Book Review – AWOL on the Appalachian Trail

114584324 stars. David Miller was a “regular guy”: 41, married with three girls, working as a software engineer, yet wanting something a little more. He sought it by turning in his notice and heading out on the Appalachian Trail to thru-hike the 2,200 mile footpath from Georgia to Maine. He takes us along the path with him in AWOL on the Appalachian Trail, the story of his 2003 AT thru-hike.

Miller communicates well, with direct sentences and little flowery prose. He’s pretty even keeled and approaches the AT with a pragmatic sense, but he also realizes that the goal is to enjoy himself rather than simply to reach a destination or put a feather in his cap. I get the feeling that Miller finds satisfaction in simply taking in the moment:

“…spectacular overlooks and scenic waterfalls have universal appeal. But I have come to recognize that most of what is memorable and pleasing about my time on the trail is ordinary moments in the outdoors. Simply sitting unhurried in the shade of leaves is an irreplaceable moment. It is a joy in itself to amble through the woods for hours, even when views are limited to the dense trees surrounding me. It is fulfilling to be saturated with the sights, sounds, and smells of the outdoors. My fond recollections of my hike are full of unremarkable moments, like the smell of a dewy morning, the crunch of leaves underfoot, the blaze of a campfire, the soothing trickle of a stream, or the rays of sun through a maze of trees.”

Any AT trail journal is, by necessity, repetitive: get up, hike, eat, set up camp, repeat until resupply point/town is reached, shower, eat massive amounts of food, hitchhike back to the trail, hike. Just as the sum is greater than the parts on a thru-hike, so is AWOL on the Appalachian Trail: no single thing kept me turning pages, but I did anyway because Miller’s hike was satisfying to experience through his eyes.

Miller is frank about the challenges of the trail: foot pain, gastrointestinal distress, drudgery, steep climbs, inclement weather. He also gives a good sense of the pleasure and fulfillment of the trail.

As a fortysomething code monkey myself, I easily related to Miller’s outlook and wish to fulfill a dream. It’s inspiring to know us cubicle jockeys can do something extraordinary when we put our minds to it! What I appreciated most was his frank discussion of why he chose to go, and what he got out of it:

“…it is important for parents to continue to live their own lives. We can’t sit by and say we’ve already made our decisions, done our striving, and dish out opinions on the doings of our children. Words alone lack authority, and we risk making them surrogates for the life we’d like to lead. We can better relate to the budding aspirations of our children if we follow dreams of our own.”

AWOL on the Appalachian Trail shows that attitude and persistence, combined with planning and preparation, are keys to success on the trail (and probably in life as well). This would be a great book for any prospective thru-hiker to get a good feel for how to proceed on the AT, and very enjoyable to armchair hikers everywhere.

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