I’ve had to learn a bit of a new language in terms of the trail waymarking between England and France. Both do a fabulous job of marking anything resembling a footpath, from a U.S. perspective. But I got so used to thinking like English waymarks that on my first day here, I had trouble seeing the French ones because my eyes weren’t tuned to the right frequency. And now that they are, I think waymarking systems say a LOT about the culture they’re in.
In the U.S., if our trails are marked at all, it’s with a sign at the start telling you where you might like to go, usually with several choices, and how far it is – half challenge and half threat. After that, you’re on your own. We rarely signpost the destination because that might reduce your freedom to decide what constitutes the destination for you as an individual. Hey, it’s a frontier, and we’ll point you west but after that, it’s all up to you. And if there are junctions and branches, they’re unmarked, because if you’re worried about that, why didn’t you buy a map?
In England, they want above all to be helpful, and there are proper ways to do these things. The waymarks are all tall, stately wooden signs with carved arrows pointing out where to go and some general idea (rounded to within 2 miles in accuracy) how far it might be. They have cute little symbols for each different trail so no one gets confused, and even the informal path to the loo is marked, all within 4 and 6 feet off the ground, so they’re easy to spot. And the waymarks repeat at each junction, for those arriving from any and all directions. All orderly and attractive; we would not want confusion.
In France, they also want to be helpful but there are many more subtleties to be taken into account, and above all, one must not be loud or obvious or move anyone along too quickly, because it is enjoying the details of the moment that counts. The waymarks are not carved wooden signs or even metal badges on purpose-planted posts, as in England. They are 3-inch long stripes of paint, or sometimes tape, in particular colors. They are small. They are quiet. They are very discreet. You could live here for years without noticing them, if you didn’t have a reason to look. And when you did notice, you’d just think somebody taped up a flyer and the tape wouldn’t come off when they took the flyer back down. (Except that it’s hard for me to imagine the French tacking up many flyers.) And while a few waymarks go on poles that may happen to be in the way otherwise, like the posts of street signs, most of them go elsewhere – on cliffs, logs, stairs, rocks, garbage cans, large shrubberies, and slow-moving animals. The stripes use little codes that tell you when to turn and which direction. They also have Xs that say, “don’t go this way,” which can be handy, but can also sometimes leave you wondering toward which of the other 359 degrees of the compass you ARE supposed to go. On the very rare occasions where they indicate a destination, they show not distance but time to get there, because they wouldn’t want you to underestimate and be late for dinner.
Once you know the code, it’s like being part of a dispersed stealth force traveling the country, looking for the next clue, like old hobo signs. I like being part of a stealth hobo force, looking for my next secret message. And now that I speak the stealth language, I see the marks everywhere, not only for the path I’m mostly following (the GR 34), but loads of other local and long-distance paths, too. I’m in the red and white stripe cult. Look out.