On the Beaten Path: An Appalachian Pilgrimage - Book Review

I recently finished reading On the Beaten Path: An Appalachian Pilgrimage by Robert Alden Rubin. I read the Amazon Kindle e-book version.

On the Beaten Path chronicles Rubin’s 1997 thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail, hiking more than 2,100 miles from Georgia to Maine. Rubin hiked using the trail name “The Rhymin’ Worm.” Describing his trail persona in the third person, Rubin writes of his plan and trail name:

“The week before I left for Georgia, the Rhymin’ Worm wrote the first lines of ‘The Ballad of the Rhymin’ Worm.’ Instead of keeping a journal of his long walk north, he would write doggerel poetry – one stanza of ballad meter for every day of the hike – and record it in the register books of the shelters he passed along the way. It would describe what he saw, where he was, and what he felt like. It would be bad, obvious stuff, but the Worm didn’t care.”

The Rhymin’ Worm would eventually compose 190 stanzas of doggerel.

The 38-year-old Rubin was a burnt-out book editor prior to his hike. Facing a growing mid-life crisis, Rubin quit his job and started hiking the Appalachian Trail – with less than enthusiastic support from his wife who he left behind to pursue his quest.

Like many thru-hikers, Rubin recounts being unable to eat enough food to maintain a safe body weight. By the time he reached the White Mountains of New Hampshire he had dropped 75 pounds of excess weight. The incredible weight loss was not for lack of eating. Rubin recounts one occasion in Gorham, NH where he stopped at the local post office to pick up mail. Next door to the post office he spied a Dunkin’ Donuts where he ordered a cup of coffee and a dozen donuts – all of which he consumed in a single sitting. He describes the incident with characteristic humor:

“A nice light breakfast that took the edge off my appetite. I noticed a couple of people staring at me. They hurriedly looked away. Well, what did they expect, putting a donut shop next to the post office?”

Later, while hiking in the White Mountains, Rubin describes “hitting the wall” physically – again with humor:

“It isn’t that I don’t want to keep going. But right now I can’t get my body to move, and I’m sure not going anywhere without it.”

During the spring following his Appalachian Trail hike, Rubin wrote in the book’s epilogue, he traveled to Trail Days in Damascus, VA where many AT thru-hikers gather for a week-long party each year. Rubin (Rhymin’ Worm) was able to reconnect with some of his trail friends. Reflecting on the failed plans that he and another thru-hiker had tried to make to hike into Damascus on a short section of the AT, and the return to “normal life,” Rubin explains:

“By now, you see, life off the trail has gripped all of us, to greater and lesser extents, and no longer are our days governed by sun and cloud, measured by the distance between beginning and end.”

This statement resonated with me because the issue is at the heart of why I love hiking and spending time in the wilderness. One of the reasons that I love the wild lands, the woods, the desert, the sea, is because our silly fetish with clocks and artificial time is exposed for the fraud that it really is.

Addressing this very subject in his book, A Table in the Desert: Making Space Holy, W. Paul Jones writes:

“Mechanical time destroys the true experience of being human, of being communal, and of shepherding one’s tradition. Such time is no longer the time of living what is, but of being ‘obedient’ to a supposed reality independent of immediate experience. What windmills do for wind is akin to what clocks attempt to do for space-time, unsuccessfully.”

Rubin’s observation about time highlighted something that I have known, but not fully connected previously.

On the Beaten Path is a good read and well worth the time and investment. Rubin combines travel narrative, introspection and humor in one interesting package that does not bore or frustrate the reader.