One of my favorite things to do in life is to find and hike a trail out in the wilds. I love how a good trail gently leads you through nature. You don’t have to think much about where you’re going, so it gives you time to think about other things. It’s great for chewing on deep issues and getting new insights, but it also causes you to take the trail for granted. For example, I sometimes forget that a group of people blazed the trail I’m enjoying and that another group continues to maintain it without any fanfare.
My guest today decided to stop taking trails for granted and to explore them in-depth — both literally and metaphorically — after his own hike on the Appalachian Trail. His name is Robert Moor and he’s the author of the book On Trails: An Exploration. Today on the show, Robert shares why he decided to hike the entire Appalachian Trail after he graduated from college and why that experience led him to diving into the deeper meaning of trails.
We then discuss why following a trail is so existentially satisfying and how trails are embedded in human thought and communication and provide us with a sense of place and orientation in our lives.
We end our conversation talking about the idealistic origins of the Appalachian Trail, the movement to extend the Appalachian Trail to Morocco, yes Morocco, and what a perpetual hiker named Nimblewill Nomad can teach us about the limits of freedom.
If you’re a hiker, you’re going to love this show. If you’re not a hiker, it’s going to inspire you to find a trail this weekend and become one.
- Why Robert wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail (AT)
- How Robert’s experience on the AT led him to exploring trails in-depth
- How trail-making is a form of communication in the animal world
- The ways that animals go about making and following trails
- Why did humans start making trails?
- How trails provide meaning and coherence
- How trail-making (and road-making) has changed over generations
- Why hiking on a trail is so soothing
- The unsung heroes of the folks who blaze and maintain our hiking trails
- What makes for a good trail?
- Hiking in the US & Europe versus other parts of the world
- How mountains, forests, and wilderness in general were seen in popular culture before the Romantic Era
- The origin story of the Appalachian Trail, and long backpacking trails in general
- The International Appalachian Trail project
- Hiking (and the strenuous life) as the antidote to the problems of civilization and modernity
- Masculinity’s tie to the wilderness
- Nimblewill Nomad’s story — what we can learn from a man who has spent his entire life walking/hiking
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- The Appalachian Trail
- 565-million-year-old fossilized trails
- Richard Feynman’s studies on ant trails
- 6 Reminders on Hiking Etiquette
- Cars — the Story of Route 66 scene
- Taking Care of Your Feet on a Hike
- 5 Unexpected Skills Needed for a Backpacking Adventure
- Underestimating a Hike
- Benton MacKaye
- The Long Trail
- International Appalachian Trail
- A Call for a New Strenuous Age
- Nimblewill Nomad — permanent hiker
On Trails was an absolute joy to read. Robert does a great job navigating readers through time and space to capture the power of trails in our lives. Ever since I’ve read the book, I’m much more thoughtful about the trails that I find myself on.
Connect With Robert Moor
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to a new edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. One of my favorite things to do in life is to find and hike a trail out in the wild somewhere. My favorite place to hike by far, Vermont. I love how a good trail gently leads you through nature. You don’t have to think much about where you’re going so it gives you time to think about other things. This is great for chewing on deep issues and getting new insights, but it also causes you to take the trail for granted. For example, I sometimes forget that a group of people blazed the trail I’m enjoying and that another group of people continues to maintain it without any fanfare.
My guest today decided to stop taking trails for granted and explore them in depth, both literally and metaphorically, after his own hike on the Appalachian Trail. His name is Robert Moor and he’s the author of the book On Trails and Exploration. Today on the show, Robert shares why he decided to hike the entire Appalachian Trail after he graduated from college and why that experience led him into diving deeper into the meaning of trails. We then discuss why following a trail is so existentially satisfying and how trails are embedded in human thought and communication and provide us with a sense of place and orientation in our lives. We end our conversation talking about the idealistic origins of the Appalachian Trail, the movement to extend the Appalachian Trail to Morocco, yes, Morocco, and what a perpetual hiker named Nimblewill Nomad can teach us about the limits of freedom. If you’re a hiker, you’re going to love this show. If you’re not a hiker, it’s going to inspire you to find a trail this weekend and become one.
After the show is over, check out the show notes at a1.is/trails.
Robert Moor, welcome to the show.
Robert Moor: Thank you so much for having me.
Brett McKay: You wrote a book On Trails: An Exploration. It’s all about trails. Some people might hear that and think, “That’s kind of boring,” but you found out that there’s a lot to trails and trail making. It was a fascinating read. Let’s talk about the impetus behind this book. It was your exploration of trails was started by your own hike of the Appalachian Trail. When did you hike the Appalachian Trail and why did you decide you wanted to do the through hike where you’d go all the way from Georgia to Maine?
Robert Moor: I hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2009 when I was graduated from undergrad and I had some time before I knew I was going to graduate school. I had a nice little break there in my life. If you talk to through hikers, which is what people who hike the whole Appalachian Trail are called, they’ll often tell you that, that they were at sort of a gap in their life. They were trying to find their next step forward. Maybe they just got divorced or they just got fired or a lot of people just come out of the military. A lot of people who just retired. That’s where I was in my life. I didn’t know exactly where I was going next. I knew I was going to graduate school, and so I had a good deadline. I had to be back by September. But I had nothing to do for those fives months. It was something I dreamed of doing since I was a kid. I’d grown up going to summer camp in Maine and seeing these through hikers and wanting to emulate them. I saw my chance and I took it.
Brett McKay: You were a hiker before you did the Appalachian Trail?
