On Trails: An Exploration
By Robert Moor
352 pp. Simon & Schuster. $16.
I love hiking trails. It’s one of those things that’s hard to explain when someone asks. Or it was, before I read this book.
I love hiking because there’s a trail. There’s a direction, a path, to follow. You just have to keep walking and eventually, sooner or later, you will get there.
Hiking isn’t something that I necessarily enjoy when I’m doing it. I’m too set on reaching my destination. On achieving the goal.
A trail, for me, is like happiness. I’m rarely if ever happy in the moment, but I’m happy when looking back at an event or looking ahead to the next one.
So it is on the trail. Or, at least, the longer trails where I’ve already planned on a destination to reach before nightfall. Then I’m driven. We have to make it there, there isn’t any time to lose.
But once I’ve arrived, I look back and realize how happy the trail made me, how much I actually did enjoy the journey. Upon reaching the destination I’m always eager, desperate even, to set off again.
Author Robert Moore does an incredible job here researching every aspect of trails, both human and animal, and takes a deep dive into the origin and history of trails. I wasn’t quite expecting that. I went in expecting a book by a guy who’d thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail and written a book about it, and instead got a in-depth book about the role trails have played throughout time.
The book bears some similarities to Erling Kagge’s tremendous Walking: One Step at a Time, but it is also very different. Where as Kagge’s book focuses on walking as a healthy, mindful act, Moor’s focuses on trails because of their history and their efficiency. Moor’s book is also deeply American in that it showcases how wildly popular trails have become at a time when American life, and western capitalism more generally, have left generations of young people frozen in place, uncertain of where to turn and what to do in an increasingly globalized and ever more closely connected marketplace.
I did a quick scan of this book’s online reviews and was astonished that there are any negative reviews at all. The thing it seems they all have in common is that they were written by people who didn’t really want to read a book about trails at all, because this is as close to a perfect book on the subject as exists. And you may not think you’re really interested in trails, but trust me, read this and you will be!
There is some heavy reading here, and the going at times gets tough. Much of it, particularly the middle sections, is technical terrain, and some resolve is required. Not to say that these sections are boring, just that they’re occasionally a challenge to simultaneously process while continuing to flip the pages.
It did take me two months to plow through this whole thing, after all. In that way, reading “On Trails: An Exploration” is much like hiking a long trail itself. There are easy bits, and there are hard bits. And, as always, the hardest part is mental.
But in both cases, the journey is absolutely worth it.