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.


Book Review – Lost!: A Ranger’s Journal of Search and Rescue

4 stars. Each chapter of Lost!: A Ranger’s Journal of Search and Rescue details a disappearance in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and subsequent rescue effort as told by ranger Dwight McCarter. The introductory text describes the circumstances that necessitated the search and rescue effort. McCarter’s journal entries outline his role once he joins the search, and he details the terrain, weather, evidence found by the searchers, and most interestingly, his impression of the decisions and actions of the lost party.

The writing is clear and direct, favoring the factual over the dramatic, yet doesn’t miss McCarter’s love for the land, appreciation of its beauty, and emotional involvement with each search and rescue. The stories are memorable, sometimes tragic and sometimes happy. The willingness of the searchers to trek through the treacherous backcountry and “laurel hells” of the Smokies in any weather, day and night, is inspiring even when the outcome is sad.

As an avid hiker and frequent visitor to the Smokies, I found this book to be very interesting for several reasons. I’m familiar enough with many of the trails and areas described that I can very easily relate to the rescues. I appreciated reading about the park from the point of view of someone whose intimate knowledge of its terrain gave me extra insight into the park; even walking GSMNP’s trails doesn’t give more than a hint at how rugged and wild a place it is. The line between finding a lost person and recovery of a body often comes down to pre-hike preparation combined with sound decisions, and this book highlights how both are essential when conditions worsen or the unexpected occurs. I also found it very interesting that there are a number of airplane crash sites in the Smokies (McCarter often checked those to see if lost parties took refuge in the wreckage).

A quick and interesting read, Dwight McCarter’s Lost! is a great addition for anyone who loves the outdoors.

Book Review – A Walk With Mud: A Story of Two Friends Hiking from Canada to Mexico on the Pacific Crest Trail

294967094 stars.  Anna “Bug” Herby’s story of her 2014 PCT thru-hike in A Walk With Mud: A Story of Two Friends Hiking from Canada to Mexico on the Pacific Crest Trail is equal parts hiking story and tale of her slowly imploding relationship with her boyfriend and hiking partner “Mud”.

Rather than starting from the Mexican border in April or May and heading north (north-bounders or “NoBos” in trail lingo), Bug and Mud’s grad school completion dictated a south-bound hike, leaving the Canadian border in July. Bug’s clear writing traces their route through the snowy passes of Washington, the volcanic landscape of Oregon, around a forest fire ravaged area to the breathtaking High Sierra country of California, and finishing in the desert.

I think Bug did as good a job of any PCT author at expressing love for the trail and the mountains of the west. She never glosses over the challenges, but she doesn’t revel in them for self-aggrandizement or devolve into “misery porn” that some trail journals do. I would have liked to read more about her feel for the land she traveled over, as well as a little more logistics about her hike.

It’s quickly obvious that Bug and Mud want different things both out of their PCT hike and out of life. The number of times that healing for their relationship was within the reach of either of them but they responded poorly is staggering. I was saddened because it was obvious that they both cared about each other, but neither one could express their own needs. Many passages boiled down to that they would approach the trail with different mindsets, fail to communicate those mindsets, and then wind up feeling hurt and alone. There are also some nice moments where they supported each other, having the right words or a hug to make the other feel better–they both strike me as good people, even if they couldn’t make their relationship work. Instead of the shared challenge of the trail bringing them together, it felt like their hike was one of two solo hikers who shared a tent along 2,600+ miles of bittersweet moments.

At its best, A Walk With Mud is a beautiful, loving look at some of the gorgeous scenery of the Cascades and the Sierras. Mixed in is a tale of a fumbling, failing relationship between two people who discover that caring about each other and sharing activities isn’t enough. The “older and wiser” tone of the narration and the hopeful epilogue underscores that their PCT experience wasn’t lost, and I was left hoping that both Bug and Mud find happiness.

Book Review – Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident

4 stars. In winter 1959, nine Russian hikers, mostly college students, died at Holatchahl Mountain in the Urals under mysterious circumstances. The experienced group, led by Igor Dyatlov, was attempting a demanding winter ascent of Otorten to become Grade III hikers, a meaningful certification of ability. On the night of February 1, the seven male and two female hikers all fled from their shelter into sub-zero temperatures. A search party located the tent, finding that it had been sliced open from the inside. Their bodies were scattered several hundred meters or more from the tent. They were almost all lightly dressed, lacking the proper footwear and gear to survive in such a climate. The official inquest showed that six died from hypothermia and three from chest and/or skull fractures. Some radiation was found on the clothing of two victims. The investigation was unable to determine what made them flee their tent, citing an “unknown compelling force” as the cause of the incident.