Robert Moor: I was, yeah. I had done quite a bit of hiking, backpacking up to that point, but never longer than maybe a couple of weeks. I’d certainly never gone longer than a month. The idea of hiking for five months was a bit daunting, but once you start doing it you realize it’s just the same as any other hike. You just have to keep going. That’s the trick is to keep going.
Brett McKay: What was it about your experience on the Appalachian Trail that led you to want to explore trails from a macro view?
Robert Moor: It’s funny you say that. The thing about it being boring, because that’s something that when I was writing this book, I ran into a lot. People would say, “What’s your book about?” I would say, “I’m writing a book about trails.” It would kind of a blank stare. Because no one has written a book about trails before. The idea, they’re not something we think about very much. As I write in the book, we kind of tend to overlook them. If a trail is doing what it’s supposed to do, you don’t look at it all. It just leads you to where you need to go invisibly. You’re looking up and you’re looking out at the landscape.
The year that I hiked the Appalachian Trail was a very rainy year. The New York Times called it the summer that wasn’t, because it just stayed cold and rainy the whole summer. I’d had a lot of time just to stare at my boots and stare at the trail and think about it. I was by myself. As you do, you start to expand upon your own ideas. I was noticing that the trail, first of all, was not a static thing. It wasn’t what I thought it was. You think of it almost as a paved path, but it isn’t. Because as anyone who hikes a hiking trail knows, when people don’t like the way the trail goes, they take a shortcut. If there’s a big, long switchback going down a mountain, then people will just make a shortcut, go where they want to go, and that becomes the new trail. There’s a kind of liquid quality to trails that I found really fascinating.
Then as I was hiking along farther, I started to realize that we weren’t alone on this trail. In fact, animals were following the trail as well. If you paid close attention, you’d start to notice little hoof prints and little footprints on the trail. Deer and bear and other animals. That notion started to crack, cracks started to form in my understanding of what a trail was and it started to widen. Then I started noticing ant trails and I started thinking about metaphorical trails, why that phrase, the trail or the path, is so prevalent across languages, across religions, across cultures. What is this very fundamental thing that we’re all following?
Brett McKay: Let’s follow that idea of paths and trails being a metaphor that we use in language. Because one of the arguments you make in the book is that trail making is one of the animal world’s first forms of communication.
Robert Moor: Yeah, I think that’s true. It’s really definitely one of the simplest forms of communication. It’s a little bit complicated because I went to find the oldest trails on Earth, which are in Newfoundland and these fossilized trails. Something called Ediacaran biota, which were 565 million years ago. Yet when I started to think about what those were, they’re not really trails because they’re traces. They were left behind in the movement of these animals, these very, very, early animals. But unless someone else is picking them up and following them, then it’s not really a trail. That was where my definition of a trail came in, is that it’s in that act of following something that someone else has left behind and then you leaving a trace in your passage that someone else can follow. When you do that, you set up a sort of evolutionary sequence that begins to streamline over time.
If you look at it very simply, that’s what a trail is. An animal has gone somewhere and left this very simple message on the ground saying, “Hey, there’s something worth going to here.” If you stumble upon a game trail in the forest, that’s a pretty good indication that there’s something there, because enough animals have gone there and decided that this trail is worth following for it to remain, for it to perpetuate.
Brett McKay: Trails are, it’s a way to externalize information in the outside world.
Robert Moor: It is, yeah. It’s a way to externalize information. It’s almost an external form of memory. You can almost look at it as an external memory. When you look at insects, for example, that’s kind of how they’re using trails. If you look at fire ants, for example, they’ll go out from their nest, they’ll find food, they’ll come back and they leave a message. That message is in pheromones. They’re, of course, invisible, but they can detect them very clearly. If they find a big store of food, they’re going to go and leave a very strong trail. They get excited, they leave a lot of pheromones. That then sends a signal to the other ants that there’s a lot of food there. They go find the food, they leave a very strong trail. That signal keeps amplifying. Until the food is gone. Then they don’t leave a strong trail. The trail begins to diminish, to evaporate. The signal lessens and somewhere else there’s a stronger signal. The ants very quickly stop following that trail and start following a new trail, which allows them to create these ever-updating networks of information that are incredibly intelligent and incredibly efficient.
Brett McKay: I thought it was interesting when you were describing the ant trail researchers, which is surprising. There’s people who dedicate their lives to researching how ants make trails. It’s really fascinating how you said that in the beginning the trails would be very sporadic, but over time they got more and more refined and more and more straight. It was sort of this bottom up approach to trail making.
Robert Moor: Yeah. It’s a streamlining process. I think this is familiar to anyone who does any sort of creative process. You know that your first draft is not very good. That’s true of ants as well. When they go off and they find a piece of food, finding a way back to the nest is difficult. The landscape is a chaotic place. This is a theme that runs throughout the book, is that trails are a way of managing the chaos of landscape. They’re trying to find their way home and they’re making all sorts of errors, and they’re leaving this really wiggly, really strange trail on their way back.
One of the anecdotes that I recount is this guy Richard Fineman, the famous physicist. He did a little experiment on his bathtub, where he set a lump of sugar and he watched the first ant go off and find the lump of sugar and make its way back to the nest. It was making all sorts of mistakes. But then the second ant came, found the same sugar, and it was following the first ant’s trail, but as it was going along, it was making little adjustments. It was shaving off the inside of the curves and it was cutting off unnecessary bends. The trail got a little bit straighter. Then the third ant comes and the fourth ant. Over time, the trail gets straighter and straighter and straighter. Because, of course, they’re trying to optimize to get home, while using as little energy as possible. Minimizing their caloric expenditure. That’s where this elegance comes from. It’s a really simple system, but it’s really effective.
