If you’re like me, you’ve probably day-dreamed about what it must be like to hike for months on end or to complete a “thru-hike” of one of the major hiking trails like the AT or PCT. For many of us, reading about thru-hikes satisfies the urge for a while, at least until the next time we feel the call of the trail. David Miller’s book, AWOL on the Appalachian Trail, guides the reader along the trail and offers a glimpse into the reality of quitting work and pursuing a lifelong dream.
A 41-year-old computer programmer with a wife and three daughters, Miller finds himself living a life that’s “precariously normal” and decides it’s time for him to fulfill his dream of hiking the entire Appalachian Trail. After his company declines his request for a leave of absence, he resigns, more determined than ever to get on the trail. Before hitting the trail, Miller choose a trail name: AWOL.
Initially Miller’s hike seems lonely and I found myself wondering why he would leave his wife and family for the pain and boredom of the trail. I’ve hiked much of the Appalachian Trail in Georgia (where Miller begins his hike) and at times it feels claustrophobic and even depressing, a reality that can be at odds with the mental picture built in the minds of would-be thru-hikers. But Miller is resolved to keep going and throughout the hike he pushes himself to keep a quick pace, undoubtedly because he knows his family is waiting at the end. Throughout the book Miller seems honest about his emotions without coming across as overly analytical or self-absorbed.
While some thru-hikers hit the trail seeking solitude, others do it for the camaraderie and the cast of characters Miller meets along the way are entertaining to say the least. I found Steve O to be particularly interesting and was amazed at how he kept popping up at seemingly random points. Miller also meets some incredibly kind people along the trail – trail angels and family friends – who support him on his epic journey and give him the mental boost he needs to soldier on.
While plenty of thru-hikers have written books (many of them in mid-life crisis at the time), AWOL on the Appalachian Trail has a decidedly unique feel to it. Part guidebook, part memoir, this book is an interesting read from start to finish. And unlike other thru-hike books I’ve read, AWOL on the Appalachian Trail is well paced – descriptions from the end of the trail are just as detailed as those in the beginning. The depictions of the trail through Vermont and New Hampshire were particularly well written and provide a good contrast to the scenery experienced in the southern section of the trail.
Beyond descriptions of the trail, Miller also fills us in on gear choices, injury prevention and treatment, logistics, and food along the trail. By the middle of the book it was obvious that Miller had become much more comfortable living the life of a thru-hiker and the tips he offers are invaluable. For example: staying in hostels and cheap motels every few days is a good way to avoid bad weather while cleaning up and getting a good night’s sleep. And one of the best ways to load up on calories (and give yourself a mental boost at the same time) is to eat at restaurants whenever possible.
David Miller’s book, AWOL on the Appalachian Trail, is a great read for anyone who’s ever considered putting their work on hold to pursue a dream. And for the hiker, this book offers wonderful descriptions and tips for hiking one of the most well known trails in the world!