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Book Reviews

Milt Gross Book Review: On the Beaten Path: An Appalachian Pilgrimage (Robert Alden Rubin)
By Milton M. Gross
Jun 17, 2012 - 12:25:30 AM

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On the Beaten Path An Appalachian Pilgrimage by Robert Alden Rubin
Not having yet hiked the entire Appalachian Trail and not expecting to ever be able to, I read about such hikes whenever I can.

I had loaned this book to our veterinarian, and he returned it with the comment, "This was a really good book."

He too is an Appalachian Trail addict.

I was so excited about his comment, I came home and started to reread it. It was so good I phoned my daughter, who runs a mediation agency in western North Carolina and who lives 25 miles from the AT there, and told her about the book.

"I'll send it to you when I'm done with it," I said.

"You don't have to," she replied. "I read it and sent it to you."

Sure enough, her name as book owner was inside the cover.

Interesting world we live in here not that far from the AT.

I knew Rubin's name from somewhere, and, as I read more of the book learned that at one point, this author had been the editor of the then Appalachian Trail Conference's Appalachian Trailway News, the conference's magazine for its members. (The magazine is now AT Journeys, a publication of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the organizations new name.) *

The best part of this book about the Trail is not about the Trail but about the writer, his own feelings about his hike, his life and marriage, his career -- the kind of things everyone who does the 2,175-mile trek must mull over repeatedly during that long walk.

Rubin gave up his job as an editor at a publishing house, left his wife and dog for the six-month trip, and started walking from Springer Mountain, GA, where it all begins for south-to-north thruhikers. He finished on Katahdin in October, after snow had already fallen on the mile-high mountain and the AT (Hunt Trail) up it had been closed and then reopened temporarily.

Rubin's descriptions are among the best I've read in any book about any topic. He writes, "Below treeline the terrain of upcountry New England often becomes boggy, and in the White Mountain National Forest moose sometimes splash through shallow ponds and swamps near low sections of trail. As I'd moved into those uplands, I'd expected rocks and waterfalls, not swamps. Glaciers have gouged out hundreds of ponds and kettles and valleys, which later filled in with sediment. Many of the creeks flow from beaver ponds, and often the trail descends from a granite hillside to a rush-ringed marsh of grass and shallow water. Rivers and mountain streams begin here, running over water-smoothed stones and around erratic boulders deposited as the glaciers retreated through the hills."

In another passage, he write, "One night before I entered the Whites or got my winter gear in the mail, the temperature fell into the forties and I lay shivering in a shelter with all my clothes on, my silvered plastic emergency blanket draped over the summer bag, unable to get warm. I've lost about seventy pounds of body fat by this time, and my built-in insulation layer is gone...."

Not the romantic outdoor stuff you usually read from the outdoor-writer crowd.

Later he met a southbound hiker, and Rubin said to him, "So, you've climbed Katahdin."

"I've climbed Katahdin," he said, grinning. "It's really there. They didn't lie to you."

What every northbound thruhiker must think about at some time during that long, wearying journey.

From somewhere in what is called the 100-Mile Wilderness, which he refers to as the Hundred Miles because it is not true wilderness and has gravel roads not over two or three miles from it, Rubin comments, "After six months of sauntering to the holy land, we've reached its outer precincts. Somewhere beyond the red-and-yellow canopy of trees looms Katahdin."

This thruhiker wrote a good bit about his feelings of having for-his-hike deserted his wife and their old dog, a topic not often breached by thruhikers. He expresses his doubts about his trek several times in the book. Sometime after the hike, he visited the annual Appalachian Trail Day celebration at Damascus, VA.

"But as I gaze around at the crowd in the park, it comes to me that I don't belong here anymore. Time to fly. Time to finish. Time to leave the Rhymin' Worm (his trail name due to poetry he had penned and left along the AT in log books at various shelters) behind. Time to start something new.

"Come on," I say to the dog, "let's go home."

But like all thruhikers, the 2,175-mile hike (2,160 miles long when he thruhiked, before route changes added distance) made him realize that he had hiked it in search of "something." He never was sure quite what.

He concludes the book with, "I guess it's time I faced facts. I'm still out there, looking for the next white blaze. I probably always will be."

As will all of us.

* On the Beaten Path was copyrighted by the author in 2001 and 2009 and published by The Lyons Press, Guilford, CT. It can be purchased for $16.95 at www.appalachiantrail.org, the website of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

I first joined the Appalachian Trail Conference while a child in Pennsylvania and again as an adult in Maine. I joined the Maine Appalachian Trail Club, one of the member clubs under ATC (now Appalachian Trail Conservancy), in 1980, and they've been stuck with me ever since. Dolores helps me at times with physical volunteering on the AT in Maine, but most of our volunteering these days is at home via our iMac.

Dolores is my first love. The AT my second.

Milt Gross can be reached for corrections, harassment, or other purposes at lesstraveledway@midmaine.com.

Milton M. Gross Copyright 2012

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