With the mysterious circumstances, the deaths captured popular attention. Many theories have been proposed, from the unlikely (avalanches, Soviet missile tests) to the crackpot (yeti). The internet abounds with sites about the Dyatlov Pass mystery, yet provides few answers.

Film producer Donnie Eichar found himself caught up in the Dyatlov obsession, taking two trips to Russia and doing phenomenal amounts of interviews and research. Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident is his story of his research efforts and his reconstruction of the group’s travels and death, and the subsequent investigation. He paces that recounting with a chronicle of his trips to Russia and research in formerly secret Soviet files. His prose has a compulsive readability to it, and he gives lucid detail without being overwhelming. Best of all, his narrative of the nine unlucky hikers (and their tenth member, who was forced to turn back for medical issues) paints them as vibrant, intelligent, and energetic people who are worth knowing and caring about.

The volume is enriched by lots of pictures, both from the expedition itself and from the investigation.

While I don’t believe that the term “spoiler” applies to investigative nonfiction, if you do not wish to know the author’s conclusion, please go no further in my review.

Eichar makes a solid refutation of several of the pet internet theories regarding the hikers, including governmental conspiracy, avalanche, military weapons testing, and attack by the indigenous Mansi. He gives no credence to far-afield theories such as aliens or the supernatural. What he does arrive at is a theory of sub-audible sound waves called infrasound causing fear that motivates the hikers’ flight from their tent.

Eichar’s theory of infrasound-induced panic attacks requires me to accept three separate assertions:

1) The flow of wind over the domed summit of Holatchahl created a Kármán vortex street around the tent.
2) The Kármán vortex street created an infrasound event that was felt by the group members.
3) The infrasound event caused such panic in nine different people that they fled their shelter.

Eichar makes an informal case (based on the casual observation of site pictures by an NOAA scientist who is an expert in the field) that the first is possible, though I would have liked to have seen more rigorous analysis such as calculating the Reynolds number range of the site and using that to determine wind velocity that would generate the Kármán vortex street, the expected vortex velocity, vortex frequency, etc. (Math and science, YAY!) The second is certainly plausible, based on information that the author presents and a quick glance at the internet for verification.

The third assertion feels the least plausible. Eichar cites a 2003 infrasound study by UK researchers that found 22% of those exposed to an infrasound wave reported anxiety, chest pressure, nervousness, etc. He purports that the Israelis use an infrasound technique that creates nausea and dizziness to assist with crowd dispersal. However, it’s a great leap of faith to go from a feeling of unease or nausea to nine people fleeing in abject terror without a moment’s preparation for the environmental conditions. The author did not cite, and nor was I able to locate, any research indicating that complete irrational panic can be induced by infrasound. Given that Eichar explicitly describes the vortices around the tent as mini-tornadoes, I’d think there would be some evidence of people reacting with panic to infrasound generated by tornadoes, but I was unable to locate any.

Given that the group was entirely composed of experienced hikers with lots of previous exposure to hostile mountain environments, I find it highly unlikely that they all broke from reality so completely as to exit the tent without even donning shoes. It simply doesn’t seem sufficient explanation that these competent hikers went into such total and absolute panic as to flee from the tent like they did.

The evidence available is sufficient to support these conclusions:

-The hikers felt immediate mortal danger from remaining in the tent even for such a short time as would be needed to put on boots, gloves, etc.
-The group all evacuated the tent at once, as shown by the fact that another exit was made by slicing through the wall to facilitate the quick egress.
-The evacuation from the tent was directed and purposeful; all members of the party proceeded in the same direction rather than scattering in a panic.
-The purpose of the evacuation was not simply to be out of the tent. They continued to some distance from the tent, to the extent that some sustained injuries from falling into an unseen ravine that was quite a distance away.

What would make them flee from their tent under such conditions? Here’s my theory, which seems at least as credible as the infrasound theory:

The group is mostly settled in their tent for the evening, sheltered from the howling winds and bitter conditions. Someone–likely Thibeaux-Brignolles or Zolotariov, as they were in appropriate clothing for the elements–heads outside to answer the call of nature, or check the weather, or make sure the tent is secure. The bitter wind blows the snow across the slope above the tent. By limited light, the hiker outside catches sight of the roiling snow moving toward the tent. The worst case scenario instantly comes to mind, and believing they are soon to be swept away, the hiker yells, “AVALANCHE! RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!!!” The party flees pell-mell downslope, becoming disoriented and separated. Dubinina, Kolevatov, and Thibeaux-Brignolles fall into the ravine, suffering traumatic injuries. By the time the panicked flight ends, they have covered so much ground and become so disoriented that returning to the safety of the tent is impossible given the conditions. Careful, reasoned study that an avalanche was highly unlikely in the terrain, as well as confidence in the skills of seasoned leaders such as Dyatlov and Zolotariov, could not match the split-second, terror-fueled belief that they were about to be buried under tons of snow.

