Birch’s Reviews of Appalachian Trail Memoirs

Possibly, every hiker capable of writing a journal detailing the events of each day and his or her unique experience of those events is capable of putting together a hiker’s memoir, especially if the overall experience related has a definite beginning and a definite end. Perhaps, also, there is no ideal hiker’s memoir, but every such book stands to be weighed only on the scale of the reader’s personal needs and expectations. Granting these propositions, it follows that any evaluative review of a hiker’s memoir risks expressing more about the reader than about the writer. Even so, as I have recently read through a few memoirs written by hikers of the entire Appalachian Trail, and as I have found each one to be unique, I thought it might be useful, to some small extent, if I were to write a series of reviews.

I: Walking with Spring, by Earl Shaffer.

The first of these books is Walking with Spring; The First Thru-Hike of the Appalachian Trail, by Earl V. Shaffer, detailing his “Lone Expedition” in the year 1948, first published in 1983. Shaffer’s 124-day trek began on Mt. Oglethorpe, Georgia (then the southern terminus of the AT), and extended 2050 miles to Mt. Katahdin, in Baxter State Park, Maine. On the peak of Mt. Oglethorpe, Shaffer found himself on “the threshold of my great adventure, long delayed by World War II and without my trail partner, who had been killed on Iwo Jima. Those four and a half years of army service, more than half of it in combat areas of the Pacific, without furlough or even rest leave, had left me confused and depressed. Perhaps this trip would be the answer.”

Shaffer’s motto—now universally adopted by long-distance hikers, though practiced with varying degrees of rigor—was “Carry as little as possible but choose that little with care.” Given the weight of gear back then and the best that technology had to offer, Shaffer’s pack, even without a tent, probably weighed as much as the heaviest load of today’s backpacker.

The author often had to resort to bushwhacking and walking on roads, as the AT, created during the 1920s and ’30s, had been neglected during the war years, and not only had the blazes become few and faded, but blow-downs and the growth of underbrush had obscured the path, sometimes even making it inaccessible. Moreover, he had only state road maps to guide him.

It is amusing to see how much of an oddity and celebrity Shaffer became while thru-hiking the AT. In Waynesboro, Virginia, he is enthusiastically met by Ross Hersey, editor of a town newspaper, who interviews him and, afterwards, sends his photographer to drive Shaffer back to Rockfish Gap so he could capture the hiker upon the trail. “The resulting article and a picture appeared the following day on the front page of the News-Virginian.” Later, at Baxter Park, he is approached by Ranger Fred Pittman, who asked, “‘Are you the man walkin’ the Trail?’ He said he was obliged to phone the lady reporter in Millinocket . . . .”

Writing many years after his hike, Shaffer has only his Little Black Notebook to refresh his memory, and this notebook relates more factual than experiential details. If you are looking for an account that traces the author’s emotional or psychological journey, this memoir is not for you. What is rather unique in the book is that the author liberally intersperses his narrative with naturalistic and historical information—either adding interest to or distracting from the narrative, depending upon the reader’s frame of mind. Allow me to give an example: While crossing Long Mountain in southern central Pennsylvania, Shaffer could see “the Pigeon Hills, named for the passenger pigeons that once nested there in great numbers. This beautiful bird, larger and more brightly colored than the mourning dove, was once considered the most numerous bird species on earth. A single flock would sometimes obscure the sun. They were exterminated by market hunters, the nestlings being considered a delicacy. Eventually, the birds still living, thousands of them, were too old to reproduce. When they died there was nothing.” No doubt, the reader will never again look at the Pigeon Hills in quite the same way. And, lest the reader think that such digressions, however tangential to the subject, are an anomaly, I am tempted to offer up dozens more examples, . . . but I refrain.

All-in-all, Shaffer’s memoir is an interesting book, particularly of historical importance. It does not, however, enliven the imagination. Personally, I want the writer’s experience to come alive in my own creative mind, so that I can, as it were, hike the trail right beside him or her. And, as I vicariously hike beside the writer, I want to get to know my hiking partner as a human being with emotions and needs. If I have already hiked the AT, I want the writer’s narrative to stir up my recollections and make me, once again, feel what it was like for me to be upon the trail. If I am planning to hike the AT, I want to know what I might expect to sense and to feel. Of course, Shaffer’s memoir cannot, by virtue of its age, tell today’s readers what it is now like to hike the AT, but—if written differently—it might have taken the reader along on a great and brave adventure. Instead, it informs.

