On Trails

I recently finished reading Robert Moor’s book, On Trails. My friend Grace mentioned it on her social media accounts a few weeks ago. It intrigued me because I’ve developed a penchant for hiking quests in recent years. For instance, I hiked every step of the Northeast Ohio Loop of the Buckeye Trail in 2019. I hiked every trail in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park in 2020. And for 2021, I’m making it my goal to hike every public trail in Portage County. Depending on how long it takes, I might also try to include another neighboring county or two.

Why am I so drawn to trails? Why do I love consulting the maps?How does it help me to soak up the natural beauty so meaningfully? What produces that clarity of mind and soul I experience when I’m on the trails?

I figured this book would be a deep dive into the history of hiking trails. I hoped for glimpses into exceptional trails around the world that I might hope to hike, myself, someday. But that’s not really how the author chose to approach the subject.

Moor hooked me in the Prologue with some stories about his own experiences through-hiking the Appalachian Trail. But then he nearly lost me through the first two chapters of the book, as he attempted an academic treatise on the way that prehistoric invertebrates made the world’s first trails. I happen to be a pretty stubborn reader, foolishly striving to finish what I’ve started; otherwise, I might have just returned the book to the library at the 20 percent mark.

Fortunately, my attention was recaptured — gradually — from chapters 3 through 6. By the end of the book, Moor settled into some of those stories from the trails that I’d been hoping to read. He talked some more about the Appalachian Trail. Then, he introduced the development of an International Appalachian Trail that’s been building in recent years. These connecting / extending trails stretch from Florida, up through the Maritime Provinces of Canada. Then, following geological historical clues, the trail scoots across the Atlantic Ocean! Through Greenland, Iceland, the British Isles, Mainland Europe, and North Africa. I especially enjoyed Moor’s description of hiking in Morocco, where the proposed terminus of the International Appalachian Trail would be located.

The book concluded with another interesting account of a hike with a trans-continental wanderer who called himself the Nimblewill Nomad. The scale of his hiking quests was impressive, and he was an interesting character. But some of the dialogue recorded in the book also helped to approach some of the metaphysical elements of trails. In particular, the author talked about wisdom as a defining characteristic of those who walk trails. And I think he was really onto something!

I only wish Moor could have drawn some of the same conclusions that I’ve drawn in my life of loving and following trails. There seemed to be such a clear path towards Jesus saying, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life!” (John 14:6). The author is of a more secular-humanist persuasion. So he missed that destination. (Though it really is a powerful metaphor that I appreciate even more after reading this book). Still, I was able to make that connection for myself. And I’m glad that I read this book.

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