The informal paths known as desire lines can be found all over the city and all over the world, scarring pristine lawns and worming through forest undergrowth.
–Robert Moor, The New Yorker (Feb. 20, 2017)
I’m intrigued with this notion of “desire lines,” a term I recently learned. Then again, I think I’ve known about them my whole life; I just called them short-cuts. They mark the places where the desire to walk from one place to another overrides the plans of developers and city planners. On this morning’s neighborhood walk I’m eager to see how many I can find.
Oskar and I head off on a familiar route strolling west toward open land we frequent, land owned by my town’s university, Oregon State. Rounding the corner we pass an older woman in a red jacket navigating the street with a cane. On the end of the cane is a tennis ball. She lives on my street but the next block down. Peggy, maybe? As we draw closer she stops to pet Oskar with an outstretched hand.
I tell her his name, to which she replies, “Are you winning any awards, Oskar?”
I chuckle. “Yes, for barking and being naughty,” I say.
She laughs, “Sounds just like my dog.”
We come to our first desire line, a dirt path straight as an arrow.
We come to our first desire line, a dirt path straight as an arrow that cuts through a swath of lawn near a chain-link fence bounding the property of the alternative high school. It was Garfield Elementary School not so long ago, but because there are serious fault lines (this is earthquake territory) that run directly beneath it, the school board deemed it unsafe for young children. Fine for the older at-risk kids, it seems. Go figure.
I imagine an entire network of desire lines running beneath this portion of town, resembling a printed circuit board, where the planet itself is choosing the cracks and fissures it wants to follow, the geo short-cuts it means to eventually take. You can easily walk fifty yards to the end of the block and turn left, but many people don’t. They follow their desire and make the dirt path. This is usually where I let Oskar off leash to run wild for a few minutes before we make our way through College Hill, a historic area of fine older homes on streets lined with towering, leafy oaks. But not today.
I spot a sign: EGGS for SALE – $4
Kids from the alt school are selling eggs and vegetables under a white tent. We chat about their large community garden project and then move on.
By now we’re on the corner of Harrison and 35th, closer to open fields. Good Samaritan Episcopal Church on the corner has a sign out: No matter where you are from, we are glad you are our neighbor.
Suddenly I remember the labyrinth, the centerpiece of their inner courtyard, so I stop to admire it — a beautiful circle of blue-gray slate bordered by red bricks. When it was under construction a few years back I stopped one day to watch the designer work his magic. He was meticulously laying pieces of slate in a bed of sand and pea gravel, carefully following the taut string that formed this ancient pattern of sacred geometry.
A labyrinth must hold the opposite of desire lines. There are no shortcuts here.
Several times in recent years I’ve walked here to pray for family members or wrestle with some deep struggle of my own. Or simply to enjoy the quiet beauty. It seems to me now that a labyrinth must hold the opposite of desire lines. There are no shortcuts here, but rather a forced slowing down to pause in the burden of too much busyness, discover a forgotten truth, re-calibrate the bearings. Perhaps, to hear a still small voice in the center of one’s heart.
From Good Samaritan Church we head down 35th past the OSU married/family student housing, where people are in various stages of moving out. The academic year is almost over. Sounds of hammers, electric drills, lawnmowers, and vacuums ring in the air, along with the scent of fresh paint and cleaning products. Doors sit propped open, yards a-clutter with folded drying racks and plastic riding toys.
Across the street lies a vast unmown meadow of waist-high cheat grass and clover. Someone from the university grounds crew will mow it soon enough. Far to the west across the meadow Mary’s Peak floats in and out of low clouds that look like giant pussy willows in the sky. At 4003 ft. it’s the highest mountain in the Coast Range, the range that tumbles into the Pacific all along the spectacular Oregon coast. The ocean is only an hour away, I remind myself. And like the labyrinth, why don’t I go more often?
We’ve crossed the street now onto the limited access paved lane that winds through OSU agricultural land. The older structures on this little road have names like “Steer-a-Year Feeding Facility” or “Service Bldg #5”, most in rusty corrugated metal. But there are newer industrial chic constructions too, built in the last five years, whose names contain important words like “Research” and “Systems.” Farther down the road on the left side an imposing fence protects one of the newest constructions: OSU Solar Photovoltaic Array – 1435kW.
No hanging out around there unless you’re an official of some kind. Luckily, we’re headed to the Irish Bend Bridge—which is no longer in Irish Bend, a hamlet some ten miles south of town—but situated peacefully in its current home on OSU farmland. Oskar knows the way by scent and by heart, sprinting and leaping like a half-goat. I spy a long white van up ahead with students spilling out like bees from a hive; they’re heading into the woods that border the creek. Probably an OSU lab class, field biology or botany. Oskar is curious but tears past them. Sometimes we’re the only ones on this route, which gives it a more meditative feel. Today it’s busy with bikers, service vehicles, and a few random travelers like us.
At last we arrive at our destination. The final desire line is a worn dirt path to the left of the covered bridge, leading down a steep bank to the coolness of the creek below. I hear him long before I see him. There’s a small gravel shoal which makes a perfect launch pad into the water for a hot and thirsty canine. While I’m dawdling around noticing the deep purple camas blooms and tiny shooting stars hidden among the tall grasses and oaks, he’s leaping in and out, up the path and back down again playing tag with himself. I pinch one of the shooting stars from a nearby cluster and add it to my mini-bouquet: one wild rose, one field daisy, one yellow paintbrush.
Time to saunter our way back home. It’s almost lunch hour and at least one of us is hungry. We will retrace our steps like winding a spool of thread back into our hands. I counted several desire lines today, along with ten signs and four conversations. A writer friend of mine told me the word “saunter” has its origins in medieval French. It means holy ground, san terre, and, he went on to say, when we go out for an extended walk we’re actually making the earth holy ground by showing reverence for the place where we live. Rebecca Solnit, prolific writer and walker, puts it another way, “when you give yourself to places, they give you yourself back.”
We may only find those ancient paths by straying from the familiar ones, the safe ones.
Another famous walker, John Muir, believed we always find more than we seek when we venture out for a walk. Nature offers her secrets; we have only to be attentive and receive them. Scripture, too, invites us to seek out the ancient paths, where the good way is, and walk in them. It occurs to me that following the spirit sometimes takes us off-road.
Perhaps that’s the real appeal of those universal desire lines. Perhaps they reveal our spiritual longing for communion – with the earth, with each other, with our Maker. Who wouldn’t want a shortcut for that?