Bringing New Narratives to the Circuit Trails

Lizzie Hessek, Program Manager – Trails & Recreation

Trails are full of stories. There are histories about the men, women, and mules that fueled the birth American industry along canal paths. There are adventure stories about discovering natural wonders at a trail’s end. There are tales of self-discovery after learning what the trail has to teach. There could be as many trail stories as there are people on the trails.

At the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, we are proud not only to help build trails across the state, but to bring the trails to life through programming and events. Over the years we noticed that our event participants didn’t represent the great diversity of Pennsylvania. We realized that we needed to expand our storytelling so that more people could hear voices like theirs on the trail and feel invited to create their own stories. TrailOff is intended to do just that.

TrailOff is a mobile app – free to download on iPhones and Androids – that brings new narratives to ten Circuit Trails in and around Philadelphia. Inside the app, you will discover audio stories written by local authors inspired by their experience walking on a trail.

The Cooper River Trail in Camden, NJ reminded international award-winning poet and activist afaq of their childhood in Sudan. Their story, The Way Sand Wants for Water, is an ode to healing and a guided history of the land that reveals itself in poetry. The industrial legacy and current film industry in Manayunk inspired National Book Award finalist Carmen Maria Machado to create her horror story, River Devil II: The Return, for the Schuylkill River Trail. Chamoru writer Jacob Camacho dives into themes of ancestry, colonialism and race in Conversations, written for the Delaware River Trail. The story imagines discussions that arise with the indigenous Nanticoke’ Lenni-Lenape people of past, present and future. Each story, like each trail, reveals new ways to perceive the world around us.

We realized that we needed to expand our storytelling so that more people could hear voices like theirs on the trail and feel invited to create their own stories.

There are two ways to experience TrailOff. The TrailOff mobile app enables you to hear the stories at the speed you travel. The app is GPS enabled, and as you progress along the trail, the story will unfold when you reach certain markers. This is an immersive audio theatre experience that places you in the footsteps of the author and the characters.

The second way to experience TrailOff is ideal if you want to hear the stories and envision the landscapes but are unable to make it to the ten Circuit Trails locations. All ten TrailOff stories are available on Spotify and on PEC’s Soundcloud. From these platforms, the stories are accessible anywhere.

Since launching TrailOff in September 2020, users have used the app to listen to the stories over 5,700 times. PEC strives to build and program trails that all Pennsylvanians feel welcome visiting. Some folks might recognize their own story when Erin McMillon takes on her demons on the D&L Trail in The Inside Outside or in donia salem harhoor’s reflection on family, diasporic heritage, and loss on the Perkiomen Trail in A Sycamore’s Psalm. For others, the stories may simply remind us that Pennsylvania’s trails contain all of these stories and are waiting for new people to bring their own narratives to these spaces.

TrailOff is a collaboration between PEC and Swim Pony Performing Arts. Find out more about the project, the stories, and the many collaborators at Listen to all of the stories here.