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Hiking the Appalachian Trail by armchair

Moseyin’ Along

July 11, 2012
By Joyce Schenk - COLUMNIST ( , Westfield Republican / Mayville Sentinel News

As a devoted reader, one of my favorite experiences is finding a new field of interest to pursue through books. Recently, while browsing the offerings of one of the big on-line book sellers, I came across just such a subject, one that is not only new to me, but is the focus of a number of current books written from very personal perspectives.

My introduction to this new interest was "AWOL on the Appalachian Trail," a riveting account by David Miller, a software engineer who left his job and family to fulfill a long-held dream to hike the demanding 2,175-mile long Appalachian Trail.

The Trail, a rich natural treasure, is a slender thread of wilderness stretching from Springer Mountain in northern Georgia to Mount Katahdin in central Maine. It has been called "the nation's premier long-distance hiking trail." The fact that it even exists in today's cyber world is a testament to both the vision of its early developers and the army of volunteers who have maintained the Trail over the past eight decades.

Adventurers like Miller, who managed to complete this unbelievably grueling journey, are known as thru-hikers. According to Trail record- keepers, approximately 2,000 men and women set out each year to make the monumental trek from Georgia to Maine. But, as an indication of the danger and difficulty of the undertaking, almost 90 percent drop out.

In his account of this life-changing accomplishment, Miller reported he, like all thru-hikers, took on a trail name. He decided on "AWOL" since he had dropped out of his real world for this new and challenging setting.

The book is a very personal account of the isolation, inspiration, hardships and growth he experienced through sheer determination. The pages contain rich descriptions of this amazingly wild natural swatch of mountains and valleys through the eastern United States.

As with many book-reading experiences, this first "trip" along the Appalachian Trail simply made me eager to go again by way of the account of another thru-hiker. Fortunately, several others of this group of tenacious individuals have felt the need to record the personal stories of their long, difficult journeys.

The second volume I read on the subject gave a far different perspective than that in Miller's book. In "Becoming Odyssa: Epic Adventures on the Appalachian Trail," Jennifer Pharr Davis, a 21-year-old recent college graduate, was drawn to the trail to ponder what's next for her life. She chose "Odyssa" as her trail name. The four-month saga changed her from an insecure, often overwhelmed young woman to a confident achiever.

My education in the lore of the Appalachian Trail introduced me to a collection of fascinating hikers who moved in and out of the lives of the thru-hikers I followed. And I became familiar with terms like Trail Angels, folks who show up along the way at unexpected places with welcome supplies of food, drink and other aids. I learned of the constant search for sources of clean water, safe sleeping shelters or tent areas, the ongoing fear of bear encounters and many more of the stresses and challenges faced by those who travel the vast Trail.

One Trail fact that underscored the difficulty of hiking this demanding pathway is that "the aggregate amount of elevation gained and lost on the Trail is equal to climbing Mt. Everest 16 times."

Not only did the two books on the Appalachian Trail introduce me to an American treasure, I found the accounts of sleeping in bug-infested shelters, climbing rock-strewn ridges on all fours and living for days on Pop Tarts and peanut butter were a great incentive for me re-evaluate the many comforts I enjoy every day without even thinking.

I've decided hiking the Appalachian Trail in my armchair is the only way to go.



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