The trails of the world be countless, and most of the trails be tried;
You tread on the heels of the many, till you come where the ways divide;
And one lies safe in the sunlight, and the other is dreary and wan,
Yet you look aslant at the Lone Trail, and the Lone Trail lures you on.
And somehow you’re sick of the highway, with its noise and its easy needs,
And you seek the risk of the by-way, and you reck not where it leads…
Often it leads to the dead-pit; always it leads to pain;
By the bones of your brothers ye know it, but oh, to follow you’re fain.
By your bones they will follow behind you, till the ways of the world are made plain.
Bid good-by to sweetheart; bid good-by to friend;
The Lone Trail, the Lone Trail follow to the end.
-Robert Service – The Lone Trail
On Trails: An Exploration by Robert Moor
Robert Moor follows trails through the Appalachians, around the North Atlantic Rim, through our society and on into the human mind in his work On Trails. It may sound ambitious but he’s only following in the footsteps of his trail forbears, as he freely admits. Thoreau wrote of the paths we follow between familiar points, turning them into well-worn trails and his meaning seemed to suggest more depth than pounded dust would admit. He also seemed to suggest that there may be something better than a trail to be had.
On Trails is a good title, for many reasons, but I think that had Mr. Moor not taken it, I might have employed it as the title of my autobiography. I got on trails at about the age of eight in the Halifax suburbs of Nova Scotia and found that I liked them. They were useful too, to move quickly on foot between points connected by many circuitous miles of road and to wage war on the other little Indians in nearby cul-de-sacs. It was impossible for me to see at the time that the trail I walked daily uphill and down to Smoky Drive Elementary was training and prelude to greater things.
In 2007, I wandered off into the Georgia forest and started walking north, mostly on the Appalachian Trail. My mission had to do with brook trout and I wanted to stay within the best habitat remaining for these fish in the east. I guessed that I could do this best on trails rather than roads and, as I started, the Appalachian Trail proved to be the most direct and accommodating forest highway to not only move me back toward Pennsylvania but to keep me within optimal (high elevation and forested) habitat. I had taken maps with me though of the surrounding forest and the perspective of my route always remained three-dimensional rather than two (following a line between the trees).
My experience diverged wildly from Moor’s, despite the fact that we both pointed back to the island of Newfoundland, Canada as an important starting point for things, we both saw a lot of the Appalachian Trail and we both chose to use the poem by Robert Service late in each of our books. My book and Moor’s also diverged wildly in important ways.
I progressed north in annual segments of hundreds of miles but after my first break I decided to repeat the south more efficaciously and efficiently. I also wanted to leave behind the path more traveled and so, in my second year, I started deviating from the AT at every opportunity. There were hundreds of alternative trails as long as “trail” no longer meant National Scenic Trail and, rather, was any path lacking pavement. The map was always paramount and I suddenly needed to navigate rather than follow. The compass would be employed at times to cut through the forest to a new trail. But my perspective was always of a whole landscape, undulating in three dimensions, in fact – up and down mountains and valleys, following watercourses and using the most advantageous trails that other people (or even animals) had put there for me.
And I hadn’t gone far before I noticed a strange disconnect between myself and other hikers during the time I did spend on the old reliable AT. I would explain my brook trout project and my strange route as the reason I was on the AT for the moment and I met with an unexpected confusion on so many occasions. There were responses that indicated I was doing it wrong. I described it something like this in the book: “It seemed that “Appalachian Trail” was a verb and I wasn’t “Appalachian Trailing” correctly.” It was enough to render me always an outsider during the hikes, even among a clade of fellow travelers also devoting significant portions of their lives to traveling through the eastern forest.
On the Appalachian Trail, people were susceptible to “racing,” whether consciously or subconsciously – keeping up with their peers or maintaining a pace that they had read was correct. People were conspicuously conscious of conspicuous consumption – talking more often and loudly about Gregory packs than Kelty. People clustered more than being distributed evenly along the 2,200 miles, perhaps victims of the same psychology that afflicts so many on the freeway. All of this I was able to escape, not because I possessed a superior mind but because I saw the landscape, the natural world, in three dimensions, with wider possibilities. I thought more about the terrain and living things around me, less about the people and their expectations.