Brett McKay: How do you more complex animals make trails? The ants leave pheromones behind. Say, something like buffalo or hogs or something like that, how do they go about making trails? Is it the same sort of bottom up or are they a little more deliberate about it?
Robert Moor: Certainly, yeah. That’s something I asked a lot of animal researchers is if animals know what a trail means, if there’s some sort of semiotic content to a trail for an animal. Meaning when we walk through the woods and see a trail, you look at it and you say, “That’s a trail that goes somewhere.” It’s unclear whether most mammals look at a trail and say, “That’s a trail,” or whether they just think something along the lines of, “There’s less vegetation there, so it’s easier to walk.”
When it comes to the larger and smarter mammals, especially elephants, it’s pretty clear that it is a deliberative process, both the making of the trails and the following of them. Elephants have incredibly powerful memories and incredible sense organs, so when they go somewhere they tend to know where they’re going. They pass down their trails from generation to generation. Once they’re disrupted … I’ve spoken with researchers who study forest elephants. They told me that if you start breaking up the forest elephants’ trails, through logging for example, you completely disrupt their communal memory. You really screw up their ability to find forage, to find water, to find mates. They rely upon those trails. He compared it to imagine if you went into a major city, like Dresden, that’s been totally bombed, and you grew up there and you knew how to find your way to school. But suddenly all the blocks have been blown apart and everything is in chaos. You couldn’t find your way to school anymore. It’d be much more difficult.
I think that among larger mammals it is a deliberative process, but there’s still something very simple about it which they keep in common with the smaller insects and smaller mammals.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about humans. When did humans start making trails? Do we have evidence of when humans started making trails? What did they base those initial trails on?
Robert Moor: We don’t have any good archeological evidence for when the earliest human trails are. Part of that, I found out when I was researching this book, is because archeologists until very recently did not study trails. They studied roads and they studied other things that were made with your hands. There’s a kind of bias for things that are made with your hands, rather than things are made with your feet. Many of them would not consider trails to be an archeological artifact. Whereas if you made paving stones, then that was an artifact. The basic way that trails were made, it’s the same as animals, but what becomes interesting with humans is that very early we begin weaving our trails together with our understanding of the world.
For example, with folklore, you’ll find that folktales, ancient folktales, indigenous folktales from many places are woven together with the trails. The stories will actually follow ancient pathways and describe things that took place along the way. The story is pegged to certain places in the landscape. It’s not just an abstract idea, like a girl walked through a forest and there was a big wolf following her. It’s a girl walked through this forest and stopped at this watering hold and picked this plant. All of those things tend to follow a trail, because of course that’s where the people would be walking and telling these stories. That’s the way that their landscape would be stitched together, as it were. I spent a lot of time talking to people, a lot of Native American communities, about their trail traditions. In fact, I found a man in North Carolina who’s trying to map all of the ancient Cherokee trails that existed there. One of the things he found is that it’s woven together with their culture in a really inextricable way.
Brett McKay: I thought that was interesting. I live in Oklahoma, so the Western Cherokees here. The Five Civilized Tribes. I’m right here pretty much in Tulsa. We’re in the heart of it. I thought the interesting point that you made was that the Cherokee who still live in North Carolina, when they tell these stories, they talk about specific mountains. The Western Cherokees in Oklahoma, they have those stories too, but they just talk about kind of a general mountain or a general river.
Robert Moor: Yeah, that’s right. The stories have been cut off from the place. One of the things that someone told me who studies these, she said that you can hear their story. There’s one story in particular that she was talking about, which was about a race between some turtles. She said, “You can hear that story in Oklahoma and it’s still a powerful story. It’s still conveys a lot of information and wisdom. But when you tell that story in North Carolina and in fact you stand on the mountain that the story is describing, you can look out across the landscape and the tops of the mountains, the green tops of the mountains look like turtle shells. Actually you can see the story taking place in the landscape.” She said it just has so much more power there.
Brett McKay: Trails then, in a way, situate us. Not only physically, but also existentially. It gives us a sense of meaning in our life.
Robert Moor: Yeah, I think that’s right. I think they give us a sense of meaning and coherence. The world is a confusing place. If we didn’t have any trails, either physical or metaphorical, we would be just totally lost.
Brett McKay: I thought it was interesting how you talked about how with the information age, we’re moving less from a trail-based culture … What I thought was interesting, you go back all in America, a lot of the trails and roads we have today, they basically follow buffalo herding migrations that Native Americans followed to hunt. Then when white people came here from Europe, the white people began to follow those trails that the Native Americans had blazed by following these herds. It was all this very bottom up, organic approach. Even the roads that we have today often follow these trails that began, maybe, millions of years ago. Today, we take a much more top down approach to our road making or trail making. How do you think that has detached us from our sense of place, by going from a top down approach?
Robert Moor: Yeah, that’s a big question. That organic approach that you describe has a lot to speak for because it creates trails that are very elegant and very situated in the landscape. Then when you build a culture around that, it creates a culture that’s also situated in the landscape. As everyone knows, we’ve been pulling away from that at least since the era of industrialism, and if not since some people would say since the era of agriculture. We’ve been changing our approach to land.
