On Trails is subtitled 'An Exploration', but it might be more accurately labeled as author and hiker Robert Moor's meditations on trails: why they exist, how they come to be, and, most importantly, why they are followed. After a youth spent feeling like a self-described drifter, Moor set out in 2009 to hike the entire length of the Appalachian Trail (“AT”), from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Mount Katahdin, Maine. As one would imagine when walking more than 2000 miles over a period of multiple months with limited stimulation other than the passing woods around him, he spent plenty of time with his own thoughts. As Moor hiked the trail, he began to consider the history of trails like the AT and how they come to be. Given the title, it is surprising how far and wide, and with what can occasionally feel like aimless intent, he wonders in search of answers, but the patient reader will be rewarded with some thoughtful and beautifully conveyed writing.
His discussion of trails begins with the earliest organisms capable of movement. He continues to trails created by animals such as ants and elephants, and finally to those created by humans. Throughout the book his curiosities lead him on some bizarre experiences -- he studies sheep herding with the Navajo, visits an elephant sanctuary in North Carolina, and hikes with a perpetual hiker (and former Titusville resident) called the Nimblewill Nomad.
These intellectual (and physical) journeys resulted in some valuable insights on trails. He explains that there is a reason that so many religions invoke the metaphor of the path. Trails limit choices, reducing paralysis from the paradox of choice, and free the mind for other pursuits. A trail implies a destination. He suggests that one must walk in the wilderness without a trail to truly appreciate a trail. As Moor explains, those who follow trails are just as important as those who blaze them; each step that one takes along a trail is a vote of confidence in the trail’s continued existence. Trails can also tell stories, and those that walk them maintain a connection with the land that they walk through. Trails represent a collective knowledge, a narrative told with the feet.
Somewhat unexpectedly given the massive number of trails that exist in this world, much of the book is centered on the Appalachian Trail. He describes the trails conception as starting with an idea by conservationist Benton MacKaye and culminating with what has come to be known as "the longest, skinniest part of America's National Park System". This exploration continues with the founding of the International Appalachian Trail, a recently envisioned extension of the AT that continues through Maine and into Canada, and further continuing into Greenland, Iceland, Scandinavia, Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, and ending in Morocco. At one point the author finds himself leading a mostly fruitless, but humorous expedition to blaze a trail to the terminus.
A theme that recurs throughout the book, and one that is highlighted in a more memorable section where Moor attempts to traverse a portion of the Newfoundland wilderness without a trail, he questions why people seek nature. We often talk of getting back to nature, considering it healthy and more "natural". But Moor makes the point that nature is uncaring, not at all concerned with whether you live or die. As he travels over the rough terrain he comes to detest hiking but upon arriving at his destination all is forgiven. This is a relatable anecdote; many of the most worthwhile experiences are torturous during but euphoric when complete.
In the end Moor humbly admits that the real purpose of this book is unknown even to him. But just like those that blaze trails, all he has done is laid down a path. What the follower does is entirely up to them.