Seven years ago, my husband and I moved 50 miles northeast of Minneapolis/St Paul to a small community near the St. Croix River Valley. It’s an area full of bodies of water, as you might expect in the state of 10,000 lakes, and we enjoy all of the paddling, boating, hiking and other outdoor activities one can do with so much nature right out the front door. We try to be intentional about being good neighbors to the plants, animals and other humans who call our little neighborhood home.
Shortly after we moved into our house, an elderly neighbor (a resident of the area for 50 years) shared her favorite walking route: the loop around the tiny lake that our house is on. Basically, it’s just on the country gravel roads that loosely circle the lake. The odd part about the loop is that at one point the road dead ends at a berm where the county decided not to connect the roads; there is a 30 yard stretch of grass on one side of the berm, and then the road starts again. I’ve been walking or running this little two mile loop approximately 3-4 times per week since we moved here, along with many of the other people who share our neighborhood. There’s a well – worn path over the berm, and often times in the summer I’d find that someone had mowed an even wider path to where the road starts again on the grassy side. Over the years this loop has been a way for me to connect with the people who live near me, to feel the energy of the community that calls this little slice of the planet home and to take a break from work. It has provided respite from crying babies, work frustrations, cabin fever and a whole host of other things. It’s a 20 minute run which is perfect for a midday lunch break or a quick loop before the day begins.
One day last fall when I was out running the loop at lunch, as I approached the berm, I saw something that made me stop short. There looking at me was one of those red and black NO TRESPASSING signs, placed in the middle of the worn track on top of the berm. To be fair to the folks who own the land, it’s well within their rights to put it there. They own the land, and according to our cultural laws, they can do whatever they wish with it, including keeping people off. But it was like a slap in the face. It felt like an old friend had suddenly died or stopped talking to me, and I didn’t know what to do. Eventually, I crept up over the berm feeling a little like a fugitive, staying close to the edge of the property line, and then I avoided the path by walking on the edge of the yard next door to get back to the road. The next week I ran the loop again, completely forgetting about the sign, and this time there were more; on the other side, declaring ownership and denying passage from the other direction. Again I crept around the edge of the property and walked on the line between the two pieces of property to continue on my way.
Then it snowed, the lake froze, and I took to skis instead of running the loop for several months. But in the last few weeks the snow has melted, and I have resumed running the loop, half hoping to see the signs gone, or maybe just one that says “foot traffic only”. But alas, the signs are still up, along with a few more, this time right along the border where I had been skirting the edge of the property. I’ve asked the other two neighbors who have land that borders the well – worn path parcel if I can walk on their property so as to continue doing the loop, and thankfully they’ve said yes. So now when I get to the berm, I bush whack my way through vines and prickly ash and then walk on the lawn of the folks who have granted access. In short, it’s a big bummer, I hope I don’t get lots of ticks, and I’m sad that this metaphorical fence has been put up in the neighborhood.
I’m guessing the people who own the land and put up the signs are mainly concerned with things like four wheelers and snow mobiles driving through – and I would be also. In fact, my family and I have put up signs of our own on the borders of the field that houses our gardens. They say, “Help us keep our garden healthy: Please no motorized vehicles.” But if somebody really wants to cut across our property on foot? I can’t see how this would hurt a thing as long as they leave only foot prints and are respectful of the land. It saddens me that we live in a country where the land (a living being in its own right, really, that shouldn’t be “owned” but that’s another topic entirely) is so divided into ours and theirs. I’m guessing another reason these folks don’t want anyone on the path is because they are afraid of someone getting hurt and as a result being sued or running into some other liability legality. That we have developed into a culture that can’t figure out how to live cooperatively and share freely and come together as a community is so disheartening. What if my daydream hope came true and they put up a sign that says “foot traffic only”? Or even a fence, with an opening that is just big enough for a person to fit through? Or had everyone who wanted to walk on those 30 yards sign a piece of paper that says “I will not sue you if I sprain my ankle”? or “I commit to leaving only footprints”?
In my mind we could all come together and figure out the best way to make our neighborhood cohesive and friendly to all. We could put up one of those “little free libraries” at the start of the grassy path and all pitch in to put up a “foot traffic only” sign, along with a fence to prevent passage of ATVs if absolutely needed. We could find a way to cooperate and come together instead of putting up walls.
Of course, I need to take full responsibility for my actions as well. I never asked the landowners to walk on that path all those years ago, I just did it because it was recommended to me, and it seemed like the logical way to get from one part of the road to the other on a well – used path. I haven’t worked up the nerve yet to approach the people who put up the signs and ask “why now, after all these years?” so I’m going on assumptions and speculation only, which is usually not a great thing. Maybe I’ll get the courage to knock on their door and engage in polite dialogue at some point. And the likelihood that they read this blog post is slim to none…but you never know. Just in case, a letter:
Hi folks! I’m your neighbor from the other side of the lake. My name is Heidi, and I have so appreciated being able to walk on that little slice of your land for the last seven years on my daily lake loop. I was wondering if I could do anything to ease your worries about the implications of people walking on that grassy path that connects the roads over the berm. It would be wonderful if the community could keep access to this connecting path – it’s been such a wonderful way for me to get to know the neighbors on both sides, to refocus after a long day at work, or to just get out and take in the energy of the neighborhood. I’m sorry about the trouble is has caused you, for whatever reason, and I think I speak for many when I say that we mean no disrespect or harm to you or your land in any way. We just love to get outside and walk the loop. If allowing that is not something that you’d ever agree to, that is of course, your right under current law. But what a great gift it would be to everyone to open it back up for walkers and joggers! We’d love it if you’d consider thinking differently about your decision to put up the no trespassing signs. Maybe we could put up a “foot traffic only” sign instead!