One of the reasons why we make this shift in our trails, why we, for example, build highways, is because a trail evolves to suit the needs of the people who follow it. You don’t need on a foot trail, you don’t need a whole lot, a whole of infrastructure. You don’t need a whole lot of planning. They can evolve organically. By evolving organically, they become very elegant and very beautiful and they disappear. When you stop using them, they just fade back into the landscape. But you can’t drive a semi truck along the trail, you need infrastructure, you need planning. You end up creating these new forms of trail making that have a totally different character. One of the effects of that, one of the reasons why we do is to go faster, to go faster to carry more freight. In doing that, we are moving more and more quickly through the landscape, we’re not engaging with it in the same way.
Anyone who’s ever taken a road trip and then gone for a hike, you get out of your car and you go for a hike and you can feel your brain transform. You can feel the mode that you’re in shift. Because the landscape is not sliding past you at high speed anymore. You’re actually in it. It’s all around you and you’re having to navigate it in a much different, much more intense way. Of course, you can imagine how much more profound that would be if you had been walking across that same landscape for weeks or years or generations.
I think everybody knows we’re more cut off from the natural world than we used to be. That’s a very common trope, I think, in nature writing. But I think that one of the ways that that’s happening that we don’t think about very often is the way that we move through the world. Whether we’re walking on trails or driving on highways or riding on a Jenkinson bullet train through Japan.
Brett McKay: When you were talking about the highways, it made me think. Have you seen Cars? The Disney Pixar movie.
Robert Moor: I have not, no.
Brett McKay: Oh. There’s this scene that it gets you in the feels every time you watch it. There’s this little town called Radiator Springs in the middle of the desert and Route 66 ran through it. Route 66, if you’ve been on Route 66, it’s very curvy and it goes through the landscape. It’s a nice drive. But then I-40 is built and it bypasses Radiator Springs and no one comes to visit Radiator Springs anymore. It’s all sad. It reminds me of that.
Robert Moor: That’s true. I was just out on Route 66 actually in New Mexico and you do see that, that whole towns will dry up or they’ll migrate to follow those gigantic trails.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about walking on a trail. I love trail hiking because it’s just so soothing. When I get on the trail, it doesn’t matter what trail it is, I just feel great. What’s going on there? Is it because I’m in nature or is there something more going on because I’m on a trail?
Robert Moor: There’s a lot going on there. The first thing is that walking on a trail is, I think it is kind of existentially soothing. The best way to understand that is to go off the trail every once in awhile, to go on a hike for two or three days where you don’t walk on a trail. That’s, depending on the landscape, it can be easy or it can be very difficult. Out West it’s a lost easier. The desert, you can do it. I’ve been on hikes in New Mexico and Wyoming and Montana that are okay off trail. But if you try to do it in the East where there’s a lot more vegetation, it gets tough really quick.
Actually that’s true here where I live as well. I live in the Pacific Northwest. If you have a really heavily forested area, man, as soon as you go off trail, you’re wishing for that trail again. I went for a hike in Newfoundland, that I describe in the book, where I was fighting my way through these stunted trees for hours and hours on end. When I finally found my way back to the trail after this three day hike that just took everything I had, I wanted to weep for joy. Because you start following the trail and all that weight of not just having to fight your way through the vegetation, but worrying am I lost, am I going to die out here … There’s this real dread and this fear that follows you when you go off trail because you don’t have that assurance all the sudden.
The trail allows you, it just lifts that weight from you and it allows you to go into a more, I think, just a more peaceful meditative mode of walking than this very heightened fight or flight awareness that you have when you’re off trail.
Brett McKay: The other think I love about following a trail is the decision has already been made for me. I don’t have to make the decision of where I’m going. I just follow the trail. I think in our culture that really puts a premium on choice, man, choice is exhausting. Sometimes I just want to be told what to do and where to go.
Robert Moor: This is a dichotomy that would really serve everyone well to think a lot about. Because you’re right. We grow up, as kids in America, you grow up with this belief that the pathfinder and the trailblazer is heroic and everyone are just kind of sheep. They’re just the lemmings. There’s a real shame attached to that. Whatever field you’re in, for example in the field of writing, I always put this enormous premium on myself as a college student, as a high school student to try and do everything completely originally. I would not read the old classics because I thought, “That’s already been done. I need to be a trailblazer.” That’s actually too much pressure to put on yourself. Unless you are someone who is a complete genius, just a sweet, generous talent, who comes along once in a generation, it’s overwhelming. It’s like fighting your way through this tangled wilderness. In fact, once you find a rail, what you find is by following it, by following a tradition, by following the wisdom of people who have come before you, you’re not just following. You’re also creating. Because every person who follows a trail changes that trail a little bit.
That can be a very, very productive way of doing things. Also, you have to keep in mind that some trails become ruts. Sometimes the trail degrades because too many people have followed it and it’s not useful anymore. You do have to break off into the weeds of life every once in awhile and try and blaze something new.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I love that idea of not disparaging if you’re just following a trail. I remember … We go to Vermont, my family goes to Vermont every summer. Appalachian Trail goes through that. Actually we’ll talk about that, how the Long Trail in Vermont was sort of the impetus of the Appalachian Trail. I remember when I was on a trail hiking thinking, “Boy, I’m really grateful for the people who come and maintain this trail. If it weren’t for these folks, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy this thing. I’m glad they’re there.” They’re sort of the unsung heroes of trails.
Robert Moor: I’m really glad that you had that realization because most people don’t. Most people don’t even think about trail makers at all. That’s something … On the Appalachian Trail, there’s a little festival in the middle of it called Trail Days for hikers. They all get together in this town in Virginia and they have a big bonfire and party and get to meet one another. Because you’re all strung out along the trail and you’re this community, but you never really meet each other. One of the things they do is just after that, you get together and all the hikers will go volunteer with this incredible old guy named Bob Peoples. They’ll go do a weekend of trail building. It’s your way of kind of paying back the good karma that’s been paid to you by all of these trail makers.
