We were traveling along the coast of Cornwall, England in our rental car. We stopped for lunch in the small town of Crackington Haven, and then headed onward — going north from the town and up a rather steep hill, in search of a small seaside church where we had some family connections. About halfway up the hillside, we unexpectedly came upon a little green sign that pointed off to the left of the road: Public Footpath to St. Gennys.
“Stop the car! I’ll take the footpath! I’ll meet you at St. Gennys.” Or so I thought.
The sign for the footpath held a compelling, almost irresistible, draw for me. I waited at the side of the road as Ed shifted gears and once more drove off to find the church. Looking up the hillside to the point where the footpath disappeared from view, I remember feeling a sense of fun and adventure at the prospect of following the well-worn path. I sensed that the footpath held the promise for me of feeling a strong connection with the land not possible when riding in a car.
Robert Macfarlane, in his book “The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot,” published in 2012, states that all footpaths are “old ways” — they have all been created over time, “formed by the passage of many feet.” Macfarlane says he chose to focus on footpaths in his book partly because he found the idea of a network of paths all over the world to be fascinating, “a very different kind of worldwide web.” I love that image. He further described walking as a full-body experience that renders you “unshielded from the world.” The walker has no shelter from the wind, the weather, the insects, the small wildlife, the fences, the other people on the trail. And thus did my small adventure unfold.
Halfway up the first long climb was a bench with an older English couple sitting on it — friendly dog at their feet. The view over the Atlantic Ocean, which they were obviously enjoying, was already spectacular. In his book, Macfarlane said, “Walking a path, you greet or chat with the people you meet.” The three of us were no exception to this truism. The couple recognized me from a churchyard we had all visited the day before and we spoke of the many “jackdaws” that were flying in and out of the bell tower while we were there.
I continued on my way “up” the path, and on finally reaching the top I was, as Macfarlane would say, “wonder-struck” by the unbridled beauty and ruggedness of the expanse of ocean and coastal cliffs that spread out below me. It was a glorious moment, one that rooted me to the spot for a while before I ventured on in the direction I assumed was toward St. Gennys. Since we were basically heading north by road, I took my cue from that and headed further north along the high coastal footpath. At one point I noticed another small footpath sign on a fence post that pointed the way (sort of) toward St. Gennys, reassuring me that I was still on the right track.
But, as it turned out, I wasn’t. The “path” I was on eventually became more or less non-existent, and I found myself walking through scrubby vegetation with no sign of anyone having come this way before. I suddenly felt a wildness about the place and definitely a strong sense of being “unshielded from the world.” I could see absolutely no evidence of a church or any other sign of human presence anywhere. At that point I turned around and made my way back to the main footpath and started back down toward the road, not quite sure what I was going to do. My newly-formed acquaintances were yet sitting on the bench, so I stopped again and asked if they knew how to get to St. Gennys by footpath, explaining what had happened. No, they didn’t know the footpath route, but they were about to go down into town to retrieve their car and would be glad to give me a ride to St. Gennys.
In a very few minutes I was in their car — the dog and I in the back seat, Mr. in the driver’s seat and Mrs. beside him in the passenger seat — heading up the hillside once again, this time going right on past the sign for the public footpath. My small adventure on the footpath ended upon our arrival at St. Gennys. The English couple and I (and their dog) parted with hugs and thank yous. I found Ed out behind the church, studying names and dates on the grave stones. This time, he and I were “wonder-struck” together as we stood and looked out over the coastal land and the ocean.
Footpaths can act as a wonderful metaphor for our journeys through life. I remember what we might call “homely” little paths in our neighborhood from my childhood — across the back yard where we walked everyday as we started out for school; diagonally across the empty lot next to our home, used by all the neighborhood kids to get from one house to another. In summertimes, we would visit my grandparents in northern Wisconsin. A little path wove through the wooded area between their cottage and the next one, a path that we happily used as we played together with the children who lived there. Back home, when a little bit older, we took bicycle rides out of town, carrying a bag lunch, to destinations in the countryside that almost always had a path. One of our favorites was a path that led back through a cow pasture to Peewit’s Nest — a small county park with a rushing creek. This path started with a stile over a fence, just a little ways off the road; who could resist climbing up and down the stile, and then following the path to our much loved picnic spot.
Each path had an aura of taking us somewhere. It called out to be walked, as did the public footpath in Cornwall.
A few years ago we were visiting long-time friends in the state of Kansas. This was new territory to us, and we explored the area by car before heading back home to Wisconsin. One day, as we were driving along a secondary highway, I suddenly spotted a small sign pointing down an unpaved side road; the sign said “Santa Fe Trail Ruts — 50 yards.”
The Santa Fe Trail is an overland trail from Missouri to New Mexico, crossing Kansas, that was used by thousands of pioneers in the United States going West between 1822 and 1866. The ruts were cut deep by the wood and iron banded wheels of the wagons that used that trail over those years. Much of the Trail is no longer visible, having been obliterated by farming and other land uses. But the ruts of the Trail can still be seen in certain places, and many of those sites are marked with a sign.
In a way, the Santa Fe Trail ruts are like a footpath. In addition to the passing of many feet, they have been formed by the passing of many pioneer wagons. The little sign was, to me, like the call of the footpath — the urge to stand where so many have gone before and to experience a deeper connection to the land and its history. And to get some sense of the day-to-day lives of ordinary people who have walked these paths before me. So here we go again. “Stop the car. I’ll get out. I want to see the Santa Fe Trail ruts.”
Christiansen, K. (Jan. 5, 2014). Walking the walk: Robert Macfarlane on ancient footpaths. New York Times.