In Defense of the Same Trails, Over and Over

In Defense of the Same Trails, Over and Over

The best hikes in every state. One hundred camping spots to put on your bucket list. Must-do trails in [insert national park or other locale here]. This mindset defines the prevailing culture of outdoor recreation and nature-centric travel.

Find the best. Make a list. Check it off. Congratulations, you're now a bona fide Nature Explorer Person who has Seen All Things. It's like an outdoors-inspired game of Pokemon. Gotta catch 'em all, gotta rack up your own photos of famous vistas like trading cards, plucked from the wild one at a time. Gotta do all the prescribed things and move briskly on to the next one, FOMO nipping at your heels every step of the way.

With this approach, there's no time to be "wasted" by going back to the same trails more than a couple of times, especially the trails considered mundane or the "one-star" trails.

But there are good reasons to do just that: tread the same paths over and over. Including the one-star trails. Not just two or three times, but dozens. Until you've lost track.

I've hiked, run, and ridden through Schultz Creek Trail dozens of times. Through repetition, small shifts come into focus. One summer, I noticed the woods' roses were blooming en masse. Another summer, I noticed swaths of yellow columbine in new places. In winter, I noticed how the light filters through the trees differently when the angle of the sun is low. I noticed the ways the plant life sprouts along the trail differently when winter was good or when it was dry. I've learned the places that hold water after rain and the last places the snow melts. Rain, snow, dirt, flora, and fauna all shape the landscape into an ever-changing silhouette.

There's intimacy in repetition. Revisiting the same places is a form of communion, like checking in with an old friend. Getting to know a wild place in this way feels like belonging: knowing and being known. I've written previously about the value of reciprocity and relationship with the natural world. Repetition is a key enabling practice in establishing a sense of mutuality with the world around us.

In the meditative documentary My Octopus Teacher, the filmmaker dives in the same South African reef every day for a year. During the course of this project, he forges a bond with a wild octopus, which becomes the focal point of the film. The film depicts a tender, caring relationship develop between two creatures that might be assumed to be too different. Though this story highlights a more obvious manifestation of a relationship, it's a beautiful depiction of how we can form sacred communions through repetition and openness. This same type of experience is available to all of us, though for most of us it won't take the form of a cephalopod.

There's nothing inherently wrong with the excitement and awe of novelty. There's a time and place for it. We won't get the privilege of knowing every place we see with intense sense of closeness, and that's ok. But when the thirst for the new and the hunger for completionism becomes the exclusive paradigm around which we organize our goals and our choices, we lose something. We sell the soul of the experience of nature and exchange it for achievement-oriented collecting.

Throw away the to-do lists. Forget the "best hikes in Cool Town" Google searches. Slow down and cultivate rich relationships instead.