Finding the Way

A hiker’s winding journey to understand the power of the path

Margaret Houston

In Jack Kerouac’s 1958 novel the Dharma Bums, the narrator gets some advice from his companion, Japhy Ryder, while hiking in the California mountains. “Try the meditation of the trail,” says Japhy, whom Kerouac based on the Beat poet Gary Snyder. “Just walk along looking at the trail at your feet and don’t look about and just fall into a trance as the ground zips by.”

That suggestion eventually wound its way to a young and nimble-minded writer named Robert Moor, whose first book, On Trails, is an exploration—granular and panoramic at the same time—of the trodden ground beneath his own feet, beneath our feet, and even beneath the feet of ants, bison, elephants, and the planet’s earliest known animal life. Falling into a trail trance, for Moor, opened the spigot to a torrent of questions—most of them scientific, some of them philosophical, and nearly all of them profound, provocative, and, under Moor’s analysis, deeply entertaining. “Why did animal life begin to move in the first place?” goes one. “How does any creature start to make sense of the world? Why do some individuals lead and others follow? How did we humans come to mold our planet into its current shape?”

Moor begins the book with an account of his 2009 through-hike of the Appalachian Trail, from Georgia to Maine, a feat of stamina that gets reflected in the breadth of his reporting: To investigate the earliest known trail makers, blob-like Precambrian proto-animals known as Ediacarans, he digs fossils in Newfoundland; researching a proposal to radically extend the Appalachian Trail puts him on a hike through Morocco. He also racks up a lot of frequent-walker miles in the South, following elephants at a sanctuary in Tennessee, studying whitetails with a hunter in rural Alabama, retracing the steps of Cherokee tribes in North Carolina, and tagging along through Texas with a modern-day nomad so committed to walking that, to stave off potential infection, he had his toenails surgically removed. Connecting all this travel, and all these disparate species, is Moor’s emerging view “of how pathways act as an essential guiding force on this planet.” On every scale of life, he writes, “creatures can be found relying on trails to reduce an overwhelming array of options to a single expeditious route. Without trails, we would be lost.”

Lost, and also alone. Trails—our modern iteration, roads, falls under this heading—do not merely lead us to places; they connect us to others. In this regard, they’re a rudimentary form of communication—perhaps our earliest—as Moor illustrates with a digression on the slime trails of slugs and snails. “Each inch is a sign,” he writes, “like a scrawled arrow, reading simply: This way…” Ants transmit information in a similar manner, as the scientist E. O. Wilson discovered, by leaving a pheromone trail for other ants to follow.

On Trails teems with these sorts of scientific and historical anecdotes. Many telecommunication grids and shipping routes and financial algorithms, for example, are based upon a synthesized model of ant networks. Urban planners rather poetically refer to undesigned shortcuts as “desire lines.” The man who first proposed the Appalachian Trail, Benton MacKaye, was also one of the interstate highway system’s original visionaries. Having one’s toenails removed hurts—a lot.

These little flowers of information bloom on the graceful canes of Moor’s prose. He’s erudite, witty, and relentlessly curious. He begins as a hiker, wondering why the path he’s on veers this way but not that way, and just who might’ve authored that path’s direction, but ends up subjecting more existential paths—“‘spiritual paths,’ ‘career paths,’ ‘philosophical paths,’ ‘artistic paths,’ ‘paths to wellness,’ ‘paths to virtue’”—to this same inquiry. “The tricky part is that while we are editing our trails, our trails are also editing us,” he writes. “I witnessed this phenomenon firsthand on the Appalachian Trail. The trail was modified with each step we hikers took, but ultimately, the trail steered our course. By following it, we streamlined to its conditions: we lost weight, shed possessions, and increased our pace week after week. The same rule applies to our life’s pathways: collectively we shape them, but individually they shape us.

“So,” he concludes, “we must choose our paths wisely.”