Regardless of my skepticism about the author’s “Untold True Story”, Eichar’s book is a great read that balances the spooky facts of the incident with a narrative that makes the reader care about the Dyatlov group hikers and feel their deaths keenly. Dead Mountain isn’t a book that I will soon forget, and is well worth a read.

Book Review – The Cactus Eaters: How I Lost My Mind and Almost Found Myself on the Pacific Crest Trail

One star. To make it through their physically and mentally demanding PCT thru-hike, author Dan White and his girlfriend Allison shared a soundtrack of songs. I too found myself with a mental soundtrack while reading The Cactus Eaters: How I Lost My Mind and Almost Found Myself on the Pacific Crest Trail: “I can change, I can change!” “What if you remain a sandy little butthole?” from South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut, in honor of Dan’s overbearing selfishness, total lack of decency to his trail companion, and utter refusal to display a modicum of common sense on the trail.

First, to hit the good points: White’s descriptions of trail life are intriguing. His account of the walk from Mexico to Canada is lucid and readable. He neither romanticizes nor overstates the total challenge of his thru-hike. Nor does he shy away from painting himself in a negative light as he makes repeated mistakes and ignores pretty much every bit of rational advice–in fact, I went so far as to wonder why on earth anyone would ever pen such an unflattering picture of themselves.

Unfortunately, the author is an utter and complete nimrod when it comes to how he treats other people, most especially Allison. He consistently values his satisfaction, goals, and judgment over hers, to the detriment of their hike and relationship. For example, in the Mojave Desert stretch, he unilaterally decides to lighten his pack of some of the water load, dumping quite a bit without telling her, and then concealing as long as he can before fessing up that they face a long, dry march towards questionable water sources. Overrun with thirst, he takes a bite out of a prickly pear cactus, and then whines while Allison tweezes thorns out of his tongue. He pushes her over and over to perform beyond her knee pain. Later, when both of them get sick, any concern for her well-being is merely an afterthought.

Even worse, when a real-world commitment requires Allison to be off the trail for a week, he whines and moans the whole time about how it’s going to cost them their goal of reaching Canada. The one non-text item reproduced in the book is an image of the churlish and petulant screed he scrawled about how the time off trail was interfering with his obsession with reaching the Canadian border that looked and sounded like it was written by a foul-mouthed thirteen year old with poor impulse control whining that he wasn’t getting his way. (Perhaps he wanted the reader to see the string of sad faces he drew on the right side of the text?)

Allison discovers that her knee pain is due to rheumatoid arthritis. Despite her begging, he can’t be bothered to even read a brief pamphlet about her condition, much less muster any kindness or sympathy–it’s all about how her arthritis interferes with his dream.

The only real description we get of Allison is that she’s blonde, a feminist, and he lusts after her more and more as she gets more tanned and toned from the rigors of trail life. We find out very little more about her; I posit that the author himself never bothered to find out any further detail about her.

All I can say is that Allison must be a saint to endure what she did… to paraphrase Silent Bob, there’s a million fine looking women in the world, but they don’t all tweeze cactus thorns out of your fool tongue when you’re stupid.

It’s not just Allison either. He treats the other hikers he encounters with derision, such as referring to them as unflattering names. In one extreme case, he forces them to make a 5 AM start to avoid hiking with someone that he doesn’t like because he thought the guy was boring and downcast when they met while eating dinner the night before. When he gets off the trail, he recounts a pathetic string of neurotic dead-ends that quashed any trace of sympathy I might have had for him.

The writing is good, and the story itself is interesting. What makes this book grossly obnoxious is the insipid behavior of the author. Dan White proves in The Cactus Eaters that an accomplishment like completing the Pacific Crest Trail is not enough to keep one from being a sandy little butthole.

Book Review – Desert Solitaire

5 stars. Irascible crank Edward Abbey wrote Desert Solitaire as a description of his first season as a park ranger in Arches National Park (then Arches National Monument), painting a vivid picture of the stark and beautiful landscape and the life it supports. Right from the beginning his prose had my attention:

This is the most beautiful place on earth.

There are many such places. Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary.

