The Old North Trail

This ancient, sacred highway may have carried travelers from Canada to Mexico

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"Imagine a mountain ridge that snakes like a knobbly spine all the way from the frozen Canadian Arctic down to the deserts of Mexico. 'The Backbone of the World,' the Blackfoot Indians called what we know as the Rocky Mountains and the Continental Divide. Now imagine a footpath that runs along the base of the mountains following the 'shoreline' between the mountains and the plains — twisting through stream gullies, unraveling over low ridges and around buttes running on for 2,000 to 3,000 miles." So writes Peter Stark in July's Smithsonian Magazine. Fragmentary evidence indicates that such a footpath existed, and it is called the Old North Trail.

For 10,000 years inhabitants of North America used the Old North Trail, first on foot, then with dogs pulling cargo-laden travois, and finally with horses. Stark recreates part of the journey reflecting on what it might have been like to be an ancient traveler carrying trade goods — such as obsidian for spearheads and seashells from the coast — or visiting relatives, setting off on sacred missions, seeking a mate or just satisfying a curiosity about new lands.

There is intriguing evidence that early travelers used a network of footpaths that crisscrossed North America and traveled thousands of miles long before Europeans arrived, even before the last ice age ended. As more physical evidence is uncovered along the Old North Trail, the stories and oral legends of the Blackfoot Indians take on new meaning. The possibility exists that the humans who crossed from Asia on the Bering Land Bridge about 15,000 years ago and populated North America might have found an ice-free corridor along the eastern slope of the Rockies, to the area where the Trail now runs. That means the Old North Trail may have carried the weight of one of the most significant human migrations of all time.

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