“On Trails: An Exploration” by Robert Moor

On Trails: an exploration by Robert Moor, Simon and Schuster, 2016

Book Review by Sam Demas

Robert Moor is intellectually intrepid in his exploration — as a writer and a walker – of the genesis, meaning and wonder of trails.  Trails of all kinds.  He writes in the spirit of intellectual adventure represented by authors like Henry Thoreau, John Muir, Robert Macfarlane, Annie Dillard, Jared Diamond, and Bruce Chatwin.  Through fluid writing, artful character sketches, long walks, and deep research, he opens our eyes to the fact that trails are everywhere one goes in the world, and that they all have stories to tell and wisdom to impart.  As Moor says, his book is a trail whose destination is a quest for the wisdom of trails. I’ve read (or listened to) this book several times in the past year and am finally sharing my enthusiasm with the readers of hut2hut.info.

I urge you to join Moor on his remarkable journey On Trails.   Why?  If you walk, ski, build, maintain, or plan trails, your conception – and your enjoyment — of them will be forever expanded by following the trail he has blazed in this book.  It provides fascinating historical, cultural, biological, evolutionary, and philosophical context within which to understand our engagement with trails. Reading it, you become aware of how the idea of way-marked, recreational trails is a thoroughly modern invention, but how deeply rooted it is in a wide range of natural and cultural phenomena.

Moor’s ambitious premise is not easy to do justice in encapsulation, but here is an attempt: In theory, we humans (and, importantly, many organisms and biological systems) have the freedom to wander the earth in whatever directions and ways we choose.  In practice, we need and tend to follow and create trails/paths. In the human dimension, these include dirt trails, roads, career paths, memes, spiritual and philosophical paths, and paths to wellness.  They guide and constrain us as they move us towards desired destinations.  How do we choose the “right” path?  How do we thread our way through the chaos of the world/wilderness?  By following these multifarious trails – physical, digital/neural, and metaphorical – which are essentially slivers of collective knowledge leading us through the vast mysteries of landscapes and of our lives.  As we move along trails, they tell us stories about the world we live in, they trace the movement of those who went before us, and they usefully root and locate us in an otherwise trackless wilderness.  As Moor points out: paths shape us and we shape them.  As we follow paths, we simultaneously optimize and streamline them with our own footsteps/intelligence as we move towards shared goals along trails constructed of collective experience/knowledge. What I enjoy and admire about this book — besides all the cool stuff you learn along the way — is the fearless imagination, fluidity and adventure with which Moor explores on multiple levels this broad conception of trails.  And that he is impelled by his curiosity to draw connections that resonate – at least in this reader — with a ringing compulsion to explore these pathways further.  The journey continues.  He is a writer on trails to watch (see links at end of this review).

What follows is a brief overview of the chapters through some highlights that may entice you to join Moor on his journey.  The book comprises a Prologue, Epilogue, and six linked essays, composed like a set of independent trails that has over time been artfully knitted into a regional trail system. It begins with his five month through hike of the Appalachian Trail.

During the particularly cold and rainy summer of 2009 on the AT, he “had little else to do but study the trail beneath my nose with Talmudic intensity.”  When the walk ended he continued to muse on questions such as “….the meaning of this endless scrawl.  Who created it?  Why does it exist? Why, moreover, does any trail?”.  Alternating between bouts of omnivorous reading and hiking of trails near and far, the number and scope of his questions increased:

Spurred on by them, and sensing in some vague way that they might lead to new intellectual ground, I began to search for the deeper meaning of trails.  I spent years looking for answers, which led me to bigger questions: Why did animal live begin to move in the first place?  How does any creature start to make sense of the world? Why do some individuals lead and others follow? How did we humans come to mold our planet into its current shape? Piece by piece, I began to cobble together a panoramic view of how pathways act as an essential guiding force on this planet: on every scale of life, from microscopic cells to herds of elephants, creatures can be found relying on trails to reduce an overwhelming array of options to a single expeditious route.  Without trails we would be lost.

After a stimulating prologue, the book’s first chapter takes us to Newfoundland to study the world’s oldest trails: a series of fossilized “sinuous traces” of organisms from the Edicaran era (c. 565 million years ago), before there was a clear differentiation between plants and animals.  For some reason these primitive organisms began to move about rather than remain fixed like trees and other plants today.  Along the way, Moor introduces the reader – with supple and descriptive prose — to the scientists studying these obscure origins and to the terror and delight of tramping and traveling in the wild woods of this remote region.