Through his eyes, we see the beauty of Arches: Balanced Rock, Delicate Arch, and the desert itself. Abbey tells of his day-to-day job duties, and how he lived in the harsh environment. A mournful tour of Glen Canyon, now condemned to Lake Powell by the Glen Canyon Dam, is one of the highlights of the book–and sadly the best tour available of that spot. A jaunt into The Maze (some of the most remote and unforgiving terrain in America) is powerful and immersive.

What I most appreciate about Abbey is that, in opposition to those who idealized and romanticized nature, he loved it for all its grit and gore, the struggle for life. His writing shows a conception of the larger sense, the cycles of biology, geology, and astronomy. Survival is ultimately measured on a species level rather than an individual level. Take this passage about locating and removing the body of a tourist who died in the park:

Each man’s death diminishes me? Not necessarily. Given this man’s age, the inevitability and suitability of his death, and the essential nature of life on earth, there is in each of us the unspeakable conviction that we are well rid of him. His departure makes room for the living. Away with the old, in with the new. He is gone–we remain, others come.

Yet, he is not without capacity for finding the beautiful as well:

Has joy any survival value in the operations of evolution? I suspect that it does; I suspect that the morose and fearful are doomed to quick extinction. Where there is no joy there can be no courage; and without courage all other virtues are useless.

As to his views on politics and society, I can only charitably call them curmudgeonly. He’s not a big fan of politics:

“Modern politics is expensive–power follows money.”

Or modern lifestyle:

“We are preoccupied with time. If we could learn to love space as deeply as we are now obsessed with time, we might discover a new meaning in the phrase to live like men.”

Or tourists:

In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe.

Don’t worry, there’s something here to offend anyone. (Abbey would not deign to notice our outrage.)

While Desert Solitaire is certainly one of the seminal works of environmentalism, some of Abbey’s outdoor manners were a product of the era and shocking to those of us who learned and practice Leave No Trace ethics. Carving his initials in an aspen tree? Killing wildlife? Lighting a campfire in delicate backcountry? It’s enough to give his successor park rangers apoplexy–but very interesting as an illustration of how we learn to do better.

This is a book that I need to own, and reread. I suspect each time I open Desert Solitaire, I’ll find something new to make me long for harsh landscapes, or laugh out loud, or shake my head with a low “Abbey, you old coot,” or value the moments I have all the more.

Book Review – Stepping Wild: Hiking the Appalachian Trail with Mingo

4.5 stars. Phill Grounds left his day-to-day life behind in 2011 to hike from Georgia to Maine, and he tells his story in Stepping Wild: Hiking the Appalachian Trail with Mingo. He recounts the joys and difficulties of well over 2,000 miles worth of steps along the trail, as all-too-common momentary misery of rain, sore feet, colds, hunger, bugs, and the ilk became a life-changing trip through the beauty and challenge of nature.

Grounds’ narrative is direct yet expressive, able to easily put me in his well-worn shoes and describe what he experienced and thought. His informal prose conveys both detail and a sense of the grandeur and challenge of the AT. I also appreciated his no-nonsense personality when confronting people doing stupid things along the trail; etiquette and rules exist both for the safety and consideration of those enjoying the great outdoors and the preservation of the environment. His blunt retired police officer personality doesn’t disguise his love for his trail friends and his wife Deb, though!

Stepping Wild offers a treasure trove of information for hikers and backpackers. Grounds is brutally honest about his own mistakes and assumptions, and anyone planning an AT hike will benefit greatly from reading about his experience. More importantly, I gained a sense of the emotional and mental expenditure of taking a long trail. One point that I’ll do my best to remember is his discussion of how the moment tended to set his outlook: when he was miserable, he felt like every remaining step was going to be an ordeal and when he had a good day, everything left seemed easy. I also admired that was out there doing the hike for himself; “hike your own hike” is a frequent hiker saying, but I haven’t read a hiking memoir that brought it home quite like his.

Throughout Grounds’ story is an ongoing sense of the support necessary to hike the AT. Deb’s assistance and trips to meet him were invaluable. His trail friends encouraged and uplifted him, and it’s easy to see how deep bonds can form quickly between thru-hikers. The numerous “trail angels” lent a helping hand, a ride into town, or a cold beer at the end of a long day. And the support of those in hiker-friendly communities contrasted greatly with those who looked down on the disheveled, stinky backpackers.

I wholeheartedly recommend Stepping Wild to outdoor enthusiasts; it’s an easy and pleasant read with a lot to offer anyone who dreams of trails.

Thanks to Phill “Mingo” Grounds for sending me a copy of his book in return for an honest review!