The Trail Experience

Greg Benedis-Grab
8 min readJan 3, 2024

My wife and I moved to Boulder, Colorado for a life change. After 25 years living and raising children in NYC, we wanted something new and different. For me, a big part of that change has been greater access to wilderness and trails. Nature has always been a safe space for me where I go to meditate and rejuvenate. When I walk in the woods I am calm, collected and can think clearly.

One of my favorite hikes in Boulder is Green mountain. It is enough of a climb to feel serious, yet short enough that you can squeeze it in before or after work if you move quickly. One autumn morning I decided to get an early start hitting the trail up Green at the break of dawn. The air was crisp and I could see my breath against an expansive orange sky. The radiant warm colors of dawn seemed to defy the icy wind cutting through my thin long sleeve shirt. I launched into a jog along the trail to build up some warmth. Quickly the flat terrain transformed into a steep rocky ascent up the North East ridge of the moutain. Climbing uphill on a mountain trail often brings a smile to my face. I like feeling the power in my legs propelling my light frame up higher and higher into the sky. I take deep even breaths of oxygenated air into my lungs and coordinate my body movements to my foot placement on the rocks. Sometimes it seems as if I am floating to the top of the mountain. The cool breeze regulates my temperature as my core takes on the quality of a raging furnace. I can feel evaporation from the top of my head. Looking behind me, the gradually shrinking features of the valley are a testament to my effort. At the top of a jagged climb I take a right turn off the main trail through a stand of conifers onto what a friend of mine calls a “social” trail.

“What is a social trail?” I had asked when we were out running together..

“It is a trail that some people know about and use, but is not marked on the map.” He replied.

This social trail was pretty easy to follow as it had been worn in by the many people who use it. It was not as defined as the main trail, but it was noticeable enough. In some places there were off shoots where travelers must have veered off, but for the most part you could follow the main route up the ridge. My friend had gifted me this trail by leading me along it and now it was mine to enjoy as well. I would not have known about this trail if my friend hadn’t shown it to me, though I might have found it eventually as I love to explore the wilderness. The trail is traveled by many others and once you happen upon it, it is noticeable enough from the thousands of steps that formed it.

Following a trail involves a lot more than a non-hiker might realize. Established trails are often marked by the humans who create them. Sometimes it is blazed, meaning there is a colorful marking on some trees along the way. It might be a painted mark or a metallic disk nailed into the trunk of the tree. Above tree line, piles of rocks called cairns are used or sometimes paint marks on the rockface. The markings help you know that you are on trail, and when you have lost it. Some trails are marked better than others. However, the marking are rarely completely sufficient to guide your passage. Following a trail is an interactive and intuitive experience where your eyes constantly look around for clues and hints. It could the be the wear on the forest floor, or perhaps the shape of the terrain suggests a path. You may wonder what the trail creator was thinking as you follow a defined path through the woods. The more time you spend on trails the better you get at following them. You develop a sixth sense when you are on the trail and when you have accidentally left it. This subconcious knowledge seems to work equally well on unmarked social trails.

In one sense what was given to me by my friend is just an idea, an imaginary line that multiple people hold in their minds. In another sense the trail had become a physical artifact through use and wear. More importantly it is a shared experience sometimes simultaneous as when I ran the trail with my friend, and sometimes asynchronous, connecting people across time who may have never met. The trail is an experience that exists beyond my individual mind connecting me to others and to something greater than myself. Maybe trails are a new way to think about the meaning of experience.

The trail took me up onto a crested ridge exposing stunning views of the landscape and sunrise. The sunlight streamed through the trees as the trail skirted rock formations along the ridge. I took some opportunities to scramble up the rocks grabbing secure holds with my gloved hands and pulling my body up. Sometimes trails, particularly rugged trails allow you to connect and even embody the landscape with your muscles and movement. It can feel like your body and the surroundings are one connected whole. The trail can change your thinking and feelings and that might change your experience of the trail or what trail you follow or how you follow the trail.

This makes me think of a winter trip I took a few years ago to the Catskill mountains in New York state. I was snow shoeing off trail in deep snow for miles. The landscape was covered in a thick and smooth white blanket. The evergreen trees strained under the weight of the encapsulating snow clumps. The expansive snow had a muffling effect on my steps and the entire surroundings, enforcing a deep silence all around. Breaking trail on the steep slopes of these moutains was exhilirating as I traversed a definitively untouched landscape. However, it was also exhausting, pressing down snow shoes through the heavy crunch of fresh snow with each new footfall. I started to lose my motivation.

