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book review

On Trails: An Exploration author Robert Moor.

In the Bugaboos, amid the mountains of eastern British Columbia, one of Canada's great hikes unfolds in distinct chapters.

The first is the drive in, an hour westward on a logging road. Only at the last moment, when it gets bumpy, is the goal revealed: Hound's Tooth in the distance, one of the area's jagged granite spires.

The walk begins. The second chapter is an amble through mossy woods. The third is where the ascent takes off, up over big boulders deposited at the end of the last ice age. The fourth chapter is a respite, meadows cleared by winter avalanches. The fifth gets serious, climbing steeply higher.

The sixth and final chapter is a hike into a new world. It's unexpected, opening up after a crest, the rocky alpine where only bits of vegetation thrive and where crevassed glaciers frame an array of granite spires.

A hike becomes a classic when it takes hold of a person like a memorable story – when the journey is marked by surprises. On Trails, the first book by American journalist Robert Moor, embodies this. It is a surprising story of trails as Moor takes us on disparate journeys.

The roots of Moor's work lay along the 3,500 kilometres of the Appalachian Trail. In 2009, he set off on a thru-hike of the entire length, Georgia to Maine. He imagined his story to be an American pilgrimage. The hike was a wet grind and it took him five months.

Emerging back into the world, Moor pursued a broader exploration. And so On Trails became something like a great hike, an adventure. Moor serves as the amicable and eloquent companion and guide, from distant past to present, from Newfoundland to Morocco, from the woods to a Texan highway.

Moor traces trails back 565 million years. Early on in the book, he is in Newfoundland with a small team of scientists. Here, in 2008, Alex Liu of Oxford University discovered fossil trails, a centimetre wide, of Ediacaran biota. "Exceedingly odd creatures," writes Moor, "soft-bodied and largely immobile, mouth-less and anus-less."

Trails of thought led Moor to consider ants and elephants; to try his hand at shepherding with a Navajo family in Arizona; to seek out vestiges of Cherokee trails in North Carolina, indigenous trails having blazed the way for this continent's modern road network; to mull the vast network of trails on the Internet, "an uncharted, almost feral territory," Moor quotes Wired co-founder Kevin Kelly, "where you can genuinely get lost."

As Moor walks, his bigger themes coalesce – and evolve. One is the dual nature of trails. There's the sense of freedom, yet one is tightly bound, a thread from A to B.

Moor's exploration becomes a consideration of the trail/path of life, where to walk, how to live. He takes a stridently secular approach early on. Later, he somewhat softens on such questions. Trails are shaped by those who walk them. Moor is shaped by those he walks with – what they can teach us, what they help us see.

Moor grew up in the Chicago suburbs and lived in New York until several years ago. His life first intersected a part of the Appalachian Trail when he was 10, at a summer camp in Maine. While working on the book, Moor and his partner decamped New York for Halfmoon Bay, a tiny community several hours northwest of Vancouver on the Sunshine Coast.

His personal journey jibes with what one would expect of a work entitled On Trails, a moving toward the remote and wild, a pushing away from crowded cities.

But it's the last chapter that provides an unexpected terminus, where wilderness and civilization meet. Here is Moor on the side of a highway in Texas: "The sound was meteoric," he writes of the constantly passing trucks. Moor had joined Meredith Eberhart, a retired optometrist who, in the late 1990s, at the age of 60, went on an epic hike. He didn't stop walking.

Eberhart talked about the instinct to seek out some mythical Mount Olympus, "to find peace and quiet and solitude and meaning." Instead, he declared: "I can find just as much peace and joy in that damned homebound rush-hour traffic that we were walking through yesterday."

It is a resonating lesson. We live in cities, most of us. Our time outside our workplaces is limited. Our chance to immerse in the wild is rare. So, instead, savour the wild, wherever you are, in downtown Vancouver or up in the Bugaboos, granite spires towering above.

"A person with a clear heart and open mind can experience the wilderness anywhere on earth," poet Gary Snyder said in the mid-1990s, cited by Moor. "The planet is a wild place and always will be."

David Ebner is a Globe and Mail reporter based in Vancouver.

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