much. Just my shoes.

New shoes.

The old (Asics Trail Sensor circa 2009) and the new (La Sportiva Wildcat circa 2013)

The old (Asics Trail Sensor circa 2009) and the new (La Sportiva Wildcat circa 2013)

New shoes I had researched and pondered, read reviews about and weighed pros and cons before arriving at my decision. I looked for them in stores and ultimately ordered on the web. Even guessed right on the European size.

I am loyal to my shoes. Not the brand specifically but actually to the shoes. I do not part ways with them easily. I wear them until they are frayed. Until chunks of rubber are missing from the sole. Until I am pretty sure the mid sole layer has lost its cushioning. Yet, I have seen pictures of the poorest of the poor running around or carrying water in tattered shoes, or no shoes and I know even at their worst my old shoes are quite adequate.  And so I relinquish them reluctantly and don new shoes undeservedly.

But I am attached to old shoes for quite another reason too. We have traveled together for so long. The rubber rand covering the front of the shoes is peeling. The lining around the heel has worn completely away after thousands and thousands of steps on streets and sidewalks and grassy fields and trails criss crossing county and state parks, as my shoes and I have hiked our way together across rocks in a fast flowing brook or run across a wooden bridge while looking upstream at  riffles of frothy white water. They were with me when I ran a trail race and badly sprained my ankle and they were with me the following year when I redeemed myself on the same course.

Old sole, new sole.

Old sole, new sole.

I look at the worn sole but don’t see shoes worn out. Rather I see miles walked, hiked, run.

Yet the trail does seem more fresh and alive and spirited with my new shoes, a feeling which I attribute to more than better cushioning and less fraying. I am inspired by the possibilities of the new, real or imagined. The shiny sole of my new shoes with their special features to provide traction on uneven terrain beckons the deep forest trail. And I will even take inspiration from the picture on the shoe box, of men I know not, running toward towering mountains I know not where in a place I will likely never be.

Photo on the cover of the La Sportiva Wildcat shoes

Photo on the cover of the La Sportiva Wildcat shoes

(Old shoes: Asics Trail Sensor. New shoes: La Sportiva Wildcat)

Walking with the wisdom of the crowd…

My son and I set out to explore a rock climbing crag nearby, recently approved by the municipal land owners and sanctioned for climbing. The area is an otherwise unused strip of land, long with several undulations of granite cliffs no more than 100 feet tall with several smaller rock formations at its base. The most prominent feature of this wooded land however is a series of towering power lines. The land is actually a power company right of way for high capacity electrical lines. Indeed, if you listen carefully it is possible to hear a faint crackling of electricity traveling through the lines at the top of the steel super structures which stand guard on otherwise undeveloped woodlands.  images

No formal trails lead to the rocks but faint foot paths have stomped down tall grasses. In some areas a dirt path has emerged but no blazes mark the trail. Leave the parking lot, look for a faint trail and walk. Look for a stream and cross by a  fallen log the instructions explain. Pick up a trail on the other side, faint as it is. Finally crossing a dirt road one sees an official sign at the informal entrance to this newly opened rock climbing area.

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Neither my son nor I are real climbers. We have climbed in indoor climbing gyms which simulate some of the athletic moves needed for outdoor climbing on real rock slabs. And we have climbed once in the famous Shawungunk climbing area in New Paltz, NY under the supervision of a watchful and well trained guide. So we were just scoping out this new venue to see if we and the rocks made a good match.

By the time we started hiking into the woods we did not have too much time to explore but did have enough time enough to spot a flock of goldfinches dressed in their bright summery ellow and black plumage flying in and around some low brush.

imgresOn the way back we lost the trail, with no supplies, lights or even water. We were never more than half mile or so from the car but with dusk approaching the thought of stumbling around in the dark in an unfamiliar woods was unappealing. While we lost the main trail, faint as it was, we picked up several other ‘herd’ paths – that is, trails going this way and that left by the footfalls of previous hikers. On some summits a herd path usually leads to a great view, or short cut to the trail’s continuation. The herd path deviates from the main blazed path, placed purposefully by the trail maintainer. White rectangles 2 inches wide and 3 inches long mark the entire 2,160 miles of the Appalachian Trail.

Herd wisdom, or the wisdom of the crowd, has been around for eons. Thompson’s Gazelle‘s use the wisdom of the crowd to turn tail and bolt in the opposite directions from a prowling lion. Schools of fish do the same. And now a days humans ‘crowd source’ using the collective information gathering skills of hundreds to pull resources together to yield new information hitherto not easily knowable.

But walking in the woods in the waning light, pushing away boughs of thorn bushes obstructing the faint herd paths we had little choice but to follow the foot steps of walkers before us, and hope that their intentions in walking this ground were our intentions, that they were going, or coming, from the direction we sought. It felt comforting to embrace the wisdom of the footsteps of the crowd which indeed led us back to where we started.