Trail Mix

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U.S. Forest Service [00:01:21] Trails take a beating every year from the elements and from heavy or improper use. 

Roman Mars [00:01:27] You’re listening to an excerpt from an official Forest Service video made in 1995. It’s called “Basic Trail Maintenance.” As you might expect from something filmed in the ’90s, this video features acid washed denim and a narrator dressed like Laura Dern from Jurassic Park. This video also contains some practical information for Forest Service employees and other trail workers about how to build and care for hiking trails. 

U.S. Forest Service [00:01:53] A good trail is one that is easy to follow and well-maintained. Each trail is designed, constructed, and maintained to meet specific standards. These standards relate to the recreational experience the trail is intended to provide. 

Roman Mars [00:02:08] I find this video delightful, and not just because of the amazing soundtrack. It also takes the humble trail–something many of us take for granted–and deconstructs it. So, over the next two episodes, we’re going to do the same. 

U.S. Forest Service [00:02:22] We’re going to show you some of the basics–things you can do to keep trails in good shape now and in the future. 

Roman Mars [00:02:28] We’re bringing you two episodes of short stories all about trails. I first read Robert Moor’s book, On Trails, when it came out back in 2017, and I was immediately pulled in not just by the writing–which is lovely, by the way–but also by Robert’s attention to detail. He has this amazing way of drilling down into some of the smallest, most elemental questions about trails, including possibly the most fundamental question of all: What even is a trail? 

Robert Moor [00:03:03] It’s hard to define, actually. I spend a lot of time thinking about that. 

Roman Mars [00:03:07] This is author Robert Moor.

Robert Moor [00:03:09] And I think that the key aspect of a trail is that a trail is a line that evolves. It’s something that we follow–where each time you walk, you’re leaving a slight bit of yourself behind. And the next person who comes picks up on those signals that you’re leaving, and they leave their own signals. And over time, it keeps changing subtly. So, let’s say there’s a big curve in the trail, we’ll take the inside of that curve, and we’ll shave it down and shave it down until it’s a straight line. In a curious way, a trail is something that’s both terrestrial and liquid–and that’s what I find beautiful about them. Unlike roads, you know, or especially railways, which are so fixed–they’re laid down in an almost authoritarian way–a trail is very collaborative and organic. 

Roman Mars [00:04:07] Something that stands out for me in Robert’s writing is the focus on the nonhuman world. To me, there’s this sense that trails are deeply human creations. Like, when I think about a trail, I imagine someone bushwhacking a path through tall grass or hiking through the woods. But in fact, trail building is a tool that is nearly universal to life on Earth. 

Robert Moor [00:04:26] On the smallest scale, I think a lot of animals are using trails as a form of externalized intelligence. So, ants are the most famous example. They leave behind these pheromone trails, which are invisible. And yet these very simple signaling mechanisms–just laying down a little bit more or a little bit less pheromones–creates these incredibly intelligent solutions to finding food, finding, you know, one another… It’s quite incredible what they’re able to do with just the very, very simple mechanism of “Follow me. Come this way. Don’t go that way.”

Roman Mars [00:05:05] One of the most fascinating parts of On Trails is about a single celled organism called “slime mold.” Robert writes about an experiment where scientists in Japan and England created a map of the most densely populated areas of Tokyo with each key point marked by a cluster of food. Then they brought in the slime mold. What happened next is that, incredibly, the slime mold built a network of trails between the points that almost exactly mirrored Tokyo’s actual railway system–a system which, by the way, is one of the most efficient in the world. The findings point to a shared logic of efficiency that has informed cross-species trail building for millennia. 

Robert Moor [00:05:45] If you think about how we were building trails before the advent of hiking trails–what was happening was we were collaborating with animals. When humans were walking across the landscape, we were following the trails that were laid out by deer or bison. In Africa, oftentimes they follow elephant trails. Those were well known to be the best routes across a landscape. They found the shallowest ford across a river or the shallowest path across the mountains. All of these animals were collaborating, and you’ll still see it today. You know, I go trail running every weekend and will often see a black bear ambling down the trail. Well, that’s because that’s the path of least resistance. So, we’re all working together on the landscape to create a really vast map of trails that covers the whole continent. 

