Bart Smith Photography

​Walking Down a Dream

Welcome to this website showcasing and paying homage to America’s remarkable National Trails on this 50th anniversary of the signing of the National Trails Act. It is the culmination of a 25 year endeavor to walk and photographically document all 30 National Trails; 11 National Scenic Trails and 19 National Historic Trails.  A common question I'm asked is "What do you think about while walking all those miles?" My response is something akin to; crickets..., maybe some clouds..., certainly rainbows, and of course the next horizon.  Something Sam Clemons would have had fun writing about, but to this complicated simple man, too much to communitcate. Plus, I have a valid excuse; as any wise person knows, the more you know, the less you know, concequently after walking all these 31,000 miles, mostly just myself and the universe with camera and tripod, I believe I am justified to answer with, well... crickets..., and of course the next horizon. Fortunately, I did take a lot of photographs along the way. In fact, aside from thinking of where to step next, more than not, I was/am thinking of what to photograph next. From day one, photography has provided me a medium to express my sense of wonder and graditude for being alive at this time and place and with the lure of the muse each succesive trail offeres, it gave/gives me an unshakable sense of purpose and a self imposed responsibility to photographically document to the best of my abiliies, the natural and historical heritage along America's entire National Trail System.

Of course, the dream wasn't always THAT hifaluten. When I kissed my future wife, Bridgie, goodby at Manning Park on July 25th 1992, with a backpack stuffed with camera gear, an aluminum tripod, 20 rolls of film, camping gear, and two weeks of food and made that first step south on the Pacific Crest Trail, it was with the dream of just photographing the character of that 2,650 mile trail to the best of my abilities.  And maybe, just maybe, I would be taking a few steps towards making a living as a nature photographer, with all the promise inherent in such a foolhardy endeavor. Over space and time, I have come to believe that a dream is two parts dancing with reality, one part brawling with reality, and one part tipping ones hat to reality. Time is the referee.  Walking with thousands of sunrises, millions of horizons and trillions of mosquitos I have lived a very rich life with soul on the trail and a camera and tripod at the ready, only to re-enter the reality that I have yet to make a living as a photographer. To live AND to make a living, there stands the crux.  Which brings up the next common question: "just how did you finance this project"?  Book royalties?  Frugality? Stubbornness? Darn those dorpedoes? A wife as crazy as myself?  All the above plus eating a lot of ramen and peanut butter. But mostly an understanding Bridgie and I have with our universe that what we are doing has merit and time will be the referee. 

Following my third National Scenic Trail walked and a contract signed for a third coffee-table book, "Along the Florida Trail",  Bridgie and I thought, why not I get the heck out of the house and walk and photograph all 8 of America's National Scenic Trails.  And there is even time to complete the system by the  40th anniversary the National Trails Act, Oct,  2nd, 2008. Game On!   Just one minor issue, isn't the North Counrty Trail, like 4000 miles? Ah, well actually, it's 4,400miles.  My goal was to walk and photograph the trail over a two year period but carrying a backpack topped with aluminum, glass and film was slowing me down. I felt I was dragging a golden anchor. (That's a metaphor).   Bridgie often thinks "out of the box" and she came up with the idea to push my backpack on a baby jogger along the rural roads, canal and rail-trail sections, to alleviate shoulder and hip strain, haul an extra gallon of water, and generally make better milage. Being a life long backpacker, I was slow to accept the concept of pushing my tools and belongings but Bridgie kept planting the seed, "a backpack on wheels".  And so on a hot humid day round 10am on a rural road in corn country, southern Michigan, I set my 65 lbs backpack on a baby jogger and pushed it along the road using just my index finger.  Within about a fift yards I experienced a full blown epiphany.  It took Infinite Dust 2.4 years to section hike the NCT while also walking the PHT and parts of the CDT during that time period..  

The traffic into Washington D.C. was next to standstill as Bridgie and I jogged the sidewalks heading towards the Smithsonian Natural History Museum 3 blocks distant. Earlier, Ralph, our "chauffer", wisely suggested we walk the last quarter mile.  I was just one day removed from completing the Continental Divide Trail and subsequently all 8 National Scenic Tails and I was scheduled to be one of several speakers at this 40th Anniversary Commemoration of the National Trails Act.  It was kind of a big deal so I was extremely relieved when we arrived with 2 minutes to spare.  It was an honor to speak at the commemoration and share thoughts and images.  Whatever ones political affiliations or beliefs, my hope is that we can all unify with pride in this 50th anniversay of America's National Trails. The trails are largly managed by government agencies in coordination with Trail associations armed with the power of good old fashioned volunteerism.  The maintenence and management of the  National Trails system is the embodiement of American candoism. The Historical Trails give us clues to our past with traces in the soil , vestiges scattered and graves suggesting stories in the wind. Historic Trails direct our gaze into the distance, both past and future.   The Scenic Trails are each an invitation into reality.  Yes that is the sun, yes that is the moonrise, yes that is a mosquito.  Reality, it is in our DNA.   At a time when virtual reality is still in gestation, we had better maintian our tried and true actual portals into reality, our trails; local, state, federal and national trails all need our participation, just as our soul, muscle and sinew need places to wander and to wonder.  Multiple days on a trail are a proven elixer-tonic for soul-shine and are proven to increase ones sleep rhythm.  O.k., that hasn't been "totally proven" but I believe it to be true. If I have any pinch of wisdom from walking these trails it is that they all lead to places I didn't forsee both within and without.  At some point along the trail things will surley go south, or north, certainly east, hopefully west, fortunately upward, and everyone's favorite, riding gravity down, but when the direction points inward, the path just may lead to transcendence.   Er... something like that anyway.
There were eight National Scenic Trails for almost thirty years but within five months of my becoming the 2nd person to complete all eight, the Omnibus Wilderness Bill of 2009 was passed designating three new National Scenic Trail additions: The Arizona Trail, New England Trail and The Pacific Northwest Trail.  They moved the goal posts on me. Happily, I through-hiked all three back to back.  By October 2009 I had completed all eleven National Scenic trails.  By December 2010 I completed the mother of all honey-do lists. By 2011 Bridgie and I began talking about the possibility of me walking and photographing America's 19 National Historic Trails. Would I then be 100% certifiably crazy? And if I utilize the baby jogger technic and put pep in my step, I might be able to complete the nineteen trails by October 2nd 2018, the 50th anniversary of the National Trails Act.  Game on!  Or if nothing else, give it a try.

My hope is, these images represent an honest and inspiring appraisal of our National Trail System taken from the perspective of the seven cardinal directions:  North, South, East, West, Earth, Sky, Soul.

Infinite Dust

A special thank you to Steve Elkinton, retired Program Lead for the National Trails System for providing most of the Trail Summaries.