II: As Far as the Eye Can See, by David Brill.

As Far as the Eye Can See: Reflections of an Appalachian Trail Hiker by David Brill is the account of the author’s 1979, five-month, northbound thru-hike of the AT. The book was first published in 1990 and is now in its fourth edition and seventh printing.

While following a chronological order, Brill manages to arrange his narrative into thematic chapters, as suggested by the chapter titles. For instance, the first chapter, “Fear,” narrates the terrifying mountain storm that Brill experienced on his first night in the Georgia wilderness, the fears and anxieties that emerged in the process of preparing for his AT journey, and the self-doubt that troubled him during the first leg of his immense undertaking. Another chapter, “Bad Company,” tells of close encounters with the so-called “civilized” world, experiences fraught with danger for the defenseless hiker.

For Brill, hiking the AT was a transformative experience. “Perhaps the AT’s greatest gift,” he states in his latest Preface, is “the time and space to reflect, self-examine, and ultimately arrive at an enduring set of core principles.” And, after the passing of 34 years, Brill testifies, “my AT experiences continue to influence my values and shape my decisions.”

There is an unmistakable nostalgia in these pages. Brill looks back upon his AT hike as not only a formative experience, but as a period of self-reliance, of magical camaraderie, and of unique freedom from the constraints of societal expectations and material possessions. “How would I begin,” he wonders, “to prioritize what I own today and select thirty-five pounds from all this tonnage, thirty-five pounds that would answer my needs and leave me feeling as secure and well-outfitted as I felt in 1979? . . . No. The years away from the trail have softened me, made me reliant on creature comforts.” Thus, the author looks back upon his days as a thru-hiker as an ideal period, furnishing him with, perhaps, the key experiences of his life, a period never to be repeated. “The trail had shaped me, had given me a philosophy, had toughened me in some ways, had softened me in others, and had taught me lessons I will never forget. . . . Those lessons have affected everything I’ve done since.”

Looked at with these thoughts in mind, we might label Brill’s memoir as a bildungsroman, a story of a young man’s sojourn into the province of maturity. It is a journey upon which we are pleased to accompany the author as we turn each page. And, as we imaginatively become part of Brill’s linear community and witness the imprint that the journey makes upon the young man, we may share in the author’s nostalgia, for we know that our formative years are behind us, and—like the older, more mature author—we know too that, however splendid and life-changing an AT thru-hike may be for us now, it can never be that idealized experience that Brill shares with us. Even so, we delight in the journey.

III: An Eye on the Horizon, by Herbert Eye.

A book that clearly proves that being sixty-plus years of age need not be a handicap on the AT is An Eye on the Horizon: An Appalachian Trail Odyssey, by Herbert F. Eye, a work first printed in 1997. When Eye set off, in the spring of 1981, to begin his northbound section hike of the AT—a hike that would ultimately, several years later, take him to Mt. Katahdin —it was, he says, “the beginning of a dream I had wanted to fulfill since age 15.” He had first learned about the AT “about five years after its completion in 1937.”

Eye’s memoir is a detailed account of the author’s physical and mental experience—the condition of the trail, the plant and animal life, the weather, the vistas, the hiker’s personal reflections, and the people met along the trail—all of these are untiringly presented as factual detail. This memoir does not offer the reader a psychological or spiritual journey. Joy and anguish are brought up as factual elements of the author’s experience, but they are not explored in any depth or given metaphysical or religious significance.

Here is a paragraph from the mid-section of the book, a paragraph that will, perhaps, give the reader a sense of the amount and type of detail that can be expected from the author:

“On my final day in New Jersey, I hiked to the crest of Wawayanda Mtn. in about an hour after a rough hard climb out of the valley. Visibility was not good as I passed a couple of vantage points on the mountain; however, I did witness an impressive sunrise near the summit. By mid-morning, the sun was bringing out the bright yellows and reds in the maple foliage and many hues in the woodlands along the Trail—a gorgeous fall day on Wawayanda Mtn. I stopped for a lunch break on a small footbridge crossing at the upper end of a little lake near the Wawayanda State Park Headquarters. In four more miles, I would be leaving New Jersey, and I reflected upon what a great experience it had been hiking the 74 miles through this state. Its beauty and diversity are impressive. I had feared that the Trail’s nearness to urban centers would compromise whatever natural beauty it had and was pleased to find this was not true.”

