Off the Beaten Path

Nothing new was ever discovered walking the trodden path. Last week as we hiked to the top of a nearby mountain I reflected on what this meant. We followed a well established trail that meandered from the trail head up the valley floor through groves of dense trees paralleling the flow line of a crystal clear Idaho stream. Intermittent meadows of wild flowers greeted us and encouraged us to stop and rest, take photos and drink from our water bottles. One stopping place was located at the base of an old rock slide. While our hiking party caught their breath, I picked my way up the slope of broken granite. I noticed that some of the rock looked different. Some had quartz crystals fused to the outside. I picked them up and carried them back to the trail. Seeing how beautiful the rocks were, two others in the party ventured off to find souvenir rocks of their own.

We eventually left the cloistered forest and followed the path which climbed up a series of loose gravel switchbacks. Difficult to navigate. Steep and treacherous. Up and up the path wound around a giant rock outcrop. Each step forward was difficult but our view of the vast panorama improved as we climbed. We met some hikers coming down the trail who told us that we were only half way to the top. Apprehension shook us. We had already been hiking for two hours. We encouraged each other and moved on.

At the top of the rock outcrop we could see the trail vanishing into the distance around the side of the mountain. We could also see the top of the mountain above. We had a decision to make. We looked at each other and said, “Let’s go for it.” We climbed directly to the summit . . . scrambling through the brush, straight up the steep mountainside. Each step was exhausting. Hearts pounding, we finally reached the saddle situated between two pristine 11,000 foot peaks. Breathless, we stopped, waiting for oxygen to ease the burn in our tired legs. Smiles on our sweaty faces, we started to regain our strength.

Looking up, a yet unseen mountain range erupted into view. Breathtaking splendor. Awe inspiring ruggedness laced with summer snow fields and jagged spires. We all agreed it was worth the effort to get there. We ate lunch on a beautiful wildflower meadow, exhausted but happy. Our short cut had provided us with unique views of the adjoining mountains . . . scenes not visible from the eventual end of the established trail. We were all happy we had left the trail and ventured out on our own.

I’ve learned that inventors follow a similar path to discovery, a willingness to leave the security of the common path to venture into the unknown. The journey may lead nowhere or it may lead to a new discovery, like a rock covered with quartz crystals or a unique view of a spectacular mountain range. How many miraculous discoveries were the result of a voyage that departed from conventional thinking? Actually, all of them. Some were discovered by accident like Penicillin which was discovered while hoping to cure food poisoning or the microwave oven discovered while working on radar. Post-it notes and super glue, teflon, stainless steel, x-rays, telephone, dynamite, champagne, pacemakers, potato chips, and corn flakes were all accidents. Other discoveries were the result of a wrong turn like Columbus running into North America on his way to Asia.

The point is . . . staying on the trail is good when you are trying to manage groups of hikers and motorists but bad if you are trying to develop better ways of doing things. Try to imagine early humans watching a wild fire burn after a lightning strike. If they had never seen fire before, they would have no basis with which to evaluate the event. To them, fire would be bright, hot, smokey and noisy. If they communicated their experience to others in their tribe, a social understanding would have been created where everyone in the community would be afraid of fire. Fire might have been seen as a demon or even a deity. A million years likely passed with humans avoiding direct contact with fire.

At some time along the evolutionary timeline, someone realized that animals were also afraid of fire. Keeping a fire burning close by was a natural way to keep predators out of camp. Gradually humans became less afraid of fire and at some point, someone was brave enough to pick up a burning stick (probably on a dare from one of his buddies) and discovered that fire could be transported. People used fire for 500,000 years before discovering how to make it portable. The ability to carry fire allowed hunting parties to travel further and support nomadic movement. Human society spread into non-tropical climates.

The practice of carrying fire from place to place became a well established ritual which lasted for thousands of years. It was only about 10,000 years ago when another adventurer left the traditional path and discovered that the friction from rubbing two sticks together generated enough heat to start a fire from scratch. Mankind had entered a modern world. Flint and steel wasn’t available until the time of the Renaissance and it wasn’t until 1827 that John Walker discovered that wooden sticks coated with antimony sulfide, potassium chlorate, gum and starch would ignite when struck.

How long did society remain satisfied following the well trodden path until a spark of insight lit a new route to the mountain top? It’s always easier to follow along than to venture out in a new direction. We live within a compressed time reality and don’t have the luxury of a thousand years to understand how to use the Internet or have a hundred years to craft a perfect text message. We must practice leaving the path, the path we’ve spent a lifetime walking along. We must strive to invent new ways to reach the top. Following old familiar paths leads to old familiar places. Embracing change is a challenge, but stepping off the path, even for a short while, gives you a unique perspective on your surroundings. The view is spectacular and who knows what you might discover.


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