With the hype over Wild, here’s a look at my favorite thru-hiking memoir: On the Beaten Path.
With the hype, hoopla and hullabaloo over Wild, my thoughts turned to a lesser known book, but one that better encapsulates the long trail experience: On the Beaten Path: An Appalachian Pilgrimage (OTBP).
Unlike the more well-known A Walk in the Woods that came out at the same time, OTBP has less snark, humor and light-heartedness. It is more brutally honest about the good and bad of what a long journey by foot entails.
And while Wild and OTBP both share insights to what the inner journey is like on a long trek, OTBP is less about a person’s singular vision on the journey. Rather OTBP is about a person’s journey in the context of the wider community.
The personalities (for good or ill) in the trail community, the towns the trail passes by or through, the people making the pilgrimage following the white blazes from Springer to Katahdin, along with the scenic vistas, the weather and the fatigue that comes from walking for 2100+ miles over the Appalachians.
OTBP really does capture this journey. Not the romantic vision, or (in my opinion) the over-the-top soul-searching that makes for good print but rather what happens when one foot is put in front of another for five months or more. Sometimes introspective. Sometimes just thinking about the next hot meal.
Where Wild was about a personal journey that happened to take place on a long trail, OTBP is about a journey on a long trail that also leads to personal introspection. Perhaps more in line with what a pilgrimage is about at its roots.
At the time the book was written, Robert Rubin was a thirty-eight year old corporate burn-out. Not the post-college or post-retirement age common of most thru-hikers. His writing has a certain level of solemnity that is missing from books by people who have the idealism of youth or the freedom of post-retirement. Perhaps that is why this book resonates more with me more so than other memoirs. It is a struggle, at times, to balance career goals and my own interests that aren’t in line with a corporate job.
Rubin is, by his own admission, not the perfect person. He does not make himself out to be some latter-day Thoreau seeking enlightenment in the woods. Read it for the writing and the honesty about the journey.
A favorite passage of mine really gives the flavor of this book:
“They don’t want it to end.
No one does. By now we have been out here on the trail for five months. Gone are the out-of-shape dreamers who blistered themselves off the trail in the first week, gone are the college-age kids out looking for a rolling-to-town party, gone are the talkers and dabblers, the recreational backpackers who came looking for inspiring vistas, those who set themselves a meaningless endurance challenge. They have dropped by the wayside -at Neels Gap, at Fontana Dam, at Hot Springs, at Damascus, at Harpers Ferry, at Delaware Water Gap. Those remaining, though they might never say so, have come out here looking for a community of kindred spirits and a part of themselves that seeks something they don’t really understand. And now, as the end draws into sight, though perhaps no closer to finding what they’re after, they don’t want the searching to end. They don’t ever want to stop dreaming of reaching Katahdin.”
Dreaming of a long trail and want to read something other than Wild? Give On The Beaten Path a look.