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Wednesday, 25 September 2013 15:09

Another AT book, but a new set of lessons

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bookAn online visit reveals hundreds of books written on hiking the Appalachian Trail. These range from Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, which is the witty account of a man who hiked part of the trail, to Bill Walker’s SkyWalker: Close Encounters of the Appalachian Trail, in which the author gives us vivid and humorous portraits of some of his fellow trekkers, to Paul Stutzman’s Hiking Through, which tells of the author’s quest for peace and freedom on the Trail. There are at least a score of books offering practical advice on how to hike the Trail; there are even a few that deal solely with preparations for the hike. 

 

At first glance, Amy Allen’s Summoning the Mountains: Pilgrimage into Forty (ISBN 978-1-936214-83-9, 301 pages, $13.95) may seem just another book about the Trail. Amy, whose Trail name is “Willow,” a title bestowed by her two teenage sons, recounts, as do the other books mentioned above, her struggles and adventures hiking the 2,000 miles from Georgia to Maine, the people she meets, the wildlife she encounters, the frustrations brought on by everything from an injury to keeping up the pace she has set for herself. These situations are familiar to anyone who has read some of the Appalachian Trail literature.

What makes Allen’s book different from many of the others are her revelations regarding life back home. When we think of someone setting out on such a long march, we usually focus on the efforts of the hiker while forgetting that they have left behind responsibilities, family members, and a job. Allen couldn’t forget her responsibilities and her family while hiking, and she lets us see how deep and painful this fissure between life on the Trail and life back home can become. 

When she is due to set out on the Trail, for example, Allen describes how torn she is between setting out on her adventure before her and leaving behind her sons. “Eventually,” Allen writes, “I sat immobilized in a chair in the living room and cried, a release I’d been holding back all day. Adam and the boys could not understand what was happening; they thought I should be excited and happy to be ready to go.” When her older son is caught stealing food from his high school cafeteria — Allen is home when this happens — she decides to take him with her for part of the hike, hoping to watch over him and connect more intimately with him in the wilderness. Adam, her ex-husband, appears remarkably supportive of her quest, watching the boys and meeting her several times throughout the hike with supplies. (Her criticism of Adam’s outdoor abilities at the end of Summoning the Mountains, when they hike together in Tennessee, seems a little ill tempered). 

Summoning the Mountains serves as an honest reminder that while life on the Trail brings challenges to those attempting the long walk, they will not be entirely free of the challenges faced by those they’ve left behind.

•••

Sometimes a book will bring unexpected gifts into our lives.

Had someone told me that I would read, enjoy, and learn from Rumsfeld’s Rules: Leadership Lessons in Business, Politics, War, and Life (ISBN 978-0-06-227285-0, 335 pages, $27.99), I would have either laughed or stared at them dumbfounded. Donald Rumsfeld, CEO of two Fortune 500 companies and twice the Secretary of Defense, was nothing more than a name to me, a guy I associated with the Washington elite. Any book written by him would undoubtedly resemble those published by others involved in politics, a humdrum egotistical account of the empowered life.

I was wrong.

When I picked up this book at the suggestion of a friend, I was startled to find advice that I could use both in my teaching and in my personal affairs. Rumsfeld’s Rules is of interest not just to executives or those high in some political office, but offers help to people in all walks of life. 

The “rules” appear in bold print throughout the book, followed by personal anecdotes from Rumsfeld’s life which show how the rules play out. “If you don’t know where you’re going any road will get you there” applies to the college student as much as to a high-powered executive. “In sports as in life, keep something in the tank” has as much to do with marriage as with the business world. “Learn to say ‘I don’t know.’ If used when appropriate, it will be often” pertains to teachers and parents as much as to a Secretary of Defense. (Any good teacher has uttered these words hundreds of times). 

Adding to these forceful axioms, which the author has concocted and polished for 40 years, are Rumsfeld’s examples. His book is a compendium of the history of the last 40 years, of the way decisions were made both in government and business, of people, most of whose names are household words, who either perform brilliantly or make unbelievable foolish mistakes. Because of his many encounters with the men and women who have shaped our government, Rumsfeld has the resources to demonstrate how these same people react to crisis, triumph, and failure. He ends with this note of encouragement, offered both toward individuals and to the American nation:

“Make no mistake — these leaders won’t perform perfectly. Sometimes they’ll fall flat on their faces. But they’ll get up again, brush off the dust, and keep at it. Harry Truman used to talk about an epitaph he saw on a tombstone in Arizona. According to Truman, it read: ‘Here lies Jack Williams. He done his damnedest.’ When you think about it, that’s pretty much all we can ask of any leader. If one day you are able to look back on your career and say pretty much the same thing, then count yourself blessed. Because yours was a job well done.”

(Jeff Minick is a writer and teacher who lives in Asheville. He first novel, Amanda Bell, is available at regional bookstores. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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