Thursday, April 30, 2020

Book 231: On Trails



"When I was younger I used to see the earth as a fundamentally stable and serene place, possessed of a delicate, nearly divine balance, which humans had somehow managed to upset. But as I studied trails more closely, this fantasy gradually evaporated. I now see the earth as a collaborative artwork of trillions of sculptors, large and small. Sheep, humans, elephants, ants: each of us alters the world in our passage."

Dates read: May 3-7, 2018

Rating: 3/10

There's an outdoorsy, hiking culture in the West that's unlike anything I ever knew growing up in southeast Michigan. People camped (which I quickly discovered was Not For Me) occasionally, but generally spending time outside consisted of making friends with someone who had a lake house and then going out on the boat. The only time I'd ever hiked was on trips to the Upper Peninsula to visit family, and that was under duress. But on the other side of the country, spending time in the wilderness is treated with a kind of reverence. I have to confess I remain unconverted...I'm not deeply opposed to getting out there for a few hours, but left to my own devices I'd rather stay home and read.

Even out here, though, there are casual weekend-type hikers and then there are the truly insane, the kind who do things like hike the entire Pacific Coast Trail, or its east coast counterpart, the Appalachian Trail. Robert Moor is one of the latter kind of people, and his experience "through-hiking" (start point to end point, not just doing the odd segment here or there) the Appalachian Trail inspired him to write On Trails. In it, he examines not only the trail he hiked (his experiences with it form a significant part of the book), but trails and paths the world over. Human trails, yes, but also ant trails, sheep trails, elephant trails, the entire idea behind trails and paths and what they signify.

Moor is committed to offering a broad perspective on trails and trail-making, and while his efforts to get across the long, long history of this behavior among living organisms (he recounts a trip to Canada where he goes to talk to scientists conducting research into the very first fossil evidence of trails among very small organisms) is laudable, this book as a whole is just terribly organized. If Moore doesn't have ADD, he does a very good impression of someone who has it. He's jumping all over the place constantly, from his through-hike to micro-organisms to ants to sheep now back to ants and then elephants you guys! Now some Native American trails and then back to another subject and everything is touched on briefly instead of explored in depth, and all of this together just drove me batty trying to get into it.

And the parts based around the Appalachian Trail and Moor's hike of it? Could not have been less interested. Navel-gazing outdoors-y memoirs do less than nothing for me. Congratulations, you undertook a challenging experience that you knew full well would be challenging going in and learned and grew and that's great for you, I wish you the best in your future endeavors, but I really don't care. I already didn't especially enjoy the book, but then we came to the Epilogue and holy smokes you guys, this sent me into an almost burning rage. Moor chronicles time spent hiking with a guy called "Nimblewill Norman", apparently something of a legend among serious hikers, who basically just abandoned everyone in his life and decided to be constantly hiking and has been doing so for years. While Moor doesn't present him in an entirely positive light, he gives him and what he represents (the kind of people who get all Holden Caulfield about how society is "fake" and they just need to be free from outside expectations at the monetary and emotional expense of everyone who's invested their time and energy into them) a kind of respect that it absolutely does not deserve. I hated Norman so much. And Moor also takes the opportunity in this section to repeat many of the often shallow and trite observations he made about paths and trails over the course of the book and getting all of that together completely destroyed any regard I might have had for it.

Now for a caveat: this was a book club selection, and I was essentially alone in that I did not like it. Most of the other members of the group at least liked it, and a couple of them outright loved it. It seemed like most of the rest of the group had a connection to hiking experiences and perhaps this is the source of some of the disconnect between book and reader on my part. As always, my impressions are my own and what I bring to and take away from the book might be extremely different than anyone else. That being said, I hated this and would heartily recommend avoiding it at all costs.

One year ago, I was reading: First (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Book of Unknown Americans

Three years ago, I was reading: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Four years ago, I was reading: Chasing the Sun

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