Sunday, August 23, 2015

Wayfinding: a tour of trailmarkings in eight countries.

We take it for granted that the path will reveal itself as we continue on our way. The exit for the 405 south, the entrance to the supermarket, the blinking person on the sign across the road that beckons us to a safe crossing.

This past August I followed a series of signifiers over 75 km of Norwegian plateau still heavily patched with snow from a hard winter and a very late summer. With the map and compass in my partner’s pocket, I found myself looking ahead, always, for the bright red capital T painted on cairns to confirm the route.
Wayfinding on the Hardanger plateau, Norway.

It was like a game of leapfrog: stood at the edge of a snowfield with one red T just behind me, I’d scan the horizon for the next outcropping the minions of the DNT had tucked into the landscape. Sometimes the red vibrated clearly, especially when the sun was bright behind us. Sometimes the silhouette of artfully arranged rocks was obvious on the ridge. Sometimes I walked forward and scoured the landscape before me, feeling gravity loosen just a bit until I sighted the next marker, and hove my steps to it.

Hiking has long been a part of my life, and this year I’ve had the chance to follow trails in a host of new places. Particularly wet and boggy places, since I’m living in Ireland, and places prone to long-lying snow, since my partner and I have indulged our fascination with the Nordic countries.

Having found my mountain legs in the rocky arid US west the northern European terrain has felt alien at times. The environmental challenges have changed my routine, from the foul weather gear I’ve added to my kit to the measured high-stepping gait I’ve developed to stay balanced on slippery bog grass.

These places also presented me with different conventions of the trail. I had 75 km of Norwegian highlands to muse on the different trail markers I’ve seen. Trail signs have to respond to seasonal changes in weather and terrain, so they tell the hiker about the natural world they’re in. They’re likely to be more elaborate in well-used areas, which says something about how valued the space is to those who use it. They’re also cultural markers: the choices of color, material, and pictures, symbol or word all tell something about the people who’ve put them there and the people who find them.

1. ITALY: 

I found this marker on one of my first hikes abroad, in the Abruzzi region of Italy. It felt comfortably close to my home country, dry and warm like California. Trail markers were low to the ground: no threat of bracken growing over them in the Mediterranean climate. The hills were worn into soft shapes and I could hear bells on the livestock in the distance beyond the trees. I found a few shells and wondered at the age of the hills and distance to the sea. The numbers and letters suggest an interconnected system of trails. (I promise to update the location and trail system when I’m reunited with my journals back in the States).

Near Arles, France.

Outside of Arles we followed this little climber stenciled onto the stones toward a famous mesa where Van Gogh painted. The light of the south of France is as intoxicating as they say and I was driven to tears by the landscape. The jetlag and lack of sleep may also have played a part. Standing in the sun I was bathed in gratitude at being in such an amazing place, and filled with frustration at being so exhausted. At this time I’d yet to try rock climbing. I can only imagine what a day at the crag would be like, followed by a rustic meal and a glass of the local crop.


I have a deep appreciation for the ethos of conservation that is so strong in the western United States, and the way that wildlands are celebrated. My parents took us on summer camping trips in the National Parks as children. We earned junior ranger status for attending ranger talks and making sure camps were litter free. The rusticated Civilian Conservation Corps look is inextricably linked to the outdoors for me. Trail signs in California often express the graphic palette laid out in the 1930s by workers given relief jobs building the National Parks during the depression. The NPS was rolled out just in time to preserve lands that would otherwise be rapidly eaten by industrial concerns and general urban sprawl.

Almost to the peak of San Jacinto in Palm Springs, California.

I have hiked hundreds of miles in California. Ironically, I have few of snapshots of the blazes and small tree badges that dot the High Sierra Trail, a 75 mile trek from Sequoia to Mount Whitney that I completed last fall. The HST shares intersections with the John Muir Trail, and the sign-posted junctions felt like celebrations. Not least was the junction pointing us to Guitar Lake, where we'd camp for a night before finishing the hike by summitting Mount Whitney.

On the HST I'd noticed blazes notched into the bark, rectangles atop each other that to me looked like a letter i. I learned later that a whole language of blazes commonly used in North America indicates turnings, intersections, and the start and finish of a trail. These blazes are soft in the landscape, and done properly, are meant not to harm the flesh of the tree.

Blazes commonly used in North American.


I picked up the Baden Powell trail in a suburban neighborhood of West Vancouver. Signage on the sidewalk points you to an address on Panorama Drive to pick up the main trail, and gives you the history of the trail. It was built in 1971 by the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides to mark BC's centennial.

Once amongst the trees a reflective triangular badge dotted the trees, whether standing or fallen. It was much like hiking in the Sierra in California. The trees lent themselves to service. The bright orange badge was always visible in the forest dim, and flashed in the sun. A blue fleur de lis insignia and letters BP kept the builders in mind the whole way.

