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In Defense of Ugly Trails

Is natural beauty always in the eye of the beholder?

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The well-known trails around my home in the South are short on grand vistas, but the woods make up for it with a profusion of color—the vivid overwhelming green of new growth, the red of the clay underneath my feet, the magenta of the redbud trees when spring reaches the region, the fading hardwoods when fall comes around. I know how to appreciate all the flavors of beauty near my home, but I was not near my home.

It was early spring, and I was visiting Atlanta. When I asked several locals about their favorite hikes, the 2.3-mile Arabia Mountain View Trail was at the top of almost everyone’s list as the closest wild space to the city. My mission was simple: Try a new trail, snap a photo, and share it on social media to support African-American Nature & Parks’ annual Hike Like A Girl Weekend. Outfitted with a map and my phone, I set off into the woods at the edge of the mountain in search of a bit of photographic glory.

It didn’t take long for me to figure out that this path was nothing like my usual forested walks. Less than half a mile in, the trees parted and I found myself standing on a large hunk of scraped granite that stretched as far as I could see. Cemented cairns marched resolutely to the horizon. I looked at the sun-blasted stone and winced. The trail was close to Atlanta, but other than that, I couldn’t imagine why it would be anyone’s favorite hike.

Compared to the vivid green of my home turf, this spot struck me as, well, ugly. The gray monotony that spread in every direction looked like a parking lot. My eyes couldn’t find anything pleasing to settle on.

Determined to finish the hike anyway, I trudged on under the blazing sun, dreaming of shade. My progress dragged. Every cairn looked just like the last one. I looked up, seeking relief from the heavens. But instead, owing to Arabia Mountain’s position in the flight path of the world’s busiest airport, the bass from airplane thrusters blasted me with enough force to rattle my fillings.

At this point, sweaty and disappointed, I decided there had to be a lesson here. I sat down on a rock to puzzle it out. No, this wasn’t like the hiking I was used to. Yeah, I probably never would have picked a trail like this myself. And in the midst of my pouting over what wasn’t here, I looked down.

A profusion of hardy little plants bolted themselves to cracks in the granite. I pulled out my phone and booted up an app to learn more about species like this diamorpha, a low-to-the-ground plant adapted to live in this mountain’s harsh environment. Beside the diamorpha, I noticed the tiny yellow blooms of a variety of Eastern prickly pear cactus. So there was beauty here after all, subtle but highlighted by the setting in which it had taken root.

Later, when I went through my photos, there was no denying I hadn’t captured Arabia Mountain’s low-key charm. But I left the place changed anyway. The friends that recommended this route knew something that I had to learn that afternoon: Beauty can be found on any trail, if you’re willing to change your perspective.  

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