One of the things that you realize is that most through hikers haven’t even thought about the fact that someone made this. If they have, the only thing they’ve been focusing on is, “Wow, the guy who made this did a really crappy job. The person who did this didn’t build a good bridge for me or took me out of my way.” You start to get this very begrudging, weird mindset when you’re a through hiker. You’re trying to cover so many miles each day that you don’t want to screw around, you don’t want to have to go in the wrong direction. Oftentimes, you’ll find the trail journals, which are these journals that people leave in the shelters along the way, they’re sort of communal journals people will write in, they’ll just complain about the quality of the trail. But when you get out there and you start building it yourself and you realize that every inch of this trail that stretches from Georgia to Maine has been built with someone’s hands. Not with power tools. Most of the time with hand tools. By volunteers. You really realize what a beautiful, incredible thing that is that people have put all that time and energy into building this thing for nothing, for no profit. Just for the sake of it.
Brett McKay: These trail makers. What did you discover? What makes for a good trail? For someone who has walked the Appalachian Trail and lots of trails, what do you think makes for a good trail?
Robert Moor: It’s a very complicated process building a good trail because it’s almost like predicting the future. You need to guess where people are going to want to walk. Because trails are an expression of desire. If you build a bad trail, people are going to go off trail, they’re going to go wherever they want. One of the really funny things is to see how trail makers fight with hikers. One of the guys I talked to works at the ATC told me, “This whole hiker management thing would be a whole lot easier without the hikers.” What he means by hiker management is that hikers don’t always follow the trail, as we’ve said, so sometimes to stop them they’ll do things like install jagged rocks on the side of the trail. They call those gargoyles. Or they’ll dump a big load of branches or sometimes, one guy I read said he would dump a bunch of poison oak leaves on a side trail that people were trying to take to get them to stop going. You want the people to go where you want them to go.
The reason why is that a hiking trail doesn’t just have to be efficient. It doesn’t just have to get you from Point A to Point B. In this way, a hiking trail is totally different from any trail that exists on Earth. A hiking trail, its impetus is to be sustainable. It’s to shed water efficiently. It’s to not destroy a whole lot of sensitive vegetation. They take on these really screwy shapes. When we’re walking a trail, you can feel that. That’s why we make those short cuts is because there’s a very deep animal part of you that says, “This isn’t right. This isn’t the most elegant way to get up or down this mountain. I want to go where I want to go.” The task of a trail builder, and this is something else that I think is a really powerful metaphor for anyone who works in a field where you have to deal with people, but especially people who work in the world of sustainability, the job of a trail builder is to get the hiker to go where the hiker should go based on everyone’s communal best interest, rather than where the hiker naturally wants to go based on their own self interest.
That’s a really tricky task. The best trail builders that I’ve met, the real master trail builders, do it in such a way that they make the hiker want to stay on the trail, because the trail is so beautiful that they don’t want to get off the trail. They’re enjoying it so much. For example, if there’s a waterfall that you can hear, you have to make the trail go to that waterfall. If you don’t, people are just going to go there anyway. The best trail builders know that and they use your desire as a hiker, rather than trying to thwart your desire.
Brett McKay: Again, the idea of trail making as communication is being displayed right here.
Robert Moor: Yeah. It’s a kind of communication. It’s almost a kind of narrative. It’s a little bit profound if you think about it. As a trail builder, what you’re doing is you’re building an experience for another person.
Brett McKay: I thought it was also interesting about the book is that this idea of hiking, it’s a new idea. If you think about it, the people in the 1600s probably didn’t, would even imagine, “I’m going to hike from Georgia to Maine.” That wasn’t … I’m just going to go into the wilderness just to be out in the wilderness, that wasn’t their thing. When did being out in the wilderness and going hiking as a pleasurable activity, something you would do just to pass the time, when did that become a thing?
Robert Moor: This is something that anyone who’s gone hiking in another country probably realized. Because not only is hiking a very modern thing, it’s a very western thing. It’s a very European and North American thing. I went on a hike in Tanzania once and the Maasai tribesmen that I met told me that they refer to hikers as westerners, most of them they see are hiking, as people with heavy luggage looking for problems. Because they would see these people walking along with these giant bags on their back, and there would be a big mountain and there would be a trail going around to the left and a trail going around it to the right, and they would walk straight up the mountain. That was just kind of hilarious. What is wrong with these people that they take the path of most resistance all the time?
It is kind of absurd. Before the beginning of the Romantic era when we began to appreciate mountains as these beautiful things, as these sublime things, before that they were ugly. People referred to them as pustules. They were dangerous. The reason for that is largely because they had no value. They had no economic value. You couldn’t grow crops there. It was dangerous. Unless there were minerals to be gotten, why would you go there? Also, many people believed and many cultures believed that it was the abode of spirits. That was where the storm god lived, so if you go there you’re tempting fate. That changes around the time when you start seeing this shift in culture that we were talking about before.
With the rise of industrialism and the rise of urbanism, suddenly people need to get out of cities. They need to get out of their life as it is and get into something that feels to them a little bit wilder, a little bit more natural. You start seeing this rise in poetry and painting and various art forms describing these wild mountains and these forests as beautiful. With that comes the beginning of hiking.
