Little signs along rural roads recently made me wonder. Driving through the British countryside, it's hard not to notice small signs pointing left or right exclaiming, "Public Footpath."
These are not like their American counterparts, large, well-maintained State Park or Trailhead 2 Miles signs that we encounter occasionally in a hundred-mile drive.
Rather, in the span of 10 miles down quiet back roads, you often find a little, non-descript placard every few miles pointing down a lonely but well-trod public footpath.
What is this oddity, the public footpath? And I began to wonder if it doesn't illustrate a subtle, but increasingly important missing aspect of American society.
I had heard about the British public footpath. Admittedly, I have walked only a short distance along these communal treasures. These are landmarks of a civilization that could easily go unnoticed. However, they seem to demonstrate a fundamental commitment to community and sharing resources that I find increasingly rare.
With no particular location in mind, I followed a sign one morning, walking down a neighborhood alley. A small yellow triangle directed me down a neighbor's driveway as a dog barked alerting neighbors of my presence. No sooner had I walked past the two homes when it became a small dirt path ending at a gate. The gate had a small sign requesting that it be closed properly as there were animals in the field.
The path continued off into the field. I walked into and around the field and then headed back, passing an older British woman who greeted me kindly. Not a long walk, but somehow a walk I couldn't visualize so easily back home.
Perhaps there are two ways to look upon this oddity, the public footpath. What is it about the British people that make community outings so important that they are willing to embrace public paths across private property? Or, what is it about Americans that make us view the idea of knowingly permitting strangers to walk on your property as unusual, irresponsible, or even dangerous? I confess to no little envy of the British public footpath.
I like that over hundreds of years the British people, the British government, and the British legal system have somehow protected the abilities of people and communities to share the joys of long Sunday walks, even across private property. I like that landowners respect community needs and the people respect the land.
I don't know how these came about. I doubt anyone in particular is assigned to maintain these paths. But as I walked that small path, I felt a community caring for itself in small, but very meaningful ways.
I hope that despite my perception of declining interest in community, I can live and work and play with people who want to build metaphorical public footpaths bringing people together.
I hope to find others who are willing to set aside their "rights" to this or that which might exclude others and work toward building small little paths bringing people together.
I hope to build communities that promote dialogue and interchange as people walk through each others' lives with each other.
I hope to see people taking "long walks" between communities, perhaps bringing home something a little different from their experiences to be shared with the folks back home.
I was encouraged to find little "Public Footpath" signs so often along the road; may we find them in our lives together as a community.
Andrew Janssen, a doctor at the Strawberry Wilderness Community Clinic, is a member of the Eagle's next readers' advisory board. He lives in John Day.