Reading reflection: Philip D’Anieri’s The Appalachian Trail: A Biography

What does it take to craft a new book about an old trail? Philip D’Anieri chose to focus on the people who shaped the Appalachian Trail, shining a spotlight on one or two from each era of the trail. His book, The Appalachian Trail: A Biography, consists of a series of biographies that trace the evolution of the Appalachian Trail (AT) from a dream to a reality. The choice to craft a biography-centric view of the AT was both unique and appropriate–each chapter captures the unique skills and approaches of each individual, reflecting the balance between solitude and individualism with importance of community on the AT. As a collection, the book demonstrates how each person’s vision, matched with their unique talents and foibles, helped mold the AT into what it is today. Rather than focusing primarily on the role of technology in understanding trail use on the trail perspective,

Philip D’Anieri is a lecturer in architecture and regional planning at the University of Michigan. He admits that he’s not much of a hiker, and an outsider to the AT community, so it seems like an odd choice for him to focus on a hiking trail that stretches over 2000 miles through the Appalachian mountains. His introductory chapter includes a description of his own section hike of a small portion of the trail, on which he “failed to summit a mountain of utterly mediocre stature”. It became increasingly clear to him that he hadn’t prepared well–he didn’t understand how challenging the climb would be, he started late in the day with the possibility of ending in the dark, and, perhaps most egregiously, he failed to bring any water. He redefined victory, embracing his “up and down” experience to that moment and eschewing the dangers of extending it, as he cut short his hike and returned to his car.

So it might be comforting to know that D’Anieri doesn’t approach his storytelling from the perspective of an expert hiker, but as an expert in urban and regional planning. His teaching and research has explored how urban areas evolve through intentional decisions and uncontrolled events, and he turns that lens to seek to understand the AT. He chooses to focus on select individuals who were instrumental in the evolution of the AT, acknowledging that, in so doing, he walks the line between oversimplifying the evolution of the AT and understating the rich lives of the people who are profiled in an effort to highlight the symbiosis between the evolution of the AT and the lives of the people who were part of the evolution. His exploration includes the original mapping of what would become the AT by Arnold Guyot, the vision for a trail from Benton MacKay contrasted with the reality organized and executed by Myron Avery, the early thru-hiker tales spun by Earl Shaffer and Emma “Grandma” Gatewood, and the telling of the trail by gifted storyteller Bill Bryson. He provides pointers to additional readings about the AT and about many of the featured individuals for the interested reader.

D’Anieri also summarizes the ways that technology has influenced the AT experience. He details three changes that have come about because of technology: (1) “how quickly and easily trail knowledge moves around” including through maps, progress updates, and pre-trip research; (2) social media and the “public performance” aspects of a hike, in which you endeavor to develop and promote a personal brand (which should include the many blogs that emerge each year); and (3) the “blurring of dividing line between civilization and nature” which leads to everything from doing business to contacting Mom becoming an obligation that is difficult to escape–people know you are in contact and expect prompt responses to their queries and entreats!

If you want to read more about the book, check out the official book site, an interview in Discover magazine, or a University of Michigan article. Or, if you haven’t already, go read the book!

Reading reflection: The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey

There are tons of “American journey” stories out there, and authors can struggle to find an interesting angle toward authoring a book or blog or such. Rinker Buck certainly can’t be called uninteresting in his choice of adventure: re-creating the Oregon Trail in modern times using the same style of ox-drawn covered wagon employed by the settlers.

Rinker Buck’s book The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey chronicles his journey along the Oregon Trail, a gateway across America taken by settlers in the early 1800s.  The book notes that the notion of a single “Oregon Trail” is deceptive, as there are many paths that were used by settlers making the journey west. Parts of the trail have become roads and highways and some goes through private property, but much of it is far from civilization, so the author had to choose a path that was safe, legal, and enjoyable.  The book balances stories about traveling through wilderness and traveling on modern roads in an old-style vehicle, interleaving the history of the trail and observations about the people that he met along the way.

As always, I kept an eye toward tech use, which was not at all a focus of the book.  The author had a mobile phone on his journey that he occasionally used, but generally he relied on the oft-present kindness of people that he encountered along his journey.  He certainly had a lot to say about the role of technology in enabling trail travel, then in making it obsolete–focusing on tech advances in transportation, manufacturing, and farming. In reading between the lines, the author seemed to intentionally avoid writing about personal technology use, seeking to add to the air of authenticity regarding their journey.

Overall, the book was entertaining and very well written, certainly worth a read both for the historical perspectives and to learn about a meaningful trip across America.

Reading Reflection: Tim Ingold’s Lines

At our Technology on the Trail workshop in March, invited speaker Alan Dix highly recommended a book by Tim Ingold titled Lines: A Brief History. We purchased it and made it available to people taking part in the initiative, with some thoughts listed here.

From Alan Dix’s blog post referencing Lines: “Ingold’s thesis is that we have privileged the point or place in modern thought, seeing the connection as merely the means of getting from A to B. Ingold is an anthropologist and spent time studying reindeer herders. Their way of life is to follow the herds as they make seasonal migrations; for the tribes following the herds it is the way they follow, the path, the line, which is primary.”

Ingold’s book explores how lines are a key part of walking, writing, storytelling, and much more.  The book probes the foundational meaning of a line, and what it is and means across various domains, noting early on that “to an illiterate reader, lines have no more meaning than abstract art”. There are tons of other examples in computing in HCI, e.g., certainly those who study visualization have a skill in recognizing patterns that an unskilled eye could not pick out.

The book is highly speculative, putting forth a series of analyses of topics and situations that were often not well grounded in evidence, which some found unsatisfying. Grad seminar participant Colin Shea-Blymer summed up this viewpoint very well:

I honestly appreciate the book’s magnificent scope, and, when taken as more of an artistic endeavor, it succeeds in that scope in many ways. However, coming into the book from a more critical perspective I found Ingold’s introductory apology for his lack of depth in many of the subjects he tied lines to unsatisfactory. The sections of his book that I muddled through read more like a stringing-together of romantic-era aesthetic arguments as evidence towards an unstated hypothesis; done without criticism of the arguments he appropriates. In brief, the book works well if you’re looking for an eye-opening overview of how lines go undetected in human art and society, but falters if the reader begins to scrutinize the arguments within. The path Ingold illuminates is beautiful and worth peering down, but the steps he takes appear treacherous and unstable upon closer inspection.

There’s more Ingold work, including another book that seems like it might be even more relevant to our Technology on the Trail theme, an edited collection titled Ways of Walking: Ethnographies and Practice on Foot (also available in the Virginia Tech library), stemming from a meeting of anthropologists who split time “sitting in a traditional seminar room” and “climb[ing] up through the forest and out to the open hillside”.  Given the similarity to our own seminar, there may be a review of this book in the near future!

Reading Reflection: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, died yesterday. His book is one of the historically great Technology on the Trail books, balancing tech issues of maintaining a motorcycle with the experiences afforded by a road trip through small towns with his son. I’ve read it previously and picked it up again after hearing of Pirsig’s death—it’s interesting to reconnect with his journey after recently reading and hearing about the journeys identified in preparation for our Technology on the Trail initiative.

Worth a look if you’re not familiar with it, and worth a look if you haven’t looked in a while.  Good luck finding a copy…I suspect there will be a run on the copies for a while.