Roman Mars [00:06:34] As Robert tells it, this desire for the path of least resistance is what unites the human and nonhuman world in our trail building. But it’s also where human trails set themselves apart. Where animal trails almost always find the most efficient route between resources, our own trails are determined by another set of rules entirely. 

Robert Moor [00:06:54] The modern hiking trail is the most illogical thing you can imagine from a sheer efficiency standpoint. We go up to the highest mountains. We follow these really torturous paths that no animal or really most indigenous societies would have followed. And the reason why is because we’re following our own cultural values. We’re looking for a beautiful vista. We’re looking to challenge ourselves against, you know, this rough wilderness. We’re doing things that a sheer efficiency equation would never predict. 

Roman Mars [00:07:29] In other words, our modern hiking trails are built following a logic that is uniquely inefficiently human. It’s a task that brings along with it a whole grab bag of considerations about what makes a trail not only functional but pleasurable for the people who are going to be using it. This brings us to our second trail story–from 99PI producer Kurt Kohlstedt. Hey, Kurt. So usually you’re the train guy, but today you’re all about trails. What kind of trail story do you have for me?

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:07:58] Well, Roman, when I was a kid, my dad–who was a professor of geophysics–used to take field trips of grad students to the Black Hills of South Dakota each year. And he’d take me along some years, too. We’d hike up and down these trails, zigging and zagging our way through the trees. And I remember feeling at the time like these paths looked natural–like we were treading where animals had walked for millennia. But that childhood guess of mine–that these were ancient pathways–was way off the mark because those Black Hills trails and pretty much every other trail you’ve ever walked on is anything but natural. 

Roman Mars [00:08:37] Okay, explain what you mean by that. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:08:38] I mean that across the nation, tens of thousands of miles of trails managed by state and federal governments–including everything from local trails to high profile hikes like the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail–they’re all engineered, built, and heavily designed to maintain a sort of naturalistic illusion, creating a, quote, “wilderness experience for visitors.”

Roman Mars [00:09:01] Right, right. Like, they just kind of happened. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:09:03] Yeah, exactly. Like, “Maybe some wild animal just happened to be tramping back and forth and create this narrow trail between, say, a parking lot and this lake near the parking lot that visitors want to visit?” 

Roman Mars [00:09:15] It’s really fortuitous for us that, you know, animals anticipated our parking needs.

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:09:20] It’s very much so. 

Roman Mars [00:09:22] So how does this all work? Like, how do you create these naturalistic trails? I mean, I picture there’s these sort of interns, you know, hiding in the forest. They scatter some stones. They put leaves on paths so that we know where we’re going. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:09:34] I mean, it sounds silly, but that’s much closer to the truth than you might imagine. In fact, the job of making sure that trails feel natural falls to a whole bunch of people. You’ve got National Park Service employees, biologists, ecologists, botanists, planners, designers… And then, of course, you do have the on the ground trail workers, who execute this vision. 

Roman Mars [00:09:56] Okay. So, what exactly are folks doing to create the illusion of a naturalistic trail? 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:10:02] Well, it all starts at the beginning when they’re clearing the trail. And I first learned about how extensive a project this could be from a fan of the show who wrote in named Kelly Kate Warren. And she introduced me to her boss, a program director at the U.S. Forest Service named Mike McFadin. And between them, I started to learn about some really fun trail building techniques with interesting names like “The Velvet Hammer.”

Roman Mars [00:10:30] Okay, so what is the technique of the Velvet Hammer? 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:10:34] Well, the idea is that trail workers are going to make an impact. That’s inevitable, and that’s the Hammer part. But they can be deliberate and careful about reducing the visibility of that impact. And that’s the Velvet part. 

Roman Mars [00:10:48] And what does this look like in practice? 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:10:50] So, for example, Mike McFadin told me that one method involves using colored flags. When establishing a new trail, he and his crew would deploy a line of yellow flags to mark the path of that trail that they’re working on. But they’ll also put down red flags next to bushes or shrubs they want to preserve and make sure to walk around. So, take a sapling, for instance, that workers want to preserve. They might use a string to bend it out of the way and then later cut that string, letting it bounce back into place. And then other times they’ll uproot and replant entire shrubs if, you know, avoiding them or bending them is just too tricky. And when it comes to trails, we’re talking about, in some cases, dozens of workers all camping for weeks on the site. So, trail workers also have to mitigate the impact of their own presence. McFadin has another hack for leaving no trace in these situations, which he calls “The Reverse Dog Departure. 

