In 2003, software engineer David Miller left his job, family, and friends to hike 2,172 miles of the Appalachian Trail. AWOL on the Appalachian Trail is Miller’s account of this thru-hike from Georgia to Maine. Listeners are treated to rich descriptions of the Appalachian Mountains, the isolation and reverie, the inspiration that fueled his quest, and the rewards of taking a less conventional path through life. While this audiobook abounds with introspection and perseverance, it also provides useful passages about hiking gear and planning. This is not merely a travel guide; it is a beautifully written and highly personal view into one man’s journey and the insights gained by abandoning what is comfortable and routine.
“David Miller’s AWOL makes you feel the pain and joy of an Appalachian Trail thru-hike...In vivid colors, David paints a picture of his memorable journey.” – Larry Luxenberg Director of the Appalachian Trail Museum
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About the Author
David Miller is the author of The A.T. Guide, a guidebook for hiking the Appalachian Trail that is updated annually. David has worked as a software engineer, handyman, and writer. He lives in Titusville, Florida with his wife and three children.
Read an Excerpt
In the spring of 2003, a few thousand people strapped on backpacks and headed out into the mountains of north Georgia. Their destination: Maine, over two thousand miles away. Eighty percent of them didn't make it.
The path they follow is called the Appalachian Trail, commonly referred to as the AT. It starts on the summit of Springer Mountain in Georgia and ends on top of Mount Katahdin in Maine.
Imagine drifting in a hot air balloon over the wooded hills of the Appalachian Mountain range, on a course that parallels the northeasterly slant of the eastern seacoast, low enough to peer down between the trees. You'll see a well-worn trail threading its way through trees, over rocks, over mountains, and down valleys. The AT doesn't skirt the mountaintops. Instead it takes a punitive path over every peak it can find. Few stretches of the trail form a straight line. In places, the trail curves wildly, seemingly with will, to buck off the hikers or ramp them over yet another hill. All this bobbing and weaving adds mileage. On foot the distance from Springer to Katahdin is 2,172 miles. Your balloon ride would be only thirteen hundred miles with significantly reduced risk of snakebite.
The trail passes through fourteen states. The mountains of Georgia and North Carolina are steep and densely wooded, immediately challenging hikers' resolve. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, has more varieties of trees than there are in all of Europe. Virginia is less physically demanding than the first three states. Hikers celebrate upon reaching the town of Damascus, then move into Grayson Highlands, with open grassy ranges and wild ponies. By the middle of Virginia, hikers have walked off the enthusiasm they had at the start of their journey, and the end is still nowhere in sight. One quarter of the AT is in Virginia. The ten miles of trail in West Virginia are notable for passing through the headquarters of the Appalachian Trail Conference in Harpers Ferry. (The name was changed in 2005 to Appalachian Trail Conservancy. For a wealth of data about the AT, visit www.AppalachianTrail.org.) This is the emotional halfway point. In western Maryland the trail clips through Civil War battlefields. Pennsylvania and New Jersey are infamous for rocks. Hikers have days in which they hardly ever touch soil. The AT in New York finds a corridor of woods between the mainland and Long Island. The cultured New England states of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont contrast with the haggard look of hikers who have endured months on the trail. The White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire is one of the most scenic and hazardous sections of the trail. Sixteen miles of the trail are above tree line. The trail finishes fittingly with the longest ascent on the AT, a five-mile climb to the summit of Mount Katahdin in Maine.
The Appalachian Trail was conceived by Benton MacKaye in 1921. He envisioned an outdoor recreation area that city dwellers would use on weekends and vacations. For the most part, that is what the AT has become. The majority of people who set foot on the trail return to their homes at night.
What Benton MacKaye did not anticipate was anyone touched with the desire to walk continuously from end to end. No one did until 1948, when World War II veteran Earl Shaffer lugged his army rucksack from Georgia to Maine. Shaffer's accomplishment came to be known as a “thruhike,” and everyone who does the feat is called a “thruhiker.” This story is about the year I became one of them.
A thru-hike is an extended nomadic camping trip. Follow the path through the woods all day. Stop, set up camp, eat, and sleep. Get up, pack your things, and start walking again. At times the AT is steep enough to require hauling yourself up with your hands, but you won't need climbing skills or equipment. You carry your house (tent), your bed (sleeping bag), your stove, your food, and everything else you need until the next opportunity to resupply. If you need it, you have to carry it.
AT backpackers carry enough food to last three to five days. The food needs to be lightweight and durable. “Cooking” is adding hot water to something light and durable to make it edible. Hikers cherish the opportunity to eat real food. Opportunities come when the trail crosses a road within walking or hitching distance of a town. Hikers fill their bellies, clean up, and sometimes get medical care. They restock their packs with store-bought supplies, or supplies they've arranged to have mailed and held for them at post offices. Drinking water comes primarily from streams and springs along the trail. Most hikers will treat the water chemically or with a filter.
