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The snow paths less travelled

Minnesota winters are cold. Really, really damn cold. It makes sense, then, that people want to spend as little time outside as possible- and to economize with strategic movement when faced with the need to actually get somewhere. Carls seasoned to the harsh winter weather typically possess full handbooks of winter-time shortcuts and paths to keep them out of the cold for as long as possible while moving around.

What’s really cool is that in the winter, an entire new set of paths emerges, and it’s all thanks to the snow. You’ve seen them, and you’ve probably walked them, too- the heavily trodden trails very distinctly marked that cross all around the corners of the Bald Spot, leveled by the rushing of countless students towards their destinations in the bitter cold.

What’s going on is this: nobody wants to be that weird kid randomly cutting across the bald spot to get to class when there are paved walks that seem good enough for everyone else to use. When you’re just randomly cutting across the Bald Spot, say, going from the Music Hall to the Chapel, you’re a single person doing something nonstandard – and you’re doing it all alone. You stand out.

But when there’s snow on the ground, the game is changed. Every footstep leaves a mark, and every person who walks through the snow leaves a trail. And in doing so, he makes it a bit less weird for the next per- son to take the same path. The obvious visual record of pavement-defying movement created in the snow really removes the sense of ‘alone-ness’ of walking across the Bald Spot. In the fall, if you take a shortcut, you can’t see anyone else doing the same thing. But now, with snow on the ground, there’s a public record of shortcutting. It’s no longer something weird, some- thing non-standard that will make one stand out, because there’s obvious evidence that the proverbial ‘everyone else’ is doing the exact same thing.

The primary paths here, the ones that have really be- come wintertime staples of transport, you’ve probably seen. The biggest one, the most heavily trodden and clearly most pronounced, diverges from the path running from the Chapel to Burton just after the shed and leads directly towards Sayles. This whole area is trampled – the broomball rinks probably play a huge part in increasing traffic around here. Another frequently very pronounced path cuts from the Music Hall to the Chapel. A third, a bit less popular than the other two, splits off from the path from the concert hall to the CMC and heads towards the Libe.

The Mini-Bald Spot features significantly fewer established paths, most likely because the residential functions of nearly all the nearby buildings rarely command the sort of time pressure on prompt arrival that academic ones do. Being late to class gives a definitive reason to rush and take the quickest route available, but because the Mini Bald Spot is not near most of the major academic buildings, there’s generally less time pressure involved in going around it. Notably, it’s also a lot smaller, so circumambulation is faster to begin with.

Surprisingly, after each bout of fresh snow, it’s possible to see this social phenomenon working in reverse. Often, particularly small and infrequently used paved paths get covered up with snow and people just avoid them until plows come. The little L-bend by the bike racks in front of the Libe often stays nearly untrodden for hours after each snowfall.

In short, pay attention to how people walk in the winter. Having snow on the ground makes insight into how people actually move about possible in an immediately effective way and allows route-planning to take on a whole new dimension. Think about how you’re walking. And stay warm.

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