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Authors: Robert Moor

On Trails

BOOK: On Trails

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The path is made in the walking of it.



, I left home looking for a grand adventure and spent five months staring at mud. It was the spring of 2009, and I had set out to walk the full length of the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. My departure date was timed so that I would transition seamlessly from a mild southern spring to a balmy northern summer, but for some reason the warmth never arrived. It stayed cool that year, rained often. Newspapers likened it to the freak summer of 1816, when cornfields froze to their roots, pink snow fell over Italy, and a young Mary Shelley, locked up in a gloomy villa in Switzerland, began to dream of monsters. My memories of the hike consist chiefly of wet stone and black earth. The vistas from many of the mountaintops were blotted out. Shrouded in mist, rain hood up, eyes downcast, mile after mile, month after month, I had little else to do but study the trail beneath my nose with Talmudic intensity.

In his novel
The Dharma Bums
, Jack Kerouac refers to this kind of walking as “the meditation of the trail.” Japhy Ryder, a character modeled after the Zen poet Gary Snyder, advises his friend to “walk along looking at the trail at your feet and don't look about and just
fall into a trance as the ground zips by.” Trails are seldom looked at this intently. When hikers want to complain about a particularly rough stretch of trail, we gripe that we spent the whole day looking down at our feet. We prefer to look up, away, off into the distance. Ideally, a trail should function like a discreet aide, gracefully ushering us through the world while still preserving our sense of agency and independence. Perhaps this is why, for virtually all of literary history, trails have remained in the periphery of our gaze, down at the bottommost edge of the frame: they have been, quite literally, beneath our concern.

As hundreds—and then thousands—of miles of trail passed beneath my eyes, I began to ponder the meaning of this endless scrawl. Who created it? Why does it exist? Why, moreover, does any trail?

Even after I reached the end of the AT, these questions followed me around. 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 yet bigger questions: Why did animal life 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.

My quest to find the nature of trails often proved trickier than I had expected. Modern hiking trails loudly announce their presence with brightly painted signs and blazes, but older trails are more inconspicuous. The footpaths of some ancient indigenous societies, like the Cherokee, were no more than a few inches wide. When Europeans invaded North America, they slowly widened parts of the
native trail network, first to accommodate horses, then wagons, then automobiles. Now, much of that network is buried beneath modern roadways, though remnants of the old trail system can still be found when you know where—and how—to look.

Other trails are yet more obscure. The trails of some woodland mammals dimple the underbrush so faintly that only an experienced tracker can point them out. Ants nose along chemical pathways that are wholly invisible. (One trick to seeing them, I learned, is to sprinkle the area with lycopodium, the same powder police use to dust for fingerprints.) A few trails are tucked away underground: termites and naked mole-rats carve tunnels through the earth, marking them with traces of pheromones to keep their bearings. Finer still are the tangled neural pathways within a single human brain, which are so multitudinous that even the world's most advanced computers cannot yet map them all. Technology, meanwhile, is busy knitting itself into an intricate network of pathways, dug deep underfoot and strung ethereally overhead, so that information can race across continents.

I learned that the soul of a trail—its
—is not bound up in dirt and rocks; it is immaterial, evanescent, as fluid as air. The essence lies in its function: how it continuously evolves to serve the needs of its users. We tend to glorify trailblazers—those hardy souls who strike out across uncharted territory, both figurative and physical—but followers play an equally important role in creating a trail. They shave off unnecessary bends and brush away obstructions, improving the trail with each trip. It is thanks to the actions of these walkers that the trail becomes, in the words of Wendell Berry, “the perfect adaptation, through experience and familiarity, of movement to place.” In bewildering times—when all the old ways seem to be dissolving into mire—it serves us well to turn our eyes earthward and study the oft-overlooked wisdom beneath our feet.


I was ten years old when I first glimpsed that a trail could be something more than a strip of bare dirt. That summer, my parents shipped me off to a small, antiquated summer camp in Maine called Pine Island, where there was no electricity or running water, only kerosene lanterns and cold lake. During the second of my six weeks there, a handful of us boys were loaded into a van and driven many hours away to the base of Mount Washington, for what was to be my first backpacking trip. As a child of the concretized prairies of suburban Illinois, I was apprehensive. The act of lugging a heavy pack through the mountains looked suspiciously like one of those penitent rituals that adults sometimes forced themselves to perform, like visiting distant relatives or eating crusts of bread.

