Over the weekend I finished reading a book called On Trails. The author Robert Moor spends 330 pages musing on, as the title implies, trails – why we make them, how we blaze them, and what purposes they serve.

Early on, Moor spells out the question he’s exploring:

“Why do we, as animals, uproot ourselves rather than maintaining the stately fixity of trees? Why do we venture into places where we were not born and do not belong? Why do we press forward into the unknown?”

It may seem obvious, but on the most basic level, animals venture into the unknown to score potential food and mates, or flee from predators and danger. Trails perpetuate life.

The same goes for us humans. Although in addition to survival paths, we voyage down next-level paths: Career paths. Intellectual paths. Artistic paths. Spiritual paths. Philosophical paths. Life paths. Existential paths.

At birth, we’re born with a handful of out-of-the-box and scripted potential life paths, inherited from our parents, our culture, our country, our neighborhood, our religion, our environment. At least that’s how it appears. We see paths before us and act accordingly, choosing the ones we feel best suit us based on what little we know about ourselves at the time. In one sense, paths are good:

“Without these paths, each of us would be forced to thrash our way through the wilderness of life, scrubbing for survival, repeating the same basic mistakes, and reinventing the same solutions.”

If we’re good girls and boys, we simply take the paths other people have laid down before us without much question. If we’re rogues, rebels, or simply courageous enough, we attempt to blaze our own trail forward, guided by our own inner voices and voices of other trailblazers before us.

I once told a group of high schoolers at my alma mater: mind the paths. Sometimes we forget that the paved roads before us were once no road at all, but a trace of a trail amidst wilderness and chaos, wholly unproven and trampled by someone who knew little more than you do now. How quickly faint trails become traditional paths that we assume as fact!

My advice to them: don’t be afraid to go off-path when the path you’re treading feels too constraining or no longer fits. Tread your own trail when you feel pulled to.

“The key difference between a trail and a path is directional: paths extend forward, whereas trails extend backward. Paths are perceived as being more civilized…lines projected forward in space by the intellect and constructed with those noble appendages, the hands. By contrast, trails tend to form in reverse, messily, from the passage of dirty feet.”

on trails

On Trails by Robert Moor

Moor writes wonderfully and dishes fascinating points poetically — on the intelligence of slime molds, how ants and caterpillars leave pheromone paths to direct others toward food, and how elephants differentiate between paths that lead to water and paths that lead to a family member’s grave.

But my most powerful takeaway from On Trails is this:

Life begs individuals to go off-path.

No – life requires that individuals go off path.

Life perpetuates for the very fact that a brave minority choose to venture off-piste to find new foliage, discover more efficient passages, encounter a brave new world, or help us collectively mature, evolve, and become wiser.

Blazing a new trail feels scary. Well, it’s a mix of scary and excitement. Excitement in the bounty that could be had; Scary if that bounty doesn’t exist at all. Terrifying if we become a casualty in process. Of course, most trails we modern day humans attempt to blaze don’t have an immediate risk of physical danger. They’re career-focused, life-enhancing, happiness-increasing trails. It’s not always life or death. But it can feel that way.

The fear is mostly psychological. Rather than fear of actual death, we fear we’ll look like a fool. Or we’ll fall flat on our face. Or we’ll lose it all – money, possessions, loved ones. In the evolutionary sense, we might be rejected and thrown out of our tribe. It’s possible that we’ll discover new paths that society won’t respect or find value in – at least not in our lifetimes. There will be casualties. I guess that’s the risk.

And yet life perpetuates for the very fact that some carve out new paths despite the fears.

“Every trail is, in essence, a best guess: An ant does not leave a strong pheromone trail unless it has found food, which means that it has already made correct calculation of where the food is. The same rule applies to humans — we generally don’t make trails unless there is something on the other end worth reaching. It’s only once an initial best guess is made, and others follow it, that a trace begins to evolve into a trail.”

We need you to go off path.

If you feel compelled to blaze a new trail – in your career, in your life, among your family, amidst your culture – we need you to do that.

Maybe not those of us immediately surrounding you. In fact, the closest to you might ridicule or reject you, or at the very least become terrified on your behalf.

But we as in the we that come after you need you. Future travellers need you. The ones that look onward to the trail you’ve blazed and see it as an alternative to the well-worn paths. Do it for the ones that might follow you. Or whom might just be inspired by the act of your blazing.

sunset trail

Photo by Simon Matzinger.

On my vision quest, one of our exercises was to write a letter to someone – dead or alive – whom you might find it most difficult to explain why you’re going on a vision quest. Since I’d already had difficult conversations with my alive loved ones – my parents, my girlfriend, my friends, my colleagues – I thought: Who wouldn’t get it? Who would it be most difficult to tell?

I chose my great grandfather from Italy. He was old school Italian, born in the first years of the 20th century. In his younger years, he labored all day and was fed dinner by his wife at night. Later in life he wore a pressed suit every day, to every occasion, until he died. Venturing into the woods, going several days without food to be on my own in search of purpose, direction and connection with an other — seemed like it couldn’t be more foreign to a person like him. My choices in life would be something he’d understand the least.

