The Case for Hiking Ugly Trails

Recently, my partner and I went for a walk. We ducked into the woods behind our house in Vermont, crossed the neighbor’s field, and emerged onto a quiet gravel track that was once a thoroughfare to a copper mine. Where the road crested, we gazed east across the Connecticut River Valley to New Hampshire’s layered hills, then north to a canyon that had been blasted out of the earth more than 200 years ago. I wondered how many people had stood here. 

Probably not many. It’s a Superfund site, one of more than 1,000 locations nationwide that the EPA is remediating due to the presence of large amounts of toxic waste. 

I’d been hearing about jammed trailheads and overcrowding at crags across the country. Restless from the pandemic, people have been heading outdoors for exercise and the promise of seeing loved ones in a (relatively) safe fashion. I’d heard from colleagues in San Francisco about trails so busy that it was impossible to keep a six-foot distance between passing hikers. 

But on this knoll, all I could hear were the aspens fluttering in the breeze and the occasional far-off gunshot indicating that our neighbor had found another woodchuck in his log pile. We were alone.

My partner and I first began searching for unpopular trails a few years ago in Connecticut when we got a high-energy rescue hound who needed a lot of off-leash exercise. We quickly learned that dog parks and fetch didn’t even put a dent in her energy levels, so we scoured Google Maps for dirt roads that led to nowhere, where she could roam without bothering other hikers. More often than not, these spots were decorated with tallboy Twisted Teas and Bud Lights. Fluorescent hues poked out from underneath the weeds: shotgun shells, blown to smithereens. 

Over the course of three years and a half-dozen moves across the Northeast, these scrappy trails became the center of our outdoor life. Eventually, I could barely remember the last time I hiked a bucket-list mountain or saw a view that wasn’t preceded by a rutted-out ATV path and discarded beer cans. 

It’s easy to see the appeal of craggy summits, photogenic waterfalls, and the kinds of landscapes that pervade Instagram. These places are packed for a reason: They’re gorgeous. They’re humbling. But when I looked closely, I found that the offbeat trails were, too.   

The imperfect, unsanitized landscape summons its witnesses to come as they are. It welcomes us with evidence of our own imperfection and invites us not to judge.

These places were sanctuaries. They were quiet, messy, and resilient. I loved the way the trails were off-camber and we had to step around large rocks and duck under snaggly trees—and how sometimes we’d arrive at a dead end. I loved how, in the brightness and deep silence of a winter morning, I made fresh tracks. I began to recognize the slight bends in each trail and measure distance by landmarks like couches and paint cans. On one of our favorite trails, we knew we were about halfway when we reached the jettisoned dishwasher. 

The appeal wasn’t just the lack of crowds. It was the opportunity to witness nature doing its own thing, beneath the garbage, rather than being beaten back into a perfectly manicured Instagram landscape. Fallen trees, instead of being sawed away, decomposed where they had fallen. Water followed the path of least resistance straight down the trail.

The imperfect, unsanitized landscape summons its witnesses to come as they are. It welcomes us with evidence of our own imperfection and invites us not to judge. 

I believe the world would be better if we all cared more about Mother Earth, leaving no trace, and treading lighter. But it is itself an act of caring to visit the places that have been deemed ugly or not worth hiking on—not just to pick up garbage or to beautify them, but to bear witness to the ways that these places are already beautiful. They, too, can buoy our spirits. We don’t need 14,000-foot views or four-star climbs or thigh-busting bike rides to experience nature. It is all around us, if we practice looking for its small splendors. 

The EPA began remediating the Superfund site behind my house in the early 2000s. Cleanup is expected to be completed by the end of next year. Aspens were carefully planted and staked along the road, their roots hugging the no-longer-toxic soil. Cattails grow in the drainages. Fish and plant life have returned to the local river, which was once so contaminated by mine runoff that nothing would grow.

Sitting on that knoll of oversized wood chips, I surveyed the way the land unnaturally crested and dipped and plateaued—evidence of large swaths of earth moved here and there. It was a patchwork of large rocks and newly planted ground cover and water-monitoring wells. This place gave me hope that if we give our local landscapes a chance—not despite how disheveled they are or what history they might hold, but because of it—we are likely to be amazed.

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