In Search of a Long-Lost Cherokee Trail: An Excerpt from ‘On Trails’

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Have you ever caught yourself on a long hike thinking about the trail? Like really thinking about it — who first walked it, how it meanders, and why no one put a switchback on that last never-ending, lung-burning climb. While through-hiking the Appalachian Trail, Robert Moor caught himself doing just that. So once home, he started digging. Over the next six years, Moor, a writer for Harper’s and New York magazine, kept picking away at those questions, and his search became an existential one about the very nature of trails. What’s the first path ever made by a human? What about an animal? How do ants know what tiny roads to follow? And what can we make of our highways and the future of transit? The result of these queries is On Trails, a deep — at times dense — study of the biological, anthropological, and geographic history of trails. It’s the kind of read that’s full of facts and insights that will change the way you look at any path — whether you’re backpacking in the Rockies or walking through Forest Park. Here, in an exclusive excerpt from the book, Moor teams up with historian Lamar Marshall to look for long-lost Cherokee trails, some of the oldest man-made paths in the world. –Tyghe Trimble

The following is an excerpt from Robert Moor’s On Trails.

As the trail began to ascend the ridge, [historian Lamar] Marshall became more certain that it was an old Cherokee trail and not a modern addition. For one thing, it followed the ridgeline, which is a telltale feature of Cherokee trails. He explained that once a walker was high atop a ridge, it was possible to walk for “miles and miles and miles” without encountering serious obstacles. In wintertime, the ridges saved a walker from having to cross through frigid waters, and in summer, they stayed high above the low-lying thickets of ivy, laurel, and rhododendron, which the locals call “laurel hells.”

The trail tilted upward, slowing our progress. Marshall calculated that for every mile we hiked, we climbed a thousand feet. He said, between huffing breaths, that this was another good indication that the trail had been made by Cherokees and not Europeans. The English hated Cherokee trails, because they were too steep to follow on horseback.

Though we often speak of the “path of least resistance,” a single landscape contains countless paths of least resistance, depending on the mode of transportation. The Plains Indians carted goods using a sled-like device called the dog travois, so their trails gravitated to areas of slick grass, like prairie wool, and avoided steep inclines, because the travois would lift the dog’s hind legs off the ground. After Europeans introduced horses to the Americas, some tribes also began using a horse travois, which can climb steeper inclines than the dog travois. However, horses cannot climb as steeply as llamas, which meant that farther south in Peru, Spanish conquistadors could not follow many of the Inca trails.

The Cherokee traveled primarily on foot, wearing soft-soled moccasins that allowed their toes to grasp the ground. “The footwear was intimately connected with Indian trails,” Marshall said. “It’s an aspect that nobody thinks about.” On his feet, he wore a battered pair of rubber-soled hiking shoes, halfway between a boot and a cross-trainer, with seams held together by yellow, foamy glue. He had tried wearing moccasins before, but he discovered that his feet weren’t strong enough to grip the ground effectively.

The trail rose higher through the brightening air. Gray trees held the husks of dead leaves, shakily. On the side of the trail lay the remains of a chestnut tree, hollowed out by fungus. Chestnut trees were once the most abundant in the region; each summer, they showered the Appalachians in flurries of pale blossoms, and they grew so large that when they toppled over, the sound was known as “clear day thunder.” But around the turn of the twentieth century, they started becoming infected with an invasive blight and died off by the millions.

In this and a hundred other ways, the forest we were walking through would have been unrecognizable to the ancient Cherokee. Tyler Howe, a Cherokee historian, pressed this point home when I spoke with him. “The forests today are nothing compared to the forests then,” he said. “The natural environment of the Cherokee world has been completely changed.” For one thing, nearly all the land had been intensively logged, so the trees would have looked shockingly young to an ancient Cherokee. Moreover, the Cherokee regularly burned the woods, which would have cleared out many of the thickets of rhododendron and multi-flora rose, so, to them, a modern forest would look sloppy, unkempt.

The first European visitors to North America were stunned by the forests they found—not just by the age and grandeur of the trees, but also by the lack of undergrowth. Early observers frequently noted that the forests of the Eastern seaboard resembled that of an English park. Some stated that a man could ride a horse (or according to one source, a four-horse chariot) at full gallop through the trees without a snag. A great many colonists ignorantly assumed that this was the natural, divinely ordained state of the forests. Indeed, it may well have appeared that way, because infectious diseases, imported by the earliest explorers, had already killed off as much as ninety percent of the indigenous population before settlers arrived en masse. Those second-wave pioneers had stepped into a vast garden, it seemed, with no gardener in sight.

Even early on, though, observant Europeans cottoned to the fact that the park-like appearance of the forests was the result of careful maintenance. William Wood, who published the first comprehensive natural history of New England in 1634, noted that “in those places where the Indians inhabit, there is scarce a bush or bramble, or any cumbersome underwood to be seen in the more champion ground.”* Meanwhile, he noted, in those places where Native communities had died off from plagues, or where rivers prevented wildfires from spreading, there was “much underwood,” so much so that “it is called ragged plain because it tears and rents the cloths of them that pass.”

In addition to easing foot travel, fire was used to clear farmland, to hunt, to encourage the growth of berry bushes and deer grass, to drive off mosquitoes, and to deplete the natural resources of neigh- boring tribes. When the British put an end to the practice of strategic burning, millions of acres of open oak savannas reverted to dense forests within two decades. It is now widely understood that, rather than existing in a blissfully “natural” state, the native inhabitants of North America thoroughly altered the landscape, patiently molding it, as a foot breaks in a new moccasin—and being molding by it, as a moccasin toughens a foot.

We stopped for lunch at the top of the ridge, where the trail crossed a dirt road. Off in the distance the mountains were isoprene blue. White sun filtered down through high clouds, as sweet and clear as ice melt.

Marshall opened his backpack and pulled out five different plastic baggies. One had a baked potato in it, wrapped in aluminum foil, still warm. Another held an apple. Another, a peanut butter sandwich.

Another held pale cloves of raw garlic, which Marshall popped into his mouth and crunched without grimacing. Another held a slab of blackened bear meat. He had smoked it for two hours then broiled it in the oven to leach out the remaining fat. He cut me off a piece. It was delicious, reminiscent of Texas smoked brisket. For himself, Marshall saved a huge bear rib, which he gnawed at like a wild, white-muzzled dog.

He lay on his side, propped on an elbow, telling stories from his youth. When he was in fifth grade, he said, he became obsessed with stories about American Indians; he would hide recollections of frontier life inside his textbooks so he could read them while pretending to study. Naturally, he gravitated to the Boy Scouts, where he learned to hike, canoe, and camp out. When he was eighteen, he built a raft out of fifty-five-gallon drums (complete with a sail, a detachable canoe, and a ten-foot Confederate flag), which he and two friends floated down the Alabama River from Selma to the Gulf of Mexico.

Soon after, he befriended an “old mountain man” named John Garvin Sanford. As the two went “prowlin’” through the woods in search of ginseng and goldenseal, Sanford would sometimes lead Marshall to the site of old Cherokee villages. On one occasion, San- ford dug down into a fire pit in an abandoned village and recovered a pile of tiny, charred corncobs. (Ears of corn, he explained, were much smaller before Europeans began cultivating them.) Marshall canoed to various former townsites to see if he could find shards of pottery or remnants of tomahawks. Sometimes, standing in a plowed field, he could see the dark circles and squares where Cherokee houses had once stood; even after being tilled countless times, the ground was still blackened from centuries of cooking fires. He puzzled over the old Cherokee trails, where they went, and why.