On Trails: An Exploration …Book Review

I can now say that when I walk a trail here in Maine, or anyplace for that matter, I will hold a new appreciation for them, and see them differently since reading Robert Moor’s book, On Trails: An Exploration. This, Moor’s first book, is a wonderful history lesson on the spell binding nature of trails, and is a memorable journey to pursue for anyone interested in paths today and throughout history.

There are many trails throughout the world, many historic, others still waiting to be found. Here in the US, there are the landmark journeys of Lewis and Clark, the homesteaders of the Oregon Trail, and John Muir’s walk through the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. And, let’s not forget the myriad of people today following, in a sense, Henry David Thoreau’s own experience climbing Mount Katahdin fulfilling a right of passage by getting to the summit.

Moor begins his journey by reflecting on his successful completion of the Appalachian Trail (AT) as a thru hiker, starting at Springer Mountain in Georgia, and finishing at the summit of Katahdin. Moor opens the book by saying, “Once, years ago, I left home looking for a grand adventure and spent five months looking at mud.” Unfortunately, it was 2009, and the conditions were so bad it has since been compared to the “year without a summer” back in 1816. Instead of looking ahead and around while on the trail, he was forced to constantly look down at a wet and muddy trail for most of the duration of the hike. This spurred questions within him on how trails start and, more importantly, why.

Approaching these questions in an evolutionary sense, Moor walks you back, way back, to what many believe were the very first life form to make trails, the Ediacarans. After that, the reader is treated to a smattering of breadcrumbs left behind over time, and their meaning to us as humans. In Moor’s words, “To deftly navigate this world, we will need to understand how we make trails, and how trails make us.”

After the AT, Moors finds himself in Newfoundland, as he accompanies scientists in their study of the fossils left behind by Ediacarans. These tiny creatures wobbled 565 million years ago, in essence, to regain their perch after being knocked about my shifting wind and tides. Only visible in certain sediment and proper light, the trails can be daunting to find; they are considered the oldest trails.

This book is filled with the trails of the natural world, such as the pheromone saturated trails of ants, and how its discovery unfolded in an uncanny way; as well as those made by man, like those “desire paths” we make in urban areas simply to save time. Walk through any park or college campus, and you will find them. Follow the hardscape paths and, there just off of them, you will find shortcuts, the paths created over time through the grass, because someone desired to go that way and others followed.

Why? Moor unravels this and many other trail related questions as he moves through time. From the cow paths of what became Boston’s cityscape of streets to the animal behaviors all over the world, from the continuous development of the International Appalachian Trail (IAT) to long walks with the Cherokee, learning trail craft in the jungles of Borneo to spending time with shepherds on a Navaho farm, this interconnected sense of paths and trails crystalizes before our eyes.

Moor ends this journey walking with a man who many consider one of the most durable of hikers to ever slip on a pair of hiking boots. M.J. Eberhart, aka Nimblewill Nomad, was the first to thru hike the IAT. Over a 15-year period, he covered more than thirty-four thousand miles, including the so-called Triple Crown: the AT, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail. During their time together, Moor gets a sense of the man and his background. But when he asked why, Eberhart replied, “You can answer questions all day, but you just don’t want to answer that question,” he said. “You know why? Because you can’t answer the damn question.”

Recently, while walking a trail here in Downeast Maine, my hiking companion and I took notice of a tree up ahead on the trail. It looked as though it took a 90-degree turn, and then continued growing straight. My friend commented that his understanding was that Native Americans would mark trails by bending and twisting young trees this way. Moor agrees and gives many examples on how and why animals and humans sometimes harness the same trails, expanding some, forgetting others.

It is on this behavior, this decision making on one trail versus another, that Moor really hits the mark providing life lessons to contemplate well after the book is finished. Moor says, “In the end, we are existential pathfinders: We select among the paths life affords, and then, when those paths no longer work for us, we edit them and innovate as necessary. I witnessed this firsthand on the AT. The trail was modified with each step we hikers took, but ultimately the trail steered our course. By following it we streamlined to its conditions: we lost weight, shed possessions, and increased our pace week after week. The same rule applies to our life’s pathways: collectively we shape them, but individually they shape us. So we must choose our paths wisely.”

Simon & Schuster, 2016        Hardcover, $25

RJ Heller

About RJ Heller

Having arrived here from Pennsylvania over three years ago, there has been plenty to learn and even more to observe. This place is different, but I mean that in a good way. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, I am a college graduate with a teaching degree, a business founder and seller, and a father of two children with my wife Stephanie; life has been full and somewhat adventurous, but finding Maine remains a high watermark in my life.