The second chapter explores insect trails as evolutionarily honed methods of optimizing collective intelligence.  Here we are treated, for example, to discussion of the remarkable design capabilities of colonies of single celled slime molds (who have been experimentally induced to re-create the complex design of the Tokyo rail system), and how we came to understand the mechanics and wisdom of insect trails.  The silken-threaded trails of caterpillars and complex pathways of chemical communication of social insects are shown to be remarkably effective.  However, like any biological system where there is a very high premium on social cohesion, they are subject to falling into horribly repetitive “vicious circles” of meaningless, mass looping behavior, at least until a brave, hungry individual breaks away from the mass to explore in a new direction. This leads to an explanation of why walking in a straight line is so difficult, how people get lost on trails, and why humans everywhere have a tendency to succumb to the illusory sense of progress and walk (swim, run, row, and drive) in circles.  Along the way, you learn how EO Wilson finally unlocked the secret of chemical communication in ants, and how mathematical modeling of the intelligent systems of ant colonies is used in logistics such as city planning, disaster response planning, telecommunications networks, and shipping routes.

The third chapter, on animal trails, includes lessons learned from the author’s experiences, such as visiting the “Swarm Lab” at a game park in N.J. where they are doing research on African ungulates, exploring elephant research in Botswana, a visit to an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee, his three weeks as a shepherd on a Navajo sheep ranch, deer hunting with an expert tracker in Alabama, and reports on wide-ranging reading and conversations with scientists around the world.  I particularly enjoyed learning about how elephants are uniquely engineered for creating vast and complex networks of trails: their highly-developed sense of smell and hearing (including the ability to detect far distant thunder through their stethoscopic  feet) allow them to set a direction to reach a desired goal: e.g. water, food, or minerals.  Their immense weight impels them to find the most efficient routes, their massive shoulders allow them to plow through brush, their trunks to remove obstacle, their habit of walking single file to solidify trails, and their memories to recall destinations from which they were severed by human interventions.  His discussion of the role of buffalo trails in the N. American ecosystem and culture is similarly absorbing.

The fourth chapter contemplates the differences in how Native Americans viewed trail-building and landscape management before colonization, compared with colonists and Americans today.  It explores the idea of trail networks as agents in and embodiments of the development, transmission and preservation of cultural knowledge.  Moor takes us on walks with a Cherokee researcher on ancient Cherokee trails in North Carolina.  We learn how modern recreational trails are laid out compared with those of Native Americans, how many Native American trails formed the basis for our modern road systems, and why comparatively few of the others have survived to this day.

The fifth chapter explores the cultural and environmental roots of the founding of the Appalachian Trail, a through-hike for nature deprived American urbanites.  Moor traces this story from its roots in a rapid transition from millennia of native American land ethics and trail-building to a colonial “economic and social imperialism” (William Cronon) that quickly cut the forests and re-shaped the landscape to emulate that of ravaged England.  He does a good job of sketching the cultural context that produced and informed Benton Mackaye, and discusses the rise of recreational trail-building in the Northeast.

The sixth chapter explores the genesis and development of world’s longest hiking trail, the International Appalachian Trail.  He hikes stretches (in Maine, Canada, Scotland and Morocco) of this nascent trail, talks with the people conceiving and advancing it, and hikes in the Atlas Mountains in a vain attempt to locate a logical terminus for this eccentric extension of the concept of trails. Along the way he speculates about the IAT as a trail-based embodiment of the spirit of the internet age, discussing the work of Tim Berners-Lee and Vannevar Bush in creating “trails of association” through the sprawling world of human knowledge and association.

In the Epilogue Moor walks with “the perpetual hiker”, Nimblewill Nomad (34,000 miles in 15 years) and speculates about the meaning and experience of wilderness, the meaning of hiking, and the wisdom of trails.

[One quibble: yes, essayists generally eschew footnotes and indexes, I get it.  But the readers of this book definitely deserve a robust index to aid in revisiting specific sections of the trail as they continue to follow Moor’s leads over time.]

Wow, what a journey!  Like most trail photos, my little summaries don’t do this trail justice.  Join Moor on this thoughtful and unique exploration and your experience of trails will be enriched.


P.S. Before embarking on a long hike with Moor, if you want a quick taste of his writing and thinking styles, just this week he published a nice piece in the New Yorker on the universal phenomenon of “desire lines” (paths that develop spontaneously where people think paths should exist and don’t) in NYC.  I also recommend a NY Times opinion piece from last fall “On the Trail of Interdependence”.

–Sam February 23, 2017