Terroir of Trails: Historical Threads Woven into Trails

An exploration of trails, not just as physical routes but as rich narratives steeped in the legacy of past societies.

Written by
Dillon Osleger
min read
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Diving into the historical essence of trails, Dillon Osleger's third article in the 'Terroir of Trails' series, 'Historical Threads Woven into Trails,' reimagines the concept of terroir to encapsulate the intricate blend of history and culture inherent in these paths. This installment guides readers to perceive trails not just as physical routes, but as rich narratives steeped in the legacy of past societies. From the bustling ancient trade routes brimming with cultural exchange to the secluded paths shaped by nomadic lifestyles, each trail is portrayed as a unique story, echoing the deep interplay between humans and the landscape. Osleger's exploration promises a transformative look at trails, showcasing their significance as channels of cultural heritage and bearers of humanity's enduring connection with the natural world.

Dillon Osleger is a regular contributing author and the creator of the Terroir of Trails series. To get caught up, read his introduction to the series as well as the follow up, Making Sense of Earth and Time, before exploring this next instalment of his ongoing series.



In the realm of trails, a singular concept is often overlooked, this concept; however, is overarching in its encapsulation of trails in their whole from past to present — this is the notion of "terroir." Originating from the world of 14th century French viticulture, where it denotes the unique characteristics of a wine imparted by the specific environment in which each bottle is produced, terroir can be aptly applied to trails. Trails, much like fine wines, carry the distinct imprint of their surroundings, reflecting the intertwined influences of history, culture, and landscape. The historical facet of terroir when relating the concept to trails is akin to the aging process of a heritage pinot noir within barrels, capturing the essence of bygone eras. 

Each trail tells a unique story, imprinted with the footprints of the societies that traversed its course. Ancient trade routes bear the historical terroir of cultural exchange, embodying the richness of human connections, economic activities, and the exchange of ideas that unfolded along their paths. Trails far in the backcountry are ingrained with the historical terroir of nomadic living, reflecting the migratory patterns of communities adapting to their environments. These pathways, etched by generations, passed down through oral tradition, carry the wisdom of coexistence with nature, encapsulating a historical terroir that mirrors the delicate balance between humanity and the land.

At the core of every trail lies a historical narrative, an account of human movement, migration, and exploration. The evolution of each trail reflects the changing needs and aspirations of societies, providing a tangible record of human progress.

It is through this heritage and evolution that trails transcend their physical existence, becoming cultural landscapes that symbolize the stories, traditions, and identities of the communities they traverse. Any trail’s extent through diverse ecosystems and communities, acts as a living testament to the cultural richness of the regions it bisects. The trail's shelters, traditions, and unique camaraderie among users contribute to a shared cultural experience that transcends geographic boundaries. 

"At the core of every trail lies a historical narrative, an account of human movement, migration, and exploration."

It is these cultural factors that act not only as the impetus for a trail’s creation, but equally so for its continuation of use. While some trails may be kept alive by pilgrimage routes, etched and enriched by apostles seeking shared religious fulfillment, others yet are kept in use through tradition, be that races, festivals, or fastest known times (FKT) that enrich their historical significance with each step.



But what does all of this look like in real life? How is history embedded into sinuous lines of dirt often seen as pathways for opportunity to escape civilization? Sometimes the hardest things to see are those that have always been there, prevalent above all else to a degree that they are more often bypassed than noticed as unique. 

Across North America many of the roads and trails we know today found their beginnings thousands of years ago as indigenous paths, followed along the landscape more so than etched into it. Countless indigenous peoples carry oral traditions of paths used to live amongst the land, some established for hunting and gathering, some for trade and transit, and others for forms of prayer or respect. These trails flowed across topography just the same as cigarette smoke or rivers, wrapping around obstacles rather than surmounting them.

It is from these earliest of trails that European settlers established their network of carriage roads and pathways. During this period of time, the removal of native people and the amendment of their pathways that were found useful led to an erasure of our preceding history. It was not until the late 1800s that those forgotten pathways would be re-discovered under a renaissance of trail construction demanded by a growing population. 

It was at this time that many communities began to find inspiration from the burgeoning romantic fascination with “wildness”. Artists and authors such as Thoreau espoused transcendentalism, encouraging citizens to find simple living in natural surroundings. This they did, they moved into forests and mountains during warmer months, finding and reforging trails that led to mountain summits. It was during this time that a standardized system for trails was established – blazes were cut into trees (the lowercase letter “I”) to provide on the ground wayfinding, cairns were stacked (piles of rock) to mark summits, and naming convention was given to individual trails themselves. 

"Any trail’s extent through diverse ecosystems and communities, acts as a living testament to the cultural richness of the regions it bisects."

Into the early 1900s, this trend only accelerated, with federal government funding going towards large scale development of nature access on public lands. This work included not only the maintenance of tens of thousands of miles of trail across North America but went so far as to add many thousands of additional miles leading to vistas, fishing lakes, campgrounds, and homesteading cabins.



For the many thousands of years that were put into establishing the trails of North America, it only took a decade of neglect during the second world war for much of this infrastructure to be lost, and with it, that aggregated history. Following the lack of labor available for trail work during the war, the United States government largely shifted public lands funding towards private industry extraction and management, leading to a wholesale loss of many of the trails upon which the U.S. was founded, from coast to coast. 

When we go outdoors to ride, to run, to hike or spend time with family, all that came before us is also underneath us. Along each trail are the braids to those past and forgotten, just the same as the ground hardened under us has been so by the countless passes of those before us, whatever their use or need might have been.

What we “taste” in each trail is largely reflective of what and who came before us, but also relies heavily on the receptivity that we carry with us to see and feel the literal and physical texture along a path. In knowing that the trails of one place carry such history, we might recognize that trails everywhere hold storied chronicles all their own – it is up to us to approach each adventure outdoors as an opportunity to listen, uncover, and savor that which makes each unique.

Trails, as conduits of human movement and cultural expression, provide a lens through which we can explore the rich tapestry of our shared history. From ancient nomadic pathways to modern urban greenways, the evolution of trails is a testament to the dynamic interplay between history, culture, and the natural environment. 

"In knowing that the trails of one place carry such history, we might recognize that trails everywhere hold storied chronicles all their own."

As we continue to forge new trails, adapt existing ones, and find community in events along many, it is imperative to recognize the significance of these pathways as cultural artifacts, preserving their stories for future generations. In embracing the diverse narratives embedded in trails, we celebrate the enduring connection between humanity and the landscapes we traverse.













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Author Bio

Dillon Osleger

Dillon Osleger is a scientist, professional outdoor athlete, and trail advocate whose work centers on the confluence between outdoor recreation and rapidly changing natural environments. Dillon meshes earth science analysis of landscapes & events, written essays, nonprofit trail work, and democratic advocacy in order to drive a narrative of positive environmental action and conservation across the outdoor industry. Dillon’s work has been published in scientific journals, the LA times, Outside Magazine, amongst further lauded industry and editorial outlets.”

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