Roman Mars [00:11:44] Okay, what is that? 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:11:46] So, you know when a dog is going to lay down, they often circle the spot, looking and sniffing around before curling up? This is like that but in reverse. Crews are supposed to circle their campsite as they pack up and leave, making sure no wrappers or other artifacts are left behind. And they take this pretty far. The final step, as he explained it to me, was that you get up and–the place where you’re sitting–you basically kick dirt over your own butt print so that even that becomes invisible in your wake. 

Roman Mars [00:12:17] So I’m starting to get an idea of the scope and scale here, which I don’t think I really fully picture. Even if I had, you know, grown to accept that these trails were not natural and took some effort to make, I had no idea how much they were disturbing to create them and then how much they had to remediate after the fact. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:12:37] Yeah, it’s really remarkable. And McFadin gave me the example of a two-foot-wide trail requiring up to a 20-foot-wide impact corridor, which is a lot to mitigate. And so, keeping existing features helps maintain the illusion of this thing being older and not being clear cut. And other little detail work helps too, like turning over rocks so that their weathered side face up or moving phone logs near the pathways–that kind of thing. 

Roman Mars [00:13:05] I mean, how common is it for, you know, a trail to get this kind of no stone unturned treatment? 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:13:12] Well, as you might imagine, it’s the most heavily used trails that get the treatment like this. The smaller trails get less because, you know, the bigger the trail, the more popular the trail is, the more this kind of effort is required to go in and offset all of that impact being made by all of those hikers and to keep that trail feeling much more untouched by humans than it really is. 

Roman Mars [00:13:32] We have talked about this, like I know that wilderness isn’t natural as such. It’s a kind of human construct. But still, this level of staging–20-foot wide swaths to create a two-foot-wide trail–I mean, that means you’re hiding 90% of your impact on the forest when you make a trail. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:13:48] Yeah, it’s super impressive. And the whole endeavor reminds me a lot of theatrical set design. You know, the careful staging of this backdrop all for the benefit of an audience. And this audience doesn’t end up seeing most of the behind the scenes work that goes into the show. If they’re doing the job right, these creators effectively erase signs of their own creative efforts to maintain this illusion for you. 

Roman Mars [00:14:12] But, you know, feeling natural is only, like, one aspect of a trail. I mean, fundamentally, what you need to have a trail work is for the trail to bring you from point A to point B. How do they make that work? 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:14:26] A lot of trail design actually goes into subtly communicating how to get from point A to point B and also how not to get to point C. So part of what it means for a trail to work is that it diverts people away from hazards like precarious cliffs or places that you’re not supposed to go, like private property, while also bringing hikers where they want to go–to scenic overlooks, waterfalls, and that sort of thing–because if the trail doesn’t take them to those, you can bet that people will travel through the forest and get there anyway. 

Roman Mars [00:14:56] Yeah, totally. So, the big picture is for a trial to be successful, it avoids the bad and dangerous places and also takes you to good places so that you can take pictures for Instagram and that sort of thing. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:15:10] Yeah, avoid the bad, take you to the good, and do it all with a set difficulty level that is specific to each trail. So that might involve steeper slopes, but it can sometimes even involve rolling rocks or logs onto a trail to keep up its difficulty quotient. 

Roman Mars [00:15:29] Okay, so you’re saying that if something has a known difficulty rating, they will purposely put hazards in the way to make that trail difficulty consistent? 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:15:42] That’s correct. And it really kind of blew my mind. This was, like, the last rabbit hole I fell down with this project. I was like, “No way.” You know, you could spend a lifetime on this stuff. 

Roman Mars [00:15:54] Yeah. Well, I’ll remember that next time I’m, like, sweating and panting as I hold myself to a boulder…

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:16:00] Somebody did this to you. 

Roman Mars [00:16:02] Somebody did this to me, and it wasn’t nature. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:16:04] That’s right. 

Roman Mars [00:16:06] It was just somebody in the wilderness. This is awesome, Kurt. Thank you so much. I’m going to have so much fun decoding and sort of, like, looking for the visual language of trails next time I walk on them. 

