AWOL on the Appalachian Trail - Book Review

I just finished reading AWOL on the Appalachian Trail by David Miller. I read the e-book for Amazon Kindle (with Kindle for PC because I haven’t bought a Kindle yet). I’ve been using Kindle for PC more and more lately because of Amazon’s interesting “recommendations” which I can fine tune to remove books that I am not interested in to see better results for what does interest me. The other detail is that the e-books are almost always less expensive than paperbacks and are delivered to my PC instantly with no waiting or shipping charges.

Miller thru-hiked the more than 2,100 miles of the Appalachian Trail (AT) in 2003. His wife, Juli, surprised him with her support when he first mentioned the idea to her. Miller attempted to take a leave of absence from his job as a software engineer to hike the AT. When Miller’s employer turned down his request for a leave because they did not have a corporate leave policy he quit his job to hike the AT anyway. Thus was born Miller’s trail name, AWOL.

AWOL on the Appalachian Trail is a delightful combination: one part travelogue, one part introspective journal, and one part humor. The book is also occasionally sprinkled with philosophical reflections.

Why would a middle-aged man with a good career and loving family decide to leave all behind to hike the AT? Miller addresses this question with these reflections:

“Hiking the AT before joining the workforce was an opportunity not taken. Doing it in retirement would be sensible; doing it at this time in my life is abnormal, and therein lay the appeal. I want to make my life less ordinary.”

I think there is a lot to this observation. I know for a fact that I want my life to be less ordinary. Actually, I am driven by wanting my life to be less ordinary and I believe, however tarnished this drive may become because of living in a fallen world, this desire for our lives to be more than ordinary is a gift from God. There are many decisions that I have made, decisions that were misunderstood or not understood by others, that were rooted in all or in part by wanting my life to be less ordinary. (Okay, some of them may have been dumb decisions too, but I still didn’t want my life to be ordinary!)

This desire may have been brought to the surface for Miller, in part, by life events that he chronicled in a description that he wrote of himself before he started his hike.

“I am 41 years old, and I’ve worked since getting out of college as a computer programmer. I’m in decent shape for a person who’s been holed up in an office for so long. I’m married and have three little girls. Our fifteenth wedding anniversary will pass in my absence. Nothing is wrong with my life. My family is outstanding. I have what most people would consider to be a decent job. I’m not unhappy, and I’m not hiking to escape from anything. My life is precariously normal. I’ve been told that taking this trip at this time in my life is irresponsible, a charge I won’t contest. Maybe doing it later in life would make more sense. But my father had bypass surgery and mom is fighting cancer. My opinion of ‘later’ is jaded.

“I’m headed for Maine.”

Unfortunately, I can also relate to this statement. Last summer I ruptured a disc in my lumbar-sacral spine and was not certain that I would ever walk again without excruciating pain. I certainly could not walk at all during the time of my injury, and my neurosurgeon was not offering much hope that he could put Humpty Dumpty back together again. My wife is battling incurable, metastatic cancer and has been since her 40th birthday. So, yes, I guess my opinion of “later” is just a little bit jaded as well.

One of the great things about AWOL on the Appalachian Trail is that Miller balances descriptions of the miseries of extended hiking with the positive experiences that also accompany the journey. All of this is laced with humor that often had me laughing aloud. Miller describes one episode of “gastric percolation” that he experienced while hiking through a dense area of forest with this observation:

“I can wait no longer and crash through the foliage. Hurdling fallen branches is a true test of my continence.”

On another occasion Miller stayed at an open shelter where bears were known to be in the area. Anyone who has spent any time in bear country knows how nerve wracking it can be trying to secure food supplies away from animals small and large. Miller humorously reflects on his food storage decisions at the shelter where bears have been spotted recently:

“Most of us just hang our food from the shelter rafters, as I have generally done from the start. But tonight is the exception, as I don’t want to wake to the sight of a bear in the shelter playing pinata with my food sack.”

Miller occasionally interjects philosophical reflections into the book, but tastefully so. He wrote journal entries throughout his trip which were published to an online journal, and also wrote a bi-weekly column for his local newspaper chronicling his journey. Reflecting on writing and the work that it required, he wrote:

“I am glad that I write. Experience is enriched by reliving it, contemplating it, and trying to describe it to another person.”

I really appreciate his insight into writing. This statement is written with the passion of a writer and I can relate.

AWOL on the Appalachian Trail is frequently so funny that I found myself laughing aloud. I e-mailed one of these quotes to my father, noting that it was reminiscent of a canoeing trip we had taken together in Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park. I had never in my life encountered mosquitoes like we battled in Algonquin! My father wrote back to say that he was laughing aloud reading the story as well. Miller describes a similar scenario in his book.

“The trail exits onto a rural road, crosses a bridge, and then runs parallel to a steamy shallow swamp that was formerly a sod farm. This area is called Wallkill National Wildlife Preserve. The preserve ostensibly exists to promote waterfowl, but it truly excels as a haven for mosquito breeding. They swarm me mercilessly, stinging my exposed arms, legs, neck, and biting through my shirt to draw blood from my chest and back. They also drill unproductively into my pack straps. I dab on some Deet, but it does nothing to deter them. I collapse my trekking poles and stuff them into my pack so I have both hands free to defend myself, developing a constant, swatting, preemptive pattern of swatting my face, shoulders, and arms, often scoring multiple mosquitoes in a single slap. Damn the national park’s preservation efforts. The end isn’t even in sight before welts redden and itch, so I add scratching to my spastic slapping routine. There is a park bench located on this path through the breeding grounds. Never have I seen a bench look less inviting. I’m running this gauntlet.”

In another account Miller describes gnats in similar humor:

“Gnats fly into my eye, nose, and mouth. Sunglasses fail to deter them. I eat three gnats; with effort, I could probably suck in a couple dozen. If all hikers consumed a few dozen gnats a day, would we put a dent in their numbers? Would they leave us alone if they feared us as predators?”

I suppose anyone who has ever been “eaten alive” by mosquitoes, black flies, or gnats can relate.

Certainly a five-month hike would provide many amazing experiences and memories. Miller notes that many of his fondest memories come from the more “mundane” experiences of the hike though.

“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 rays of sun through a maze of trees.”

The five months of trail life also left Miller with a new perspective on consumerism and possessions. Miller made the following observation regarding the many outlet stores he saw during a stop in Manchester, VT:

“The stores have no draw at all for me. Months of scrutinizing everything that I carry have conditioned me to view my possessions as burdens.”

I made a similar discovery during myself during the week-long canoe trip that I mentioned earlier. After a week of hauling everything you eat, wear, sleep in, or otherwise feel the need to carry, your perspective on what is truly necessary begins to shift radically.

Miller returned to programming computers after his hike. He now also publishes The AT Guide: A Handbook for Hiking the Appalachian Trail. The AT Guide is updated annually.

AWOL on the Appalachian Trail is a great read. This book is well worth the money and the time. I reckon that it is easy to see from the quotes and my comments that I enjoyed this book. I shared less than half of the quotes that I bookmarked in Kindle. Anyone who is interested in hiking, the outdoors, or just appreciates a good travel/journal/humor book will enjoy AWOL on the Appalachian Trail.