Thursday, December 8, 2016

On Trails, An Exploration

On Trails

On Trails, An Exploration, Robert Moor

This non-fiction book jumped out at me as I was walking past the “New Books” Shelf at the library one morning. On Trails, An Exploration seemed like a no-brainer borrow for somebody who loves walking and who considers and appreciates walking as a metaphor for life. I grabbed it and signed it out.

Disclaimer: I am more of a walker than a hiker. I do not stay overnight on a trail. I do not carry vast pounds of supplies – tent, sleeping mat and bag, or food other than snacks or lunch. No shovels or axes. I do not claim to be one of the fraternity of hikers of the sort that relish in months-long end-to-end experiences or who give each other nicknames by which they are identified on the trail. I guess I am for the most part in my daily life, a road walker and on holidays, a day-hiker. But I’m still interested in wilderness hiking: I really enjoyed Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, her account of her walk on the Pacific Coast Trail. I suppose if I could start life over, wilderness hiking might become part of that second life.   

The author of On Trails, journalist Robert Moor, nickname Spaceman is an avid hiker. He has hiked all over the world – USA, Morocco, Argentina, Mexico, Burma, Newfoundland and other parts of Canada etc., but it was during an early-in-life end-to-end hike of the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine and beyond to Newfoundland that he had the epiphany that a book about trails would be interesting to pursue as a hiker, as a thinker and writer and for a reader.

I really loved this book. It’s interesting to wonder how Moor decided to organize the chapters – he could have organized it around geographic locations or chronologically, or according to his hiking experience, or even by degree of difficulty or length or elevation. What he chose to do was to organize by smallest to largest which, at the same time, ended up being from earliest- to most recently-built trails.

So the first chapter is devoted to the minute fossil trails, from almost microscopic to the size of a pencil that were created by some of the earliest creatures that existed in pre-history, ocean-dwelling molluscs that left minuscule trails barely observable and found now in of all places, the rocky coasts of southeastern Newfoundland, Canada.

From there, the chapters graduate in turn to trails created by increasingly larger creatures and moving along in pre-history to modern times. There are ant trails and caterpillar trails, each with unique characteristics, then, trails followed for centuries by grazing species such as gnus, oryxes, kudus, waterbucks, rhinos and elephants. There are trails created, followed, maintained and improved by early indigenous peoples, long before the arrival of Europeans. Eventually, we arrive at modern trails, often a result of joining up earlier trails with newly created sections. Moor volunteered on a trail-building team and is able to give us some insight into just how much planning goes into creating a trail in the 21st century such that it will look like it has always existed while, at the same time, preserving habitat and allowing hikers a reasonable route that they will not feel moved to improve upon.

Robert Moor has done his research and his book is filled with interesting facts along with personal hiking anecdotes. He introduces us to the experts, from scientists to hikers themselves. The writing is superb. I was blown away just by insights in the prologue. Early in Moor recognizes the paradox around hiking trails. One relishes the freedom of setting out on a trail, the whole day in front, a marvellous feeling. At the same time, the hiker’s options are limited (freedom thereby limited) to following a single pathway in order to arrive at the selected destination.

Though we may set off on a trail alone, at our own pace, to our own schedule, we are dependent on others who have walked the same way before, imagining, planning, building and maintaining the trail.


“A trail sleekens to its end. An explorer finds a worthwhile destination; then every walker who follows that trail makes it a little better.”

Hikers and walkers will enjoy this book.