Kurt Kohlstedt [00:16:18] Awesome. 

Roman Mars [00:16:25] Our next story comes to us from 99 API listener Joelle McNichol, who sent us a voice memo from her local hiking trail in the craggy north of England. 

Joelle McNichol [00:16:36] Hi there. This is Joelle. I’m listening from Calderdale in Yorkshire in the north of England. Big fan of the show. Thought I’d record you this while I’m out on my dog walk, which is where I normally listen to the show. So, I just thought while I’m out on this walk, I would record a short one about the very woods that I’m walking through. It’s a beautiful valley. It’s got very steep sides with moors on the top and great deep hillsides with great big craggy rocks. And the whole valley is studded with these tall round chimneys–many of which just pop up in the middle of the woods, halfway up a hillside. All of them are remnants of the industrial past of the valley when it was full of cotton mills. And crisscrossing this wood is an incredible number of footpaths, which represent so much labor and work. There’s great stones that are cut right into the hillside. And it just seemed kind of senseless because there’s so many of these paths really close together. Like, there’s one point where six parts meet in one place, like a sort of junction, like a sort of, you know, great big motorway junction of the footpaths in the middle of the woods. So, I said, “Why on earth was all this effort put in to make these footpaths?” And I’ve since found out, and it’s a really interesting story. So, in 1862, most of the mill workers were refusing to work–they were refusing to work in factories–because they didn’t want to use the cotton that was being imported from the slave plantations in America. There was huge support for the abolition of slavery in this area. There were a lot of cooperative businesses. There was a lot of Quakers. And it was such a big industry here–such a big market for American cotton–that it helps contribute to the end of the Civil War. So, you had this sort of, you know, quite a long patch of time where the workers were refusing to work in the mills. And so, some of the philanthropic employers found other things for those workers to do. And one of the things that they did was to employ them to build all of these paths. So, yeah, this is sort of a surprising history of these crazy paths in my woods. Anyway, it just struck me as a 99PI type of mini story, and I thought I would record it for you as I walk. And, yeah, I hope you found it interesting. All right. Thank you. 

Roman Mars [00:19:32] Cumbria is a region of England on the west coast, bordering Scotland to the north. It contains the Lake District National Park and lots and lots of mountains–or “fells” as they’re known locally. 

Jay Cockburn [00:19:44] It’s also where I grew up before I moved to Toronto. 

Roman Mars [00:19:47] That’s reporter J. Coburn. 

Jay Cockburn [00:19:49] On a shelf at my parents’ house in Cumbria are these seven faded books. Honestly, they look a bit like something out of Lord of the Rings. If you open them up, you won’t find any typesetting–just handwritten texts, along with meticulously detailed pen and ink drawings of the scenery and various paths up the local mountains. 

Roman Mars [00:20:08] This set of seven books make up a Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells by Alfred Wainwright. The books were published between 1953 and 1966 and have become a staple for many Cumbrians, as well as for tourists to the area. Even today, GPS is useful, but a book doesn’t need a battery. And there’s nothing quite like a carefully drawn illustration. 

Jay Cockburn [00:20:31] These books have become so popular that the 214 Lake District peaks in their pages are actually known as Wainwrights. Wainwright Ale is served in pubs, including one in the tourist town Keswick. The pub is called, you guessed it, The Wainwright. For decades now, hikers in the Lake District have been finding their way through the fells of Cumbria, mainly by following one grumpy old dude’s writings up a hill. 

Jay Cockburn (field tape) [00:20:58] When we talk about England being a little green island, it really is much greener than most places. 

Russ Cockburn (field tape) [00:21:02] Oh, God. Yeah. Land of mists and mellow fruitfulness. 

Jay Cockburn [00:21:06] This is a different, less grumpy old dude: Russ Coburn, a.k.a. my dad. All my Wainwright knowledge is from him. 

Jay Cockburn (field tape) [00:21:13] There are very few signposts once you’re up the Fells. And, indeed, most fellwalkers–if you were to ask them–would be against that. They would say, “No, that’s the whole point. The point is adventure. The point is finding your way and navigating.”