Hiking has gone through a number of phases throughout the years. It was not always what it is currently. At one point, hiking meant you’d go off into the woods and you’d cut down a bunch of trees and build yourself a little shelter for the night. That was the style of hiking. It was very high impact. In some ways, it was more, you might say more natural than sleeping in a nylon tent. The current mode that we have of hiking is really funny because we think of it as going back to nature, when it fact it’s this very modern, this very unnatural thing to do. Which is not to say it’s not worth doing. I still love it it. But you sort of have to understand what it is.
Brett McKay: The wilderness would not be possible without civilization. It could not exist. You need one …
Robert Moor: It does not exist. Yeah, the concept doesn’t make sense … Without a fence, unless you have a farm and a fence around it, then what’s outside is not wilderness. It’s just the world. There’s no concept of it.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about the Appalachian Trail because this is the whole thing that kicked off your exploration. What’s funny is for some reason I assumed that the Appalachian Trail had been around for hundreds of years, that it was some sort of Native American route that went from Georgia to Maine and then white people used it for transportation. But that’s not the case. It actually didn’t start until the 20th century. Who had the idea to create this long, continental through trail from Georgia to Maine?
Robert Moor: You’re right in that there were trade routes running up and down the Atlantic coast, but they would never have gone the way the Appalachian Trail does, as we said, because it goes over all these mountaintops. It would be much too slow. The first person to make that realization is a guy named Benton MacKaye. The story he tells is that around 1900, maybe 1902, he was sitting on top of a tree on Stratton Mountain in Vermont and he was looking out over the Appalachian Mountains going south. He suddenly had this epiphany where he realized that actually the same mountain chain runs all the way to Georgia. He thought, “How incredible would it be to have a hiking trail connecting all of these mountains?” This was during an era of kind of feverish trail building. He had been on that very hike, following logging roads, following hiking trails, kind of stitching together the existing trails. That’s what he realized. That was his real genius, was that you wouldn’t have to build 2000 miles of trails. You just had to connect the ways that were already there and give it a name and give it a story and give it a mythology. That would be enough to build this thing.
In the meantime, that was in his 20s, it took him another 20 years to even get the proposal together. He went off and did other things. In the meantime, one of the things that springs up, as you mentioned earlier, is the Long Trail, which runs the length of Vermont. That was the first real through trail. It’s not nearly the length of the Appalachian Trail, but it starts getting people in the mindset of walking these long distances. Previously what you would do is you’d go to … For example, you’d go to these grand mountain hotels in the late 1800s. You’d stay in the hotel in a valley in the Catskills or the Adirondacks and you’d go on hikes along the trail network. You wouldn’t hike for days or weeks on end in one direction. That was kind of an odd idea. In fact, it’s not really even possible before the invention of the automobile. The automobile and the Appalachian Trail are intertwined in a really funny way because the automobile allows you to get out to the mountains and it allows you to hitchhike back. It also makes urban spaces so chaotic and so polluted that more people want to get out into the mountains.
The history of backpacking, you can’t tell without telling the history of cars as well. Finally Benton MacKaye comes back to this idea of the Appalachian Trail that’s been growing in his mind all this time. By the time he comes back to it, he’s spent a long time in the world of landscape, architecture. He called it geo-technics. Planning on a large scale. He had all these grand dreams that had grown up around the Appalachian Trail. He wanted it to be a socialist, communal space where people would escape from the urban centers of the United States, which ran up and down the Atlantic coast predominantly at that time, get out of there, go to the woods, go work on communal farms, go hiking. He even wanted to have sanitariums, massive sanitariums for people suffering from depression and various mental illnesses. It was going to be this beautiful commune in the mountains. He proposed it to people and what resonated with people was the idea of the hiking trail. The rest of the stuff didn’t really click. Over time, the trail idea got more and more support and everything else kind of fell away again and got streamlined away. What was left with was what he had originally, which was a trail going from Georgia to Maine.
Brett McKay: I thought it was interesting, this is all happening in this cultural background that was happening in America at that time, sort of this revolt against modernity. That industrialization is bad. This is like Boy Scout started getting going, the YMCA, the strenuous life, Teddy Roosevelt’s strenuous life. I think even MacKaye said something about creating new barbarians or something like that. That was a thing he wanted to do with the Appalachian Trail.
Robert Moor: That’s right. There was a feeling that … He called people who lived in cities civilizees and he wanted to have a revolt against the civilizees. He felt people were becoming over civilized. Since this is the Art of Manliness podcast, we’re talking about the fact that it was actually quite a gendered understanding of what the problem was. They felt that boys were becoming weak. They were living in cities and they were getting too pampered. Their hands were getting soft. They were getting sick too much. They wanted to toughen them up. What you see are these places springing up, tons and tons of summer camps devoted to the strenuous life and devoted to swimming in cold water and hiking big mountains. All of these things to toughen these kids up and to get them out of this urban environment that was seen as corrupting.
That’s actually the summer camp that I went to. It’s a place that was founded in 1902. It’s a little camp called Kine Island. It really hasn’t changed much since then. They still use kerosene lanterns. There’s no electricity. There’s no running water. You still bathe in the lake. I had a weird kind of instinctual understanding of this. It was almost like I went in a time machine every summer. That’s really where the Appalachian Trail springs out of, that sense of old timey masculinity tied in wilderness, that those two things needed one another in a certain way.
Brett McKay: Right. That connection couldn’t exist, again, without civilization.
Robert Moor: Right, that’s the irony.
Brett McKay: Which is interesting.
Robert Moor: People wouldn’t be going out there, they wouldn’t have the reason to go out there unless civilization had become what it had become.
