Eighty years ago, when I was growing up on a ranch near St. Johns, Arizona, trails formed the contours of my world. I’d take a trail to get to a neighbor’s house or follow one along the river if I were looking for stray cattle. Trails were the most practical way of getting around. They were also irresistible to me. I’d walk a trail just to see where it led.

Since 1968, unbeknownst to many Americans, a unique partnership of volunteers and government has quietly blazed a vast, still unfinished, system of national trails–laying down a foundation for the next generation of curious adventurers. Just as in the 20th century when we preserved remote wildernesses as national parks, the 21st century may well be devoted to connecting our communities and precious natural landscapes via this 40,000-mile national historic and scenic trail network. It is a worthy effort, one you might want to explore this June 7, National Trails Day.

From my home I look out on a footpath leading into the mountains and think about the age-old pull of America’s trails–the ones through Cumberland Gap and over the Continental Divide, across the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada. One of the greatest overland migrations in history followed a trail: During the mid-1800s nearly 400,000 emigrants walked or rode over the Platte River Road, the dusty thoroughfare formed by the convergence of the Oregon, California and Mormon trails. Early drafts of American history are recorded in the diaries of people who followed frontier trails.

Much of that history would have passed into oblivion, ploughed under or paved over, were it not for National Trails legislation signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1968, just forty years ago. Those of us who endorsed the legislation wanted to make it possible for Americans to share some of the adventure, the toil and even a bit of the danger experienced by our forebears–native people, explorers and settlers.

Today’s National Trails System draws uncounted millions of Americans annually–many times more than took to the trails in pioneer days. Our national trails extend from Maine’s Mount Katahdin, where the Appalachian National Scenic Trail begins, to Nome, Alaska where the Iditarod Trail ends. Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail traces the southern reaches of the last glacier to push down over North America. The Trail of Tears National Historic Trail follows the route taken by 16,000 Cherokee when they were driven from their home in southern Appalachia in 1838 and forcibly relocated to Oklahoma’s Indian Territory.

Some of our most magnificent trails celebrate the American outdoors. The 2,150-mile Appalachian Trail was the first, blazed by 1938. Next came the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail, running from Canada to Mexico; and more recently, the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, winding 3,100 miles from Montana’s Glacier National Park to New Mexico’s Hatchet Mountains. These trails offer a grand but intimate link to the American wild.

Unfortunately, the National Trails System Act didn’t provide money to complete the trails or fully preserve their historic environs. The system has relied heavily on the contributions and hard work of volunteers who donate more than a half-million hours every year building, maintaining and protecting the trails. Congress has appropriated some funds, but there is so much more to do.

Supporting our national trails is more than an exercise in nostalgia. Think of how much richer a child’s knowledge of history might be after days spent along the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. Imagine how a student’s grasp of our constitutional liberties might benefit from a trek along the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail, where civil rights marchers braved billy clubs and tear gas in 1965 campaigning for African American voting rights.

A national trail is a gateway into nature’s secret beauties, a portal to the past, a way into solitude and community. It is also an inroad to our national character. Our trails are both irresistible and indispensable. And while at age 88, I may not be hiking the Continental Divide Trail any time soon, I am doing everything I can to help with the monumental task of preserving it for future journeyers.

Saturday, June 7 is National Trails Day, celebrated by walkers, cyclists, and equestrians in every state. I suggest you trek to http://www.americanhiking.org/NTD.aspx, the American Hiking Society website. You may find an unexpected treasure there, a trail event worth exploring, close to home. You may even find a previously unknown place so special to you that you’ll want to help conserve it.

It’s up to all of us who care deeply for the future of this great country to join in this uniquely American undertaking of building, maintaining and protecting these unique natural and historic riches. I hope you’ll join me, for the sake of the generations to come.

(c) 2008 Blue Ridge Press

Stewart Udall was U.S. Secretary of the Interior, 1961-1969, and represented Arizona’s 2nd Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives, 1955-1961.