Book Review: On Trails
The minimalist jacket of “On Trails: An Exploration” suggests a meditation on the act of hiking, but author Robert Moor addresses trails in a broader context. The result is a good read but not, perhaps, in the way you’d expect it to be.
The phrase "don't judge a book by its cover" has never been so appropriate.
The minimalist jacket of On Trails: An Exploration suggests a meditation on the act of hiking, but author Robert Moor addresses trails in a broader context. The result is a good read but not, perhaps, in the way you’d expect it to be.
On Trails is a meditation, not on hiking and self-realization but on how trails of all kinds have serve as connectors. Tackling complex concepts in relatively plain language, Moor dedicates full chapters to fossil traces, insect pheromone trails, the internet and, yes, hiking trails. Indeed, a quote from the prologue aptly summarizes the book’s theme: “… every step a hiker takes is a vote for the continued existence of a trail.”
Moor applies this logic to each chapter of the book. He explores how scent trails of ants utilize positive feedback loops to connect the colony to a food source. He digs back in history to uncover how trails connected Native American tribes to food. He highlights how internet searches improve with every successful hit, better connecting us to the information we seek. But where hiking is concerned, the theme is both concrete and abstract. We are literally connecting to the landscape through our feet and senses, while simultaneously forging connections to the people we share the trail with.
"The modern hiking trail is an uncanny thing. We hikers generally assume it is an ancient, earthborn creation—as old as dirt. But in truth, hiking was invented by naturestarved urbanites in the last 300 years, and trails have sprouted new shapes to fulfill their hunger. To properly understand the nature of a hiking trail, one must trace the origins of that yearning, back through those early hikers to their ancestors, who set off the chain of innovations and calamities that would gradually distance humans from the planet that birthed them."
Moor, who found inspiration for this book on a through-hike of the Appalachian Trail, lives this, creating strong bonds with his fellow hikers.
In Morocco, he bonds with his guide and translator (though, notably, not with the locals in the towns they pass). He hikes part of the Appalachian Trail with a Cherokee historian, witnessing unexpected kindnesses from fellow hikers. He spends a week scouting an old route with a conservationist in Alabama and three days hiking highways in Texas with a well-known septuagenarian who’s been hiking pretty much nonstop since 1998.
Through these connections, Moor concludes that trails themselves convey wisdom through their history. But it’s his conversations with Cherokee and Alabamans that shed light on each trail he visits. It’s the people you travel with who provide perspective, insight and wisdom. To paraphrase from the final chapter, without people to tell its story, a trail is just a line left behind.
If you’re looking for a thoughtful, open-minded approach to the concept of a trail in all its many forms, this 2017 Pacific Northwest Book Award winner is likely just the thing.