Jay Cockburn [00:21:31] When I was back home in December, I cajoled him through a rickety gate into a field full of sheep and mud to follow Wainwright’s directions up one of the smaller hills known as Sale Fell. 

Jay Cockburn (field tape) [00:21:42] Wainwright described it as the cornerstone of the North Western Fells because it sits at the end of the western end of Barton’s White Lake, where the River Derwent turns more.

Jay Cockburn [00:21:57] I’m not sure I’d realized how different hiking is in the UK to North America before I moved to Toronto, Canada, where I live now. 

Roman Mars [00:22:05] In North America, hiking often feels a bit like organized fun. You drive to a parking lot with a nice, laminated map, some toilets, and a well-maintained path. Everything is color coded with explicit signage and markers. You get the idea. 

Jay Cockburn [00:22:19] But back home in Cumbria, you pick a fell from a Wainwright guide, and you get some scrappy directions to a muddy path behind a barn, winding its way through bracken and farmland. And do you hike the way Wainwright hiked with no trailheads–just some chicken scratch and an old book. If I open up Book Six of The North Western Fells and turn to Sale Fell–there are no page numbers, by the way–there are sketches of the Wythop Valley with sheep silhouetted in the foreground. Here’s a passage about the local deer, which praises the Forestry Commission for tolerating them–and a little jab at the hunters who don’t. And here’s a drawing of the ruins of a church to use as a landmark for directions. 

Jay Cockburn (field tape) [00:23:06] They give you pictures, and it helps you to set in your mind the sort of topography of where you’re going. And, you know, you’ll be walking up. “Oh, yeah, he said there’s this tree here or there’s this waterfall here.” And it sort of brings it all into sort of context because they are very, very detailed. 

Jay Cockburn [00:23:27] These books are printed on rugged paper with wide margins, so you can scribble notes. They’re designed to be taken hiking up muddy hills and Cumbrian weather. 

Jay Cockburn (field tape) [00:23:37] People come to the Lake District and complain that it was cloudy, and it rained. I would rather point out the fact that that’s why it’s called the Lake District because it rains. 

Roman Mars [00:23:46] The Wainwright Guides are the way they are in every way because of who Alfred Wainwright was. The way he wrote was typical of his personality–solitary and curmudgeonly. 

Jay Cockburn [00:23:57] His writing is blunt–often opinionated–but very appreciative of the Fells stark beauty. Let me read you what he wrote about another peak called Ling Fell. “Gloomy and sulky even on the sunniest of days. Its lack of visual appeal, however, belies its nature. For the easy slopes and commodious top are extremely pleasant to wander upon.”

Roman Mars [00:24:20] As you might expect from someone who has spent his life wandering hills alone, he was more than a bit introverted. 

Jay Cockburn [00:24:27] He described himself as “antisocial” and that he’d rather be alone. He wouldn’t even say hello to other solo walkers on the Fells. 

Roman Mars [00:24:34] Right now, you’re probably picturing a gray-haired man with a flat cap, pipe, glasses, and mutton chops. This is entirely accurate. 

Jay Cockburn [00:24:43] His obsession with the Lake District began when he was 23, and he saved up £5 to go walking for a week. As he says here on the long running BBC radio show Desert Island Discs… 

Alfred Wainwright [00:24:53] I just couldn’t believe that such beauty could ever exist. It made a whole world of difference to me. And that did change my life. I decided then that this is the place I wanted to live. 

Jay Cockburn [00:25:08] By all accounts, he was an unusual man. He preferred silence to music. And he survived on a diet almost entirely made up of fish and chips. He hated the idea of traveling abroad and never once boarded a plane or boat. 

Alfred Wainwright [00:25:23] I have no ambition to travel abroad. I couldn’t finesse the customs and new currency and the foreign language and the foreign food and the passport. 

Roman Mars [00:25:36] Wainwright didn’t even want to publish his work at first. And when he did, he got a friend to help because he couldn’t face finding a publisher himself. Despite all that, he hand wrote and illustrated seven intricate volumes in 13 years. 

Jay Cockburn [00:25:51] Wainwright was not someone who enjoyed the fame he found. He had moved to Kendal in the South Lakes and got a job at the town hall. He got a salary from that, but he wasn’t rich. And all his book royalties went to animal charities. From there, Alfred Wainwright kept up his solitary hiking as millions of copies of his guides made their way into circulation onto rural English shelves and into muddy backpacks–torn, worn, and rain soaked in many fell walkers’ jacket pockets. 

