The Trail is not a Trail
by Gary Snyder
I drove down the Freeway
And turned off at an exit
And went along a highway
Til it came to a sideroad
Drove up the sideroad
Til it turned to a dirt road
Full of bumps, and stopped.
Walked up a trail
But the trail got rough
And it faded away—
Out in the open,
Everywhere to go.
In some primitive past, before the use of the wheel, people followed game tracks through grasslands and woodlands on foot. They shared the same degree of directional freedom that animals have. I did this as a child in East Africa: followed game trails through the bush. Small and lithe, I was able to finesse myself through tight spaces, stooped close to the ground.
When the wheel becomes the norm of human movement, though, we need roads in some form or another. But when four footed animals provided the motive power, these roads could be–and often were– narrow and rutted. The cobblestones of the European spring cycling classics shows how minimal such roads could be: rough enough that cyclists often use the dirt or grass verges as smoother alternatives to the cobbles themselves.
When the internal combustion engine and the bicycle wheel become the norm (these developments happened at the same time) not only do we need roads; we need macadamed roads, smooth roads. Unlike those drawn by four hooved animals, vehicles with motor driven tires need to keep these rubber donuts in touch with the surface they are traversing. Furthermore, expectations of speed go up as motorized wheeled vehicles become the norm.
Then, in the logic of human development, some of these roads eventually become multilane highways, divided highways, divided limited access highways, and finally freeways and interstate highways. All this is an understandable evolution: what works for 5 miles per hour does not work for 30; and what works for 30 miles per hour does not work for 75 or 80.
Such roads can only be created and maintained by powerful, sophisticated, and centralized governments, institutions with the power to tax, legislate, penalize, and maintain. These powers all go together and build off of each other and require a dense commercial and financial tax base to be viable. But the roads they build also help create that commercial and financial base: think of the network of interchangeable fast food restaurants, gas stations, truck stops, and (especially in New Mexico) Indian casinos that dot the US interstate highway system. Furthermore (and this is harder to imagine; out of sight, out of mind), think of how many small communities have died because the new interstate bypassed them fifty years ago. The Southwestern US is dotted with such hamlets along the old Route 66, full of crumbling buildings with roofs caved in. Highways are not merely passive reflectors of preexisting realities; they shape geographic, economic, and social facts on the ground.
What this means is that roads and money have a chicken and egg relationship, one that alters over time. They bring money into the settlements (not necessarily communities) that themselves spring up to take advantage of the traffic and hence money that passes along these asphalt ribbons. Soon most human movement becomes dictated by these expensive, technologically impressive roads. Furthermore, what happens in physical geography equally takes place within human mental ecology.
The larger roads no longer exist by a kind of local consensus, a development of local geography, local needs, and preexisting trails. Instead, they exist when some immense centralizing power deems that it is in its own financial or political interests for them to go along a certain path, between certain places. The interstate system of the United States–its official name is “Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways” partly came into existence because of Cold War fears, and to ease the movement of troops and war materiel in the case of military need. In other words, they are a direct product of what Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex.”
And similarly we, the road users, are more and more channeled along paths that are preordained for us. Not only do the literal roads take us to and from work do this; so also the financial paths that undergird the roads themselves guide, force us even, along preordained paths that we might not otherwise choose. In a world that is complex, we become ever more embedded within this complexity that is geographically distant, beyond us and equally beyond our control.
The more complex our society, the greater our material rewards: this is the promise that the voices of concentrated capital and industrial progress have made again and again over the past few hundred years. Their promise is no doubt true in large part: more people own more than ever before. But what seems equally true is that we pay a price for these riches in our freedoms. To a degree that might surprise our ancestors, we now traverse only preselected, preordained paths, both metaphorically and literally. Progress; yes; but there’s a real price paid for all this ease and convenience.
The modern world is supposedly about sheer individual freedom. But when we look at the infrastructures (both physical and mental) that this form of freedom requires, perhaps it’s more accurate to note that instead, we have amazing ranges of choice within the narrowest of narrow corridors: that, of the 360 degrees possible geometrically, we can now traverse whichever of the five or ten degrees that society has dictated are possible in whatever way we like.