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2018 nonfiction winner

Robert Moor | On Trails: An Exploration

Robert MoorAbout the author
Robert Moor has written for The New York Times, Harper’s, n+1, New York, and GQ, among other publications. A recipient of the Middlebury Fellowship in Environmental Journalism, he has won multiple awards for his nonfiction writing. He lives in a cabin in the woods in Halfmoon Bay, British Columbia.

About the book
How do we choose a path for our lives? How do we—or any creature—navigate a vast wilderness? In his debut, On Trails: An Exploration, Robert Moor shines a light on the many paths that connect our world and how they guide our lives. “On every scale of life,” he writes, “from microscopic cells to herds of elephants, 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.”

Moor examines trails from the miniscule to the massive, from the ancient to the futuristic. He hunts down invisible insect trails and long-lost Cherokee trails; he follows continent-spanning hiking trails, buffalo traces, the interstate highway network, and the ethereal threads of the Internet—all to explore how this one concept, the trail, lies at the center of our lives. Interweaving stories of his globe-hopping travels with findings from science, history, and philosophy, On Trails enables us to understand our species, our history, and our planet anew.

Critics / Reviews
“The best outdoors book of the year.… An outstanding work that should be read by anyone who has spent time following a footpath through the woods. … The prologue alone is worth the price of admission: a nearly-30-page set piece about hiking the A.T. that puts Bill Bryson and Cheryl Strayed to shame.” —Sierra Club

“Like Montaigne, Mr. Moor writes about one subject as a way of touching on 100 others. … He’s a philosopher on foot, recording his journey through miles of wilderness and through a mind sorting out the meaning of travel itself. … The only constant in On Trails is the promise of surprise.” — The Wall Street Journal

“Part natural history, part scientific inquiry, but most of all a deeply thoughtful human meditation on how we walk through life, Moor’s book is enchanting.” — The Boston Globe

“A wanderer’s dream, even from an armchair.” — The Economist

“Stunning … a wondrous nonfiction debut. … In each chapter, Moor explores the same phenomenon in a surprising new context, from the fossilized traces of prehistoric smudges to swaths of jungle flattened by elephants, from the paths of nomadic Native Americans to the interstates that paved them over. Along the way, Moor reaches into the history of science, religion, and philosophy to trace similar lines of refinement in the amassing of knowledge and ideas. … It’s an exhilarating journey.” — Departures

“You might think of Robert Moor as the Roger Angell of trail-walking. Just as Angell’s reports on specific baseball games segue effortlessly into reflections on the venerable sport itself, so Moor looks up from whatever trail he may be on to see the big picture. Which is often very big, indeed.” — The Washington Post

“Moor’s writing compares better with wilderness philosophers like Annie Dillard or Edward Abbey. Each chapter of this GQ writer’s debut work is packed with ideas, switchbacking to and fro. Each idea is so carefully portrayed and deeply fascinating that I had to stop and catch my breath often. … It’s a beautiful trek through the human and natural landscapes of modern life.” — Chicago Review of Books

“This book is about so many things: about breaking down the binary between ‘humanity’ and ‘nature,’ ‘civilization’ and ‘the wild.’ It’s an exploration of exploring, a philosophical-psychological-journalistic adventure in the tradition of Michael Pollan and Rebecca Solnit. … Not all who wander are lost, and Moor helps us see what they seek.” — New York Magazine

     Once, years ago, I left home looking for a grand adventure and spent five months staring at mud. It was the spring of 2009, and I had set out to walk the full length of the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. My departure date was timed so that I would transition seamlessly from a mild southern spring to a balmy northern summer, but for some reason the warmth never arrived. It stayed cool that year, rained often. Newspapers likened it to the freak summer of 1816, when cornfields froze to their roots, pink snow fell over Italy, and a young Mary Shelley, locked up in a gloomy villa in Switzerland, began to dream of monsters. My memories of the hike consist chiefly of wet stone and black earth. The vistas from many of the mountaintops were blotted out. Shrouded in mist, rain hood up, eyes downcast, mile after mile, month after month, I had little else to do but study the trail beneath my nose with Talmudic intensity.
     In his novel The Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac refers to this kind of walking as “the meditation of the trail.” Japhy Ryder, a character modeled after the Zen poet Gary Snyder, advises his friend to “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.” Trails are seldom looked at this intently. When hikers want to complain about a particularly rough stretch of trail, we gripe that we spent the whole day looking down at our feet. We prefer to look up, away, off into the distance. Ideally, a trail should function like a discreet aide, gracefully ushering us through the world while still preserving our sense of agency and independence. Perhaps this is why, for virtually all of literary history, trails have remained in the periphery of our gaze, down at the bottommost edge of the frame: they have been, quite literally, beneath our concern.
     As hundreds—and then thousands—of miles of trail passed beneath my eyes, I began to ponder the meaning of this endless scrawl. Who created it? Why does it exist? Why, moreover, does any trail?
     Even after I reached the end of the AT, these questions followed me around. Spurred on by them, and sensing in some vague way that they might lead to new intellectual ground, I began to search for the deeper meaning of trails. I spent years looking for answers, which led me to yet bigger questions: Why did animal life begin to move in the first place? 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? Piece by piece, I began to cobble together a panoramic view of how pathways act as an essential guiding force on this planet: on every scale of life, from microscopic cells to herds of elephants, 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.