The first time back out on the trail was strange. The pair, Adrienne Mackey and afaq, both Philadelphia-based artists, needed a break after revisiting the Cooper River Trail in Pennsauken. They were trying out TrailOff, the soon-to-launch free app that offers GPS-activated audio storytelling for 10 trails in the region.
Mackey had spent two and half years working with others artists to create the app; afaq was the one who’d composed poetry to accompany that trail.
“for the purpose of this journey, i’ll carry your wounds for you. so take a moment. breathe. release yourself. let go of all that is too heavy. look to the light. shout if you need to. leave it with me,” afaq recites in the app.
When afaq first started visiting the Cooper River Trail for the project last year, the writer was experiencing early symptoms of an illness that’s still yet to be diagnosed. It had been more than a year already that afaq had been feeling poorly, but because they had been uninsured, they didn’t know how grave their condition was. They experienced fatigue, an irregular heartbeat, fevers, chronic pain, and dizziness, as well as weekslong hospital stays and blood transfusions. Since late December, afaq has spent most days inside. At times, afaq lost the ability to roll over. The writer has ventured outside fewer than 20 times in 2020, mostly in cars. With a new mask, afaq could explore the waterfront trail in a wheelchair.
“I know like everyone has their own unique story. For me, I am rolling away with what I needed today,” afaq said. “My hope is that people will come here and leave questions for themselves for the world. And they might never be answered, to be honest. But I just want people to find a moment to breathe … to find or make that time or make that space.”
TrailOff was never intended to be a relaxation app, and its creators certainly didn’t see the pandemic coming. Even so, TrailOff arrives suited for the times — it’s a nature activity where you don’t need a lot of people, all you need is your headphones and yourself.
“You know that thing that happens when you’re walking around a city listening to music and it sort of feels like your story mingles with the world? We actually kind of curated that experience on purpose,” Mackey said.
Swim Pony Performing Arts, which Mackey founded in 2009, partnered with the Pennsylvania Environmental Council to produce the app. They selected artists through an application process, then paired each with the trail that would be their muse. The artists took different approaches. While afaq’s The Way Sand Wants for Water is a poetic meditation on the landscape and the scars of colonialism, Carmen Maria Machado’s River Devil II: The Return, written for Schuylkill River Trail in Manayunk, is a spooky, witty story that draws upon the Jersey Devil’s Philly ties.
“As I was walking the trail and thinking about it I was like, ’Oh man, that’d be a great place for a horror story,’” Machado recalled in an interview.
Machado, who authored the acclaimed memoir In the Dream House, is a horror fanatic who picked the Jersey Devil after searching through folklore for a monster from around these parts, or at least, nearby.
“I feel bad. If I had known it was going to launch in the pandemic I might have chosen a slightly more soothing story line,” Machado said, “but also maybe people will find it deliciously distracting, and they’ll forget for a few hours that we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, once-in-a-lifetime situation.”
While some authors narrated their own pieces, others collaborated with voice actors. Michael Kiley, a theater artist, handled sound design. The stories are planned to unfold as you reach different spots in the trail. So, if one segment ends before you reach the next designated point, you can expect to hear music or sound design. For some stories, Swim Pony sought out musicians of different backgrounds to pair with the cultural themes in play. For example, for A Sycamore’s Psalm, a story by donia salem harhoor on the Perkiomen Trail, the app’s creators enlisted artist Kinan Abou-afach to play an oud and cello, Mackey said.
In the planning process, Mackey explained, they were aiming to create immersive art, but they also questioned who typically gets depicted exploring trails and nature: “It’s like a white dude in bike shorts listening to NPR or something.”
“How do you tell a different story about natural spaces? How do you interrogate the question of like who belongs here and whose stories are these?” Mackey said.
TrailOff will launch on Sept. 16 as part of this year’s Fringe Festival, but will be free and accessible for one year.
One of the artists, Denise Valentine, a noted storyteller and cultural worker, died this past March. A memorial in her honor will happen on Zoom on Sept. 11. Valentine’s Deeply Routed is paired with Tacony Creek Trail, a piece that looks at the creek to see ancestral connections through water. Valentine recorded much of the script herself, while local actress Cathy Simpson voiced a spirit who offered this lesson:
“There are stories beneath the surface. Some, buried like sewage, become toxic, polluting the streams and rivers that nourish the roots connecting us one to another,” the spirit says in the story. “This creek flows to the Delaware River, through your past and through your present. The River represents your connection to the pain of those Africans who perished in Great MAAFA, the Transatlantic Human Trade; your connection to Ancestral homelands, and your tears of hope for future generations.”
For The Way Sand Wants for Water, afaq recited their poetry to the sounds of waves and Arabic drumming.
“when i say that this is a love story, i mean that it is a tale about loss. for many people, there is no difference,” afaq says in the app.
At the end of their journey on the Cooper River Trail, afaq and Mackey agreed, thinking about everything that’s happened is a lot.
“So much has changed for me, and the world since then,” afaq said, speaking of the last time they’d been there. A loud flock of geese flew overhead. “Those birds scare the crap out of me because I’m not used to hearing them anymore.”
Mackey said she thinks the story hits different during a pandemic. For afaq, what the pandemic took away for most people were really things that they had already lost, afaq said.
“A lot of people’s worst nightmare is things changing, just like that. But it’s interesting because that’s what the general atmosphere of the world is right now,” afaq said. “Everyone is terrified of being sick, their life changing. Everyone is terrified of losing someone or themselves.”