Trailbreaking

by winteryder

Snow

Castner Creek, AK

The Inuktitut language, famous for its descriptive powers, has a number of different words for snow trails. When the trailbreaker first clears the trail, it is called an iglinikuluk. Over time, as others follow it, the iglinikuluk becomes an igliniq, which denotes something more fixed, like a snow road. Trailbreakers have sometimes cut paths that are inconvenient, but travelers still obediently follow them through the winter—even a bad igliniq is faster than cutting a new iglinikuluk.

* * *

So this is how you cross a field of snow: you take one step forward, and then another. The journey begins, always, in arbitrariness and error. In reaching your destination, you look back over the path you have forged. It is crooked, ugly. On your return trip, you shave off some errant zigs and zags, and your trail becomes slightly straighter. Over the following weeks, other people notice your trail through the snow and begin following it, too.

One might assume that over the course of a winter, the other walkers would attempt many other routes, exploring every option until the snow is evenly trampled, thereby inverting the problem of the blank field, since a wholly trodden field would be just as useless and perplexing as an untrodden one. But instead, as the winter progresses, you discover that people don’t walk that way. They tend to follow a preexisting trail and alter it slightly with each trip; where you veered, they veer less; where you erred, they make corrections. And so your trail becomes slightly more elegant journey after journey, continues to widen and harden, transforming from an iglinikuluk to an igliniq.

By winter’s end, you look upon it, shining like marble, and realize that it bears no mark of your authorship. It seems inherent, close to preordained. You find it hard to believe it was once a meandering line of your own footsteps, steps you’ve almost forgotten by now, long erased beneath the new thing, the thing that has come to be and will continue on being, even if you were to suddenly vanish from this earth.