On Trails

In the early 1950’s I read a series of worn-out library books on early American heroes including Daniel Boone, who blazed the Wilderness Road through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky, a route that was eventually followed by over 200,000 settlers.

Now 60 years later, I’m reading On Trails, by Robert Moor and learning that the woods of North America were loaded with trails long before any Europeans arrived. The land that had already supported a vast native culture for thousands of years was covered with trails.

There is 13,000 year old evidence of early Asian-descent North Americans in the Paisley Caves of Oregon and from Montana’s Clovis child, but the time span doesn’t really sink in for me, although it’s starting to. What were these people doing all this time? They were continually moving over the land, for one thing.

All over North America there were hundreds of tribes we can now name, each utilizing very large tracts of land. The Cherokees alone covered the area now occupied by four states: Georgia, Tennessee, and North and South Carolina.

Moving with one foot in line with the other, a typical Indian footpath was only 5-6 inches wide and soft moccasins typically landed on spots that were already flat. Little crushing of the natural texture of the land. Trails were marked with broken twigs and the positions of sticks.  Natives could read these signs and even send messages up and down the trail using them. But the paths were nearly invisible to Euro-Americans. The woods were impenetrable to newcomers only in the sense that you could easily get lost in them.

In fact, the forests were historically managed by the natives. They burned them regularly, eliminating undergrowth and preserving plants and shrubs that were useful to them and the local animal population. Europeans marveled at the “natural” openness of the woods, almost like parks, thinking the land only needed their vision to develop it properly.

Existing indigenous use of the land and the trails was obscured by the untouched appearance. The newcomers naturally thought it was empty, pristine wilderness, new land to be claimed. But it was definitely being used already and used in ecologically sound ways.

Now, according to Moor, most of the paved-over roads in the USA are located on top of Native American trails. Over the recent centuries of expanding European-style culture, the trails have gradually been “improved” into the roads we use today.

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I75 runs the length of Michigan on top of 5 Indian Trails

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US Route 11 in Virginia runs along the Great Indian Warpath, or Seneca Trail, part of a network of trails that ran from upper New York State to Alabama.

There tends to be an optimal path though the landscape, depending on the purpose, and many such trails are apt to stay put indefinitely.

So now I’m liking the idea of back-roads motorcycle rides,  the feeling of moving over the landscape in a very natural way along pathways that are quite possibly thousands of years old. And the human scale of a motorcycle seems right on.

On the other hand, when I more fully assimilate the idea of a vast, valid, pre-existing indigenous culture, and to some extent debunk the traditional Euro-American view of North America, I can only be sharply dismayed by the experience of Native Americans over the last many centuries.

Note: Every year now about 25,000 bikers attend the Trail of Tears Commemorative Motorcycle Ride across the Alabama section of the trail followed in 1838-39 when the Cherokee Nation was forced to give up their land east of the Mississippi and move to Oklahoma. The two-abreast stream of bikes is about 25 miles long.

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