Sunday, August 12

Book review on the run: AWOL on the Appalachian Trail

I have been on a bit of a hiking-reading kick lately. Immediately after reading Wild, I ordered AWOL on the Appalachian Trail by David Miller.

Much like a thru-hike itself, the book has brilliant high points, and slow and plodding lows.

Miller, feeling stuck in a rut at his job, talks with his wife, forms a plan, then quits his stable, work-a-day, engineering job to spend a summer hiking north from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Katahdin, Maine.

At times, the plodding sections of this Appalachian Trail memoir read like a blogger's bullet-pointed workout-and-diet post.

These pages turn into a litany of brief, uninspiring statements along the lines of: I walked 6 miles. It rained. I stopped to eat some trail mix. It continued raining. I walked 5 more miles. I realized the sleeping shelter was full. The rain slowed to a drizzle (or poured so hard I couldn't see). I walked 4 more miles and camped at another trailside hut. (Note: I've taken some creative license here, but a few sections had about this much charisma.)

But, to be fair, it would be difficult to chronicle day after day of travel on foot, over 2,180 miles and across 14 states, without having a few lulls.

The high points in this book made every slow page well worth the wait.

The text glows when Miller talks about his motivations for the hike and how hard it was (initially) to make the allegedly "crazy" decision to go AWOL from work for a thru-hike. Miller's tale sounds familiar, like the echos of a debate that has been raging in my own head.
"I'm no maverick. Upon leaving college I dove into the workforce, eager to have my own stuff and a job to pay for it. Parents approved, bosses gave raises, and my friends could relate. The approval, the comforts, the commitments wound themselves around me like invisible threads. When my life stayed the course, I wouldn't even feel them binding. Then I would waver enough to sense the growing entrapment, the taming of my life in which I had been complicit.

Working a nine-to-five job took more energy than I had expected, leaving less time to pursue diverse interests. I grew to detest the statement 'I am a...' with the sentence completed by an occupational title...
The section continues on, highlighted and double-underlined in my book, but I will spare you further spoilers and recommend that you read it for yourself.

Another section that stood out:
"Not everyone needs to be a hiker, but using 'not my thing' is too convenient. Activities that even momentarily cause discomfort, that don't provide immediate positive feedback, are subtracted from the realm of experience. We are outraged when we are constrained by others, but willfully, unwittingly put limits on ourselves."

In addition to inspiring passages, I should note that also Miller offers excellent technical advice throughout the book. Unfortunately he also makes a rookie mistake late in his hike. He "slack packs" for a day (leaving his pack with a friend, with plans to hitchhike back to retrieve it later) and leaves his jacket behind in his pack.

It goes without saying that a hiker should never, ever hike without warm clothes - not even in the desert, and certainly not on a mountain. (Maybe in Fiji it might be ok?) Weather can change from bad to deadly in the blink of an eye. (I speak from experience after getting caught in a freak snowstorm on Mount Whitney several years ago.) Miller only gets chilled, but the situation could have been much more dire.

Miller also has a few run-ins with bears, but manages those all without incident.

I'm not going to tell you whether or not he completed the trek. Instead I'll leave you with this...
"I do think of how regrettable it would have been if I had ignored the pull that I felt to hike the trail. A wealth of memories could have been lost before they had even occurred if I had dismissed, as a whim, my inkling ot hike."

Rating: PR

Recommended for: Anyone contemplating a major life change - career change, major move, the beginning or end of a relationship, or anything that is not on the "accepted track" of school, work, partnership, house, kids.

The book would also be a good starting point for anyone contemplating a through-hike of the Appalachian Trail, Continental Divide Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, or any other many-months trekking adventure.

Rating system:
BQ = best quality (or Boston Qualifier)
PR = pleasant read (or Personal Record)
DNF = did not finish (or Did Not Finish)

For more book reviews and other recommended reading, see Book Reviews on the Run.

1 comment:

  1. I also read this book on my Kindle and found it enjoyable.


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