There is nothing like stepping away from the road and heading into a new part of the watershed…. “Off the trail” is another name for the Way, and sauntering off the trail is the practice of the wild…. But we need paths and trails and will always be maintaining them. You first must be on the path, before you can turn and walk into the wild.
—Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild
The explorer sets foot into deeply drifted snow. His foot sinks in drastically. Step after strenuous step, disappearing into the piled white drift. He has been breaking ground for miles. No human traffic has ever plodded this course before, it appears to him. No tracks lead the way, no trail is to be found. He is a pioneer, a trailblazer. The explorer pauses and glances behind him. A meandering line of post-hole marks reveal the way he has traveled. He has broken new ground, leaving tracks for future others to follow. But at this moment he is profoundly isolated, deeply embossed in the awareness of his lonesome situation. No human has trod here before. It is a spiritually awakening experience.
Except that this is not the real story of our explorer. The deep snow covers over the facts of the situation. Our intrepid voyager is not actually far from civilization, nor is he navigating somewhere no one else has been before. In reality, he is on a well-used path, a popular trail. His feelings of solitude and accomplishment are the result of the recent snowfall across the landscape, which has erased all marks of this path being a well-traveled route. Though he may not be as much of a trailblazer as he imagines himself to be, the sentiment which the situation has produced is what’s truly significant. He mythologizes his status as an explorer in his psyche.
Perceiving oneself as a trailblazer is an elevating experience, giving a sense of one’s own agency and accomplishment in navigating this world. Wilderness travel frequently produces this mentality in individuals. The wilderness, or even merely unmanicured nature, is a setting where the marks of modern civilization are absent, or at the very least harder to notice. To spend time out in the wilds is to put yourself into a situation where you are disjoined from your routine life, a place where the tracks of any forbearer’s presence goes unobserved. You go there to be pushed out of your normal element, to challenge yourself and come back a different person. You go there to break new ground.
The wildlands of America have tracks and trails abounding. Our wilderness is a well-traveled place. Yet millions of users visit these lands every year, and still leave them without revealing a trace as to their passing. Sharing a responsible use ethic of wild lands is what preserves the illusion of isolation and pioneering for future travelers. It is near impossible to say that you have encountered a place where no human has ever stepped foot before, and quite debatable if there remains any place on earth untouched by human presence. But whether you are the first to visit or the millionth, these wild places leave you with the feeling that you are perhaps the first. The wilderness setting invokes a sort of primeval satisfaction deep within you that you alone are independent, that you are indeed a trailblazer.
This is one of the feelings that keeps bringing me back to wild places. I am not the first to pass this way. I know that. But out in the backcountry, out in the forests, out on the rivers, out in the mountains, out in the deep snow it sure seems like I am the first.