When hiking it’s easy to appreciate the scenery, but how often do we stop and think about the trail itself? In his book On Trails, Robert Moor draws from his own experience on the Appalachian Trail to contemplate the nature of trails.
He reflects on the intricacies and origins of all types of paths that serve to connect places. Moor delves deeply into the process of trail creation by organisms ranging from ants to elephants and connects this process to the trail experience of modern hikers.
The book has weighty thoughts on trail origins and it is indeed interesting to consider the natural development process that creates trails and paths.
The foray into the intersection of ecology and trail-building can be somewhat fascinating, but a hiker may gravitate more towards the chapters on modern trails including an insightful glimpse into the development the International Appalachian Trail which spans continents and exists as a ‘trail’ that is not physically connected or continuous.
International Appalachian Trail Marker
Moor also tells tales from the trail itself, recounting AT hiking trips and tagging along with the ultimate long-distance hiker, Nimblewill Nomad (whose mind-boggling walks have followed all the major trails and recently included a sweep across Kansas along the route of the old Pony Express Trail).
For trail buffs, this book will be a thorough guide to trails of all kinds and a reflection on how trails are ultimately shaped by travelers.
In the rich history of the Appalachian Trail, a more unlikely hero will not be found. In the spring of 1955, a grandmother from Ohio decided to walk the trail from Georgia to Maine “on a lark” and captured the attention and adoration of a nation. “Grandma Gatewood’s Walk” by Ben Montgomery recounts the story of the hard but captivating life of Emma “Grandma” Gatewood, a now iconic hiker of the Appalachian Trail, whose walk along the trail characterized her life of determination and grit. While many hikers today obsess about the latest gear, technology, and trail amenities, Gatewood had little more then a napsack, umbrella, and the kindness of strangers to see her through a 2000+ mile journey.
Grandma Gatewood on the Trail
At a time when only a handful of people had hiked the entirety of the AT, she started walking at the age of 67 and just kept on going. The challenges that she overcame on the Appalachian Trail alone would make for an exceptionally inspiring read, but the book also artfully recounts Gatewood’s earlier walk through a marriage filled with adversity and abuse leading up to her first epic trail journey. Gatewood’s long walk is just the start of her remarkable hiking career and the book will certainly inspire people of all ages to dream big and hike on.
Hikers on the Grandma Gatewood Trail in Ohio
“Grandma Gatewood’s Walk” by Ben Montgomery is published and available through the Chicago Review Press
Although winter may not be relenting enough to hike, the upside is that there’s no better time to put your feet up, sip some hot chocolate, and enjoy a good trail book. Here are two of our top picks to add to your trail anthology:
While normal hikers appreciate big views, wildflowers in bloom, or clouds drifting overhead, I must admit to spending a slightly inordinate amount of hiking time checking out the trail under my feet. A good trail can do much to enhance the hiking experience, but the worst are prone to erosion or just generally boring hiking. Each step of a well-built trail is carefully planned and constructed with a great deal of muscle and sweat.
Without being on a crew (and I highly recommend the experience), it’s hard to get a sense for the art, science and just plain dirty work that goes into building an excellent trail. In “Dirt Work”, Christina Byl recounts her journey from a rookie crew member building alpine trails in Glacier National Park to a crew leader calling the shots in the wilderness of Alaska.
Byl has vast experience working on trail crews and she accurately portrays the “work hard, play hard” experience of the traildog life. The book rolls the dirt and the glory of trail-building into a fascinating and insightful assessment into the proud blue-collar world behind your favorite trail and will leave you yearning to spend a summer cutting tread in the high country.
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
With a life unraveling and out of control, Cheryl Strayed undertakes an ambitious hike to try to make sense of it all. And by rather ambitious I mean she merely sets out to hike the majority of the Pacific Crest Trail. Solo. Of course she has scant experience, a pack much too big, and boots painfully too small. Despite this prescription for epic failure she perseveres and chronicles the drudgery, pain, and elation of life on the long trail in wonderful detail.
In my experience, time in the woods alone brings a sense of perspective and clarity to life, and after months on the trail Strayed works through the crucible and comes out on the other side a truly different person.