4 min read

Forensic Hiking

The trails of ghosts
mountain trail
All trails are lines of imagination. Photo by David Lukas

It is impossible to fully appreciate the value of a trail until you have been forced to walk through the wilderness without one.
—Robert Moor On Trails

Earlier this summer I started paying attention to the fact that my idea of a perfect day is finding and following trails that are little more than ghosts.

Am I alone in feeling this, or does anyone else love these kinds of trails?

hidden trail
An old trail that both exists...and doesn't exist. Photo by David Lukas

Make no mistake, I...love...trails. Much of my life has been spent on trails, and I estimate that I hike or run about 1500 miles a year on wild, unpaved trails of one type or another.

mountain trail
A place to walk and let your mind roam free. Photo by David Lukas

Most of the time I hike with binoculars, a pocket notebook, and a camera, carefully recording what I observe and wonder about. In this case, a trail serves as both access and lifeline while freeing me up to explore whatever arises in my imagination.

on the trail
A typical day of hiking. Photo by David Lukas

But what happens when your lifeline is a trail so old and obscure it scarcely exists?

faded old trail
Trying to follow an old forgotten trail. Photo by David Lukas

This is the edge, and the question, that I most love to explore!

I'm perfectly content bushwhacking cross-country in random directions, but following a human-made trail is a very different story because a trail is a line of intent and inquiry. If I find a trail, and suspect that someone made this trail because it goes somewhere, then I have to follow it. And the harder it is to follow, the more deeply I'm forced to push my route-finding abilities to their outer limits.

a lost trail
Puzzling out an old trail that headed straight to the clearing in the background. Photo by David Lukas

A surprising number of these old, forgotten trails were made by expert trail builders who skillfully plotted the best routes and laid solid foundations, which means that the original intent of these paths lingers even as their traces fade into forest duff and thick underbrush.

overgrown trail
Plunging into four miles of incredibly difficult route-finding along a lost trail. Photo by David Lukas

One of my favorite memories was discovering an unknown cavalry trail in Yosemite National Park that journeyed up a wild, rugged canyon from the foothills to the high country. This 100-year-old trail was overgrown and essentially invisible, but had been so well made that I could still find enough bits and pieces to track its route no matter how buried it had become.

an old trail
Sometimes you have to rely on your intuition to follow the route of an abandoned trail. Photo by David Lukas

While hiking on most trails could be called recreational, it's a lot scarier and harder when you're forced to pay attention to every detail to avoid getting lost. This kind of hiking is more like solving a puzzle; a puzzle where you're engaging all of your senses and skills, and tracking subtle clues while struggling to preserve your tenuous lifeline back to safety.

an obscure trail
Searching for a trail on the thin edge of getting lost. Photo by David Lukas

It can be exhausting to follow a trail that takes so much effort, but these are the moments when I feel most alive and most exhilarated by the magic of life—and these are moments I live for!

an old trail
Abandoned trails often lead to magic places. Photo by David Lukas

I love to explore and share what I discover with you. If you enjoy these newsletters as much as I do, I hope you'll consider upgrading to a paid subscription to help me continue this work. Producing the newsletter is a full-time job and subscriptions are what keep me going.