Roman Mars [00:26:23] Despite his wish to remain solitary, you can still find Wainwright and his guides. When you read his books, the routes often start in the middle of a village or town because that’s where the bus stop or train station was. Wainwright took public transport everywhere. 

Jay Cockburn [00:26:37] I suspect he also didn’t like the idea of spoiling the peace and quiet with the roar of a car. Now there are even some hikers dedicated to doing all 214 fells how Wainwright did them–using only public transport. 

Roman Mars [00:26:52] “Collecting the Peaks” or “Wainwright Bagging” is a common practice in Cumbria. And you can find Facebook groups and Instagram accounts where walkers document their progress. 

Jay Cockburn [00:27:00] Wainwright died in 1991, and these walks are one way he’s remembered. But they’re far from the only way. 

Roman Mars [00:27:07] In the village of Buttermere, nestled between the peaks of Grasmoor and Haystacks, is a low stone church. Inside it is a plaque. 

Jay Cockburn [00:27:15] It reads, “Pause and remember Alfred Wainwright: Fellwalker, guidebook author, and illustrator who loved this valley. Lift your eyes to Haystacks, his favorite place.”

Roman Mars [00:27:34] Our final trail story, at least for today, is after the break. The main reason I enjoy my job is because my team is so good. And attracting the right talent if your team needs to grow is especially hard in the current labor market. ZipRecruiter knows how tough it is right now, but they’ve figured out solutions for the problem you’re facing. See for yourself. Right now, you can join for free at ZipRecruiter is ready to tackle your recruiting challenges. To reach more of the right people, ZipRecruiter posts your job on 100+ job sites. Need to hire ASAP? ZipRecruiter’s Smart Technology finds great matches for your job sooner. Want first dibs on talent? ZipRecruiter lets you invite the most qualified people to apply for your job. ZipRecruiter’s pricing is straightforward. There are no surprise costs. Team up with a hiring partner who understands what you need. ZipRecruiter. Four to five employers who post on ZipRecruiter get a quality candidate within the first day. Just go to this exclusive web address to try ZipRecruiter for free. Again, that’s ZipRecruiter–the smartest way to hire. If you want to give your body the nutrients it craves and the energy it needs, there’s Ka’Chava. It’s a plant based superblend made up of superfoods, grains, proteins, omegas, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and probiotics. In other words, it’s all your daily nutrients in a glass. Some folks choose to take it as the foundation of a healthy breakfast or lunch, or others lean on it as a delicious, protein packed snack to curb cravings and reduce grazing. If you’re in a hurry, you can just add two scoops of Ka’Chava superblend to ice water or your favorite milk or milk alternative and just get going. But I personally like to blend it with greens and fruit and ice. You know, treat yourself nice. Take a minute and treat yourself right. You’ll get all the stuff that you need and feel great. Ka’Chava is offering 10% off for a limited time. Just go to–spelled k.a.c.h.a.v.a.–and get 10% off your first order. That’s The best thing about summer is getting to do all your favorite indoor things outside, like sharing meals and accidentally falling asleep on the sofa. Article’s curated catalog of outdoor furniture is here to help you do all your favorite things this summer. They’ve got everything you need, from outdoor sofas to dining sets to decor. Their team of designers is all about finding the perfect balance between style, quality, and price. And they’re dedicated to thoughtful craftsmanship that stands the test of time. Article offers fast, affordable shipping across the U.S. and Canada. You just pick the delivery time, and they’ll send you updates every step of the way. I have a beautiful Article outdoor dining set. It’s kind of this heavy, wood, three-piece picnic table kind of thing, and it is robust. It is quality. Article is offering our listeners $50 off your first purchase of $100 or more. To claim go to, and that discount will be automatically applied at checkout. That’s for $50 off your first purchase of $100 or more. This show is sponsored by BetterHelp. Sometimes we’re faced with a crossroads in life, and we don’t know which path to take. Maybe you’re thinking about a career change, or you’re feeling like your relationship needs a little TLC. Whatever it is, therapy can help you map out your future and trust yourself to find your way forward. If you’re thinking about starting therapy, give BetterHelp a try. It’s entirely online. It’s designed to be convenient, flexible, and suited to your schedule. Just fill out a brief questionnaire to get matched with a licensed therapist, and switch therapists at any time for no additional charge. Let therapy be your map with BetterHelp. Visit today to get 10% off your first month. That’s Our final trail story today comes from reporter Chris Berube. Chris, what do you have for us? 

