Originally created 08/18/00

Trail yields its tales



Some guys stumble into a midlife crisis and cope by buying an old muscle car.

Others foul up their marriage with affairs, and some just muddle through, depressed, despondent and paralyzed.

Robert Alden Rubin went for a walk.

A long walk.

On April Fools' Day 1997, the book editor from North Carolina started ahike of the Appalachian Trail from Springer Mountain in north Georgia. He was 38; he and his wife, Cathy, were fighting a lot; and he was burned out on his job. In short, his life was a mess.

He was not quite sure what he was seeking when he began the 2,160-mile trek along the spine of the Appalachians to its northern terminus in Maine; he just knew he wanted to hike.

He gives an account of his six months on the trail under the trail name Rhymn' Worm in On the Beaten Path, An Appalachian Pilgrimage (233 pages, The Lyons Press).

Mr. Rubin's sparse writing style ably captures the imagery of the trail and its people. It's a harsh realm that demands a straightforward description:

"I have grown used to the Georgia trail, which is mostly engineered to zigzag up mountains in a series of switchbacks. Here (79 miles into the hike at the Georgia-North Carolina border) the trail goes straight up the ridge. Suddenly each step up is an ordeal, my boots and hiking sticks slip and snag on the rocky trail, cold rain rattles down around me, and my breath gasps out in great clouds."

At times, the burdens of Job seem to be on Mr. Rubin and other hikers he meets along the trail. There are bouts of intestinal flu, mangled feet and twisted ankles to contend with, as well as the omnipresent mice at the trail's shelters.

But there's also great beauty and interesting folk. Each has a trail name. There's The Princess and the Pea, two yuppies with top-of-the-line gear and a questionable hiking ethic; the agreeable wild kid Bigfoot; and the Philosopher King, proprietor of Never-Never Land, a hiker stop in Virginia.

Mr. Rubin's tales of the trail are interspersed with interesting asides on trail history, accessorizing for the hike, musings on authentic Americana and the loss of identity in the all-too-modern world.

"We live in an accelerated culture, a world of jump cuts rather than long takes, montage rather than mise en scene. But walking, without machines to make the distance go away, after a while it becomes harder to hurry up and wait, harder to sit stewing while the clock runs out. Hold on to the rage for acceleration and you'll probably either quit because you become frustrated by your inability to get there yet or you'll hurt yourself by trying to turn your body into a machine."

Mr. Rubin gains some insights into life's big questions but finds no solid solution to his personal crisis. (He's still working hard on his marriage and in search of gainful employment seven months after he finished the hike).

Still, he does find companionship, a colorful gaggle of fellow hikers and a surprising sense of America along the way. And it's a tail worth sharing.

New on the shelf:

A Fire-Eater Remembers, The Confederate Memoir of Robert Barnwell Rhett, 152 pages, (University of South Carolina Press) It's not exactly new, but the memoirs of this South Carolina firebrand give insight into Rhett, one of the instigators in the South's secession from the Union at the outset of the Civil War.

The South Carolinian helped set the stage for the Confederacy but was swept aside as Jefferson Davis assumed the presidency. He became a leader in the anti-Jefferson faction and sniped at Jefferson throughout the war. He was destitute and ill when he was working on the manuscript and died before it could be published.

Notes from editor William C. Davis place the memoirs in context.

Buy the book

Title: On the Beaten Path, An Appalachian Pilgrimage

Author: Robert Alden Rubin

Publisher: The Lyons Press

The basics: 233 pages, $24.95

Reach Tharon Giddens at (706) 823-33347 or feature@augustachronicle.com