First, a quiz: which of the following trails have seen human work and construction, and which never have?
Second; animal trails are very important for backcountry walkers. They always form the most efficient route from one place to another, the trick is finding enough of the animal mind to know what and where those places are. Just the other week an elk trail took me to a major spring I never knew existed, despite having walked within a quarter mile of it on close to ten separate occasions. That seemingly year-round water source reshuffles how I think about that particular nexus of ridges and canyons. Geology moves water, water realigns animal activity, and some mix of both creates how humans came to see, know, and travel through wild landscapes. It is a lot simpler, while tired and hot and counting the hours to an iced coffee, to leave the moment while walking a human trail. Grades tend to be more predictable, footing more secure, routing more homogenous. All of these have often been on the landscape so long that the antecedent influence of the landscape disappears.
This distinction will be an important one in 2021. Visitation and general interest in the wild world was climbing in the decade prior to the pandemic. Having the state of the world throw the virtues of being outside in ones face has, anecdotally and as far as the data can suggest, wrought a large and potentially lasting increase in outdoor engagement. It has also, it would seem, provided both the time and the impetus for contemplating this part of our national landscape.
It is easy to forget what Thoreau meant when we wrote “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” Wildness here means, in brief, all that which is beyond the scope of human direction and imagination. The more technocratic nature writers have, over the past 30 years, forgotten (or, I suggest while trying to withhold snideness, never gotten to know) the pragmatic side of wild places. That regardless of lines we as humans draw on maps or in our laws, animals, plants, the landscape as a whole will continue to do as it wants, and if left largely alone in a big enough space, stay wild. What each of us may find appealing is as Cronon says a “cultural invention,” but so is everything. The basic subjectivity our any particular human experience with the wild does nothing to break up either the existence of the wild outside us, or it’s fundamental unknowability.
And that is, of course, the point.
Last, the answers: the first photo is a human trail, with the path cleared through the trees and cut logs being rather obvious; the second and third images are of the same elk trail, about a mile apart; the final image is on an official trail, but this particular stretch has not I think ever seen a tool. The final three images were all carved by significant yearly elk traffic. The bottom photo is within a major N-S running valley that is a major migration corridor. There is only one logical place to put a trail in the alpine section of the valley. The trail depicted in the middle two photos is ~4 miles long, and save for one steep hill could easily be ridden in a mountain bike. It travels between a major water source and a series of sheltered south facing hillsides which form a significant bit of winter range for a small herd. On the first photo, if you go back 200 years I reckon there was an elk, deer, and sheep trail right about where the current human path is cut, and these days I guess that many times more elk than humans walk it each calendar year.