Book Review: On Trails by Robert Moor

On Trails

How do trails form? Why do trails form? Come to think of it, what is a trail?

These are but a few of the (deceptively simple) questions author Robert Moor attempts to answer in his book On Trails (Simon and Schuster, 2016). Moor – a lifelong backpacker and Appalachian Trail thru-hiker in addition to being a writer – approaches his subject with lyrical language and journalistic due-process. The result is a book as quietly spiritual as it is wildly informative.

Moor begins his exploration in the micro (with single-celled organisms and slime molds) and finishes with the macro (the 12,000 mile International Appalachian Trail). In between those extremes, he covers:

  • How the fossil record has preserved examples of the earliest known trails.
  • How ants are evenly matched with supercomputers at trail design.
  • Why elephants understand the “idea” of a trail (as opposed to just following a path of least resistance).
  • How the trail-following tendency of domesticated herd animals has shaped cultures world-wide.
  • How hunting has changed (and continues to change) the landscape in which we live.
  • How the history, language, and culture of the Cherokee shaped their trails – and how those trails shaped the Cherokee in return.
  • How European and native people differed in their approach to resource management (and how they were similar).
  • How drastic shifts in technology have created the modern sport of “hiking”.
  • How the ideas of wilderness and conservation have shifted throughout history.
  • How modern trail construction is just as much an art as it is a science.
  • How the Appalachian Trail was born – and how similar trails continue to be cobbled together.

Woven between all these subjects are layman’s studies of history, chemistry, biology, anthropology, botany, geology, entomology, etymology, philosophy, poetry, and a dozen other scattered pursuits.

Moor’s gift as a writer is to make following this maze of interconnected ideas seem effortless and natural, like easy walking over smooth tread. One of the great pleasures of On Trails is how much the subject of pathways informed the book’s linear but ultimately branching (trail-like) structure.

On Trails is far from a dry academic tome, however. Moor is an accomplished backpacker. He gathers the threads of his story while hiking along with everyone from Latifa Asselouf (one of Morocco’s only female mountain guides) to M.J. “Nimblewill Nomad” Eberhart. The immersive style suits Moor’s subject well. The author’s voice is something like a cross between Bill Bryson and Jon Krakauer (with a dash of Steven Ambrose sprinkled in for good measure).

What is a trail? In his closing chapters, Moor sets aside hard science and reaches instead for philosophy and poetry to grapple more theoretically with his central question. Those old standbys – Thoreau and Muir, Abbey and Leopold – all make an appearance. But so too does the thousand-year-old verse of Chinese poet Hanshan and the heartfelt cowboy prayers of Nimblewill Nomad.

In the end, it takes both science and philosophy to fully describe the messy confluence of travel, connection, communication, and time that we call “trails.” Moor’s work is well worth the journey, and if the final page leaves you wanting more, well, isn’t that what all the best trails do?