Book Review: On Trails

In the middle of December, a great urge came over me to read something “adventurous” and “outdoorsy.” Rather than scouring the internet’s endless lists of book recommendations, I instead asked for recommendations on my Instagram story. I got lots of great recommendations (hopefully I’ll get to some of the others in the year ahead!), but decided to begin with a book that my friend Matt was really enthusiastic about and thought I’d like: On Trails: An Exploration by Robert Moor.

Moor’s book was not a high-stakes, outdoor adventure, but it was an incredibly interesting and engaging book that explores how trails help us understand the world “from tiny ant trails to hiking paths that span continents, from interstate highways to the internet,” as the dust jacket describes. Moor spent 7 years traveling and researching for the book in addition to thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. While the book is by no means a comprehensive history of trails, I was surprised by how thorough and fact-packed On Trails was.

While the book, at times, was dense with research findings and historical tidbits, Moor has a special skill of sharing this information in a personal, effective, and interesting way. As a person who sometimes skims over the research, I found myself appreciating how easily Moor was able to intertwine extensive research with relevant narratives, anecdotes, and application. I never knew how modern our trail systems are (such as the Appalachian Trail), nor did I stop to consider some of the deep history and even tragic history behind certain recreational paths. I learned a lot.

After finishing On Trails, two aspects stick out to me the most about the book: the people Moor introduced the reader to and the philosophical exploration he took us on into what trails meant, mean, and will mean to people throughout the ages.

I enjoyed reading about the Navajo shepherds, Harry and Bessie, Moor lived with for a few short weeks while he briefly (and comically) struggled to care for their sheep (and a few wily goats) in the dry and unforgiving landscape of Arizona. I chuckled at the image of Lamar Marshall, an Alabama historian and activist who gives Moor some barbecued bear steak while he gnawed away at some especially-charred bear ribs. And I shuddered at the passage where Moor asks infamous wandering walker “Nimblewood Nomad” if the legend that he had all of his toenails surgically removed and then burned with acid to prevent regrowth was true…and he confirms with a grotesque removal of his limp sock.

Moor also brings up a lot of interesting points about the bigger questions behind why we follow trails, forge different paths, and continue to press on or choose to stop. But Moor’s book doesn’t end up being a total glorification of nature and a bashing of urban environments; this is not a hippie rant against modern technology or urban development. Rather, Moor provides an honest and important reflection on how nature and the wilderness can be both beautiful AND brutal.

I particularly enjoyed the epilogue, where Moor explores how trails and travels are made most meaningful when their impact transcends one’s own experience or sense of self. Moor’s discussion of how wilderness and nature shape the self were ones I hadn’t really previously considered, but they inspired a sense of curiosity in me to ask why I seek out trails or view certain elements of our planet as more wild than others. The passage below was especially interesting to me, and perhaps it will be for you, too:

“In the end, we are all 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. The tricky part is that while we are editing our trails, our trails are also editing us. I witnessed this phenomenon firsthand on the Appalachian Trail. 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.”

The book made me less interested in doing months-long thru hikes…the description of “hip scabs” and the condition of one’s feet were enough to convince me that perhaps shorter stints would be more conducive to an enjoyable hiking experience…But it did give me lots to think about in why I’m drawn to the trail, what wisdom I’ve found there, and what fear is wrapped up in my relationship with various activities, landscapes, and courses.

If you’re someone who enjoys hiking, I would definitely recommend this book to you. It is not only an interesting and meaty exploration into the history of trails, but a great introduction to the variety of characters and philosophies that exist out there of fellow trail-walkers and trailblazers. Pick up a copy and settle in for an interesting read. And then lace up those boots and head back out onto the trail for an encounter with nature, but more importantly, an encounter with one of the most wild, unexplored things out there: your own mind.

Some images from my adventures out on the trails.

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