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Paths

The far-voyaging French explorers of North America kept running into one another. One explorer could hardly enter a village without finding another in residence or having just left. They could leave one another letters and expect them to be delivered. In Paris a man could disappear; in the wilderness he had to guard his reputation.

Think of traffic as a force. The canal is the artificial version of something natural – the river; likewise, the road is the artificial version of the path. Roads are permanent; paths, unless anchored by permanent settlements or fenced off by property lines, shift freely. The paradox of the wilderness is that the more open and unobstructed it is, the more traffic can converge along optima conditioned by the difficulty of the terrain, the availability of resources, and the use of waterways. In the wilderness all ways are highways.

When we consider ancient or prehistoric peoples and their connections we should not imagine of a web of short links between evenly spaced nodes, news and goods moseying from village to village; we should imagine them swept up into a handful of gigantic, continental paths: stable in their broad geographic sweep, changeful in their fine, local structure. Call them fractal: at ten thousand feet, there is one path; lower there are ten paths; on the ground there are hundreds of paths, routes and reroutes circumventing any obstacle with the ingenuity of flowing water.

The existence of paths on a continental scale does not imply a continental consciousness. In their scale these great paths would have been invisible to those who used them: like the Silk Road (the last great path), each path would have been cut up by jealous middlemen, until one end of the road was a myth to the other.

One can imagine, if not document, a vision of universal history hanging on a set of Great Paths, where it is not migrations that leave paths behind them, but paths that educe migrations. Paths have always been before us: from the beginning, the human race spread not by spilling over from one valley to the next, but by processes that, pacing the lines of least resistance, became the salients of our advance. The ascent of man was not just something that happened; it was a single phenomenon, having its own structure – structured in paths.