Book Review – Hike It Forward: Hiking the Appalachian Trail: Strong, Safe, and in the Spirit, by David Rough

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Thru-hikers can have many different reasons to attempt the Appalachian Trail (AT), whether it be the fulfillment of a dream, a personal challenge, or any number of life events, and in Hike It Forward: Hiking the Appalachian Trail Strong, Safe and in the Spirit, (self-published, 2015) David Rough recounts his successful 2014 thru-hike from Georgia to Maine, as part of an “unavoidable call” and an effort to improve tuition assistance at the Christian school system in Ohio of which he was Academic Dean at the time.  Rough blogged about his hike in the Hike It Forward blog.

Rough (trail name: Rowdy) details his preparations for the hike, and how these preparations stood up to the 2,186 mile test, including gear and clothing.  In addition, Rough’s book includes three bonus features: Trail Preparation, Trail Journal, and a State-by-State guide.  A bibliography includes everything from A Walk in The Woods to The Lord of the Rings.

Rough breaks down AT lingo, most importantly explaining the HYOH concept: Hike Your Own Hike, respecting the different goals, motivations, and methods of other hikers.  Rough also converts the “trail magic” concept to “trail blessings,” which reflects Rough’s Christian faith.  Most of the blessings involve food, which is central to the thoughts and well-being of thru-hikers.

The book reveals a daily life on the trail containing surprises, nasty falls, and unexpected acts of kindness.  These vignettes range from uplifting conversations with other thru-hikers, most of them referenced by trail name, to lighthearted musings on moose encounters, to an incident with a peeping tom at a hostel.

These stories illustrate lessons learned by Rough, and his trail journal provides a sense of scale regarding the sheer mileage of a thru-hike, and its effect on his mood.  Additionally, Rough is careful to credit his wife and sister, and the many others who supported his hike, showing that while an AT hike is inherently a solitary endeavor, the added motivation and encouragement to see it through can be the difference between success and failure.

Rough also discusses the challenges faced in adjusting to normal life again after his AT experience, and how small things like shoes, being inside, and changing his diet caused stress, and how Rough dealt with this, and how reconnecting with friends from the AT cushioned some of the loss felt upon leaving the trail.  Rough concludes:

The Appalachian Trail is forever etched into my life.  God allowed me to experience a path that few have walked.  My hike was so uniquely mine and the spiritual journey so personally embraced me that words cannot describe its intimacy.  A one hundred and fifty-two day walk incorporates 3,648 hours of experiences and people and blessing and adversity and adventure.  To capture it in a book, to recall it in words, to reflect it in pictures, or even to fully understand it myself seems to evade my abilities.

Overall, Rough’s narrative effectively describes his initial romantic view of the trail being replaced by hardship, but then re-forged, one step at a time, hiking his own hike, into an appreciation of the trail as it is.

Book Review: On Trails: An Exploration, by Robert Moor

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The combination of a March Nor’easter and a good book given to me by a friend convinced me that winter was a good time to add a Book Review section to the Hiking In Maine blog.  On Trails: An Exploration by Robert Moor (Simon and Schuster, 2016) is a perfect first entry in that section, as the book blends a description of the practical realities of hiking with the deeper and more existential reasons for these exertions.

The book opens with a prologue containing Moor’s description of his 2009 thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail (trail name: Spaceman), and how he came to be there.  It also quickly reaches the questions raised by this journey:

As hundreds – and then thousands – of miles of trails passed beneath my eyes, I began to ponder the meaning of this endless scrawl.  Who created it?  Why does it exist?  Why, moreover does any trail?

And so, Moor dives deep, not just into his own Appalachian Trail experience, but into the history of the Appalachian Trail, and the origin of all trails, those created by humans and others: pre-historic organism, slugs, ants, caterpillars, elephants.  In-depth scientific and psychological explorations are punctuated by colorful, whimsical vignettes from Moor’s life, including an amusing stint as a shepherd assisting a Navajo couple in Arizona.

These stories help to anchor the larger themes of the book, including the complicated relationships between man and wilderness, and the American rediscovery of this concept.  In describing the forests of New England, Moor says, “Walking through them- wolf trees, walls, and all – one starts to realize that the only thing more beautiful than an ancient wilderness is a new one.”  Moor skillfully interweaves insights like this one with his section hike of the Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire alongside Gilliam Jackson, a Cherokee man, and the other hikers along the way.

A trip to the Atlas Mountains in Morocco to scout routes for the International Appalachian Trail (IAT) ends the main section of the book, and again, Moor blends explorations of the concept of the trail with humorous and poignant anecdotes of his interactions with the people involved, from planners in Maine and Iceland, to guides, to a prickly Moroccan dog owner.

Moor brings the book to a close with a superb epilogue, in which he connects the trails he has described with the paths taken in life, illustrated by the parallel lives of Han-shan, an ancient Chinese poet, and M.J. Eberhart, AKA Nimblewill Nomad, a legendary modern hiker who has given away most of his possessions, and makes observations on why we hike:

One of the chief pleasures of the trail is that it is a rigidly bounded experience.  Every morning, the hiker’s options are reduced to two: walk or quit.  Once that decision is made, all the others (when to eat, where to sleep) begin to fall into place.  For children of the Land of Opportunity – beset on all sides by what the psychologist Barry Schwartz has called “the paradox of choice” – the newfound freedom from choices comes as an enormous relief.

Moor’s book has the character of a journal entry that expanded and took on a life of its own, supported by anecdotes, science, and literature.  In the hands of a less capable writer, this concept could sprawl endlessly and without direction, but here it flows brilliantly.  Moor’s book is truly a meditative exploration, as the sub-title indicates, and its composition is as excellent as Moor’s insightful prose.  Where he could create trite axioms or smug conclusions, Moor acts instead as a skilled guide, allowing the journey to create a deep question, and leaving the final destination to the reader.