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Roger Bell finds inspiration in several books about long journeys.

arrow From the Fall 2010 issue of American Trails Magazine


Trails as Journeys: books about trail experiences

I’ve noticed that my reading habits of late have been about long journeys.

For example, I read about two guys who hiked the Great Western Trail from Canada to Mexico (A Summer Odyssey) and chronicled their arduous trek often on trails that were almost non-existent; then about Sacajawea accompanying Lewis and Clark across the country and back, and about her life and further adventures thereafter; then River of Doubt about Teddy Roosevelt’s trip following his election defeat in 1912 on a 1000 mile previously unexplored river in the Amazon which he barely survived; and finally Planet Walker by John Francis, PhD, who spent 22 years walking the planet (many of those miles on trails!), 17 without talking, to draw attention to the need for environmental change and peace. Remarkably, he succeeded in his mission, way beyond his own expectations even, becoming a roving UN Ambassador and expert on controlling oil spills and otherwise healing the earth.

photo of kids on trail

Lewis & Clark's expedition was the ultimate american journey

In thinking about it, I must include a few other books that fit this genre: Three Cups of Tea about Greg Mortenson’s amazing work building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan following his unsuccessful assault on K2 when he got lost and was nursed back to health in a remote village. This is a continuing journey of such incredible determination in the face of obstacles almost beyond comprehension. And such a commentary on how one person can make a profound difference, building schools instead of dropping bombs to influence the course of history.

I also read Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Aaron Ralston, a mountaineer who, after spending nearly a week trapped by a rock alone in a remote Utah cave, cut off his own arm and managed to belay with the other from where he had been trapped and walk out 7 miles to be rescued. This story of survival and amazing courage I have included as part of a poem in my book Trail Tales.

And I’m reminded of another book I read some years ago, Black Robe by Brian Moore. It’s the story of French Jesuit Priests who journeyed into Canada via long rivers in the 17th Century and spent the remainder of their lives among Indians (whom they and all Frenchmen at the time called “savages”). This incredible re-creation based on surviving journals reveals the stark culture clash and efforts to communicate from such vastly contrasting histories.

I must mention here the incredible “Flyin’ Brian” Robinson who in 2001 hiked and ran three North-South national trails (Appalachian, Pacific Crest, and Continental Divide), some 7400 miles, in one year. I sat next to him at a California Trails Conference banquet as he told about his amazing journey. The logistical planning and incredible endurance of this very focused, single, 30-something loner I’m sure will never be duplicated. He went through 7 pairs of running shoes, had many, many pre-determined drop spots for supplies to keep his load light, organized the trek by air flights to various points to reduce but not eliminate snow impediments, and averaged about 30 miles per day. How about that!

Talk about journeys and remarkable people who show what can happen with dedication and persistence and incredible courage! These amazing stories help me realize why I have been drawn to spend a good portion of my working life building trails and in the process discovering my own journey. Since I began working outside in remote areas some 40 years ago, I’ve had this love affair with adventure, with exploration, finding out where the trail led and what it offered in the way of self-testing and environmental appreciation, not to mention sheer enjoyment combined often with stressful challenge.

Sharing trail experiences with colleagues and other folks involved with America’s Trails, I’ve puzzled more and more about why this has been such a passion for so many of us. The trail offers a destination, physical challenge, incredible learning opportunities, sharpened environmental appreciation, a healthy life style— and, I’ll be darned, for some of us even a living wage.

Beyond those obvious values, trails tap into something very primal and archetypal, something original and creative in my psyche. Building trails, of course, was very hard work and could easily be reduced, in the daily grind, to dirt and pain, calling for physical and mental endurance where anything that could go wrong usually did. Yes, it was also great fun and, as my book Trail Tales has chronicled, presented truly hilarious (at least in retrospect) situations to savor and share. Travail and even apparent tragedy sometimes could dissolve, as full reality took hold, into unrestrained, roll-on-the-ground laughter. These are experiences I treasure and remember in surprisingly vivid detail. They have evolved for me into touchstones of meaning and purpose.

