A good friend of mine visited yesterday and mentioned a noun I hadn’t heard used before, though it was an idea with which I was quite familiar. A desire path exists when enough people take a shortcut that their continued footsteps pack down the ground and create a new path over time. It is a path of use rather than of planning.
I’ve seen many of these in public spaces where sidewalks are poorly placed for efficiency, leading people to cut across the grass. Many trails fit into the idea behind a desire path as well, because enough people followed the same way through the trees and stones that it’s obvious where others have walked before. Even in those trails, though, there are often smaller desire paths that veer the other way around trees, or jut off towards common lookouts and views.
The concept of a desire path feels symbolic to me. Unlike Robert Frost, I’m not interested in the path less travelled, but the path more travelled. I find it most important where we walk despite the actual trail going in another direction.
We try to create a standard form of a language by establishing “correct” rules, grammar, and definitions, but ultimately the natural flow of common use shapes the path by which our language evolves. The standard language is a sidewalk, and the way we actually use the language is the desire path.
Writers outline and decide what we want our stories to be, but then our characters don’t behave and our thoughts venture in new directions. Themes we didn’t realize needed to be told suddenly show themselves through the new path that arises. I have often ended up with an entirely different story or poem than the one I first set out to tell.
We carefully lay out plans all the time, but before long we find ourselves straying. Ask a teenager what they want to be when they grow up and then revisit them in five years and ask again. Even the optimist will probably have reshaped their direction in a way that faces less resistance and is more possible to achieve.
Desire paths are not always negative things, in the literal or symbolic sense. They can save us time or lead us to places we might have never seen had we stayed on the trail. They can reassure us that somewhere is safe to walk. We can follow the desire paths of our role models and those who came before us. We can know that although a path we want to take is not the normal, planned, expected trail, it has been travelled before. We can find community in past footsteps.
Maybe we do not follow the exact plans of our younger selves, but we are closer to them than if we’d abandoned them entirely. Sometimes leaving the planned path can help us to achieve good when we can’t achieve greatness. We can find new ways to get to the same place.
As humans, no matter what the initial plans were to guide us, we will go our own direction. We make rules, and we break them. We create governments, and we rebel. We create strict philosophies and moral principles, then bend them when real life proves to be more complicated.
We are like water, flowing wherever gravity takes us, working our way between the stones in the easiest direction. But we can carve great valleys that way.
Desire paths are, in some ways, humanity realizing that it is not always who it thought it was. We tell ourselves that we are virtuous, brave, and pure of heart, with eternal, selfless love to offer. We tell our children to always be thoughtful and kind. We tell stories of wise leaders, strong nurturers, and witty antiheroes. We are endlessly hopeful about who we are and who we can be. We write to give ourselves paths to follow, but we don’t always take those paths when others are more convenient, or safer, or help us in small ways.
We are imperfect. We have desires. We trample grass.