Brett McKay: What I thought was really interesting and kind of preposterous is this idea that people are trying to do with the International Appalachian Trail. The Appalachian Trail currently goes from Georgia to Maine. There was a movement saying, “Well, part of the Appalachian Mountains goes to Canada.” Okay, that makes sense. But now there are folks who are like, “It goes all the way to Morocco actually.” Can you tell us a little bit about this movement and do you think it’s going to be ultimately successful?
Robert Moor: It starts with a guy named Dick Anderson, who’s a real character. He lives up in Maine. The story he told me was that he was driving along the highway one day. He was driving up I-95, I think, and heading towards the Canadian border. He realizes that the Appalachians, of course, don’t stop at the border. Even though the road stops, the mountains keep going. He’s a guy who worked in a variety of fields, land management, for a long time, so he knew his geology. He knew that the Appalachians kept going up through Quebec and up to the northern tip of Newfoundland. He thought, “Why doesn’t the Appalachian Trail keep going? Who cares about the border?” He started a project to continue the Appalachian Trail up to Newfoundland. It then becomes called the International Appalachian Trail because there’s a bit of a rivalry, a bit of an enmity between the Canadian faction and the American faction. The people who’ve invested their life’s work in the Appalachian Trail want it to end in Maine. They don’t want it to keep going forever.
But this new trail started getting built. People in Quebec and New Brunswick and Newfoundland, they all were on board with it. They extend the trail up to the northern tip of Newfoundland, but as they’re doing this Dick Anderson’s friends are coming to him and saying, “Well, you know, if you really want to be strict about it, the Appalachian geology continues throughout Europe.” Because when there was a Pangaea, when there was a mega-continent, that was one mountain range. It was actually, it kind of split. If you imagine a piece of paper that’s been folded and then it’s been torn in half, that’s what happened to North America, Europe, and north Africa when the mega-continent split apart. The Appalachian Trail was the seam along which we split apart. The other half of the Appalachian Trail, as it were, is across the Atlantic. He started thinking about that and he said, “Well, yeah, why not. Why not build. It’s an International Appalachian Trail already. We’ve already gone to Canada. Why not go to Greenland and then down through western Europe to north Africa?”
He started reaching out to other trail clubs there, and just like Benton MacKaye, he realized you wouldn’t have to build a whole lot of trail. You’d just have to connect the trails that are already existing. People just kept jumping on board. He said it was surprisingly easy. He has trail clubs now in most of the countries. I think all of the countries that he needs to build this incredible 15,000 mile weird, post-Modern, discontinuous trail called the Appalachian Trail.
Brett McKay: That begs the question, can you really call a trail a trail if there’s these gaps, you have to get on a boat or an airplane?
Robert Moor: It’s a new conception of what a trail is. I don’t know. People want to say, “How is it a trail if you can’t walk there. Are you going to walk on water? Are you going to get on a ferry and walk in circles? How are you …” But for him it’s not about walking. It’s about the line. It’s basically a line on a map. That’s why I call it post-Modern is it’s more about this sort of text and the idea than it is about the physical structure. I don’t know. I think it’s a worthwhile project in the sense that it will connect all of these countries together and make them work together and create something people can walk, a line people can follow. Because the Appalachian Trail, no one really walks it continuously anyway. You go and you hitchhike into town once every five days. Some people skip portions or they do it over the course of years. The shape of the Appalachian Trail changes every year. You can’t really be a purist about this stuff because, as I said before, trail is a much more liquid than we think it is.
Once we start messing with the definition of what a trail is, it’s not such a leap to say that this is one trail. It’s just got some pretty sizeable gaps in the middle of it.
Brett McKay: In your epilogue, it was one of my favorite parts, because you follow this guy Nimblewell Nomad, this guy, he’s like Forest Gump, just decided to start walking on day and he’s been walking ever since. Can you tell us a little bit about him? What insights about nature and trails that we can glean from his approach to hiking?
Robert Moor: Yeah, Nimblewell was a guy I wanted to talk to because I kept thinking about when I came back from the Appalachian Trail what would have happened if I had kept hiking. One of the things that people don’t tell you very often is that you go on these long hikes thinking they’re going to be transformative. They are. You are transformed. Your body completely changes. Your mind changes. You lose weight. You lose all of your stress and your thinking becomes clear. You’re happier. Then when you come home, you transform back. Because we’re all just in large part creatures of our environment. If you go back to the same old environment, you’re going to become basically the same old person. I thought maybe if I want to keep that mental clarity and that happiness and that fitness, I should have just kept hiking forever. I looked around and said, “Who is someone that did that? Is there anyone out that kind of never stopped hiking?”
There are people here and there. There’s a guy named Billy Goat who hikes the Pacific Crest Trail every year. There’s some people who hike the Appalachian Trail almost every year. The person I found most fascinating was a guy named Nimblewell Nomad because he’d just taken it to such an extreme. People would tell me these stories about him. They’d say, “He had all of his toenails surgically removed because he kept getting fungal infections. He only has this backpack with ten pounds of gear in it. He doesn’t own anything else. That’s all he owns.” I looked around for him and I found him online. I wrote to him. He kind of told me to screw off. He didn’t want to meet me. I said, “No, really. I’m fascinated by you. I have to meet you.” I wrote to him and wrote to him and wrote to him over, I think it was years, I think it may have been two years I wrote to him. Finally, he begrudgingly said, “Okay, fine. You can come. I’m going to be walking down this stretch of highway in Texas on this day. If you can find me, you can walk with me.”
