A few weeks ago, while driving around the heavily suburbanized outskirts of my home town looking for something or other, I began to wonder about all of the businesses I was seeing. In just a short scan of the near horizons, there were several restaurants, a coffee shop, a home center, a shoe store, a drug store, a gas station, a tire store, and a grocery store to name just a sample of the dozens of establishments that were within a few hundred yards of where I was. I’m sure you’re familiar with the scene I’m describing. These sorts of commerce driven landscapes are everywhere in America, and they’re all pretty much the same. What struck me on this particular day was a question that seemed to come from nowhere in particular: How many of these businesses are really necessary?
I know. It’s a loaded question, and you could argue it in many ways. If you want to argue that all of them are necessary because they employ people and keep the economy humming which is good for everyone, I get it. I will neither oppose nor defend that view. On the other hand, if you want to argue that none of them are necessary because we as human existed for thousands of years before such things, and the only necessary things are water, food and shelter, I get that view too, but I will neither oppose nor defend it. I prefer to take the view that some of them are necessary, which of course means that some of them are not.
Our modern economy creates its own markets and its own demand. This idea tends to support the belief that everything is necessary if there is a demand for it, but the word “demand” implies want, not need. Just because there is a demand for M&Ms, doesn’t mean they’re needed. We’d survive without them. I’m not saying it’d be easy, but we could do it. I think.
Our true needs are physical, social, emotional, and spiritual. Generally speaking, only some businesses can really attend to these needs in the modern world. Some of them are provided by public institutions (water). That leaves places like grocery stores (food), and some businesses related to housing (shelter) as necessary businesses for our physical needs. So what about social, emotional and spiritual needs? Restaurants are social places, as are coffee shops, and of course churches (not commercial businesses) do their best to attend to people’s spiritual needs. I’d say the business world is least effective at covering emotional needs. That usually comes from our close relationships with others, and is not easily monetized.
So that brings us to long distance trails. Are they necessary? What needs are they fulfilling? Long distance trails and the non-profit and government entities that run them are never part of the typical suburban retail landscape. In fact, an experience on a long distance trail is a way to disengage from that world – the world which surrounds us and that we only partially need. Long distance trails satisfy every type of need – physical, social, emotional, and spiritual – but in new and unexpected ways, and they also do something else. They test us so that we can find out what we’re made of. If you didn’t know you needed that, you do.
Long distance trails help us become more fully human, more fully alive, and you can’t go to the store to buy that. You’ve got to get out on the trail!
And don’t forget to support trail organizations like GPTA who make it all possible.