In the end, I used over 400 different trails and then employed a kayak, pulling up alongside the New Brunswick shore of the St. John River one October day, 5 years after starting.
In his book’s final chapter, Moor spends time with a figure whose name will be familiar to many long-time trail patrons: Nimblewill Nomad. They put in time together along a highway in the American south, eating at diners and gas stations and sleeping in little hide-outs overnight. It becomes apparent that Nimblewill (actually Meredith Eberhart) doesn’t care for all the rules of “trailing,” even forgoing the traditional dirt path for the shoulder of highway – most of the time. Nimblewill has made a career in fact of seeking out little-known, seldom-traveled paths. Moor also finds that Eberhart doesn’t fall in line on matters of the environment and what’s expected of wilderness sages. Nimblewill has no use for an apocraphyl interpretation of human progress and evolution.
Moor keeps the focus on trails throughout the work – appropriately enough for a book called “On Trails.” These trails are made by people and followed by other people, whether pathways from one desirable place to another or pathways of the mind leading toward solutions or better ways of doing things. It’s a perspective that hangs on people – the way they think and the paths they travel because they think the way they do.
I think that, at least in some sense, I understand the disconnect Moor senses to the Nomad in his final chapter. It’s a very rudimentary and conceptual thing but I’ll try to articulate it here simply, as best I’m able: For some of us, the starting point is the natural world – the landscape, the waters, the patterns of growth within the biosphere. This surrounds us and it’s where we see infinite possibility. If someone has already blazed a trail in the vicinity, we may use it but it’s secondary to our own purposes.
To Moor, the trail seems primary, the human ideas and efforts that lead to that path and to that path being where it lies. We build iteratively on the ideas of others and upon the trails of others – lines through the forest but the line is of human design and that’s what’s important. If Moor could have done anything better in the thought process leading to this work, it might have been to examine more carefully his own paths, his Thoreauvian ruts, that led him to comfortable and sometimes pre-ordained conclusions.
To people like me, we can leave the trail at will or get back on it and it’s inconsequential; we pull out our maps, think about our unique goals, and continue toward them, on trail if convenient, but off is OK too. By the time I’d reached the Adirondacks, I realized that I could say I was never lost or I could say I was always lost – it was all the same.
If the trail itself is your goal, you’d do well to adhere to it but the trail comes with baggage, beyond the stuff that may be pulling at your shoulders. A trail comes with a set of human expectations, as mentioned above and it comes with other humans doing the same thing who you may feel you need to justify yourself to or “perform” for. On the Appalachian Trail, all thru – hikers begin hiking their own hikes. A hundred miles in though, almost all have fallen into a routine that has much to do with what their fellow travelers expect of them.
In the book’s closing pages, Moor dwells upon the solitude and apparent solipsism of Eberhart. The stiffness and pains increase as he grows older and there’s generally no-one to help. He lives the life of a beggar and vagrant and he does so because he chose the ideal of freedom which will, if carried to its fullest extent, deliver a man to such a terminus – free but isolated. Moor leaves it between the lines but this message echoes loudly to the attentive.
The trail conception is fatalistic – you follow along the path that others have trod toward a pre-determined destination. An author who set up the trail as the ultimate analogy though won’t understand people like the Nimblewill Nomad who see infinite possibility and who see freedom not as one potential destination but as the only way to live.
And after saying all this, I highly recommend the book. Robert Moor took great risk when he allowed this work to grow into something unexpectedly expansive. Each new realm leaves him open to a new round of potential criticism from waiting critics, such as myself. If nothing else, this one is guaranteed to get you thinking. Moor is clearly of a left-leaning persuasion and yet this book was sent to me by the president of a free market think tank who remarked, “I think this guy (Moor) is someone I’d enjoy sitting down and having a good conversation with.”
I expect you’ll feel the same.
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