Been outside the house this summer? Actually done one of the Great Walks? John Summers reviews a new book which ponders the nature of the hike, the tramp, the trail.
It’s felt like a secret shame, but in more than 15 years of tramping, I’ve always stuck, rigidly, myopically to the track. Once, early on, I lost my way. Two friends and I trudged up a hill in backblocks Canterbury to discover that our track had become obscured by snow. It was a shock, challenging what little we then knew about tramping. We scrambled in the snow. We ate a bag of potato chips. Finally, after much deliberating and worry, we backtracked to find the track again. It was dark by then, and we tried to sleep on a muddy bank beneath the trees.
If I get out of this alive, I thought, huddling in a too-thin sleeping bag, I’ll stay as far away from the bush as possible. I planned to spend future weekends at the big, dumb, multiplex movies. I dreamed of that year’s Vince Vaughan hit Dodgeball. I vowed to never tramp again.
It was too late. Something about tramping already had its hold on me. My vow would only last for a few months (although I never did see Dodgeball – my girlfriend had already been), before I found myself itching to head into the bush again. But the experience did increase what was already a reliance on DOC’s muddy trails and goat tracks, their olive green distance markers and the fluro triangles that their rangers nail to the trees. These signs and waypoints were reassuring. The best companions in the bush, reminding you that you were going somewhere. And yet, after following them all these years, I’ve often felt I’ve missed something. Shouldn’t I know how to bush bash and blaze my own trail by now? Who wants to be a follower, after all?
To my rescue comes Robert Moor. His book on trails, called, well, On Trails, makes the case for following the track. After completing the Appalachian Trail, running from Georgia to Maine, he resisted the urge to write a personal hiking story à la Bill Bryson or Cheryl Strayed (neither of whom actually finished their respective trails) and takes a more cerebral approach, pondering the nature and the origins of tracks themselves.
He starts his investigation as far back as is possible, with the fossil traces of the Ediacarans, mouth-less, anus-less creatures that once moved on this planet 565 million years ago. He considers insect trails and the paths made by slime mould, a single-celled organism which researchers once trained to recreate the layout of the Tokyo railway system. In order to understand the dynamics of herd animals, he attempts shepherding on a Navajo reservation, and manages to lose an entire flock before lunch.
All the while, he makes an argument for a trail as more than simply a route from A to B. A path, he writes “is a way of making sense of the world. There are infinite ways to cross a landscape; the options are overwhelming, and the pitfalls abound. The function of a path is to reduce this teeming chaos into an intelligible line.” He reveals the ways that paths and trails can be means of communication, cultural artefacts.
And if there’s more to trails than we think, there’s also a lot more to be said for following. Each walker plays a part in refining tracks, cutting off the unnecessary corners, trampling soil and plants to remove uncertainty for the next person along the track, and so adding to our pool of knowledge. According to one evolutionary biologist quoted by Moor, it is through tracking, following an animal’s trail, that early humans primed their brains for the ability we now have to think scientifically.
The walker shapes the path, and the path shapes them. To be midway on the Appalachian is to have your “hips scab over and your feet swell to Flintstonian proportions” and to “begin to hallucinate that you are being squeezed through a giant intestinal track.” Regular hikers are lean, leathery, and in the case of perpetual trail walker Nimblewill Nomad, toenail-less – he tells Moor he had them surgically removed to avoid infection.
Moor’s prose is nimble, leaping from philosophy to hiking yarns, sharing the musings of Heidegger, Aldous Huxley, or the Chinese poet Han-shan along the way. The sheer number of these leaps and ideas, of earnest claims for the humble trail, can make for hard going at times, an uphill slog. Thank god, then, that they are wrapped around his own experiences, that dismal shepherding attempt in the parched Nevada grass, getting lost in in his own British Columbia backyard, and an attempt at finding new trails in Morocco.
While he needs a guide’s help on that Morocco trip, he has a talent for spotting trails. They are in cities, the node to node connections of the internet, and the one-true paths promised by religion. He even asks us to see one in the book itself. But with all those leaps and links, the comparison of ants to humans and then back to ants again, the book isn’t so much a trail as something closer to the wide-ranging thoughts of the long distance walker. To tramp through the wilderness for any real length is to let the mind wander on everything and anything, to make associations that wouldn’t have occurred when sitting at a desk. Although, admittedly, in my experience, a lot of this thinking is about food.
It is trails that allow for such freewheeling thought. Not only do they make space in our heads by removing the never-ending decisions that would otherwise be needed to cross a landscape, “whether to slant uphill or down; whether this tuft of grass or that would support my weight as I tiptoed across a bog; whether to hop along the rocks on a lakeshore’s edge or bash my way through the bush”, but they also take us away from “civilization’s garden of forking paths,” removing the daunting choices of everyday life.
This is why we hike, says Moor: “One of the chief pleasures of the trail is that it is a rigidly bounded experience. Every morning, the hiker’s options are reduced to two: walk or quit. Once that decision is made, all the others (when to eat, where to sleep) begin to fall into place.” And with this, he describe something I know I’ve felt, if never articulated: the reason I broke the vow I made to myself on the forest floor. Through following comes a freedom. This book, then, is a license to roam.
On Trails: An Exploration (Aurum Press) by Robert Moor.