Disclaimer: I know the author personally. He is a friend, and for 10 years he was my coworker and mentor. I make no claims of impartiality with this review.
Today I’m reviewing 2000 Miles Around the Tree of Life, by Richard W. Carroll. (ISBN-10: 1935925512, ISBN-13: 978-1935925514), published by Peace Corps Writers, 2014. I have known Richard for ten years, and worked under his guidance for much of that time. I consider him a friend and a mentor, and so I was excited when I learned that he had published a memoir of his 1975 thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.
In Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey said, “Wilderness is not a luxury, but a necessity of the human spirit.” In 2000 Miles Around the Tree of Life, Carroll verifies this fundamental tenet as a young man just out of college, eager for adventure and eager to find himself. We see him gaining the self confidence that can only come from perseverance and achievement. We witness him solidifying his love, understanding and appreciation for the natural world; an appreciation that would continue to grow throughout his life and career. This book is largely a daily log of his hiking route, interspersed with poetry and prose.
Forty years ago, when Richard made his long trek, America was a different place. In context, Rachel Carson’s seminal work Silent Spring was published in 1962, awakening Americans to the horrors of wide scale industrial pollution and environmental degradation. A year earlier, a group of concerned naturalists had formed the World Wildlife Fund out of concern for the plight of endangered species. The Environmental Protection Agency was created in 1970. The first Earth Day occurred in 1970. By the mid-70’s, when Richard graduated from college and undertook the trek that would catalyze his career as a conservationist, the environmental movement was still in its nascency. But, as evidenced by the number of people Carroll encountered on the trail, Americans were getting out, seeing nature while they still could, connecting with wild places and wild animals, experiencing the gift that nature has to offer; which set the stage for the modern conservation era.
Even forty years ago, development already threatened the integrity of the Appalachian Trail. Carroll encountered sections of the trail that had been closed due to private landowner developments, sections that had been rerouted to avoid development projects, and sections where the roar of automobiles and cacophony of domestic livestock were never far away. This trail represents the last bit of true wild space east of the Mississippi, and it’s remarkable that America has managed to keep it relatively free from the encroachment of mankind. It snakes through rugged and pristine landscapes that are within spitting distance of America’s largest urban and industrial areas: from Atlanta to Washington DC to Allentown and New York City.
In the prelude to Desert Solitaire, Abbey says “…you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe. Probably not.” Threads of this sentiment trace through Carroll’s narrative. We see him express frustration with “fat tourists” driving to the summits of mountains that he only reaches after hours of grueling climbs through swarms of mosquitoes and sometimes sweltering heat. We feel his disgust upon reaching a campsite that has been despoiled by thoughtless slobs. We witness him eschewing overcrowded camping shelters for the solitude of a lean-to in the forest. Yet his narrative never takes on the bitter misanthropic tones of Abbey. He never expresses frustration about his fellow humans, but it is obvious that at times he yearns for a quieter and more solitary hiking experience.
Ostensibly this is a book review, not merely a praise-fest for a friend’s book, and thus I am compelled to offer some critique, though not brutal. My chief complaint is that this book is too short. In places it lacks depth. The story of a journey of 2,000 miles that consumes 5 months deserves more than 100 pages. Some passages merely remark of the completion of a day’s hike of a certain distance with a sentence or two. Overall, the effect of this is that we are deprived of the sense of magnitude that this trek deserves. Precious few people will ever walk continuously for 2,000 miles over the duration of nearly half a year. Carroll remarks on experiencing all four seasons while on the trail, but unfortunately his narrative moves too quickly and the reader doesn’t enjoy the full sensation of moving gradually from south to north across a continent, experiencing the gradual change from early spring to early winter, from a land of southern moonshiners and holly trees to beaver ponds, cranberry bogs and moose. We see glimpses of compelling poetry and lofty prose, but not nearly enough. I was left wanting to know more about how the journey affected the author, what he felt, how it changed him, what epiphanies he experienced during his many meditations.
But this is my only serious complaint. Like all good writers, Carroll has left the reader wanting more. And with a career and life that has been as rich and varied as his, I am certain he has many more tales to tell us. Read this book, enjoy it, and feel as uplifted as I did when the summit of Mt. Katahdin is reached and Richard’s goal is attained.