Trails to Self-Discovery

The world becomes bigger, richer — and sometimes it becomes enchanted.

Today I walked a trail I’ve walked a thousand times. Do I exaggerate? Not at all.

For 20 years I’ve walked this same trail once or twice a week, in every season and in all kinds of weather. Say 60 times a year — 1,200 excursions.

On each of those walks, I cross the meadow behind our house, pass the stand of spruces planted half a century ago and by Nick’s Hill with its hidden fox den. Then I cross the field, pass the cherry orchard and the squared-off woodlots that were left intact by farmers planning ahead for maple syrup and stove wood.

From there I walk the two-track into the owl pines, pass Martha’s house and another cherry orchard, and arrive at Bluff Road for the easy stroll home along East Bay.

It’s a 45-minute loop, though it can easily last twice that. It can last all day if you want.

Trails to Self-Discovery
Illustration by Glenn Wolff

A few times it has seemed tedious. I know enough, at least, to realize the blame for that is with me, not the trail. If tedium settles too easily, I take action. I’ll walk in moonlight, while it snows, in a storm. Nobody has ever found thunder and lightning boring. If I’m lucky, I discover a new world every walk.

Often I bring along field guides to the birds and wildflowers. I’m learning slowly, doggedly, over many years, the names of things. Learning the things themselves takes much longer.

Why is a trail so inviting? We’re quick to say we want to go our own way off the trodden path and follow the less-traveled way, but I wonder if we confuse the actual path with the metaphorical one. The metaphorical path is the well-traveled one, the common route of conformists and herd animals. It’s also the Zen way, the pathless path. And there’s a third metaphorical path: our individual way.

But an actual path is a route through the actual world. Concave, hard-packed, worn smooth by repeated passages, it often leads to a worthwhile destination. It’s alluring; it beckons us onward. It celebrates persistence. It’s a line of order that promises to be useful or interesting. In the natural selection of pathways, it’s a survivor.

For decades or centuries, humans and other animals have gone this way, nudged around that rock, passed that grove of trees, walked along the ridgeline parallel to the lake. It’s the conjunction of spontaneity and intention. It has history. It’s soothing to the senses — just let yourself go, no need to watch your step, your feet will lead the way. Close your eyes and follow it by instinct. Better yet, allow your eyes to do what they do best.

When you walk a trail, whether it’s new to you or familiar, even one you’ve walked a thousand times, the world becomes bigger, richer — and sometimes it becomes enchanted. The door swings open, and the trail is a way in.

Michigan native and BLUE Reflections columnist Jerry Dennis has written many books, including the award-winning “The Living Great Lakes.” His new book is “A Walk in the Animal Kingdom,” with illustrations by Glenn Wolff. Learn more at, or visit and

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