Then as I reached the second mountain peak of the morning I came across a packed down human track at the peak and followed it down the other side. If you have ever snow shoed you know how much of a difference following anothers track can make in terms of expended effort. Suddenly, I was moving at high speed, thankful to be relieved from breaking trail. I thought about the people who had made the track and how I was connected to them in some way. Since the snow had fallen overnight, I knew these unknown helpers were not that far ahead of me. Since the trail ended at the mountaintop I could deduce that my helpers had done an out and back to the peak. Somehow their proximity made me more aware of the fact that I was receiving a gift and that probably someone else would be the recipient of my trail breaking..

Recently, I listened to the Ninty Nine Percent Invisible episode entitled “Trail Mix.” I was struck by one of the stories that described trails as the oldest form of infrastructure. The narrator shared that people leave a part of themselves on the trail when walking along it. Using trails is connecting to a community of walkers, as you build something together. Trails are often created over time, organically, as the impacts of foot steps define a noticeable trail that others follow. The routes smooth out and become more efficient over time. The episode made me think about the long history of trial making and following in the human experience. There is something ancient and foundational about the relationship between humans and trails.

I often go hiking or running for solitude and to immerse myself in the experience of wilderness. I had thought of these experiences as a one directional process where the wonder of nature enters my mind through the senses. As I reflect on the episode and my own trail experiences, I am now considering that following trail is a two way process. Certainly the natural environment enters my mind through my senses on the trail. But I agree with the podcast that I am leaving a part of myself on that trail. I am connecting to something in the process of following the trail that includes the geology, the forest, the animals, the plants and the people who cohabit the space. Maybe looking at experience as something that enter my mind needs modification. Maybe experience is about connection and creation rather than taking something in. Maybe that is why trails have always been such a powerful meditative experience for me.

In Boulder I have joined a number of trail running groups that go out in the mornings and evenings to adventure on the many available trails. This has been a great way to meet new people, learn about trails to explore and feel connected in a new place. This makes me think more about the connective nature of following trails.

On one of my backpacking adventures in Utah, I was walking upstream, knee deep in the Escalante river. The shores were too steep to allow for dry travel. As I made my way North I looked up longingly at the expansive plateau on my left. I aspired to climb out of the canyon onto the plateau before nightfall to get a spectacular view, a change of surroundings, and a chance to dry out my shoes before the sun went down. The cliffs below the plateau looked steep and inaccessible. I was hoping to find a manageable ascent out of the canyon, but was not sure if I could spot a suitable route from my position. This part of Escalante National Monument did not have any labeled trails on my topo map so I was pretty much on my own to route find. I had read some of the guide books and had some ideas of how to accomplliish my goal, but nothing was well defined or certain. I came to a dry riverbed estuary on my left and wondered if I should go in and explore it. Then I noticed a pile of rocks on the shore possibly a cairn placed for my benefit. Had someone had left me a sign? Were they were telling me to take this path to ascend onto the plateau?

I followed the dry river for about 30 minutes up into this side canyon. The canyon walls on either side of me were steep and imposing. I continued up a few ledges where water once flowed like a water fall. I came into a circular basin with angled, but climbable walls. I made my way up to the top of another ledge. Then I followed steep incline after steep incline of somewhat loose but manageable rock and earth. Eventually I made my way to the very top of the plateau after 90 minutes of strenuous climbing.

When I got tot the top I enjoyed the cool breeze of dry air flowing along the plateau. Soon my shoes were dry and my feet were comfortable. I was thankful that I had been given the gift of a marked trail. I started to realize that my entire journey through Escalante had been somewhat defined by trails even though the maps had few of them marked. In fact you could say the same thing about many of my outdoor adventures. I started to wonder how much of my life experiences might best be understood as traveling down a path formed by others that I follow and create at the same time. There is plenty more to contemplate about trails and experience, but the most important aspect is the joy it brings me. When I travel down a trail in the wilderness I feel calm, relaxed and connected.

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Greg Benedis-Grab

exploring the intersection of coding, education and disciplinary knowledge