On Trails by Robert Moor


As a hiker, I was intrigued by the concept of On Trails. Written by Robert Moor, the book’s origins started out as musings during Moor’s thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail in 2009.  He began wondering where trails came from, why people follow them, and what makes people set off on their own.  On Trails is the result of his journey over the next seven years to attempt to find answers to these questions.

One of the things I enjoyed about this book is that it’s hard to categorize into one genre. It’s part autobiographical, covering not only his quest for answers but also pieces from his past.  But it also includes elements from science, history, and even philosophy, all interweaved with a tone and voice that felt poetic to me.  A lot of information was packed into 336 pages, yet I was captivated by it without feeling overwhelmed.

Trail to Wolf Rocks, PA

I found myself reflecting on this book more than any other that I’ve read recently. It made me anxious to get into the woods and go hiking, to see trails with new and enlightened eyes.  My mind started churning on my way to work in the morning, wondering how the highway I drive every day became a major road and if maybe it had once started out as a deer path or Native American trail.  I especially focused on the philosophical parts of the book.  I’m at a point in my life where I’m questioning where I am and where I want the course of my life to go.  It was rewarding to read about those metaphorical paths in relation to the physical trails I encounter every day.

Bridge in Bear Run Nature Reserve, PA

One of the interesting facts that stuck with me was the revelation that “on average people who are lost, without external navigational cues, will typically not travel farther than one hundred meters from their starting point, regardless of how long they walk.” I’ve had some experience being mildly lost, and in my case I feel this is true.  This past February, I took advantage of a sixty-degree day and went on a solo hike.  Somehow, near the end of the hike, I found myself off the trail with no map and a dead cell phone, and dusk fast approaching.  I was close enough to the road that I could hear cars passing so I knew which direction I needed to walk.  But I couldn’t find a clear path and my way was obstructed by a creek too wide to jump across.  Even though I was so close to the road I can’t deny the panic that was starting to build; it’s not a good thing for a young female to be alone in the woods on a winter night with no food or shelter.  Instead of following the creek to where I most likely would’ve met up with the trail at the point it crossed over the water, I kept retracing my steps backward and trying a new direction.  I was so sure that there was a sign I missed.  In the end, I found a private footbridge that went to somebody’s house, and I crossed through their backyard to the road with my hands in the air, paranoid that they would think I was trespassing or trying to rob them.  The lesson from that (now slightly comical) experience was to carry more emergency items in my daypack (and be more careful), but I couldn’t help but think of that day while I was reading On Trails.  With the exception of finding the private footbridge, I think I mostly stayed within one hundred meters, so I fell into the average.

About 2 hours before I lost the trail in Laurel Hill State Park, PA.

Throughout the book, Moor provided a history of the land the United States emerged from. The way it’s presented here is unlike any class I’ve had in school; it focuses on the land and how it’s affected by the people that live here, and also on how the land changes the people.  Nature, and the land itself, was a way of life for the Native Americans that lived here for centuries.  Then as settlers from Europe arrived, the wilderness was viewed as something to be tamed and farmed.  During the industrial revolution, the farms turned into factories as natural resources were harvested to earn money.  And now, in the technological age, there is a rediscovered respect for nature.  As Moor put it, “With the advent of industrial technology we began to see wilderness less as a landscape devoid of agriculture and more as a landscape free from technology – and thus the wild went from being a wasteland to a refuge.”  That passage hits home for me; in times of stress or unhappiness I always seek the outdoors to find peace and contentment.  I know I’m not alone in this sentiment; there are countless articles and blogs that tell of the benefits for personal health and well-being that come from going outdoors and experiencing nature.

Fall at Frick Park, PA.

I’ve been seeking refuge in the wild a lot lately, and not just because it’s autumn and a beautiful time to be outdoors. In many ways I feel like I’m in limbo, and being in the woods provides a sense of grounding for me.  I’m trying to find answers to some big questions I have for myself about where I want to go and what I want to do over the next few years.  My way forward is a bit hazy, and it’s hard to make out the details and see what’s ahead, but I trust myself enough to know that I’ll figure it out along the way.  In On Trails, Moor says, “In the end, we are all existential pathfinders: We select among the paths life affords, and then, when those paths no longer work for us, we edit them and innovate as necessary.  The tricky part is that while we are editing our trails, our trails are editing us.”  For me, this observation is a new way of looking at things, and it’s a satisfying conclusion to everything that On Trails offers.  It gives me a lot to think about the next time I find a trail and explore the wilderness.

Nature at its best- Parker Ridge, Banff National Park, Canada.