WHEN I FIRST moved to Lexington, Kentucky in 2015, I had the great privilege of having the poet Nikki Finney (no relation) show me around my new home. As I admired the rolling landscape from the passenger side window of her car, she told me about a term architects use to describe the way in which people (and, I have since discovered, animals, too) don’t always take the path that has been built for them, but instead carve their own way: They call this a “desire path or line.”
I became fascinated with the term. According to web designer Steven Bradley, “desire lines are the unpaved paths that are developed over time by human and animal footfall.” Other definitions use phrases like “an unplanned route or path” (Merriam Webster) and “the shortest and most easily navigated route” (Wikipedia). What is implied is that we are driven by practical and selfish needs, and we want to get where we’re going the quickest way possible. Our choices are somehow singular, linear, and literally straightforward. But I’m not sure that’s always true.
Earlier this summer I was at the High Line in New York City for a photo shoot for the podcast, The Trail Ahead co-produced by Faith Briggs and Addie Thompson, which creates a unique space to talk about “environment, race, history, and culture.” I had never been to the High Line and was excited to discover this reimagined, elevated, green space on Manhattan’s west side. Walking along the old railroad line, surrounded by trees and buildings, old and new, I could feel the energy of all the things — the sounds of birds and traffic, the visuals of greenery and graffiti, and people, so many people — and it made sense. There seemed to be no false separation of nature and human-made dwellings. But the 1.45-mile-long path, the High Line itself, was not necessarily practical in any way.
I mean, think about it. As an island, Manhattan is congested with people, buildings, and vehicles. The High Line has attracted more of all three, and property values have soared. While there are some rent-controlled buildings in the area, the place is dominated by new, visually stunning million-dollar condos that are firmly out of reach of residents who have lived in the area for years. “Practical and straightforward” is arguably a matter of perspective. As is what we desire.
I travel to see who we are and who I am, in place.
A few weeks later, I made my way to Camp Denali, a high-end, low-impact wilderness lodge in the middle of Denali National Park in Alaska, where I had been invited to speak. This was my first time at this spectacular, 6.1-million-acre park, and the trip there couldn’t have been farther from my NYC adventure. The nearly two-day journey from my Vermont home culminated in a short flight on a Cessna prop plane, as the only road into the park was unpassable because of a landslide.
The family that runs the lodge created it in the 1950s to provide “active learning experience” and to “foster stewardship of the natural world.” But there was no straight line to follow to get there. As Ginny Wood, one of its co-founders, once said: “The land told us what we should be.” That original desire to “foster stewardship” has shape-shifted over time. This is reflected in the camp’s use of solar energy, its onsite greenhouse, and their composting and recycling of nearly everything while never losing sight of their original dream. The camp’s current owners, Jenna and Simon Hamm, recognize that this wilderness experience is not a door open to everyone. So, they are inviting diverse writers and thinkers to spend time at Camp Denali and consider how the path forward may shift and expand once more.
I travel to see who we are and who I am, in place. How we construct our dreams, and how that’s reflected in the way we lay out our towns and cities, reimagine our green spaces, and create pathways, real and imagined, to a future we aspire to. Whether we find ourselves in a densely populated city or a wild landscape, our ability to get “from here to there” is, in part, informed by who we are and who we are perceived to be. Yes — life will always throw things at us that are not in our control. But what of the barriers we’ve constructed and the biases we continue to nurture that can mean the difference between a dream realized and a dream deferred for someone else? The challenge of our times is to find a way through our complicated past to a reimagined future where we all have a chance to live out our dreams.
We don’t have a paywall because, as a nonprofit publication, our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action to protect our living world. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.Donate
Get four issues of the magazine at the discounted rate of $20.