The author’s thoughts rarely stray from out of the realm of experience. When they do, it is to make a passing observation, explanatory or informative, or to note the logistical matters associated with section hiking. For the most part, we are left uninformed about whatever is going on in the author’s life beyond the trail or in the interim between hikes. We are not told what personal convictions or beliefs he has, or what his feelings are about anything happening in the world. Nor does the author arrange his chapters thematically. On account of these things, a paragraph from the mid-section of the book (such as given above) will read very much like a paragraph from its beginning or end, with only the hiker’s geographical location determining the paragraph’s place within the larger narrative. Thus, there is a seeming redundancy to the book. Ultimately, the variety of days wears itself out, and one day begins to appear remarkably similar to another day. But, in fairness to the author, it might be argued, that this repetitive aspect is also part of the hiking experience. If the author has succeeded in communicating it to the reader, it proves only that he has been faithful to his narrative purpose.

Eye does not record any epiphanies, revelations, or the acquiring of any lasting principles. “My closing statement can be made simply,” he tells us, “by saying that this was a journey of a lifetime and has left me with memories that will last forever.” Does the reader want to know the hiker’s emotional response in reaching the peak of Mt. Katahdin and fulfilling his life-long dream? Eye answers rhetorically, “Were there tears?—How could there not be?”

IV: On the Beaten Path, by Robert Rubin.

On the Beaten Path: An Appalachian Pilgrimage, by Robert Alden Rubin, is a masterfully crafted book based on the former book editor’s 1997 five-month, northbound thru-hike of the AT. It was first published in 2000, and it is now in its second edition.

Though based on the author’s hiking journals, and following chronological and, therefore, geographical order, this book is not a journal. It is a reflective, insightful, informative, and descriptive memoir, one that reads, at times, like an essay and, in other places, more like a novel. Often, there is a lyrical, poetic quality to the writing, juxtaposed against a casual and informative prose.

Here he records an experience, at the end of a rainy and foggy day, on top of Wildcat Ridge, in Georgia:

“And now for the first time all day a view presents itself: a last bank of ragged gray-footed clouds drifts over, revealing the setting sun, and turns rose and orange against the deep blue of early evening. To the east great castles of cumulonimbus loom, glowing in the light of sunset, as they are pushed seaward by a cold northwest wind sweeping in over the hills. Soon the mountains surround us like dusky blue ocean swells against the bright horizon, and darkness fills up the valleys. We stake our tents down on the rocky soil. Maybe it isn’t such a lousy day after all.”

The author manages to escape the curse that plagues hiking memoirs—redundancy. Each new section promises something refreshingly different from the previous.

Rubin is a sociable person, and his memoir records his numerous interactions with fellow hikers and townspeople. The dialogue flows easily, and we, too, find ourselves enjoying the author’s company. He opens up his life and heart to us, lets us in on his personal thoughts, memories, and feelings. He is self-effacing, with a sense of humor about him; in short, he is an eminently likable fellow.

What did he learn from his adventure? “The lesson that the Appalachian Trail teaches is that one must simply take one step, then the next, then the next, and keep moving forward.”

V: AWOL on the Appalachian Trail, by David Miller.

AWOL on the Appalachian Trail, first published in 2010, is David Miller’s account of his 2003, six-month, northbound thru-hike of the AT. Miller was determined to hike the AT, and being over 40, he figured he ought to do it sooner rather than later. After being turned down for leave of absence from his computer programming job, he went absent without leave—thus his trail-name, “Awol.”

No doubt, much of the detail in this book is taken from Miller’s hiking journals, but he does not reproduce his entries. Rather, he gathers his material into chapters representing relatively short sections of the trail. Chapter 1, for instance, is titled “Springer Mountain to Hiawassee.” He focuses on telling his experiences within each section, not on the particular details of every individual day. Thereby, he avoids the cause of much seeming redundancy.

Miller does more than tell a story, although that he does do and well. Having as his intended audience backpackers and would-be backpackers wanting to know what it is like to hike the AT, Miller takes his readers along his journey, introducing them to life on the trail. The resulting book is both descriptive and informative. It is more than a memoir; it is an introduction to the life style, including the hardships and rewards, as well as the social experience, of an AT thru-hiker.

