book report - AT Memoirs, Good & Bad

Sometimes I read a lot.  Sometimes I don’t pick up a book for weeks.  In this new, sporadic series, I’ll give a brief review of whatever I happened to have finished.  In this case, it’s a pair of Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike Memoirs.  It could just as easily have been angst-ridden teenage vampire shenanigans.  Don’t judge!

Awol on the Appalachian Trail by David Miller

This is basically a published mid-life crisis, and I loved it.  At 41 years old, David Miller decided to quit his engineering job and thru hike the AT.  This is probably my favorite AT memoir to date, and all due to the writing.  Maybe because he’s an engineer, or maybe he’s just a better caliber writer than the average self-published hiker, but I couldn’t have asked for a better life to sneak a peak of.  This was a diligent and thorough accounting, and I could have guessed he was an engineer without him ever saying it.  Not to say this was sanitized; he showed the beauty of the trail, made me love his friends, helped me feel his love for his wife and kids, and taught me all the ins and outs of hiking gear.  Evoking an emotionally response is a tall order if I’m your reader, so kudos to this guy.  I felt like I got him.  If we’d met on the trail, we would have been friends.  At no point in his adventure did the quality of the writing change, which has been a big issue I’ve discovered with thru hiking memoirs.  You start out reading about every meal and blister, and by the end you’re covering a hundred miles in a single page.  No so with Awol.  He continued to paint a consistent picture of his adventure.  While it was clear that his feelings were changing throughout the various chapters of his hike, it never felt like a different person was writing.  When he reached Mt Katahdin, I couldn’t have been happier for him, and I immediately spent the next afternoon searching for trails near me so I could experience the great outdoors.  There is no better praise.

Marathon’s Walk in the Woods: An Appalachian Train Thru-hike by Seth Jenny

For every good one, I guess I have to get through a stinker, right?  This hiker got an emotional reaction from me, but not a good one.  His writing style irked me.  I felt like he had taken bullet points for each day, and then, months or years after his hike was finished, he tried to turn those bullet points into a book.  I could learn more about someone from reading their grocery list than I know about Marathon.

I guess that’s not entirely true.  I know some things.  First off, this guy is clearly some kind of snake magnet.  He mentions a snake almost every page!  He throws around the names of his fellow hikers, but rarely shows us who they are.  Then, a few chapters later, he mentioned that he ran into them again, but because I have no connection, I don’t remember the person.  Even his friend from home that he hiked with for a while is left a complete mystery to us.  Imagine my shock in the afterward when he mentions that they got married.  Really?!  He was in love with her, and I had no idea.  He’s also apparently a huge fan of God.  He talks about being religious at the beginning of the memoir, and even briefly takes the trail name Gabriel before settling on Marathon.  There are a few mentions of going to church, but other than that, it was a bit weird how little he talked about God.  Maybe he lost his religion while on the trail?  I’ll never know, because he never really talked about it.  His description of Mt Washington ruffled my feathers, too.  I’m not a hiker, obviously, but I’ve read enough of these memoirs to know that Mt Washington is often one of the scariest parts of the journey.  The weather there is supposed to be insane.  Marathon?  Apparently he had very little issue, and Mt Washington was just another bullet point on his journey.  To pare this whole thing down to a single sentence: If this was the first AT thru hike memoir I had ever read, it would have been my last, and I never EVER would have tried trail running.

A Walk in the Woods

Recently I renewed my previous obsession with reading Appalachian Trail thru hiker memoirs.  Inspired, I decided it was time to step way outside of my comfort zone and do a bit of trail running.  Yesterday, after work, I logged just shy of 2.5 miles on the trails.  The terrain was a surprise, my shoes were completely wrong, and I had a great time.

The Potomac River.  These are just the mini falls.  Great Falls is further past where I went

The Potomac River.  These are just the mini falls.  Great Falls is further past where I went

There are several short trails at Riverbend Park, and I decided to try out the Heritage Trail for my first go.  According to the map, it followed the Potomac pretty closely, so I figured it would be fairly flat.  While that turned out to be true, I was totally taken by surprise by the surface I was running on.  I’m a suburban girl, through and through.  My usual bike trail is a paved rail conversion.  One time I thought I saw a snake, but once I got closer it turned out to be a bit of black garden hose.  Imagine my shock when the small rocks and packed dirt I was running on suddenly turned into a narrow passage of tree roots and pointed rocks that came up to my knees.  I slowed to a walk, used my hands at times to get over the largest rocks, and kept my eyes peeled for the next green blaze marking the trail.

This gap is just wide enough for my foot, and then the trail heads sharply down

This gap is just wide enough for my foot, and then the trail heads sharply down

Speaking of those pointed rocks...ouch!  I love my Vivobarefoot Stealth shoes.  They’re soft as slippers and have incredible ground feel, but that also means you can feel everything.  And not in a cool, “wow, I can feel every tree root and adjust my stride accordingly on the fly” way.  More of an “yeouch, that was a super sharp rock and I think my ankle is going to collapse at any moment” kind of way.  In the first few minutes of my run, I considered heading right back to the car, thinking I really didn’t want to deal with being jabbed in the foot every few seconds.  Then the surface suddenly changed into packed dirt, and it was smooth sailing for a bit, and I was starting to have fun.

Such Fun!!

Such Fun!!

I never thought I was going to be a trail fan. Bugs are gross, I’m scared of snakes, and I just didn’t see what the big deal was.  2.5 miles on a flat and easy trail, and I’m ready for more.  I liked running somewhere new.  The trees were so nice, and there was no exhaust or traffic noise.  Best of all, I just ran.  No constant watch checking, too busy with watching my footing to get caught up in the noise of my head, and the scenery was gorgeous.  Just me and nature.  I never would have thought it.  Get me some trail shoes, show me the way to the parks, and let’s get out there and breathe some real fresh air!