In Praise of the Crooked Path

By Sona Mason, West Hudson Program Coordinator

–  may your trails be crooked, winding lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds. — Edward Abbey

a crooked path“You take the high road, I’ll take the crooked path” is a line on the tip of my tongue whenever I see a runner (or walker) plodding along a flat, boring line of asphalt. While the merits of tar-slapping include a very commendable lower carbon impact, I can never comprehend how they manage the sheer boredom of it. How treadmill gym rats don’t lose their minds is a complete mystery.

There is an allure in following a path whose end is invisible – always hidden just behind the next bend. And there is something in the nature of humans, indeed most mammals, that sparks a curiosity to see what’s over there, or behind that rise or rock, that keeps us going for miles more than we anticipated, or would have endured on a straight monotonous route.

The ability of a torturous track to keep our minds engaged is terrain familiar to all hikers. For trail runners it becomes a virtual Zen experience. The need to make constant split-second decisions on where to place their feet to avoid a nosedive lends itself to a state of ‘flow’, pushing habitual interior noise out of the head and being in the moment for an extended period of time. Little wonder it’s addictive. And in all likelihood, better for the brain than just plain exercise.

While we all know that the act of employing unfamiliar muscles to adjust our step among twisty paths uses more of the body’s capacity than a repetitive motion, we may be less aware that the act of balancing strengthens and tones ligaments that would normally not be exerted. As one hiker discovered upon outdistancing a band of track athletes he took on a hike, who bowed out because their ankles strained too much on the uneven terrain.

So let’s continue to build and steward those uneven places, those footpaths of mystery and balance, and contribute toward a healthier, more varied world.


About Trail Walker

Since 1920, the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference has partnered with parks to create, protect, and promote a network of more than 2,100 miles of public trails in the New York-New Jersey metropolitan region. The Trail Conference organizes volunteer service projects that keep these trails open, safe, and enjoyable for the public. We publish maps and books that guide public use of these trails. The Trail Conference is a volunteer-driven nonprofit organization with a membership of 10,000 individuals and 100 clubs with a combined membership of 100,000 active, outdoor-loving people.
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2 Responses to In Praise of the Crooked Path

  1. Suzy Allman says:

    I was just thinking about winding paths today, how the best trails are playful trails. My dogs, who hiked with me nearly every day after they came to me, would visibly wilt when the trail was open and obvious (Charlie would sit down — what we called a “refusal”) but they could go for miles when it wound around trees and revealed itself slowly. Literally they sped up.

    When we were kids we called it “exploring” but it’s the same thing: that feeling that hits you when you see a trail disappear into the woods.

  2. XCR says:

    Great article, thanks for a great reminder of the joy of such winding trails.
    For me it is that sense of “beyond.” The spark of curiosity that quickens ones step and puts our senses into that state of calm-alert that is the hallmark of Flow experiences.

    One minor note: The word you were looking for is “tortuous”, meaning twisting or winding, not “torturous”, which might be your experience of a gym treadmill.

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