You’ll want to like Robert Moor’s On Trails: An Exploration, a history of trails and trail-making, interspersed with his account of hiking the Appalachian Trail—all 2,200 miles of the American mountain path, from its beginnings in Georgia to its ending in Maine. You’ll want to like the book because, after all, who doesn’t enjoy a good nature tale? A fine story about a long walk in the woods?
For that matter, you’ll want to like the book because the author intends his work to be captivating, in exactly the way non-fiction books today are supposed to be captivating. A graduate of NYU’s journalism school, with a writing fellowship from Middlebury College under his belt, he’s been training for this book (his first) since 2009, pouring out magazine articles for New York, the Paris Review, and GQ, with the voice and perspective taught by the charm schools at which he’s studied.
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The problem is that Moor can’t quite keep up the charm, no matter how hard he tries. Too often, the careful winsomeness cracks like a forced smile on the face of someone whose nature is to scowl, and what shines through at various points in the book is the author’s overwhelming scorn. His scorn for previous nature writers. His scorn for everyone who does not share exactly his shade of environmentalism. His scorn for casual hikers who haven’t completed the treks that he has. His scorn even for his readers: Robert Moor just doesn’t like you and me very much. He thinks we’re dilettantes, and only real hikers—only people like him, and, in truth, not very many of them—should have a say about what nature is.
The locus of Moor’s barely repressed biliousness is Bill Bryson’s 1998 volume A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, a book whose popularity seems to nag at him like a blister on a hiker’s heel. His predecessor didn’t actually walk the trail, Moor has sneered on several occasions. Bryson skipped several sections, catching a ride instead of hiking, and besides Bryson just doesn’t have the delicate sensibility that Moor believes himself to possess. It’s unfair, isn’t it, that Bryson sells so well? Unfair, maybe most of all, that Bryson is often said to be a good writer, when Robert Moor just knows that he’s a fake?
That’s not to say there are no good moments in On Trails. Moor is a talented writer aiming at charm, and he could hardly fail to strike the target from time to time. When "a massive storm cloud" in the distance threatens a treacherous hike he had undertaken, he describes it as letting out "a soft digestive growl." He tries to drink a toast at his completion of the Appalachian Trail, but "the champagne had already gone flat and warm. That was a rough analog for how it felt to finish the trail: buzzy and yet weirdly dull."
It took Moor five months to complete the hike in 2009, weaving through the Appalachian Mountains, and the wetness of that year made for a water-logged journey. "My memories of the hike consist chiefly of wet stone and black earth," he notes. "Shrouded in mist, rain hood up, eyes downcast, mile after mile, month after month, I had little else to do but study the trail." And study the trail he did, his notes about the flora and fauna, and especially the geography, mapping the terrain he traversed.
But his real interests are what might best be described as light philosophy. Branching off from the descriptions of Appalachia are dozens of ancillary topics. Cain as a tiller of fields, and elephants as travelers through jungle and savannahs. Deer hunting in Alabama, and sheepherding in Arizona. The paths of particles in physics, and the archeological markings on old bits of dried sea-beds.
Connecting it all is Moor’s musing on the meaning of trails. Such trailblazers as Daniel Boone and Kit Carson are essentially myths, reflecting a false Western sense of machismo and individualism, he seems to believe. (The sneer in On Trails is never too far beneath the surface.) But Moor nonetheless is persuasive when he insists that the vast majority of trails—and the Roman roads, city streets, and modern highways that followed them—represent in their essence a kind of collective wisdom.
Many trails began as animal paths. Wild animals didn’t always take the quickest way up a hill and down the valley beyond it, but they often did. And the broken foliage that resulted made an easier path for other animals and the humans who would eventually trail along. G.K. Chesterton once wrote that the only way to understand the old roads of England is to imagine they were following trails first broken by drunks, fumbling along the path of least resistance on their way home from the pub. "The rolling English drunkard," he announced, "made the rolling English road."
Don’t Moor and Chesterton both seem right to talk about the best trails, the ancient pathways, as deeply unplanned? We know that they are trails precisely because others have traveled them before us, and our journeys along them are epistemologically fascinating assertions of a trust in shared knowledge.
Chesterton wasn’t much of a nature writer, however often he named William Cobbett’s Rural Rides (1822) as one of his favorite books. But a mention of his name does remind us that nature writing is one of those things that the British appear to do so much more effortlessly than Americans. Moor seems not to have much patience for his American predecessors, from John Muir to Wallace Stegner and on to the American-born Bill Bryson. But he could have usefully spent some time with his British predecessors, from Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler (1653) to Richard Jefferies’s Round About a Great Estate (1880).
There’s something common to the best of those older English works, although it’s hard to put a finger on. What the writers seem to share, across the centuries, is something like gentleness of character, joined with a calm piety and a broad learning, lightly worn—and all of it revealed in a prose of attention to the created world. Gilbert White’s The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne (1789), for example, surely ranks among the most beautiful and careful descriptions of a countryside ever written. The modern naturalist Richard Mabey (no slouch of a writer himself) points out how even the rhythm of White’s sentences instantiates the things he describes—as when White explains that woodpeckers fly with an undulating motion, "opening and closing their wings at every stroke, and so are always rising and falling in curves." Or when he writes, "The white-throat uses odd jerks and gesticulations over the tops of hedges and bushes."
A stronger sense of createdness—a greater appreciation for the wonder of the givenness of things—would have helped Robert Moor focus a little more clearly on the actual objects he encountered during his five-month hike up the Appalachian Trail. It might even have reduced the dusty library smell that sometimes pervades the swotted-up science sections of the book. Mostly though, a sense of wonder might have given the author the humility to forego the sneer that leaves On Trails a book that you’ll only want to like, instead of actually, you know, liking it.