2,000 Miles Around the Tree of Life: A Naturalist Hikes the Appalachian Trail
by Richard W. Carroll (Central Africa Republic 1976–82)
A Peace Corps Writers Book
$10.00 (paperback), $8.95 (Kindle)
Reviewed by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (Cameroon 1965–67)
Readers of Richard W. Carroll’s 2,000 Miles Around the Tree of Life about his extraordinary five-month journey from the southernmost point of the Appalachian Trail in Georgia, to his arrival at the northernmost end (or beginning depending on where you start) in Maine, need to understand that is not a memoir as the jacket copy states. It is, rather, a journal — something Carrol explains on the final page of the book — meant to “keep the memories alive.” So expect grand courage, an oh-so impressive stoicism as he suffers the often dire rigors of such a momentous hike, and experience his joy vicariously with each discovery he makes. But do not expect reflection, and try not to get frustrated when he meets so many, many intriguing fellow travelers without allowing us to know anything about them.
Since I believe a book review is 9/10ths consumer report, I must give a couple of examples here of my own frustration. He hikes for a while with Russ, and he and Russ learn about each other. Learn what? Carroll might have learned about Russ, but the reader is left out. Or when he “. . . feels like a celebrity . . .” when all the people on the front porches of their homes on the trail in Clinton, Pennsylvania, wave at him. He stops to talk to them. By now, the reader already knows not to expect any dialogue whatsoever, but when Carroll tells us that “all of them talk with a beautiful German accent . . .” it’s, like, huh? Because in the next line he’s meeting Jeb from North Carolina while the village-full of Germans are left in the dust. Who are these people with the German accents? How did they get to be where they are? What drew them from Germany to this particular spot? How long have they been there? Instead, Carroll much prefers to endlessly wax poetic — with a little religion thrown in — musings on life in general. And when he suddenly sees before him “. . . giraffes and zebras, llamas and beavers . . . ” we don’t know if he’s floored, or if he’s hallucinating, or if he’s accidentally ventured into a zoo, so imagine the disappointment when the very next line is not where the hell these animals came from, but instead: “On up to the Mosby lean-to, and took a bath in the nice spring.”
Carroll keeps the reader informed of every kind of flower, tree, and weed, and all wildlife in great detail. He is a naturalist so it’s utterly enjoyable to have every species of flora and fauna he passes listed and described. And he makes a meal of many of those weeds, including “poke sallet, which tasted like asparagas.” My favorite Elvis recording is “Poke Salad Annie,” so I got a little rush. But if only I could have flipped back to a map to see exactly where the poke grew. This book cries out for such a map of the trail, and close-up sections of that map Carrol will traverse with each new chapter. It’s a privilege traveling along with him, but frustrating to not “see” where he is. (You will find old, grainy, black and white photos — break out your magnifying glass.)
Carroll wrote this journal during his hike right after college in 1975, sending excerpts to his home-town newspaper to be published just as he would with the pieces he wrote while a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Central African Republic a year later. And so, how cool it must have been to dig out his Appalachian Trail journal, dust it off, and refresh and restructure it so his readers can go back in time and accompany him on his extraordinary journey. And hopefully, become inspired to hike the trail themselves, or more realistically, a part of it. If so, carry along Richard Carrol’s guide; not only will it be great company, you won’t miss a single thing.
Reviewer Mary-Ann Tirone Smith has published nine novels, the second of which, Lament for a Silver-Eyed Woman, was the first long fiction to emerge from the Peace Corps. Recently she has published The Honoured Guest: Anne Alger Craven, Witness to Sumter, in Her Words, and a memoir, Girls of Tender Age.