Updated: Nov 14, 2022
Land, Land Everywhere, but not a Place to Walk
Sometimes when pacing my short country road, I think of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. In the 16th century poem, a thirsty mariner eyes the salty sea from his storm-stranded boat and cries out:
“Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink!"
From my dead-end road, I sometimes feel like crying out, too:
“Land, Land everywhere, but not a place to walk!”
I live surrounded by thousands of acres of public land, yet none of it is accessible to me on foot. Encircled by a moat of private property, I'm stopped in every direction by a No Trespassing sign. To go on a walk of any reasonable-length, I must get in my car and drive to a trailhead.
Each day from my road, I look with longing at the mountains, at all the wide open space where I'd stretch my legs for miles, if only I could get to it. It’s an odd sensation: feeling so confined in such an expanse. Like a bowled-up gold fish with an ocean view.
No Trespassing signs don’t make for a friendly ambiance. Granted, some are more friendly than others--simple tan posts alerting you to private property. Usually, though, they more severe, featuring red, down-to-business, shouty-caps font: NO TRESSPASSING, KEEP OUT, BEWARE OF DOG. Some are downright frightening, like a nearby sign that features a human-silhouette shooting target that tells me, without words, everything I need to know.
We take No Trespassing laws for granted, but it isn’t like this everywhere. In my travels, I've been pleasantly surprised by the open-door policy on many private lands. I once spent a muddy month traipsing around the Dorset region of England. To piece together a walk, it was necessary to cross private properties. This was perfectly permissable—there were even “stiles” placed on property boundaries to help strollers clear the fence lines.
In England, and in other places in Europe, to walk freely in the countryside is considered “Everyman’s Right” and there are “Free to Roam” laws to protect it. In Norway, you are even allowed camp for a few days, provided you stay 150 meters from the nearest house, don’t litter, or disturb the residents.
We used to have the similarly wide-ranging liberties. In his article What's Lies Behind that 'No Trespassing' Sign (The Atlantic, July 2, 2022), Brian Sawers cites an 1820 court case where a South Carolina landowner sued hunters for ignoring his demands to leave his land. The State court sided with the hunters, asserting that the right-to-enter was “Universally Exercised”—so long as there was no injury to landowner.
What changed, the Sawers writes, was the abolition of slavery in 1865. This was, not coincidentally, the same year the first No Trespassing statutes were proposed. With black slaves now freed to feed themselves hunting and foraging off the land, the farms faced a labor shortage. Restricting access to the countryside indirectly forced the freed-slaves back into farm labor.
Times have changed, fortunately, but the No Trespassing statutes persist. And I don’t blame any landowner for not wanting
strangers wandering the lands around their homes. As constantly moving and shifting communities, we’ve more or less become collections of strangers living side-by-side. Case in point: The entire street next to my property has completely turned over in the past five years. With that kind of flux, how can we build the multigenerational social trust that would make sharing space feel safe and comfortable?
There are also modern issues of liability: What if someone trips and hurts themselves? What if a tree falls on them? What if errant hiker starts a fire? Or a hunter misses their target?
Not to mention: No Trespassing signs are handy in warding off wandering code enforcement officers looking for an illegal deck, an unpermitted ADU, or re-directed gray water.
Call it Song-of-the-Open-Road idealism, but I wish public access walkways had been planned into the neighborhood long ago. It’s too late for that, although projects like the Jack-Ash Trail offers some hope. The path, which will eventually connect Jacksonville and Ashland, won’t cross my door step, but it’s a definite win for hikers in the region.
A kindly neighbor did say I could walk through their property, if I asked them permission via text beforehand. I appreciate that, but I can’t see sending daily bothers to their phone. I’ve tried accessing the trails behind a nearby church, but was quickly turned away.
So, for now, I continue to pace my short street, admiring the expansive view, with the Rime of the Ancient Mariner reeling through my head.
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