Summoning the Mountains – Pilgrimage Into Forty by Amy Allen: Book Review

from the back cover:

“Hoping to rekindle the spirit of freedom she once knew, a divorced, single mother sets aside family and societies expectations to seek fulfillment by following a lifelong calling.  On the eve of turning forty, Amy Allen reaches for her personal goal of hiking the Appalachian Trail. Accepting the name of “Willow” bestowed by her teenage sons, she settles them into new lives at their father’s house and departs on a 2,000 mile walk.”

I’m a sucker for an AT narrative. I’ve read…dozens.  Recently in a gathering of AT thru-hikers I overheard the sarcastic midstream comment, “…and then they’ll write a book because what we need is one more book about the AT.” At this point, I injected myself into the discussion. “I think we do need another book about the AT, and another, and another. Personally, I can’t get enough.” When I started Summoning the Mountains, I thought I might have to eat my words.

I met Amy Allen at an AT festival in Dahlonega, GA. She stood smiling behind a small table covered with several small stacks of her book.  I was struck, at first, by the beautiful graphic design and if you can judge a book by it’s cover (I’m convinced that sometimes you can) this is one I wanted on my shelf. From the name and tag line to the font and color selection to the perfect cairn that adorns the cover I was hooked.  After thumbing through, I found the design continued throughout the entire book, very tastefully and enticingly done.  Amy and I talked for a moment and I assured her I’d be back to purchase a copy.

Later in the day, Dana, Josiah and I sat listening while Amy shared her story of her “pilgrimage into forty” and the role that her thru-hike played in that transition. Her meek, quiet voice was just what you might expect from her tiny, petite frame. We took in her photos of our beloved AT during her slide show presentation, empathized with the frustrations she encountered from not being able to completely leave behind her “normal”  life to focus completely on her hike and laughed along with her at the inevitable misadventures that are part and parcel of such a journey.  “To be expected on a trip of this magnitude” as a friend of mine is fond of saying. At some point we dropped by and picked up our book and pocketed it away for later.

That same night I snuggled down in my hammock, burrowed beneath my quilt as the North Georgia coyotes and owls began their nightly serenade, and began to read. A chapter or so in and I drifted off to sleep. Over the course of the next several weeks I picked the book back up but struggled to connect. It wasn’t the writing. It is a well-written, well-edited thru-hiker journal.  Had I finally had enough of such accounts? It certainly wasn’t the typesetting, as I’d mentioned already. It was the fact that Amy Allen was a 40 something mom, and I…was not. For this very reason, I have historically avoided most books by female writers.  There are certainly exceptions to this and the exceptions are most extraordinary (case in point?  Jennifer Pharr Davis)  but as a rule I’ve found that I don’t enjoy female writers and this had to be the source of my disconnect.  Having established this, I continued to read. Once I pushed past my gender bias, Amy immersed me in her story. Like most AT narratives (and most AT thru-hikes) Summoning the Mountains is not a thrill ride but instead a steadily plodding narrative, filled with hardships and happiness, punctuated by familiar landmarks along the Trail and made rich by the characters and friendships that grow along the way. Before I knew it, I was sucked in, pulled along for the journey, as if I were making my way north along with Amy and her cadre of companions. And this is why I read AT narratives. My own Appalachian pilgrimage is years away.  A mountain larger than Katahdin looms between Springer and I.  It’s name?  Mortgage. Until that mountain is conquered stories like Amy’s both sate my hunger and stoke the fires of my longing.

As Willow approached Katahdin (Oops, spoiler alert!) I shared her conflicted emotions. The summit she had longed for was finally within sight but the end of her journey was as well. I wasn’t ready for the book to end. Thank you, Amy for sharing your story and providing me a welcome reprieve from my mundane day to day…until my own pilgrimage begins.

The gist:

Summoning the Mountains is a 40-something mom’s well-written, well-edited and eminently readable account of her thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. Recommended. It took me there.

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2 Responses to “Summoning the Mountains – Pilgrimage Into Forty by Amy Allen: Book Review”

  • Russ Ledbetter:

    Always enjoy your podcast, and have happily stumbled upon your blog/webpage and your review of Amy’s book. Though I have not read (or heard of it until now (I am happily reading The Barefoot Sisters account of their Southbound journey through the Winter of 2000 on the A.T.–a book I NEVER thought I would or could, similarly to your experience with Amy’s book, “get into”. I just love it, and can’t recommend it enough, “Southbound”) Amy’s book, I am here by myself this weekend on the eve of my 50th birthday (on Sat 8/3), preparing to hike from Amicalola Falls State Park to the Southern Terminus of the A.T. (I live in Asheville), perhaps a Day Hike or overnight, but I am following your obsession with wanting to thru-hike the A.T. (about two years now, it’s been growing, festering, calling) and, like Amy, contemplating a lot, on the eve of Mile 50!

    • Hi Russ! So sorry it took me so long to get back to you. I’m stoked that you found us and thrilled that you took the time to say hi. Loved the Barefoot Sisters. I read way more than I have time to blog about. In fact, Jennifer Pharr Davis’ latest offering, “Called Again” is a great read. I have great memories of my hike on the Approach Trail. Hiked it with the best dog ever, Scooby. By now, I’m guessing you’ve finished. I’d love to hear all about it. We’re actually heading up your way this weekend for the Highlands Brewery Gear-fest thing. If you make it, hunt me down. I’d love to meet you face to face. Happy belated birthday!

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