Taking the Hypotenuse: Desire Paths on Campus
One writer details how student’s everyday journeys are made better by their favorite hidden paths around campus.
Have you ever ventured off the sidewalk onto a dirt path to save time? If so, you probably took a “desire path.” If you’ve never heard of a desire path, you’re not alone. A desire path is an unplanned trail created by repeated foot traffic over the same route. Generally, walkers take these paths because they are quicker than the prescribed route, thus making it more “desirable.” To investigate their prominence on campus, I asked students about their thoughts on these trails at Dartmouth — and compiled a guide of Dartmouth’s best and most popular desire paths.
Valen NealBurk ’25, resident of the off-campus house The Rock on Sargent Street, takes a desire path called the Commando Route every day to get to main campus.
“It’s the fastest way to get from these houses up here on Sargent Street to campus,” they said. “Otherwise you would have to add another 10 minutes to your route.”
Conor Shaheen ’25 said he also takes desire paths for efficiency. While he acknowledged that they might not be “great for lawns and for landscaping,” he values the upside to these quicker routes, especially the “decreased walking time.”
Speed plays a crucial role in a student’s decision to take one of these paths. There’s a mathematical rationale in choosing one of these walkways over a paved route, highlighted especially when a desire path cuts the corner of a paved route. I call this choice “taking the hypotenuse.”
I asked William Bender ’24 if he thought desire paths are, by nature, the most efficient way to get from Point A to Point B. He responded with a simple explanation: “Ever heard of Pythagoras? He invented triangles.”
I reflected on this in the context of my middle school geometry education and came to the conclusion that indeed, diagonal crosswalks exist for a reason.
Spencer Mancuso ’25, however, said he doesn’t always take the shortest route, especially when clean shoes are at stake. With the torrential downpours of spring, many paths around campus become a muddy mess. He referred to the shortcuts across Gold Coast Lawn as a “twenty-foot-long mud pit.”
“It’s always a cost-benefit analysis of whether you should take it,” he said.
I asked students if they think that the College should leave the desire paths in their natural glory, enhance them with pavement or use fencing to stop potential users in their tracks.
Harry Beesley-Gilman ’25 had strong feelings on the matter. He referenced muddiness as the determining factor in his stance that the College should pave or mulch desire paths.
“I prefer [paving] versus leaving it as dirt because when it rains the dirt turns to mud, and people start walking around the outside of the path to get off the mud,” he said. “Then the path just grows and grows and grows.”
While students have many opinions on the topic, I decided to visit these paths and see for myself. Here’s some of the campus’ most iconic desire paths. These don’t have official names, so I took the liberty of creating names for them myself.
Gold Coast Cuts:
Gold Coast Lawn becomes rife with criss-crossing paths over the course of spring, as students from Gile, Streeter and Lord to the south as well as Fahey-Mclane to the north deviate from the sidewalks to access their destination more quickly. Notably, one massive gravel path divides the lawn in half, but this does not stop students from diverging onto the lawn. When asked about notable desire paths, Shaheen, “self-proclaimed desire path connoisseur,” called the Gold Coast Cuts, “great little lines of dirt — perfect.”
In the ten minutes before any class period, you might catch students cutting between Bones Gate and Sigma Nu to a path that runs behind McLane Hall to the top of Old Tuck Drive. These students typically live on Webster Avenue but take classes in the Irving Institute or Thayer. Walking on the paved path that runs between Butterfield Hall and Fahey-McLane Hall can add an extra two to three minutes, devastating for the chronically late.
This route runs almost parallel to the Frat-Row Route, yet is infinitely more perilous, especially in the winter. This path has been trodden down from the end of Webster Avenue to about halfway down Old Tuck Drive. Its treacherous nature comes from the fact that it is only wide enough to fit about one and a half pedestrians, and drops off into a gulch that becomes a small brook on rainy days. As it heats up in Hanover, increasingly more Webster Avenue and Choates residents will take this path down to the river.
Theta Delta Chi Trail:
One famed route runs alongside the Class of 1953 Commons to Theta Delta Chi Fraternity. Day-to-day, fraternity members plod along the trail to the front door of their residence, but on Fridays, Saturdays and the occasional Tuesday, the path swells with rowdy students. Without this “desired” path, students would have to walk alongside the busy West Wheelock Street. In this case, the unpathed path becomes a win for student safety.
The Commando Route:
Perhaps the most unique of the paths I have mentioned, the “Commando Route,” as named by the sign at the top of it, is not actually found on Dartmouth’s campus. This trail runs from the end of Sergeant Street to the intersection between West Street and West Wheelock Street. Taking this “path” feels akin to a moderate hike –– at times it feels almost vertical. The worn-in ropes and railings made of branches emphasize the difficulty of this desire path — when I took it, I found myself relying on them to tug myself up to Sergeant Street.
I take desire paths every day. I am a firm believer in shaving 10 feet off my journey, especially when rushing to meet friends at the dining hall or trying to turn a six-minute walk to class into a four-minute one. Sometimes, I’ll take a desire path because I’m feeling adventurous, like climbing up the Commando Route in the winter on the way to Mink Brook or running down the “Slippery Slope” to jump in at the Ledyard Docks. Whether you choose to take desire paths or not, the human drive for efficiency and exploration will generate more desire paths. People simply want to walk where they aren’t supposed to walk.