One morning last week I decided to walk to the Stop-n-Shop for a coke. This required crossing a very busy street, and usually when I walk there eeeeaaaarly in the AM, crossing at a T-intersection on the way is no problem. At 0800 on a weekday? Nope. I decided to stay on “my” side of the big road until I got to a stop-light with a pedestrian crossing.
There are no sidewalks on my side of the road, so I walked on the bit of yard that extended past people’s privacy fences. This is a popular route, and over the years since the subdivision was built and people began walking and riding bikes along this route, they have worn an easy-to-follow rut in the ground. Other major streets without sidewalks have similar trackways. There’s a general understanding in this part of town that pedestrians try to stay off yards unless safety prevents it, and property owners don’t make a fuss so long as walkers/riders stay on the trail.
It got me thinking about old routes and tracks. Humans and other mammals tend to be lazy, and will do their best to find the easiest way to get to or from a place, and will use it over and over and over. Deer and bison left ruts in the soil of North America, some of which are still visible in slanted light if you know where to look (eastern Colorado, western Kansas). In Europe, who knows what animals early humans followed to make trails, then trade routes, then Roman Roads. England is famous for having major highways that overlay Roman roads, and why not? They’re there, they follow the easiest path for vehicles, and no one is going to fuss about the right-of-way.
There are other routes like these all over Europe. Some of the best known are Roman overlays of far older trails, such as those through the great Alpine passes, or the Amber Road through Poland, the Czech Republic, eastern Austria, and then to Italy that by-passes most of the Alpine uplands and the Balkan mountains. In England and Scotland, people find stretches of moor and swamp that have Bronze Age mats in them, masses of carefully assembled wood, reed, and twine that served as safe footpaths through the marshes and that were preserved by the acidic and cold conditions. Ancient humans detested wet feet as much as moderns. Imagine.
I walked along one of their trails near Klagenfurt, beside early Bronze Age burial mounds, and not far from where Napoleon’s army tramped through. Today joggers and hikers use the route. Before the Romans? All the way back to the early Stone Age, per the archaeologists. Warm springs were popular destinations, especially warm springs near a river and a trade route.
Similar trackways have been found in Ireland and in Poland. What is now a marshy peninsula in a lake had once been something else, and the Bronze and Iron Age village called Biskupin has been reconstructed.
Barry Cunliffe points out in his books that the people who moved into Europe from the steppes in the late Neolithic seem to have been curious, and had a bit of wanderlust, because they kept moving west, first into the Balkans and Pannonia, then Central Europe, then western Europe, then Britain and Ireland, and then . . . And they used similar routes over and over, passes and high roads, skirting marshes and rough ground, wearing paths in the ground that lasted for thousands of years. As Kipling said, through Puck of Pook’s Hill:
“Trackway and camp and city lost/ Salt marsh where once was corn/ Old wars, old peace, old arts that cease/ And thus was England born.”
The Cumberland Gap, the trails through Kentucky, Natchez Trace, the Santa Fe trail, Oregon Trail, Jones and Plummer Trail, other routes named by Euro-Americans go far back in time, to the Native Americans and the animals that first used them. We humans seem to leave a trail, a trace, a little hollow in the land saying “we passed this way” wherever we go.