I flew down to my sister’s place in Houston and we drove out on the highway on that day. There he was walking down the side of the road. I pulled over and we gave him some ice cream. He said, “Well, you found me.” I got out, and for three days we walked together. I got to see during those three days really what it means to hone your life down to that single point of interest, to live a life of true simplicity of the way that we oftentimes romanticize, but the reality of it is not always as pretty as you would want. He lives a pretty rough life. He does not have a whole lot of comforts in his life. He’s a guy who’s, I think when I met him he was 75, 74 or 75. He’s sleeping on the hard ground every night. He doesn’t really carry a toothbrush. He just has a toothpick. I’m not sure how good his dental hygiene is, but I know he doesn’t carry any toilet paper. He just uses water.
His life is very rough in a lot of ways and he has no safety net at all. If he gets sick of something happens to him out there, he’s probably going to just die. He’s fine with that. He said, “My grandfather died in the woods and my dad died in the woods. And I’m working on it.” He really has gotten rid of his fear of death in a way that I find admirable, but in other ways his life is not something I’d want to emulate. He kind of just skims across the surface of a lot of things. His relationships with people are very thin. He only talks to people for a day or two and then he moves on. He doesn’t have those deep connections, those deep rooted connections with the community that a lot of need to feel a sense of belonging and purpose in our lives. He’s totally free. Being free is not completely positive thing. It’s actually quite a complicated thing.
Brett McKay: Being free, there’s constraints you have.
Robert Moor: That’s right, yeah. There are constraints to his freedom as well. There’s always sacrifices you have to make.
Brett McKay: I thought it was interesting too is that his approach to nature … We were talking earlier about this dichotomy. There’s civilization, there’s sort of manmade stuff, and then there’s nature, which is sort of untouched by man. It seems like Nimblewell sees things as just it’s the world. Even the manmade stuff is part of nature and doesn’t bother him that … He’ll follow a road and he has no problem with that. A lot of purists are like, “Well, no, you need to go out into the woods.” But he’s like, “No, it’s a trail. I’m going to follow it.”
Robert Moor: He doesn’t draw that distinction at all. I thought that was really fascinating. That’s a debate that’s been going on. They call it the great new wilderness debate. In the 1980s, people like William Kronen started deconstructing our understanding of what wilderness is and what nature is and saying these are concepts, these are historical and cultural concepts that are not necessarily real. These are sort of useful fictions. He’s someone who’s come to that without any academic background in it. He’s just come to that conclusion through his living. He says, “If you’ve got to go up on some big mountain in Washington in order to feel happy and feel at peace, then you’ve missed the point entirely.” You’ve got to be done there on the city streets seeing it the same way. You have to come to every aspect of your life with that same appreciation that most of us have when we’re in the wilderness. He doesn’t see a distinction. He walks out of the wilderness. He walks onto a highway. He walks into a shopping mall. He’s looking at it all as natural things, because people are natural, humans are natural animals as well. We’re all, everything, in a sense, is natural to him.
His outlook on life is really beautiful in that way. Also, it’s funny because certain things don’t bother him as much as I think they should. He’s not terribly bothered by pollution. One day we stopped to fill up our bottles with water. It was in the town of Port Arthur, Texas, which is an oil refinery town. The water just smelled foul. It smelled like kerosene. I was outraged. I said, “These people’s ground water is poison.” He’s like, “Yeah, that happens around here,” and just sort of shrugged it off. We got into this big argument about pollution and environmental regulation and climate change, and he, for a guy who spends all his time outdoors, he’s really quite a … He’s pretty far right when it comes to a lot of those issues. A lot of that springs from the fact … He says, “Look, you know, that’s the world we live in. What are we going to do?” He said, “Are we going to go back to the days of the wagon and plowing a field with an ox? If not, then you have to come to grips with that,” which that’s a tough stance to take. It’s not something I agree with.
That complex outlook on wilderness and on nature is something that I found really useful to have to grapple with.
Brett McKay: For him, the oil refinery is just like a volcano.
Robert Moor: Yeah. Or maybe it’s like how you’d look at a, I don’t know, a castle or something in another country. Because when you do take that step back and you just appreciate it for what it is, an oil refinery is kind of beautiful. Industry can be beautiful. It’s also kind of monstrous in the same way that a castle or a volcano can be monstrous.
Brett McKay: Robert, this has been a great conversation. There’s a lot more we could talk about, so I encourage people to go get your book. Where can people learn more about your work?
Robert Moor: There’s a couple places. You can go on my website, robertmoor.com. I don’t update it very often. Of course I’ve got a Twitter feed. Most importantly, I’d say go out and buy the book. Right now is a really good time. The paperback comes out July 4th, so I think a lot of places have the hardcover on sale. The hardcover is a really beautiful object. The book as an object is something I care a lot about. The people at Simon & Schuster did an incredible job. It was listed as one of the top ten book covers of the year by the New York Times. It’s just this beautiful, beautiful object. I would say go out, find the hardcover, start there.
Brett McKay: Awesome. Robert Moor, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Robert Moor: Thank you. This has been great.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Robert Moor. He’s the author of the book On Trails. It’s not available in paperback on amazon.com. Go check it out and get that. It’s a really great book, great summertime read. You can also find out more information about his work at robertmoor.com. That’s moor.com. No e at the end. Also check out our show notes at a1.is/trails, where you can find links to resources, where you can delve deeper into this topic.
That wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. If you enjoy this show, have got something out of it, I’d appreciate it if you’d give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. That helps us out a lot. As always, thank you for your continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.
Last updated: December 6, 2017