"From a brilliant new literary voice comes a groundbreaking exploration of how trails help us understand the world--from tiny ant trails to hiking paths that span continents, from interstate highways to the Internet. In 2009, while thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, Robert Moor began to wonder about the paths that lie beneath our feet: How do they form? Why do some improve over time while others devolve? What makes us follow or strike off on our own? Over the course of the next seven years, Moor traveled the globe, exploring trails of all kinds, from the miniscule to the massive. He learned the tricks of master trail-builders, hunted down long-lost Cherokee trails, and traced the origins of our road networks and the Internet. In each chapter, Moor interweaves his adventures with findings from science, history, philosophy, and nature writing--combining the nomadic joys of Peter Matthiessen with the eclectic wisdom of Lewis Hyde's The Gift. Throughout, Moor reveals how this single topic--the oft-overlooked trail--sheds new light on a wealth of age-old questions: How does order emerge out of chaos? How did animals first crawl forth from the seas and spread across continents? How has humanity's relationship with nature and technology shaped world around us? And, ultimately, how does each of us pick a path through life? Moor has the essayist's gift for making new connections, the adventurer's love for paths untaken, and the philosopher's knack for asking big questions. With a breathtaking arc that spans from the dawn of animal life to the digital era, On Trails is a book that makes us see our world, our history, our species, and our ways of life anew"--
Reader mispronounces Appalachian. Pacing has sentences in bursts, intra-sentence pauses are too long for my taste. Picks oddly affected voices when speaking quotes from other people.
The narrative hinges on the author’s through-hike on the Appalachian Trail. From this he branches onto side trails about paths made by bacteria, insects, animals and finally humans. One of the things that fascinated me was how people (and animals) will find the shortest, most efficient way to get from A to B by instinct alone. In many parks, paved paths exist, but people inevitably find shortcuts across “forbidden” areas no matter what things the parks departments might put in their way. Same with nature trails; designers often find themselves thwarted by hikers taking shortcuts. I try not to do this myself because I understand that most trails are designed to keep erosion to a minimum and switchbacks and the ways they cut through the terrain are optimized to preserve the area being passed through; not to get there fastest.
Another thing that intrigued me was how clueless the European settlers were about how the Indian population moved around. You often hear North America described as a “trackless wilderness” when nothing was further from the truth. They just couldn’t see the tracks because they weren’t roads and often went in directions that didn’t makes sense for wheeled vehicles or large animals. But the people here went on foot and had different routes that served different purposes; whether that being the destination or the reason for the trip. Wonderful that some of those ancient trails are preserved still, even if they are part of the national highway system.
Moor’s writing is engaging and thoughtful. He makes some really unusual and appropriate word choices throughout -
“I awoke to a glassine dawn.” p 45
“The mule driver blew onto his hands, his curly hair collecting little nerds of ice.” p 283
“We can travel at the speed of sound and transmit information at the speed of light, but deep human connection still cannot move faster than the (comparatively, lichenous) rate at which trust can grow.” p 293
And while I have no desire to do any overnight or long distance hiking, I appreciated the wisdom of this -
“Shaving one’s pack weight, he said, was a process of sloughing off one’s fears. Each object a person carries represents a particular fear; of injury, of discomfort, of boredom, of attack. The “last vestige” of fear that even the most minimalist hikers have trouble shedding, he said, was starvation. As a result, most people ended up carrying “way the hell too much food”. He did not even carry so much as an emergency candy bar.” p 325 (imparted in a conversation with Meredith J. Eberhard aka Nimblewill Nomad)