Chris Berube [00:31:55] Well, Roman, a couple of years ago, I was visiting my grandma in Montreal. And that’s where my hiking story comes in. 

Roman Mars [00:32:01] So is grandma a big hiker? 

Chris Berube [00:32:03] She’s 92 years old, so, no. It’s not about her. She’s very active for a 92-year-old. But this is a story about me attempting to hike. So, I’m not much of a hiker, but I was hoping to get into it. And I had this free morning in Montreal, so I decided to hike up Mount Royal. So, Mount Royal–it’s this mountain in the middle of the city. It has this summit with a beautiful view. It kind of oversees everything. And there’s also a park in the mountain that was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead. 

Roman Mars [00:32:31] Yes. The designer of Central Park. Yeah.

Chris Berube [00:32:34] The designer of Central Park. That’s right. I highly recommend it if you’re ever in Montreal. Check it out. And I had done this walk at Mount Royal actually a lot of times when I was a kid, so there was some nostalgia for me. But I couldn’t really remember how to get onto the trail. So, I type in “Mount Royal Summit” on my phone, and my phone directs me to this entrance. And at the entrance there’s this big wooden staircase. And that was kind of surprising. Like, I had no memory of this big wooden staircase. 

Roman Mars [00:33:00] So it’s a mystery staircase. 

Chris Berube [00:33:01] It is a true mystery staircase. So, I start climbing up. I’m like, “Okay. Probably the staircase will drop me off at the trail at some point.” So, I’m going up a flight of stairs, and there’s a landing. And then you go up another flight of stairs, and there’s another landing. And then another flight of stairs and there’s another landing. And after a couple of minutes, I’m starting to wonder if there’s ever going to be a way off the staircase because so far there hasn’t been an exit. And there’s no sign suggesting that you’re going to get off it at some point. So after about 5 minutes… I like to think I’m in pretty good shape, but I’m not used to climbing that many stairs. I’m starting to sweat a little. You know, it’s a really hot day, and I’m just climbing and climbing. And at some point, I decide, “Okay, maybe I should just start recording myself, for my loved ones, I guess, if I never get off the staircase.”

Chris Berube (field tape) [00:33:53] About 10 minutes into the walk, and I see no end in sight. 

Chris Berube [00:34:00] So at some point, I’m starting to wonder if I’m ever going to get off the staircase. 

Roman Mars [00:34:04] Yeah, that’s fair. Well, I assume you made it off at some point. 

Chris Berube [00:34:08] No, I’m calling you from the staircase. I’ve been recording there for the past several years. No, I kept going. I kept going. I kept going. I get up to the top of the staircase. And at this point, I’m sweating, and I’m wondering, like, “What happened?” So, I take out my phone and I pull up a map of Mount Royal. And everything becomes clear really quickly because on the map, on one side, there is this nice, gentle looking trail–the Olmsted trail. And that’s the one that I remember from being a kid. But instead, I went the other way, and it took me up the Staircase, which is evidently what I ended up taking. Now, I could have avoided this if I had spent more than, like, 10 seconds looking at my phone and just going, “Okay, I’ll go this way.” So, I’m embarrassed. But the phone did tell me to go that way. 

Roman Mars [00:34:51] And do you know why your phone sent you up this sort of second route? 

Chris Berube [00:34:57] Well, the trail takes quite a while. It takes over an hour. And the Staircase takes about 20 minutes from the street. So, my guess is my phone looked at these options, and it was like, “Okay, this is the fastest way up.” So, it just sent me the fast way up. Now, look, ultimately, this was not a bad thing for me. You know, I got some exercise. Things turned out fine. But I’m not the only person who has made this mistake of relying on my phone when I was hiking. And it’s actually been a much bigger problem for other people. 

