These Human-Made Natural Wonders Hide in Plain Sight

Robert Moor was a 10-year-old at summer camp when the counselors took him and his fellow campers to Mount Washington, N.H., the tallest mountain in the Northeast. At one point as they flanked the mountain a counselor told them that they were turning onto the Appalachian Trail, which extends north to neighboring Maine and all the way south to Georgia.

“I still recall the tingle of wonder I felt upon hearing these words,” Moor wrote in a wonderful 2016 book, “On Trails: An Exploration.” “The plain-looking trail beneath my feet had suddenly grown to colossal scale.”

I feel that tingle every time I step onto a long trail, even if I’m walking just a small fraction of it. Lately I’ve been hiking the 125-mile-long Paumanok Path in eastern Long Island in sections. It’s an easy, sandy path through pitch pines, oaks, brambles and laurels. I love that it extends uninterrupted from Rocky Point in the west to Montauk Point in the east. And I love that it’s an open secret: open, in that anyone can walk on it, yet a secret in that even many people who cross it every day by car don’t know it’s there.

“Starting from Paumanok,” a poem by Walt Whitman that appeared in “Leaves of Grass,” was written long before the Paumanok Path was pieced together, but captured the restlessness of the traveler:

There is an economic angle to trails. It’s the network effect, which says that a network grows in value as it adds nodes. A long trail becomes better when a short trail through a special piece of woodland is incorporated into it. The node improves the network. Conversely, the short trail attracts new attention and visitors. The network benefits the nodes.

In “On Trails,” Moor wrote that the creation of a trail is similar to progress in science. “We generally don’t make trails unless there is something on the other end worth reaching,” he wrote. “It’s only once an initial best guess is made, and others follow it, that a trace begins to evolve into a trail.”

When Europeans arrived in North America, they used the trails that Native Americans had trampled out. Some of those trails became wagon roads and later highways. By one estimate, 85 percent of the aboriginal trails are now paved. “That system of paths is arguably the grandest buried cultural artifact in the world,” Moor wrote.

Trailblazers such as Lewis and Clark saw their mission as bringing civilization to the wilderness. The obstacles that they faced were mountains and rivers. Today it’s more often the opposite: Trailblazers aim to bring wilderness to civilization. Their obstacles are houses and highways. I’m endlessly impressed by their ability to piece together green corridors through densely populated areas.

Last week I interviewed the heads of the two organizations that manage the longest trails in the East, namely the Appalachian Trail and the East Coast Greenway. The Appalachian Trail goes from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. The greenway is younger and more urban, connecting metros rather than mountains. Only 36 percent of it is off-road, although the hope is to get 80 percent or more of it off-road eventually. It extends from Key West, Fla., to Calais, Maine, on the Canadian border.

When Benton MacKaye conceived the Appalachian Trail a century ago, his vision was a muscular kind of rural socialism. He envisioned not just a trail but work camps. In a 1927 speech he disdained the “lollipopedness” of city folk. “And now I come straight to the point of the philosophy of through trails,” MacKaye said. “It is to organize a Barbarian invasion. It is a counter movement to the Metropolitan invasion. … As the Civilizees are working outward from the urban centers, we Barbarians must be working downward from the mountain tops.”

Myron Avery, his more pragmatic co-founder, understood the need to work with private landowners and local governments. The trail was assembled bit by bit, much of it from agreements with private landowners. In the 1960s, the National Park Service took over the A.T. Today almost all of the trail is on public lands, and most is in green corridors that are at least 1,000 feet wide (although the trail also passes through towns, such as Harpers Ferry, W.Va., and Hanover, N.H., which is the home of Dartmouth College).

“It’s a simple footpath in a really complicated system,” Sandra Marra, the president of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, told me. “The trail almost floats above a whole variety of different forms of land ownership.” Its route also changes slightly every year as parts get washed out or better parcels of land are acquired. The concept of the trail is fixed but the physical reality of it is protean.

The East Coast Greenway began in 1991 the same way the Appalachian Trail did, as an aspiration. Dennis Markatos-Soriano, the executive director of the East Coast Greenway Alliance, gave me what sounded like a practiced pitch: “What we do is we help communities build out their trails in a way that forms this unifying connected tissue from the Moose to the Manatee. From the best blueberry pie to the best Key lime pie.”

Counting everyone who steps on a bit of it each year, the East Coast Greenway is the nation’s most heavily visited park, Markatos-Soriano said. As with the A.T., some people are drawn to do the whole thing: four runners from California, a unicyclist from Maine, a guy who traveled it with his girlfriend and then got down on one knee and proposed to her at the end.

Smartly, the East Coast Greenway has copied the A.T. by posting signs showing the distance north to Calais and south to Key West. “If you look down the path it almost seems like it goes to infinity,” Markatos-Soriano said. “It opens the imagination up and makes you feel connected to those other spaces.”

I’ll close with some words from a walking song of Bilbo Baggins from the first book of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. He sings of a “larger way,” a network effect by another name:

Outlook: Jonathan Smoke

Dealers of new cars are “far more positive about the current market” than dealers of used cars, according to the latest quarterly survey by Cox Automotive, which provides services and software to auto dealers. The sentiment index of new-vehicle dealers rose a point to 57 in the current quarter, while the index for used-vehicle dealers dropped a point to 41. Any figure below 50 means more dealers see the current market as weak than see it as strong. High interest rates on auto loans, among other factors, are felt more acutely by buyers of used vehicles, Jonathan Smoke, the chief economist of Cox Automotive, said in a report this month.

Quote of the Day

“Today, it is inexcusable to buy a ‘bubble’ — inexcusable because unnecessary. For now every investor — whether his capital consists of a few thousands or mounts into the millions — has at his disposal facilities for obtaining the facts.”

— Advertisement by Standard Statistics Company Inc., a predecessor of Standard & Poor’s, published Sept. 14, 1929, the month before the stock market crashed.

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