Dennis Drabelle is a backpacker and former contributing editor of Book World. He lives in Asheville, N.C.
You might think of Robert Moor as the Roger Angell of trail-walking. Just as Angell’s reports on specific baseball games segue effortlessly into reflections on the venerable sport itself, so Moor looks up from whatever trail he may be on to see the big picture. Which is often very big, indeed. Not only has he hiked some of the most out-of-the-way trails on the planet (in Newfoundland, Morocco and Malaysian Borneo, to name just a few). He has also taken part in a grand, ongoing effort to extend the Appalachian Trail to Greenland and even parts of Africa, on the dazzling theory that those locales hold pieces of what was once a single mountain chain — the ultra-proto Appalachians — on the supercontinent of Pangea.
In addition to hiking his tail off (among other footsore coups, he has chalked up the traditional, Georgia-to-Maine version of the Appalachian Trail), Moor prepared for writing this book, his first, in unusual ways. He herded sheep on the Navajo Reservation. He learned to fashion a working stove from Coke cans. He boned up on the writings of the 9th-century Chinese poet Han-shan, the 18th-century French naturalist Charles Bonnet and the 20th-century American engineer Vannevar Bush. While you’re catching your breath, let me assure you that Moor mixes these and other ingredients into a highly satisfying whole, neatly avoiding the pitfall of pretentiousness. “On Trails” is an engaging blend of travelogue, sociology, history and philosophy that might be summed up as a meditation on the centrality of trails to animal and human life.
Moor starts off in Newfoundland, where he goes to have a look at what are thought to be the world’s oldest trails, left some 565 million years ago by primitive creatures called Ediacarans but discovered only eight years ago along the island’s coastline. Moor’s scientific informant speculates that the fossilized Ediacaran trails memorialize the creatures’ efforts to regain perches from which they’d been dislodged by waves. “The first animals to summon the strength to venture forth,” Moor writes, “may simply have wanted to go back home.” But since a trail implies that someone other than its maker might want to follow it, Moor ultimately decides that the Ediacaran spoors don’t make the cut. Each recorded journey was self-contained — a kind of filmstrip of an animal on the go but not really a trail.
Still, refining one’s subject is a useful exercise, and Moor’s prose makes him such good company that the reader is happy to keep pace. On the way, Moor is menaced by a storm cloud that emits “a soft digestive growl,” and soon “the air [is] crazed with rain.” He writes at a high level throughout the book, almost never settling for a shopworn expression.
He’s also adept at pulling in research to support his arguments. In an early chapter on (undisputed) animal trails, for example, he summarizes an improbable and astonishing experiment:
“When researchers tasked a slime mold with connecting a series of oat clusters mirroring the location of the major population centers surrounding Tokyo, the slime mold effectively re-created the layout of the city’s railway system. Linger a moment over that fact: A single-celled organism can design a railway system just as adroitly as Japan’s top engineers.”
Yet he doesn’t gobble up every flashy new scientific theory. After citing such thinkers as Carl Sagan for the proposition that the development of tracking and hunting skills led to a quantum leap in human brain power, Moor expresses his own skepticism: “If tracking is a prehistoric form of physics, then gathering plants is also an early form of botany, and cooking is a precursor to chemistry.” The furthest Moor will go is to acknowledge that “hunting is an indisputably fundamental human tradition, which has shaped us in various ways.”
The book offers multiple human portraits, including the hikers with whom Moor chums around. Thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail get nicknames for the duration, and so we meet Snuggles and Doyi, Tree Frog and Catch-Me-If-You-Can. (Moor himself was Spaceman, pronounced the normal way, not as insisted upon by the crackpot doctor on “30 Rock.”) The Appalachian Trail crowd makes periodic appearances, sometimes providing comic relief, sometimes demonstrating an affecting solidarity with one another. When Doyi announces that he’s on the verge of giving up, Snuggles, Tree Frog et al. shower him with extra food, along with tips for slimming down his punishingly heavy pack.
“ ‘If you want to finish [the trail], we’ll do whatever we have to in order to get you there,’ Tree Frog said.
“Doyi thought for a moment. He made a small, pained smile.
“ ‘I do,’ he said, firmly.”
Moor’s one misstep (if you will) has to do with one of these fellow marathon hikers, a legendary trail denizen known as Nimblewill Nomad. Legendary he may be — he dines out on the tale of having had all his toenails surgically removed to avoid infection. But interesting he is not, and he clutters up the book’s lengthy epilogue with subpar folk wisdom.
As for Moor, I’ll remember him not as the erudite quoter of Han-shan and Nietzsche on the same page, but as the thoughtful stylist who turns out sentences as simple and eloquent as this: “As they do for ants and elephants, [sheep] trails function as a form of external memory.”
By Robert Moor
Simon & Schuster.
340 pp. $25