On Trails: An Exploration reminds me of a path that passes through deep, luscious forests only to pop out onto rich open farm fields after somewhat grudgingly following sidewalks within towns and villages. Along the way, it struggles across stretches of flatlands; though I recognize that what is monotonous to me may be rich territory to those more patient with the minutiae of life.
The book explores why Moor, a thirty-something-year-old American who lives in British Columbia, decided to walk the Appalachian Trail—and not just the Appalachian Trail in the US. Moor follows “extensions” that trace the same mountain range through Quebec and Newfoundland. He even spends time in Morocco where the International Appalachian Trail ends.
Moor is a lovely writer who, for instance, describes the heat he experiences while walking along a highway in Texas as he accompanied Nimblewill Nomad as a “bad hug.” And it is his walking experiences that I found most compelling. Personally, I love reading about the travails of others as they love, hate, battle with and otherwise describe their expeditions. I may have found Cheryl Strayed’s Wild occasionally frustrating, but I scampered through the book.
The “flatlands” I refer to are chapters one, two and to a lesser extend three. In chapter one, he delves into the “oldest trails on earth,” which are in Newfoundland and were made 565 million years ago by “Ediacaran biota, the planet’s earliest known forms of animal life.” Interesting yes, but the chapter is 30 pages long. In chapter two, he graduates to insect trails. Trail builders have much to learn from ants, but I wanted a bit more action, a trail that was kilometres rather than metres long.
In the ensuing chapters, Moor moves on to human trails, which recaptured my wandering attention. Along the Appalachian Trail, he intertwines his follies with a discussion of the purpose for On Trails: to discover why we hike. “The core function of any trail is to connect,” writes Moor. It doesn’t matter whether it was Ediacarans or humans that created the trail and it matters little whether the trail’s purpose is to lead to food or communicate, as we do through the trail known as the internet. Trails connect and, I grudgingly admit, Moor’s lengthy and detailed look at where trails came from helps bring this point home.
But it was the book’s Epilogue that I found most compelling. At 40 pages, it might go on—though he is walking across Texas as he muses—but he bores into why we hike. “I believe,” he writes, “what we hikers are seeking is simplicity—an escape from civilization’s garden of forking paths.” He adds, “In walking we acquire more of less.” At least for the time we are on the trail, all we need do is put one foot ahead of the other.
Ultimately, Moor sees his desire to walk as exploration—as his way of contributing to “a better, longer-lasting, more supple way of sharing wisdom and preserving it for the future.”
On Trails: An Exploration
by Robert Moor
Simon & Schuster, 2016, 340 pages