Walking Deeside, near Aberdeen.

The UK has an extensive system of trails that wend through the countryside, some of which have been in use for hundreds of years. The awesomely named right to roam preserves access to private lands for walking. Coming from California I wince a bit when I see one of these paths. Having long heard outrageous debates about public access to beaches in Malibu I'm given to believe that private property trumps roaming back home, and suspect you might be shot. In the British countryside you’ll come across an odd alley-let snug to the side of someone’s back garden, and yes, you are meant to traipse upon it. I’m sure whomever is enjoying the afternoon sunshine doesn’t want to see my scruffy head bobbing along the fence. Perhaps this is a misperception, and in fact they secretly celebrate my roaming.

On a July holiday weekend I drove from Glasgow to the Isle of Skye. The signs on the roadside pointed up the valley toward the Cuillin ridge. Hiking high was steep and rocky. I hitched up with a pair of German women for an afternoon of high stepping near the Storr. On moors the path underfoot was hard to find at times, with thick heather and bog grasses carpeting the land. I had my first site of the white tufts of bog cotton and the purplish glow of heather on Skye. After repeated hard tracking black mud bares itself in spots, and water catches where the plantlife had been tramped down. So different from the bare dry rock of California, I learned in time to distinguish this muddy track as the path.

Isle of Skye, Scotland.


Most of the time when I'm hiking in the Wicklows it's raining, because that's what Ireland does. Hence I seldom pull out a camera. The shot below, taken on Silsean facing Moanbane, was a rare clear spring day.

A good day out in the Wicklow Mountains, Dublin.

I've encountered postings that mark the boundary of the Wicklow area, and a summit marker on our highest peak, Lugnaquilla (it tops out at 925 meters.) Because the flora is low lying and the bare hills leave nothing hidden, the path will show itself on a good day. But as with most mountains, the high peak can create its own weather. Both times I've hiked Lugnaquilla I've had horrid rain, hail and snow, and the visibility plummeted. That sage advice about carrying a map and compass apply. It would be easy to get lost and caught out in bad weather.


The trek started with one foot ankle deep in seawater. After disembarking the skiff we made a harried dash over seaweed tangling on rocky shore to find the cut upland to the pass. The wind was howling and we knew the visibility – and temperatures – were decreasing at the pass high above Vedileysifjordur. We hurried to get the best of the weather we could. Hunkered into my windproof hood I barely noticed the staves of wood springing up from the boggy terrain. In dry conditions the weather-bleached wood was beautiful. I snapped this one on a hill above our camp in Kerlingarfjöll on a stunning afternoon with glacier vistas and jersey-cow snow plains below.

Trail marker in Kerlingarfjöll , Iceland.

On higher ground ways were marked by massive cairns taller than a man. A guide to the Appalachian Trail notes that “rock cairns can identify a route above treeline and where snow and fog may obscure painted blazes.” These highland routes were used by Icelandic travelers on horse for hundreds of years to make their way through the interior to the annual congress near thingfellir. When we needed to stop we’d often hunker behind the friendly stone hives to block the wind. At times even these dark mounds were swallowed by fog. I was always happy to see them rise out again.


These were not random artful piles of rocks but a nudge to move in a specific direction. The DNT, the Norwegian Trekking Association, has earned their good reputation. In addition to an amazing network of trails for summer hiking and cross country skiing, the DNT maintain a series of mountain huts which are truly blessed outposts when the weather turns foul. In our case, we simply wanted an easy night and the chance to dry our boots after a 20 mile day from our camp just after Stavali to our final hut at Tyssevassbu.

Signposts in Norway point to mountain huts.

The Norwegian mountain huts are justly famed. Stocked with basic provisions and dorm lodging, they function on an honor system. Caretakers stay for spells at some of the huts, but payment for day use and amenities are made by filling out a credit card slip with what you used and sliding it into a safe near the door.

We stopped at Tørehytten on our long day to see if we could rustle a cup of coffee, and shared conversation with a Norwegian man who takes up residence in a hut for three weeks every summer. He was as stocked as the pantry with information about the trail and the landscape, and was keen to trade stories about other travelers and hear where they'd been. He gave us a rundown on the trail users: mostly German, lots of Europeans, and very rarely an American. I was the first one he'd met in two years.

When we were on our way he mentioned that the rivers should mostly be passable by snowbridge, and pulled out a guidebook to give us an estimate of the next leg of our hike. There's nothing like local knowledge when you're finding your way.

1 comment:

  1. You are amazing my dear. Cn we travel sometime soon together? I think I would like to make a blog. A teaching blog. I didn't even know trail markets existed. I miss and love you. What an adventurer!