The towns know the hikers are coming, and hikers know every one of these towns: Hot Springs, North Carolina; Damascus, Virginia; Harpers Ferry, West Virginia; Duncannon, Pennsylvania; and Hanover, New Hampshire. Trail towns and the people who live near the trail are an integral part of the AT hiking experience.
Every hundred yards or so a tree or rock will be painted with a vertical bar of white-a “white blaze”-six inches tall and two inches wide, marking the AT. Hikers do get lost, but it is not common. More frequently, a hiker will take a break and resume hiking in the wrong direction, sometimes for miles. When you have a monumental number of miles to travel, repeating even a single mile is disheartening.
The typical thru-hike takes six months with an average of twelve miles walked per day. Hikers must reach Katahdin by October 15 when the park containing the mountain closes for the winter, so they usually start in March or April. Most thru-hikers go it alone. About three out of four hikers are men, but the percentage of women is increasing. The majority of thru-hikers have recently graduated or retired.
None of my peers could concisely articulate why they were doing a thru-hike. Most were motivated by a convergence of reasons. The time was right, they liked being outdoors, they were tired of their job (or their employer was tired of them), they wanted to lose weight, they had friends hiking, or they were inspired by another person's thruhiking experience. The outdoor experience gives you a chance to get away from it all, have time for introspection, and to go many days in a row wearing the same unlaundered clothes on your unwashed body.
The exertion of carrying a pack up and down mountains day after day is incredibly fatiguing. You get hungry, you get rained on, your feet blister, and your legs ache. While hiking, you experience hardship, deprivation, drudgery, and pain, and the cooking stinks. The similarities to marriage don't end there. Some people love it, and many are committed to seeing it through.
Thru-hikers love to tell how steep the trail is and how much it rained because the difficulty of the endeavor is also part of the appeal. Many of the most gratifying experiences in life are those that are the most demanding. Seemingly in contradiction to the low probability of a successful thru-hike is the fact that anyone can thru-hike. A six-year-old has done it, and many grandmothers have done it. The trail was completed by Orient, a guide dog, and his master, Bill Irwin, who thru-hiked in 1990. Back in late April of 2003, I wrote this brief description of myself before starting my hike:
I am 41 years old, and I've worked since getting out of college as a computer programmer. I'm in decent shape for a person who's been holed up in an office for so long. I'm married and have three little girls. Our fifteenth wedding anniversary will pass in my absence. Nothing is wrong with my life. My family is outstanding. I have what most people would consider to be a decent job. I'm not unhappy, and I'm not hiking to escape from anything. My life is precariously normal. I've been told that taking this trip at this time in my life is irresponsible, a charge I won't contest. Maybe doing it later in life would make more sense. But my father had bypass surgery and my mom is fighting cancer. My opinion of “later” is jaded. I'm headed for Maine.
Table of Contents
Springer Mountain to Hiawassee 1
Hiawassee to Fontana Dam 18
Fontana Dam to Hot Springs 33
Hot Springs to Damascus 53
Damascus to Bland 80
Bland to Daleville 98
Daleville to Front Royal 123
Front Royal to Pen-Mar Park 145
Delaware Water Gap to Kent 192
Kent to West Hartford 213
West Hartford to Gorham 242
Gorham to Caratunk 269
Caratunk to Katahdin 294
About the Author 331
What People are Saying About This
"I hiked the Appalachian Trail again last week . . . My transcendent experience was made
possible by David Miller of Titusville, who hiked the entire trail in 2003 and wrote about
it in his new book Awol on the Appalachian Trail.
"Awol," you see, was Miller's chosen trail name because he just kinda quit his job, threw
on a backpack and started walking from Georgia to Maine . . . Miller is a wonderful writer
who expresses the emotions as well as the facts of the world's most famous hiking trail.
Of course, fellow Appalachian Trail (AT) hikers reading his book will be like the choir
before the preacher, devouring his passages like a mystery novel, despite knowing
exactly how it will end.
Miller does a particularly good job of describing how hikers' moods change more sharply
than the physical ups and downs of the mountain chain -- from senseless euphoria to
mindless morosity -- as they put one foot in front of the other for months at a time.
In fact, hikers spend many of their thoughts contemplating why in the heck they're out
there, suffering through the blisters, bugs, rain and boredom that are as much a part of the
experience as the dramatic views and inspiring wilderness.
And Miller, as one of the relatively few "thru-hikers" who succeed in making it the whole
way in one year, puts such thoughts on paper about as well as anyone."--(Robert Hughes, Florida Today Newspaper)
"David Miller's Awol on the Appalachian Trail allows us to sample the pleasures and the pains of hiking 2,172 miles from Georgia to Maine. Miller has a knack for storytelling and for describing his fellow trekkers. He writes about himself as well, of course, but he does so without any great show of conceit or inflated pride. Readers who are considering the Trail or who simply enjoy being in the outdoors will find this book most appealing, but Miller's talent should bring him an even larger audience."--(Jeff Minick, Smoky Mountain News.)
