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...continued from comic strip above
Yes, I am a Trailhead. But now that we’re on the back page of this section — and Trail can’t eavesdrop — I can tell you something in private.
Being a Trailhead isn’t what it used to be.
For one thing, our numbers are thinning; the tao of “Trail” is lost on younger generations. Even if newspaper comics had not declined as a cultural touchstone (they haven’t been hip since the days of “Bloom County” and “Calvin and Hobbes”), “Trail” the strip would not be of much interest to BuzzFeed. Trail is many things, but cool is not one of them. His 47-year courtship of Cherry Davis, for example, was notable not just for its duration (they finally married in 1993) but also by its chasteness.
The comic strip also requires patience, something that is in short supply in a smartphone-focused world. The story lines have always taken time to unfold, but in recent years the action has slowed to a glacial pace. A columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch even wrote in 2015 how he had finally reached his limit over a narrative that stretched out for months. He titled his piece “The unbearable lightness of being without Mark Trail.” And he had a point.
We Trailheads have also realized that a significant portion of people who read the strip today do so in large part just to poke fun at it.
I guess “Trail” was a bit campy even at the beginning (it was parodied in MAD magazine in 1954), but that aspect was lost on me as a 10-year-old. It’s not lost on the online community, though, where he is a frequent target of the Internet’s special brand of snarkiness.
Comics forums are rife with discussions of the strip’s artistic foibles. Whether it’s the haphazardly placed dialogue balloons that make it appear animals are speaking, or the recycling of panels from earlier strips to unintentionally comic effect, there’s plenty of fodder for the critics.
There was some thought that “Trail” might get a reboot when Elrod retired from drawing the strip shortly after his 90th birthday in 2014. His successor, James Allen, even reached out to commentators who mocked the comic to assure them he was making an effort to modernize it, to push the envelope. But we’re still waiting. Mark is as Mark has always been.
So where does that leave us Trailheads?
The story goes that when the Washington Post tried to drop “Trail” some years back, the paper received thousands of phone calls and letters begging that the decision be reconsidered. One day, then-executive editor Ben Bradlee, who presided over the paper’s Watergate coverage, saw a sign getting waved outside his office window urging him to “Bring Back Mark Trail.” Finally having had enough of it, Bradlee quickly made up his own sign: “OKAY.”
Maybe times have changed, but if “Trail” can outlast the guy who took down Richard Nixon, he can’t be too worried about a few cranky bloggers. And neither should we Trailheads.
I know that I owe Trail enough that I’ll hang in there with him as long as he’s around. After all, I do get paid to write about the outdoors. When it’s all said and done, he really was a role model.
Jeff Moravec is a Minneapolis writer and photographer. Reach him at email@example.com.