Wesley Trimble [00:35:25] There’s been a number of stories of people using Google Maps specifically or folks that are using apps that are more geared, I would say, to car navigation. 

Chris Berube [00:35:35] So this is Wesley Trimble, and he used to work as the creative director for the American Hiking Society. 

Wesley Trimble [00:35:41] We hear stories all the time of, like, people saying, “I want to go to the top of such and such mountain,” and it just basically says, “All right, here’s the point A to point B,” which can put people into some great harm because the shortest route is almost never the best route. 

Chris Berube [00:36:01] So that’s how you end up with something like taking a never-ending staircase. Or there are so many cases that are just so much worse. So, there is a story from a couple of years ago in Scotland where Google Maps was creating this path for hikers on Ben Nevis. That’s this 4,500-foot mountain. And it was creating this path that it went off trail. It was telling hikers to climb over this kind of very steep, rocky terrain. And Mountaineering Scotland had to get involved, and they called the trail “potentially fatal.” So, Google ended up changing it. There’s just so many stories of hikers getting lost or taking these weird routes because the mapping software is telling them where to go. So, if you’re hiking–especially if you’re in a new place–using the built-in map on your phone is probably not a good idea because they’re just not designed for that. 

Roman Mars [00:36:55] So what should people do instead? 

Chris Berube [00:36:58] Well, there are all these mapping apps that you can download that are actually designed for hiking. So maybe you’ve heard of AllTrails. That’s the most popular version of that. But Wesley told me there are problems with some of those apps as well. 

Wesley Trimble [00:37:10] Some apps use user generated data. In that case, the trail information is only as good as the person who put it there. 

Chris Berube [00:37:20] One of the problems with crowdsourcing an app like this is that a lot of more experienced hikers will go on and they will often put in something called Rogue Trails. So, these are animal trails or DIY trails or basically something that is not maintained by an official person. So, nobody’s going in and making sure that these are safe. And either these are kind of dangerous for inexperienced hikers or sometimes nature comes in and will disrupt trails like that. 

Roman Mars [00:37:49] So is there any way to make sure that you have an accurate map when you’re hiking? 

Chris Berube [00:37:53] Well, the best thing to do–according to Wesley, and according to the American Hiking Society–even if you’re using one of those trail apps, have a backup. So, get a paper map and a compass, and learn how to use them. So, on the official website for the American Hiking Society, it says in bold letters, “Take a map and a compass even on short day hikes. Don’t tempt fate.”

Roman Mars [00:38:17] That’s amazing. So, have you taken to this? Like, do you bring a map and a compass with you when you go on your hikes around Montreal. 

Chris Berube [00:38:27] Since the staircase incident? No, I have not gone outdoors. 

Roman Mars [00:38:32] You’ve learned your lesson? 

Chris Berube [00:38:33] I’ve learned my lesson. I mean, this is a situation where I want to get into hiking, but, Roman, I think I’m old enough now I have to accept who I am, which is somebody who stays home and makes podcasts. 

Roman Mars [00:38:45] That sounds good to the benefit of us all. Well, thank you so much, Chris. I appreciate it. 

Chris Berube [00:38:50] Thanks, Roman!

U.S. Forest Service [00:39:05] Well, now, you know some of the basics. Once you actually construct or maintain a trail, you’ll never look at one the same way again. 

Roman Mars [00:39:15] This is the end of Part One of our Trails Special. Part Two is coming next week. See you then. 99% Invisible was produced this week by Chris Berube, Jay Cockburn, Vivian Le, Kurt Kohlstedt, Lasha Madan, and Kelly Prime. Edited by Kelly Prime. Music by our director of sound, Swan Real. Sound Mix by Martín Gonzalez. Fact-checking by Sona Avakian. Delaney Hall is our senior editor. Our intern is Anna Castagnaro. The rest of the team includes Jayson De Leon, Emmett FitzGerald, Christopher Johnson, Jeyca Maldonado-Medina, Joe Rosenberg and me, Roman Mars. The 99% logo was created by Stefan Lawrence. We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM Podcast Family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora building… in beautiful… uptown… Oakland, California. You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit, too. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love as well as every past episode of 99PI at 

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This episode was produced by Kelly Prime, Kurt Kohlstedt, and Jeyca Maldonado

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