Trail Legs 2020

It has arrived. The end of a year that will blazon the pages of every future history book. I am struck by how much we have needed this year to end, despite knowing New Year’s Eve is no different than New Year’s Day as far as viruses and all varieties of other societal ills are concerned. We still cling to our beginnings and endings, marks and measures of time, chunked into bite-sized morsels easier to swallow and digest.


How to solve a complex problem? Break it into pieces. How to clean a messy house? One corner or category at a time. How to crawl out from under the weight of the collective loss, pain, and fear this year has brought us? Damned if I know. I’ve typed and deleted way too many words to know what to say to myself, let alone anyone else. Sometimes the only response I can utter to any flavor of angst is through the movement of my legs. By walking. Anywhere.


I walked a lot this year.


I am amazed to discover, as I peruse all the photos I’ve snapped along the way, that I have walked in a wider variety of places this year than ever before. In part because of a long-planned wilderness trek in Wyoming with a friend, but also, as many others did during lock-down days, I spent more time wandering in local communities. I found more beauty there than ever before. Because I needed to.



There is a backpacking term known as ‘Trail Legs,’ which is what one earns after a fair length of time on a long-distance trail. Where your legs carry you more effortlessly than when you started. The heightened ability to endure a long, punishing hike without feeling so, well, punished. Because as much as one trains the body for this at the gym or by walking around town with a big pack on like some kind of tricked-out hobo, it is just not the same as slogging on root-bound, mud-bound, rock-bound hills. All. Day. Long. Trail Legs can only be earned by spending many successive days or weeks on the trail, which is why as a section-hiker whose longest trek has been 5 days, I have yet to experience this. Who knows if I ever will.


But it’s also a metaphor, of course, that illustrates the hard-won gift we give ourselves when we make a routine practice of whatever it is we want to get good at. Even hope itself, I like to say, is a muscle which strengthens as bodies do with daily exercise. I can also speak with authority about a different sort of Trail Legs. As in Legs of the Trail. Which brings me back to the measuring and breaking up of big things. Eleven years ago I decided to start hiking the approximately 2200-mile Appalachian Trail. One section, or leg, at a time. I have completed 55 of these legs, many of them day-hikes, all adding up to 719.5 miles. Each leg has played out like a story, some more epic than others, but they all sit together in my mind like books on a library shelf which I can borrow and study, again and again.



Speaking of books, I think the reason I love section-hiking is the same reason making art in the form of a book seems to resonate with me the most. Books are time-based, containing narratives that depend on a series of visceral interactions in both the making and viewing process. One thing leads to another, and the challenge becomes how to viscerally map the experience in order to share it.


About halfway through this dreadful year I discovered the ‘Are You Book Enough’ monthly challenge on Instagram as I began following more book artists. Sarah Maker @inkandawl, founder of Editions studio in Seattle, initiated the idea in 2017, and it has been binding together artists from all over the world ever since. The monthly challenges have been a true gift to me during this pandemic just as much as walking—each book a leg of a larger creative trail, as with my section-hiking practice. And the true value of both journeys is rooted in the communities that build and continually maintain them. More about my own books can be learned here on my portfolio website.



Being a part of this community challenge has cracked open new worlds of knowledge and opportunities. And as much as I bemoan how easily manipulated we all by our black-mirror-screen feeds, I am in awe of the outpourings of creative works and social justice praxis. On screen. But it’s all about what’s behind the screens, isn’t it? How fiercely humans thirst for the elixir of personal connection, as beached creatures of the sea need their water.



It’s no coincidence I am writing right now about both walking and bookmaking. December’s challenge word was ‘Legs.’ It seems appropriate that I share a little gratitude for my very own and all they have shown me this year. They toured me through Spring and Summer with socially-distanced-but-freewheeling abandon like Huckleberry Finn on his raft. They revealed a rich tapestry of Earthly and historical delights. Old and overgrown Native American trails, a cemetery for enslaved Africans, secluded short-cuts to boulders by rushing streams, and small figurines never noticed before sitting in crevices like guardians of secret worlds.



In September they carried me and my beastly pack to the Mountain West, to the high-altitude wilderness of the Wind River range. They climbed and roamed relentlessly over a geological cornucopia as far as the eye could see. They almost lost me in the whorls of weathered wood and the lands that time forgot.



They lead me back East to Autumn in New England. Back to the place on the AT where I fell last year, landing in the ER with a concussion. Like me, my legs are imperfect and make mistakes. They trip, they fall, but they learn.



My legs have never failed to bring me back to the safety of home, to the neighborhood smells of clean laundry, mowed grass, and wood fires. And when they stop their rushing, searching strides to let me catch my breath, I lose it again at the sight of nature’s magic by my side.



My last book of 2020 is entitled Ten Paces. It features hand-cut footprints and some of my photos of the various places I was privileged to visit this year, and it pays homage to Wendell Berry, who with the following words of wisdom, from The Unforeseen Wilderness: Kentucky’s Red River Gorge, so magnificently expresses all I have learned, and still learn, from the Trail Legs of my life:


“Always in big woods when you leave familiar ground and step off alone into a new place there will be, along with the feelings of curiosity and excitement, a little nagging of dread. It is the ancient fear of the unknown, and it is your first bond with the wilderness you are going into. You are undertaking the first experience, not of the place, but of yourself in that place. It is an experience of our essential loneliness, for nobody can discover the world for anybody else. It is only after we have discovered it for ourselves that it becomes a common ground and a common bond, and we cease to be alone.


And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our feet, and learn to be at home.”


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Peace to all and Happy New Year!

More to come, around the bend…

12 Responses to “Trail Legs 2020

  • What a tribute to the journey that was 2020! The photos, as always, are gorgeous, especially that last one of the gossamer plant with the sun behind it (was that shot in Wind River?). They show me what I saw but didn’t see, even though I was there as witness for more than a few of them. I love seeing through your eyes, Karen. Can’t wait to order a copy of Ten Paces, which will join my rare-edition Teton fold-out on its place of honor in my office. Let me know when it will become available!

    • Melinda, your comment as always means so much to me. The depth of what I learned from 2020 would not be possible without our side-by-side journeying, and I look forward to much more… oh and that shot was actually taken close to home, in Butler Sanctuary/Mt. Kisco… could have been your backyard! Just a plain patch of feathery tall grasses a few paces off the trail, capturing the late-day sun and my eye. Beauty is everywhere 🙂 xox

  • Anonymous
    3 years ago

    A lovely read that gave me time to contemplate and meditate on the past year.

  • David Stapley
    3 years ago

    Karen: You have had an amazing time hiking and photography in your beautiful country. Very inspiring thoughts. Happy New Year and all the best to you and your family from our family in Barrhaven, Ottawa, Canada.

    • Hey cousin! I really appreciate your kind words, and send best wishes back to you and the family in beautiful Canada!

  • Anonymous
    3 years ago

    Karen, your photos are so incredible! And your words so eloquently said. Hope to bring my trail legs to hike with yours one day!

  • Dave Southam
    3 years ago

    Simply AWESOME!!! I am in awe of all you have done this past year, despite all the challenges, and all you will do this coming year and beyond! Happy New Year! ☮️?

  • I love all your words and photos, especially the sunlight physics embodied in the grasses of the last photo, and the feeling I get from the first one (think of relaxing on a sailboat with the spinnaker billowing out front)! As I read, I feel as if I, too, am exercising while hiking in spirit with you! ?

    • Ah thanks, I am so glad! Yes, that shot of sunlight through tall weeds was surprise treat for me, just a small patch of tall grasses in the woods as the sun was setting: big magic. ??


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