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AWOL on the Appalachian Trail - Book Review

January 11, 2011


There’s a great little store in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, called The Day Hiker. It’s in the middle of the Parkway, in a conglomeration of stores called The Village Shops. Tori and I like to visit it each time we’re in the Smokies because they have the best assortment of hiking-oriented T-shirts. (They also stock a lot of good hiking gear.) One of our favorite tees has, as its message, “I’ve hiked the entire width of the Appalachian Trail.” We haven’t bought that one yet, but I have a feeling we will one of these days. It makes us giggle.

Laughter aside, though, hiking the AT is something I’ve wondered about for several years – basically for as long as Tori and I have been visiting the Great Smoky Mountain National Park and hiked many of its trails. We’ve bumped up against it on some of our hikes and exchanged fleeting comments like, “We should do that one of these days.” Yeah, we should. Or should we?

The AT is more than 2,170 miles long, with its end points at Springer Mountain in Georgia and Katahdin in Maine. It touches fourteen states and climbs as high as 6,625 feet at Clingmans Dome in Tennessee. According to The Appalachian Trail Conservancy, it takes 5 million footsteps and anywhere from five to seven months to complete a thru-hike. Imagine that – five to seven months basically on your own in the wilderness.

Last night I finished AWOL on the Appalachian Trail by David Miller, a man who completed a thru-hike of the AT in less than five months in 2003. He was in a job that didn’t satisfy him, so he walked away from it – with the consent of what I consider his saintly wife – and headed north from Georgia. His book about his adventure is mesmerizing. I don’t know if you have to be a fan of hiking to enjoy it or not, because I happen to be one. What I do know is that Miller does a phenomenal job of taking his readers on a virtual hike of the AT.

Through his descriptions of the trail and his willingness to share his personal thoughts, dreams, disappointments, and his longing at times for his wife and his children, he provides what has to be an incredibly accurate depiction of what it’s like to undertake a thru-hike. He encounters more than 20 bears, countless snakes, and at least one moose. His knee gives him trouble in the beginning, a blister on his foot becomes infected and costs him a few days off the trail, and he sprains his ankle, which costs him another several more “zero” days off the AT.

But he enjoys the solitude, the sights that he sees as he walks, and he allows the experience to settle inside him. Along the way he befriends many other thru-hikers and enjoys getting to know them and bumping into them again and again as they make their individual ways along the trail. Miller describes “trail magic” and is the beneficiary of it many times along the trail. Now that I understand what it is, I’m going to be sure and pack some extra goodies in our cooler when we head out again to Newfound Gap or Clingmans Dome. Maybe we’ll get to meet and talk to one of these intriguing people who commit themselves to this endeavor.

As for me, I don’t know if I could ever be a true thru-hiker. I don’t know if I could really cut myself off from my family – my life – for that long. I don’t know if I could get used to going for days and days without a shower. But I’d like to leave it open as a possibility. Maybe I’ll be a section hiker – cut the AT into pieces and hike it over the course of a number of visits and many years. I think I could picture myself doing that.

I also know that I’m grateful the Appalachian Trail exists and that people are still dedicated to taking care of it. I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Miller’s book: “We spend an inordinate amount of time indoors, and the physical confinement limits the metaphorical bubble of our aspirations. Large rooms, like the vaulted interior of a church, are uplifting. Outdoors, we are free to reach for the sky.”

I intend to keep reaching.

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