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I picked this book up after experiencing extreme dissapointment with Bill Bryson's "A Walk in the Woods." I felt a need to read something legitmate from a real hiker who didn't give up on himself or his readers. AWOL didn't dissapoint in the slightest. Im glad to have read this gem and look forward to my own hike. If you want to read about strength, resolve, and dedication, forego Bill Bryson's bestseller and read this story of real grit. It may motivate you to experience your dreams, or at least give you an escape from the monotony of day to day life.
Great read about a 5 month adventure. Learn the pain and dobt as well as the joy and victory.
'Awol' is one man's story about his decision to quit his job and hike the full length of the Appalachian Trail. Told chronologically, the book follows his day-by-day exploits as he deals with the physical, mental and emotional challenges the feat imposes. From the get-go, the tale is gripping. Not so much because it's action packed - "action" is mainly limited to a too-close encounter with a mamma bear - but because it provides such insight into "thru-hiker" culture, something of which most of us aren't aware. It's a treat hearing about the various individuals author Miller ¿ AKA "Awol" ¿ meets during his travels, and its easy to come to care for them as well. One individual with whom Miller had long-since parted ways makes a sudden reappearance near the end of the book. It's a surprise and a happy one, for Awol and readers alike. Through the tale we hear of the author's lows - his injuries, dealing with endless rain, running out of food, running out of water. At times it sounds abjectly miserable. But we also hear of the high points. Stunning scenery, friendships, interesting wildlife encounters, random acts of kindness by strangers ("trail magic.")It's a whole different world from the "get up, go to work, go home, go to bed" schedule many of us follow. Minor caveats: Miller does repeat himself a number of times. In some instances, particularly regarding the large number of other hikers he encounters, this is useful, helping readers keep track of some details. Other times it's vaguely irritating. Also, some of his paragraphs aren't terribly well constructed, seeming almost stream-of-conciousness. Fortunately, there aren't too many of these, and overall the tale he has to tell is intriguing enough to set these small issues aside.
If your into hiking, this would be an excellent book to read! A day by day account of AWOL's, aka David Miller, hiking adventure. He talks about why he changes his life to hike the Appalachian trail, what he does to prepare and his plan for the hike. As he hikes, he goes into detail about the view, the trail, the people he meets. He even talks bout his gear, what works for him, what doesn't and the one problem he has throughout his hike. I thought it was so interesting that each hiker creates an Appalachian trail "nickname" and what they mean. Even for a non hiker this was a very interesting story and it makes me want to try do the hike! I highly recommend this book to hikers and non -hikers!
Of the half dozen or so accounts of Appalachian Trail (AT) thru hikes that I have read, this is the best one so far. David Miller manages to avoid the pitfalls typical of these accounts: too much exposition, too many tangents, too much introspection, and too much unnecessary personal detail. Bill Bryson's "A Walk in the Woods" is a good example of a too discursive approach - often regaling the reader with just too much wikipedia-ish AT lore. Thru hikers turned authors will also often layer spiritual or personal development narratives on top of their hike, and these layers can be tougher slogging than hiking through the Mahoosuc Notch. Another element that gets tiresome is the guilt trip that hikers will lay on themselves for leaving the family and responsibility behind. In "AWOL on the Appalachian Trail", though, Miller takes few tangents, is economic with his introspective moments, and does not dwell too much on the personal issues. His account is very much a "white blaze" account - he sticks to the trail and the tale. His prose style consists of straightforward, declarative sentences laid end to end from Springer Mountain to Katahdin. At first I found his language clipped and unnatural, but soon it seemed the most fitting way to tell the story. It mirrored the simple but compelling step by step progress that he made through each state. His momentum often takes him farther in a day than he should go, and similarly I would read this book later into the night than I should have. I also appreciated that he managed to simultaneously describe the incredible achievement and hardship of thru hiking without either romanticizing or exaggerating them for effect. At one point he quotes Churchill, and the quotation seems particularly apt in this regard: Churchill says of himself that "he had had a lot of trouble in his life, most of which had never happened".
David is a programmer, not a writer. The only bit of interesting style he injects are several witty comments, which had me chuckling. The rest is a very dry journal. Still worth reading if you like trail stories and are obsessed with the AT like I am, but not practically useful as a reference (as the back of the book alludes to) or particularly inspiring as a story.
Although the writing was somewhat uneven at time, this was a fascinating account of David Miller's hike of the Appalacian Trail and why he decided to do it.
I was somewhat disappointed. A good read but not as humorous (not funny at all) and was more textbook than a great read like A Walk in The Woods by Bryson. His I have read at least twice. This one I would never pick up again, but then I am sure there are many who enjoyed it.