The deeper meaning of trails

Insightful new books in the well-worn genre of trail literature.


A man and his dog follow a trail into an aspen grove on Mount Lamborn in Colorado.
Brooke Warren/High Country News

Trail literature is a well-worn American genre, whose roots are often traced to the 19th century lyrical musings of Henry David Thoreau and John Muir. Recent examples of the genre — Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, for example, or Cheryl Strayed’s Wild — typically use the trail as both a physical plotline and a scenic backdrop against which to explore inner conflict and personal transformation. Two new books, On Trails by Rob Moor and Dan White’s Under the Stars, continue the tradition. Both writers are enthusiastic walkers and deft storytellers, though they are less concerned with adrenaline-stirring adventure or the psychological landscape of backpacking than with the trail itself. Their methods of exploration vary greatly: White keeps his feet firmly on established routes, taking a winding and humorous path through the history of outdoor recreation, while Moor ventures onto craggier scientific and philosophical terrain, tracing the origins and meanings of trails.

In Under the Stars, White seeks to understand where our collective love of hiking, backpacking and camping — our primary means of experiencing the “great outdoors” — comes from. White, who lives in Santa Cruz, is not satisfied with simply name-checking the high priests of the American wild — the Thoreaus, Roosevelts and Muirs. He offers fascinating sketches of lesser-known figures, such as Wallace Hume Carothers, inventor of nylon, and William H. Murray, a charismatic and controversial Boston minister whose 1869 bestseller Adventures in Wilderness was one of the first to advocate the healing power of nature. Murray “promised that a week in the Adirondack woods would cure every physical and mental ailment” — and thereby touched off a camping rush in New York. And at a time when outdoor pursuits were considered a manly undertaking, he encouraged women and children to revel in the glory of nature.

In charting the evolution of modern outdoor recreation, White interweaves biographical sketches with whimsical personal anecdotes. One chapter, for instance, recounts his climb of California’s Mount Whitney. White’s ultimate goal, however, is not to reach the summit but to pick up as much human feces as he can along the way, using a device he built from heavy PVC pipe and dubbed “The Immaculator.” Elsewhere, he describes the guilty pleasure of rolling through Arizona in a five-and-a-half-ton RV covered in bright decals depicting jaw-dropping mountain scenery and “stoked Caucasian folks ... doing things that didn’t have squat to do with being in a motorhome.”

White’s humor and keen sense of the absurd mask a sense of loss. “I hope you’ve cinched up your Gore-Tex boots, slathered yourself with SPF 100 sunscreen, and updated your life insurance policy,” he writes dryly. “It’s time to go camping.” He laments the way mass media and marketing have polluted our concept of the so-called “great outdoors.” But underneath the snark is an old-fashioned wanderer, one seeking a place where he might find “a sense of erasure, a complete whiteout, the kind I experienced with my father all those years ago on the slopes of the Eastern Sierra.”

Rob Moor’s On Trails is concerned with more fundamental questions: What are trails? How do they arise? Moor, a resident of British Columbia and a recipient of the Middlebury Fellowship in Environmental Journalism, starts his investigation at the ostensible beginning, seeking out the planet’s original trails, fossilized paths left behind by the first multicellular organisms. Moor is a curious and patient ambler, working upward from basic principles, applying his growing knowledge to the logic of increasingly complex networks. “An ant does not leave a strong pheromone trail unless it has found food. … The same rule applies to humans — we generally don’t make trails unless there is something on the other end worth reaching,” he writes. “It’s only once an initial best guess is made, and others follow, that a trace begins to evolve into a trail.”

Moor is at his best when he uses his wanderings to chart his way into headier philosophical terrain. In one section, he describes a volunteer stint as a shepherd on the Navajo Nation. He writes of struggling to lead his flock across broken terrain to a watering trough. Suddenly, a coyote emerges and the sheep scatter. All, Moor fears, are lost, and he feels “queasy with guilt” at the prospect of telling his Navajo hosts. But later that day, he finds all the sheep at the water tank, not a single animal missing. Without a shepherd, they found their own way, via some deeply ingrained mental trail map. “When I was younger,” Moor writes, “I used to see the earth as a fundamentally stable and serene place, possessed of a delicate, nearly divine balance, which humans had somehow managed to upset. … I now see the earth as the collaborative artwork of trillions of sculptors, large and small. Sheep, humans, elephants, ants: each of us alters the world in our passage.”

On Trails
Robert Moor
341 pages, hardcover: $25.
Simon & Schuster, 2016.

Under the Stars
Dan White
401 pages, hardcover: $28.
Henry Holt and Company, 2016.

Jeremy Miller lives in Richmond, California. His recent work has appeared in Harper’s, Pacific Standard, Nautilus and Orion.

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