I began writing.

“Dear Great Grandpa Guy… I know I was only 8 years old when you died so we didn’t know each other long. But I’ve long admired you and your courage in coming to a brand new world when you were only 15, despite being the only one of your family to go. I’m writing to tell you that I am on something called a Vision Quest. The reason I’m here is because, maybe like you at 15, I feel the call to become something bigger, something more than the world I was born into.”

My great grandfather first came to America when he was fifteen – FIFTEEN! I was barely making wise choices about breakfast cereals at fifteen. And here was Gaetano Trinetti, crammed aboard a vessel for a multi-day voyage from Genova to New York, resolute to find work and build a life for himself in the New World.

Very quickly, my writing hand turned from hard and defensive to sheepish and soft. Great grandpa Guy, of anyone in world, might actually be the one who’d understand me best.

statue of liberty

Photo by Lucas Franco.

“Where there is a way or path, it is someone else’s path. You are not on your own path.” –Joseph Campbell

Mythologist Joseph Campbell went as far as to say that in order to reach deep into our own soul’s gift and fully give that gift to the world, we mustn’t follow anyone else’s path too closely.

It’s probably more complex than that. We look to others’ paths for clues forward, and for a time we may traverse another’s path. But we’re a unique soul – the build of our bodies, the chemical make up of our minds, the dreams we harbor, the culture and time we’re born into – all of it paints a special picture. We can’t simply follow another’s path by the book.

Recently I’ve been exploring how we can future-proof ourselves for a new and uncertain world of work. Tactical principles like: Become Indispensable; Learn How to Learn; Diversify Your Everything.

But I think if there’s any trait that will serve us now and in the future, it’s this: an ability to sit in the wilderness of the unknown without our heads exploding or our hearts withering into despair.

It’s a willingness to walk an unmarked path, guided by our own inner voice, staying vigilant to the opportunities and dangers around us, keeping our wits and spirits about us, all the while trudging wholly unaware of where (if anywhere) it’s all leading. This takes tremendous faith and trust. But it’s a more realistic notion of how life actually works. It’s squiggly. It’s messy. It’s chaos out here. Especially life in a rapidly evolving world.

winter trail

Photo by Luca Zanon

“How do we select a path through life? Which turns should we take? To what end?”

Unfortunately we’re not born with a clear blueprint for living our best lives — at least not one that we can easily read like a map or a book. It takes some work to unlock clues to decipher something nearing a map to ourselves – which direction to take, how to choose at a crossroad, when to follow paths, and when to make trails.

“In the end, we are all existential pathfinders: We select among the paths life affords, and then, when those paths no longer work for us, we edit them and innovate as necessary. The tricky part is that while we are editing our trails, our trails are also editing us…collectively we shape them, but individually they shape us.”

Unfortunately it’s not one and then the other – draw the map, then walk. We create a meaningful life by seeking clues to a blueprint whilst we walk. We’re true travellers – walking, wandering, exploring, and figuring it out as we go.

And yet – what if viewing ourselves as travellers is the wrong metaphor altogether?

Alan Watts suggests regarding yourself instead as a cloud or a wave:

“Have you ever seen a cloud that was misshapen? Did you ever see a badly designed wave? No – they always do the right thing. If you’ll treat yourself for a while as a cloud or wave, and realize that you can’t make a mistake, no matter what you do. Because even if you do something that seems to be totally disastrous, it’ll all come out in the wash somehow or another.”

“Each of these lives is the right one. Every path is the right path.” –Alan Watts

By the time I finished my letter to Great Grandpa Guy on the vision quest – I no longer felt the need to explain to him what I was doing. I was thanking him. Thanking him for blazing a path that some acquaintances had but none of his family had before him, so that I was able to appreciate the life I live today.

“I’m here, in the woods, with peers and people I’d call mentors, to help me develop the skills I need to pick up on the clues to my own soul blueprint of sorts. I have one life to live (at least in this body I do) and I think there’s no greater question and quest than this. And if I didn’t come here, I wouldn’t be honoring what is in my heart as the thing I must do. It’s the quest I must pursue. And while I thought you would be the most difficult person to tell, it turns out you’re perhaps the easiest. Thank you for paving the way for questers like me, who are willing to risk it all like you.”

Throughout On Trails, Moor pays homage to the trailblazing Han-Shan, a Chinese poet who gave up his fortunes and comfort to wander and uncover his own truth for living. What we know about him isn’t from his books (none survived), but from the landscape upon which he wrote his words. He left his trail of his wisdom in poems etched into rocks, trees, and buildings.

“Ultimately, Han-shan’s genius, born from a life spent wandering and pondering trails, was to realize that inherited wisdom can take us far, but only so far. After that, we must explore all on our own.”

* * * * * 

strange trails

P.S. This article was fuelled by the song “The Night We Met” by Lord Huron. It serendipitously popped up on a playlist while I was writing. I loved the sound and looked at the song to discover the album title: Strange Trails. Magic isn’t dead.

Headline photo by Dan Gold.


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