This “something more” is hard to articulate. The trail symbolizes for me, not only a route on the real earth important in its own right, but also an intangible kind of journey that tugs at soul deep, unconscious dimensions I can only sense into. I like surprises on trails, unexpected turns and vistas, calls that beckons me to keep going, even to get lost, to directly experience unknown secrets that lurk there drawing me into their vortex of possibility.

I got temporarily lost once in the woods. If I let myself seriously contemplate not finding my way, panic was possible along with some anger that I had let this happen. But letting those emotions subside, I instead felt strangely serene, sure I would eventually figure where the trail was, and interested in the meantime about what might show up in terms of new experience and scenery and survival skills.

Consider the incredible unknowns that confronted the Lewis & Clark expedition. They came to forks in the river and had little idea which led toward their destination, what kind river conditions and impassable waterfalls they might encounter, how they would be received by various Indian tribes, whether they would find sufficient food sources, etc. Gone for over two years without contact with family or communication with President Jefferson who sent them, they were truly on their own to relate to unknown challenges and dangers, to accomplish map making, collect plant and animal life samples, make friends by going to great lengths to communicate with all manner of native populations.

Except for exploration in outer space, I’m not sure very much of comparable difficulty still exists. Trails may be symbolic remnants of those adventures, appealing to the need to discover what lies beyond our known environments, ways to experience, even if vicariously, the wild side. They are perhaps part of the quest for endurance tests, for pushing ourselves through dangerous boundaries that may otherwise seem too confining.

Roosevelt’s group headed down a previously unexplored Amazon river in one of the world’s most wild and untamed wilderness places, with unknown waterfalls and rapids, possibly hostile tribes, not even sure where the river led, and with inadequate equipment as well as insufficient food and way too many inappropriate supplies and amenities they ended up abandoning. They faced near starvation and unparalleled hardships. Several members of their group did not make it back. They had poorly conceived boats that were too heavy for portage around hundreds of rapids and waterfalls, requiring them to build log skidders. Roosevelt, an ex-President in his mid-50’s, who had sought out physically challenging experience all his life and was himself an amateur naturalist (perhaps also a great white hunter!) was near death at one point and asked to be left behind, completely willing to give up his life to assure he did not burden the rest of the party from making it back to civilization. I gained enormous appreciation for this man who treated everyone on this journey with respect and shared equally in the backbreaking work it entailed.

In the 1970’s John Francis, a black man with a banjo and a dream, decided after observing an oil spill in the San Francisco Bay area to quit using gas powered transportation; and then he quit talking as he set out on a trek across the country, taking a northern route sometimes on trails to highlight the need for environmental sanity and peace. Enroute, and without words, he completed both a college degree in Oregon and a PhD in environmental studies in Montana. He became the subject of numerous articles, conducted many hand sign interviews, sat in with various musical groups and played for anyone who asked. He gained legions of generous supporters and made great friends along the way-- although some, even a few family members, assumed he must be slightly deranged.

Even before many of us fully recognized the importance of climate change, pollution issues, and the excesses of military intervention— he managed to communicate the importance of these issues and his silent dreams for change. Ironically, by his example and his peculiar ways, he said more and accomplished more as a single voice on his solitary vigil than most of us collectively do in a lifetime.

Later he walked and biked much of Latin America including Cuba. After 17 years he began speaking again and even eventually flying in airplanes. He was hired by the Coast Guard to work as an expert on oil spill issues (the subject of his dissertation) and by the UN as a roving Ambassador. Pilgrimage and journey were concepts he understood intimately and elucidated in his account with such unassuming decency and passion. I found his story truly inspiring.

So, think of your next trail experience in this larger context, as an adventure, connecting to a common history, part of a continuing journey toward environmental awareness and self discovery. Make your own story as you go.

You can send your comments and ideas to Roger at:

arrow Roger Bell is the author of several articles and editorials published by American Trails:

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