Brandon and I are big fans of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a non-profit connecting communities across the country by repurposing disused railways as recreational corridors. Over the last 3 years, we’ve been working toward cycling all the rail trails in our home state of Ohio (with guest appearances in other states when we’re in town). Earlier this year, we took a 4700-mile road trip through the American Southwest in order to hike some of the most famous (and breathtaking) trails in our National Parks. And last year, I vicariously followed Appalachian Trail thru-hiker Jared Shields as he Instagrammed his epic five-month adventure.
The trails beckon, and we follow. But before these trails were railways or forest blazes or popular backdrops to vacation selfies, how did they come to be singled out from the anonymous landscape? Who created them? And ultimately why do they exist?
Robert Moor decided to explore these questions after his own thru-hike of the AT in 2009, and he takes a fascinatingly broad approach. From fossil trails to ant trails to beast trails, from physical trails to religious trails to digital trails, he interviews biologists, paleontologists and professional trail-builders; weeds through records of the European colonizers of North America; spends days in a tree blind with an environmentalist hunter; herds sheep in Navajo country; reads Emerson and Siddhartha and Wendell Berry; and becomes part of the team mapping the final stretch of the International Appalachian Trail in Morocco.
What he finds is that “the soul of a trail—its trail-ness—is not bound up in dirt and rocks…The essence lies in its function: how it continuously evolves to serve the needs of its users.”
Without trails, we’re lost. We need them to save us from the madness of wandering with absolute freedom. So we follow water and cattle and rock cairns. We take guidance from spiritual teachers. We Google our questions to be answered by Wikipedia.
Every step we take, we reinforce these trails, with small deviations that become larger over time—which means that trail followers are as significant to the process as trail blazers. Trail making is culture making. It’s a group project, even when we act alone in the moment.
So together, we create trails in the landscape. But as every hiker knows, the trails we take have as much effect on us as we have on them. Setting off down a trail is an act of faith, a decision to encounter the unexpected, to be exposed to new vistas, to reach the end of the trail (or at least the evening’s stopping point) having been changed as a result.
I came back from this spring’s National Park trip 4 pounds lighter and with 14 blisters on my feet. But the permanent changes were to my perspective. Hiking under the rim of the Grand Canyon as a thunderstorm rolled in; scaling the slickrock on a 102-degree day to reach Delicate Arch; climbing wooden ladders from the mesa top down to the Cliff Palace where ancient puebloans once made their home: each was an experience I had to talk myself into. I’m not a strong hiker; I’m not even very good with stairs. But once I locked my trekking poles and took the first step, the experiences were incredible. Each one expanded my sense of scale at the size of this country, of time as recorded by geology, of divergent ways of life both now and in the past, of how critical is the protection of public lands.
Just as my boots left their mark on those trails, I came home with an enlarged perspective, carrying the messages of those trails back with me. And that’s really what Moor is celebrating with his book. “To deftly navigate this world,” he says, “we will need to understand how we make trails, and how trails make us.”
Moor’s meditation is smart and lively. He speaks from a position from privilege—very few could afford to undertake the experiences he has—but he shares those experiences with a generous spirit and warm humor. The result is an anecdotal ramble that heads toward a general destination while pointing out the rich cultural artifacts along the way. If you like to wander, you’ll find On Trails good company for the journey.