Miller has no epiphanies or life-altering moments along his journey. Even so, “The payoff,” he tells us, “though difficult to quantify, is much greater than I expected. . . . As a result of my hike, I am much more inclined to do things. . . . I am friendlier and more patient. I worry less about money. I can get by with less. It is as pleasing to get rid of old stuff as it is to get new stuff. Excess is a burden, even when you are not carrying it on your back.”

VI: Unexpected Journey, by Chris Johnson.

Unexpected Journey: Walking Home on the Appalachian Trail, by Maine resident Chris Johnson, is the author’s memoir of his 2008 and 2009 northbound hike of the AT, published in 2012. Having determined, at the age of fifty, to follow his dream, Johnson quits his state job, collects his hiking gear, and sets off to Springer Mountain, leaving behind a blossoming relationship with a girlfriend.

This memoir is almost entirely reproduced from Johnson’s hiking journals. Every single day is accounted for in 254 pages, not counting the few pages that serve as introduction and conclusion. The record breaks off at Duncannon, PA, where the author, on July 18, left the trail to return to Maine for rest and healing. “I figured I’d be a couple weeks, a month tops, and I’d be back on the trail. But it wasn’t as easy as that.” It is June 16 of the following year when Johnson returns to Duncannon and resumes his trek.

Johnson’s journal does not suggest that his journey was very sociable. In fact, the author acknowledges, “By nature I’m a rather reserved person; I like my own company, my own routine or rhythm.” He is a man uncommonly in tune with his innermost thoughts and feelings, and he shares these often quite personal details with us. His internal struggles, his psychological demons, and his spiritual intuitions and metaphysical notions he writes of freely. The latter tend to be unconventional. For instance, after deciding to hike five miles beyond a shelter to a general store, “something stops me and tells me to go back to the shelter for the night. . . . I know there’s some reason I came back—something about cosmic timing or planetary alignment.” Despite his idiosyncrasies, Johnson is a likable enough fellow, not without a sense of humor.

This memoir is as much, if not more, about Johnson’s emotional and spiritual journey as it is about the AT. Depending upon the wants of the reader, this fact may either be a strength or a weakness. But, in either case, this book should not be mistaken as offering an introduction to the AT or to the general experience of the AT backpacker. It is simply too much of a psychological autobiography to be either of those other things.

VII: Hiking Through, by Paul Stutzman.

Hiking Through: One Man’s Journey to Peace and Freedom on the Appalachian Trail is Paul Stutzman’s account of his 2008, four-and-a-half month, northbound thru-hike of the AT. It was first published in 2010. As Stutzman began his trek nine or ten days before Chris Johnson (see VI above) began, and as Stutzman hiked at a faster pace, it doesn’t appear that the two authors ever met on the trail. Stutzman decided to leave his job as a restaurateur and to hike through to a clearer consciousness of God’s purpose for his life shortly after breast cancer claimed the life of his wife.

Thru-hikers, says the author, are “forever part of the brotherhood and sisterhood of the AT. . . . Only your trail brothers and sisters will understand the transformation within you.” Even so, he feels compelled to use this record of his hike to deliver the message, “Don’t take your spouse and family for granted. Enjoy today fully. Don’t assume you have tomorrow to tell your loved ones what they mean to you.” He also wants to show his readers “that the Christian life doesn’t have to be boring.”

Stutzman’s book is not a reproduction of his hiking journals. He takes his readers along with him on his journey, introducing them to the AT and to the experience of long-distance backpacking, but he doesn’t burden them with repetitive details. If the book falls short in some way, it is perhaps because the author is not profuse in his descriptions. Much of the charm of this book is that it records a social life on the trail, encounters and interactions with fellow hikers and townspeople. It is also an autobiographical book, as Stutzman allows his readers to get to know him, his background, his thoughts, his feelings, and particularly his God-consciousness.

The fact that this memoir has been republished by a division of Baker Book House might inform us that it has received the editorial seal of evangelical approval. But the author doesn’t preach . . . much. For the most part, he simply records his faith-based thoughts, his brief prayers, and his awareness of God’s working presence in his life. Readers with any theistic faith shouldn’t find themselves uncomfortable with this author.