I was wrong, though; it was worse. Our counselors had allotted us three days to climb the eight miles to the top of Mount Washington and back down, which should have been ample time. But the trail was steep, and I was scrawny. My backpack—a heavy, ill-fitting, aluminum-­framed Kelty—resembled a piece of full-body orthodontia. After only an hour of climbing the wide rocky trail leading up Tuckerman Ravine, my stiff new leather boots had already begun to blister my toes and rasp the skin from my heels. A hot liquid ache perfused the muscles of my back. When my counselors weren't looking, I made pleading, pained faces at passing strangers, as if this were all part of some elaborate kidnapping. That night, as I lay in my sleeping bag in the lean-to, I considered the logistics of an escape.

On the second morning, a gray rain blew in. Instead of summiting the peak, which our counselors deemed unsafe, we took a long hike around the southern flank of the mountain. We left our packs back at the shelter, each of us carrying only a single water bottle and a pocketful of snacks. Free from the dreaded weight of my pack, warm inside my rubberized rain poncho, I began to enjoy myself. I inhaled the fir-sweet air, exhaled fog. The forest gave off a faint chlorophyllic glow.

We walked in single file, floating through the trees like little ghosts. After an hour or two, we rose above the tree line and entered a realm of lichen-crusted rock and white mist. The trails around the mountain branched and twined. At the juncture with the Crawford Path, one of our counselors announced that we were turning onto a leg of the Appalachian Trail. His tone suggested we were meant to be impressed. I had heard that name before, but I wasn't sure what it meant. The path beneath our feet, he explained, followed the spine of the Appalachians north to Maine and south all the way to the state of Georgia, almost two thousand miles away.

I still recall the tingle of wonder I felt upon hearing these words. The plain-looking trail beneath my feet had suddenly grown to colossal scale. It was as if I had dived down into the camp lake and discovered the slow, undulant vastness of a blue whale. Small as I felt back then, it was a thrill to grasp something so immense, if only by the very tip of its tail.


I kept hiking. It got easier—or rather, I got tougher. My pack and boots softened until they slid into place with the dry fluidity of an old baseball glove. I learned to move nimbly beneath a heavy load and push on for hours without breaks. I also came to savor the satisfaction of dropping my pack at the end of a long day: the warm animal weight would fall coolly away, and I would rise from my burden with a weird heliated feeling, as if my toes were merely grazing the dirt.

Hiking proved to be the perfect pastime for a free-floating kid like me. My mother once gave me a leather-bound journal that was meant to have my name embossed in gold along the spine, but instead the printer erroneously engraved the words
. The mistake was oddly fitting. Growing up, I often felt extraterrestrial. It wasn't that I was lonely or ostracized; I just never felt fully
at home
Before I went off to college, no one knew I was gay, and I knew no other gay people. I did my best to blend in. Each year I would dutifully put on a suit and tie for the spring formal, the cotillion, or the prom. I donned athletic uniforms, first-date uniforms, drinking-pilfered-cans-of-Old-Style-in-a-friend's-basement uniforms. All the while, though, part of me wondered: What's the point of this elaborately costumed performance we put on?

In my family I was the youngest child by nearly a decade. My parents, who were already in their forties by the time I was born, granted me an unusual amount of freedom. I could have run wild. Instead, I spent much of my time in my room reading books, which, I discovered, was like running away from home, minus the risk and parental heartache. And so, from the third grade on, I burned through books the way a chain-smoker smokes, picking up one even as I was extinguishing the last.

The book that kicked off my habit in earnest was a flimsy paperback copy of
Little House in the Big Woods
. I learned that my home, in northern Illinois, was just a few hundred miles southeast of where the book's author, Laura Ingalls Wilder, was born in 1867. However, her descriptions of the Big Woods of Wisconsin were wholly foreign to me. “As far as a man could go to the north in a day, or a week, or a whole month, there was nothing but woods,” she wrote. “There were no houses. There were no roads. There were no people. There were only trees and the wild animals who had their homes among them.” I was intoxicated by Ingalls's sense of isolation and self-reliance.

I don't remember how many of the Little House books I read in a row, but it was enough to require an intervention from my teacher, who gently suggested I move on to something else. In the coming years I progressed from
Little House
A Sand County Almanac
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.
I enjoyed lingering over the minutiae of a life spent outdoors. During my first summer at
Pine Island, I discovered a parallel genre of wilderness adventure books: first the boyish yarns of Mark Twain and Jack London, then the alpine reveries of John Muir, the Antarctic agonies of Ernest Shackleton, and the existential odysseys of Robyn Davidson and Bruce Chatwin.

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