Reflections: The World Trails Conference 2022
By Amelia Izmanki
There are more suits at the opening ceremony than will be seen at any other part of the conference. Dominating trends were typically cargo pants, vests, good solid shoes, or in some cases, no shoes at all. But at the opening ceremony, there are politicians and ministers of tourism and other noteworthy people not as accustomed to dressing for the terrain and the weather. In this case they don’t need to worry about the elements, still – as clearly demonstrated by the remaining five days – you can take the hiker out of the trail but you can’t take the trail out of the hiker.
This was especially evident in the distinction in fashion choices between the majority of people on the stage that night and Galeo Saintz, the now former Chair of the World Trails Network. Saintz seemed to have taken it upon himself to completely offset the common conference attire in one outfit. He donned a vest dotted with plenty of pins and badges, cargo shorts, strappy sandals, and of course a light hiking pack equipped with a water pouch and drinking tube, the end of which was clipped in at his shoulder patiently waiting to be sipped at. Throughout the week, he would accrue various feathers that would end up in his signature baseball cap.
The four cameras and one drone focused their attention to the stage where the mayor of Skiathos stood with his back to the darkening Mediterranean and welcomed the crowd, in his soft and sweet voice, to this “important global event,” otherwise known as the World Trails Conference.
This was the eighth conference, the first five having been hosted on Jeju Island, Korea, starting in 2010, the sixth hosted in Japan, seventh in Spain. Now – leaping across a four-year expanse of cataclysmic events – the eighth is in Skiathos, Greece, a popular island teeming with retired couples lazily soaking up the “last of the season,” and street cats in various states of hardiness. Considering how many tourists make a destination of Skiathos, it’s striking how the island seems to have preserved a sense of self.
It didn’t take long for attendees of the conference to find swimming spots within walking distance of the conference rooms. Lunch breaks became sea breaks. The escape from proper attire felt appropriately conspiratorial given the nature of the conference.
Back in the main venue, over the course of six days there were over one hundred representatives from over twenty-five countries who spoke of the trials and triumphs of their work in the maintenance, preservation, and study of hiking trails. Of course, specific points of tension, contention, excitement, and emphatic camaraderie emerged quickly.
As united as everyone is by their love (avid, avid love!) of trails, it’s clear that the extent of struggle and range of success varies greatly according to the unique political and social contexts within which each trail exists. Some trails connect nations who are at war with each other. Other trails are almost completely dependent on support from mining companies. Still other trails are at risk of disintegrating right into the ocean.
Trails, along with many forms of outdoor activity, have enjoyed a surge in popularity since the pandemic caused the notorious “indoors” to develop a reputation for danger and risk. For a while, hiking was one of the few activities that remained generally untouched by the threats of an infectious world. Along with everyone who already loved and used trails, people who may not have been as inclined to hike were also taking to the trails in significantly higher numbers. This was outlined in statistics presented by representatives from several different countries.
This boom was cause for both celebration and concern among the stewards of the trails. Suddenly there were people using the trail who “don’t know how to” – who don’t know the ways of walking serenely without littering, without boomboxes, without snapping off branches, without etching their initials into trees. The horrors, the shock! And what to do about overcrowding on the trails? The new challenge for many of the associations was how to create informed visitors who have the knowledge and reverence for nature that is a necessary prerequisite for low-impact visiting.
Almost every trail association wants to have more hikers on their trails, but they want “smart” hikers – a particular type of hiker. There’s this awkward sort of lurching movement in the way association members handle the idea of development and progress. On one hand there’s the business models, funding strategies, grant proposals, appeasing of government employees, and appealing to mining companies. The feeling is that there is a constant struggle for survival, this desperate and forever pursuit of money, just to stay afloat.
And then on the other hand there’s engagement – how to bring the trails to life, to make them important, to make them part of the community, part of the lifestyle. Avid hikers will always be seeking out trails and taking to them whether they’re properly marked or even officially scouted or not. So long as this is the type of person walking the trails, the trails will remain relatively niche. For some people, this is where they want it to stop. Too many people on the trails ruins the precious sanctity of feeling like you are leaving civilization behind and disappearing into the wilderness.
Many of presentations were about walking with purpose. Whether that purpose is to encourage leisure among the hardest workers, knowledge among the youngest minds, homecoming for those the farthest from home, accessibility for those to whom the world is the least accessible, or self-expression for those the world is most likely to ignore. These are the people who are dedicated to fostering relationships between the trails and the people for whom those trails feel the most distant. It is well known that spending regular time on trails in nature improves one’s quality of life – so the question must be – who needs the improvements most? Opportunities for hiking are not equally distributed among all and the value of a trail is weighed by the extent to which it welcomes those most in need of walking it. It could just as easily be summed up by recalling how Unstoppable Tracy put it in her impactful evening storytelling. A message from her mother as Tracy learned to navigate the world as an amputee: “No one left behind.”
There are so many hoops for trail folks to jump through. Politicians, often just care about having their picture in the papers cutting that illustrious red tape. The industrial world is pressing closer and closer, while the world of conservation receives financial slash after financial slash. There is no predetermined role for trail associations amongst the bureaucracies and businesses of the world, and no guarantee of stability.
All this despite the fact that trails are the first ever conceived way of getting from point A to point B, used by animals for who-knows-how-long before humans took up the same method of transportation. Trails preceded towns as networks connecting meeting places, eating places – any place worth returning to. As humanity started to arrange itself in communities, trails became trade routes, symbols of peace, a means of security, lines of pilgrimage and migration. Everything that connects one place to another is built upon the spirit of the trail.
And at the tip of this great history, there is the 2022 World Trails Conference in the toy-sized, fantasy town of Skiathos, Greece, where the advocates of this ancient connecting force gathered with the collective joie-de-vivre of one who has just scurried to the top of a mountain and seen clearly.