Travelling the ghost of a trail

‘On Trails’ by ROBERT MOOR, now out in paperback (Aurum Press), is the fruit of miles of walking and years of research. In it, Moor considers the pathways made by insects, animals and man and the purposes to which they have been put, from finding food to building empires. He hikes everywhere from Canada to Morocco, seeing the trail as everything from a means of recreation to a metaphor for life. In this extract, he joins a historian whose mapping of old Cherokee trails is helping to save forests from logging and mining 

One frost-laced fall morning, I went trail hunting with a historian named Lamar Marshall. He was slowly piecing together a map of all the major footpaths of the ancient Cherokee homeland, and he had a new route he wanted to inspect. Wrapped in layers of warm clothing, which we would gradually peel off as the day wore on, we walked down a gravel road through the forests of the North Carolina foothills. The sky was pale, cool, and distant. Down the hill from us ran Fires Creek, which slid southward to meet the fat, muddy tail of the Hiwassee River.

Few Americans can say with any certainty that they have seen an old Native American trail. But almost everyone has seen the ghost of one and even travelled along it. For example, Marshall told me, the highway we’d taken to reach these mountains had once been a noted Cherokee trail, stretching hundreds of miles from present-day Asheville to Georgia. The next road we turned onto had been a trail once, too. As had dozens of other roads in the surrounding hills.

Marshall estimated that 85 percent of the total length of the old Native American trails in North Carolina had been paved over. This phenomenon generally holds true across the continent, but more so in the densely forested east. As Seymour Dunbar wrote in A History of Travel in America: “Practically the whole present-day system of travel and transportation in America east of the Mississippi River, including many turnpikes, is based upon, or follows, the system of forest paths established by the Indians hundreds of years ago.”

That system of paths is arguably the grandest buried cultural artifact in the world. For many indigenous people, trails were not just a means of travel; they were the veins and arteries of culture. For societies relying on oral tradition, the land served as a library of botanical, zoological, geographical, etymological, ethical, genealogical, spiritual, cosmological, and esoteric knowledge. In guiding people through that wondrous archive, trails became a rich cultural creation and a source of knowledge in themselves. Although that system of knowledge has largely been subsumed by empire and entombed in asphalt, threads of it can still be found running through the forest, if one only knows where to look.

Marshall did not look like any historian I had ever met. He had leathery skin, grey stubble, and two wide-set, sun-narrowed dashes for eyes. From crown to cuff, he wore mismatched camouflage: a camo trucker cap, a camo backpack, and a camo karate gi over a pair of camo cargo pants. Any time I wanted to hear about a new chapter of his life, I needed only to point to a garment and ask if there was a story behind it.

His trucker’s cap read “Alabama Fur Takers Association,” an organisation for which he, a former trapper, used to serve as the vice-president. Around his neck, he wore a beaver skin pouch he’d bought while stocking the trading post he used to run. Beside the pouch hung a sterling silver medallion, which depicted a flattened musk turtle. The turtle — an endangered species, long sacred to the Cherokee — was the symbol for an activist organisation he founded in 1996 called Wild Alabama. That outfit later expanded into an influential conservation group called Wild South, whose efforts currently cover eight southeastern states.

The karate gi was an item he had designed for himself many years ago. He’d since quit practising karate, having finally decided that “if some 350-pound guy was going to beat me to death, I’d rather just shoot him.” In his former life as a firebrand environmentalist in Alabama, for self-protection he had taken to carrying two powerful handguns everywhere he went. On our hike, to cut down on weight, he carried only a pocket-sized .22 Magnum. “I feel kinda naked with just this,” he said at one point, holding it in his palm.

In an orange waist-pack, Marshall carried a GPS device, a few maps, a black notebook, a pen, and firestarter for emergencies. As we walked, from time to time he pulled out the GPS, consulted his map, and took a few notes in his pocket notebook, which was full of hand-drawn maps. He still wrote in the cribbed, cryptic shorthand he’d learned while working as a plat technician for surveyor crews. On the first page, in a gesture reminiscent of the old explorer’s journals, he had written his name, and beneath it, his Cherokee nickname, Nvnohi Diwatisgi, which means “the Road Finder.” (The word for path and road is the same in Cherokee: nvnohi, “the rocky place,” a place where the soil and vegetation have already been worn away.)

“Everything gets mapped, everything gets drawn, all the way-points, contours,” he explained. He flipped through the pages. “Every trip since I’ve been up here: Little Frog, Big Snowbird, Devil’s Den Ridge . . .”

Marshall shuffled between copies of historical maps and hand-written historical accounts. On one large modern map, he showed me the trail we would be hiking that day. It ran beside Fires Creek and up over Carvers Gap, connecting the old Cherokee settlements of Tusquittee Town and Tomatly Town. Our walk was only the iceberg’s tip of the trail-finding process: the bulk of the work consisted of archival research. He regularly drove to libraries across the country, including the National Archives in Washington, DC, where he and an assistant would spend days paging through old records and snapping digital photographs by the thousands. Once he had confirmed the location of a trail in the historical record, he would use a digital mapping program to plot a tentative route. Then he would hike through the woods searching for it. If he found a trail on the ground that followed his hypothetical line, it was a good indication that it was the old Cherokee trail, but he would still have to perform a transect, walking in a straight line from ridge to ridge, to see if the area contained other potential candidates. “If there’s 10 trails in there, you say all right, which one was the real trail?” Marshall said. “But if there’s one trail in there, then you’re pretty sure that’s it.”

He also paid close attention to the surrounding area, to discern if it was an untouched Native American path, or whether it had been converted into a wagon road, a fire line, or a logging road. (You can identify wagon roads, for example, because they are wider and deeply rutted; you also tend to find piles of rock lying beside them, marking where the road builders tried to flatten the road surface.) Sometimes, he would find three iterations of a trail — the original trail, a wagon road, and then a modern road — laid out side by side, like afterimages.

Though his research was best known for helping reveal the startling degree to which our road network was inherited (or more accurately, purloined) from Native Americans, Marshall’s top priority was to find those few remaining ancient Cherokee trails that had remained undisturbed. His motivations were (at least, in part) environmentalist: if he locates a historical Cherokee footpath, then the Forest Service is obliged under federal legislation to protect a quarter of a mile of land on either side of the trail until it has undergone a proper archaeological survey (which, in certain cases, can take decades). And if the site is ultimately found to be historically significant, then the state can take steps to ensure that the trail’s historical context — which just so happens to be old-growth forest — remains intact. By locating and mapping old Cherokee trails, Marshall had so far been able to protect more than 49,000 acres of public land from logging and mining operations.

Marshall’s work shook up certain fundamental assumptions about the nature of conservation work. Conservationists generally fight to protect blocks of land, whereas Marshall fought to conserve geographic lines. Since Cherokee paths often followed game trails, they provide ideal corridors for wildlife to move between ecosystems. The paths also tend to travel along dividing ridgelines, which provide scenic overlooks for future visitors. Even more radically, by showing that human artifacts can serve as the linchpin of wilderness areas, Marshall was bridging an old divide between culture and environment. That dichotomy is familiar to Americans today, but it would have been wholly foreign to precolonial Native Americans. Mile by mile, Marshall was incorporating the human landscape back into the natural one.

Extracted from On Trails: An Exploration by Robert Moor (Aurum Press, £9.99 paperback)
© Robert Moor 2016

Robert Moor has written for Harper’s, n+1, New York and GQ, among other publications. A recipient of the Middlebury Fellowship in Environmental Journalism, he has won numerous awards for his non-fiction writing. He lives in Halfmoon Bay, British Columbia, Canada. For more about his work, see his website.