Monday, November 16, 2009

On the Beaten Path, by Robert Alden Rubin

I have always loved geography, and part of that love manifests itself in defacing maps. I have learned to restrict myself so that I only deface cheap or free maps, or I make sure I do a really nice job of it, so the map is not only still usable, but often MORE usable. For instance, I own a Thomas Brothers Guide of Ventura and Los Angeles Counties on which I've marked traffic signals. It shows every signal in Ventura County (as of late 2005), and probably a third of the signals in Los Angeles County. This is helpful when giving directions. If Persephone is driving and I'm navigating, it's more helpful to tell her "turn left at the second signal" than to tell her "turn left on Plummer."

But back when I was young and uncontrollable, I defaced any map I could. This usually was a road atlas of my mother's. I would trace highways (adding some I thought should be built), trace counties (adding some I thought should be created), and trace rivers (adding dams where I thought a lake would be nice). In tracing county lines, I discovered two trails which spend much of their courses lying along county boundaries: the Pacific Crest and Appalachian national scenic trails. This was before the Internet, so they were shrouded in mystery. What were they, how did one hike them, and what would a hike be like? I couldn't say, but I could tell you which counties they visited.

After the Internet came along, I found out more. Much more. And since I've become an adult with a job in cartography, I've even taken to mapping the various long-distance hiking trails of the United States. There are some trail improvements happening in Alabama right now that, when completed, will make it possible to hike from the Florida Keys to the tip of the Gaspe Peninsula. Just typing that sentence makes my pants fit funny.

Of all the long-distance trails in America, the Appalachian Trail is probably the most well-known. As such, there is a bit of a cottage industry revolving around hiking it and retelling your story. That was how I came to read A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, which left me thoroughly disappointed. I wanted a book about hiking the trail, a way to imagine I was doing it when my life was in no position (financially, physically, or familially) to allow for its attempt. Instead, I got a book that was more about Bill Bryson writing a book than about anything to do with hiking. It was a lot like a Jack Nicholson movie: instead of seeing a movie, you see Jack Nicholson acting in a movie. It's a completely different thing. Garrison Keillor's writing became like this. I don't like it.

A recent trip to our local library ended with me checking out On the Beaten Path, and it has left me very satisfied. This was what I wanted from the Bryson book, a retelling of one man's thruhike without the winking self-congratulations for writing a book about one man's thruhike. It was interesting and entertaining. What's more, Rubin waits until page 108 to use the word "scrotum," which I thought showed sensitivity to his readers.

The funniest part of the book requires a little explanation. Thruhikers mail stuff to themselves care of small town post offices they will pass. When Rubin came into one small New England town he stopped at a Dunkin' Donuts next to the post office and bought a dozen doughnuts, then ate all 12 right there in the store. He writes: "I noticed a couple of people staring at me. They hurriedly looked away. Well, what did they expect, putting a donut shop next to the post office?" (203)

Now that I live only an hour from the trail, instead of across the country from it, my desire to hike it is more pressing. The way I see things now, I can somehow shoehorn it in to my life between finishing and defending my dissertation. That probably won't happen, but it's nice to think it might. Persephone is not on board with me leaving for six months (neither was Rubin's wife, and they don't even have kids), so she says maybe she and the kids will follow along in an RV or something. That's possible since we homeschool, but unlikely for a while, given the discrepancy between the cost of an RV and my penchant for keeping my family in abject poverty. Maybe it will never happen. But if that's the case, at least Rubin's book was a way to glimpse what a hike would be like.

Rating: 6 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.


  1. I once got lost driving around Ventura County trying to get somewhere because you'd added a road where you thought there should be one, and there wasn't in fact a road there.

  2. I drive across the Pacific Crest Trail everyday on the way to work and often see bum like hikers in Tehachapi and Mojave stocking up for their legs into the southern sierras. Ever since I read "Into the Wild" I've had this desire to do a monstrous hike like this. I have the same desire to sail to New Zealand with 6 months spent exploring Polynesia after reading "A voyage for Madmen". I too have family and no lets put our heads together, start a business and reap the rewards of a "liquidity event" !