Not every hiker capable of maintaining a journal detailing the events of each day and his or her unique experience of those events is capable also of putting together a hiker’s memoir. But it may help the journalist to know that there is no ideal hiker’s memoir. Rather, every such book stands to be weighed only on the scale of the reader’s personal needs and expectations. 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 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.
1: 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.
2: 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.
3: 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?”
4: 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.”
5: 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.”
6: 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.
7: 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 6 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.
8: Where’s the Next Shelter?, by Gary Sizer.
Gary Sizer, a.k.a. Green Giant, has written an entertaining account of his five-month, northbound thru-hike of the AT in 2014. Focused largely on the social aspects of the journey, Where’s the Next Shelter? (2015) includes a few memorable characters and more dialogue than one might expect in a work based on journals and memory. It is the conversation and interior monologue, however, that makes this account often humorous.
Because Sizer focuses so much upon social interaction and conversation, long stretches of the trail are traversed by the author without ever touching the ground. That is, Sizer’s experience with the trail itself and his physical environment is frequently neglected or overshadowed by his detailed descriptions of interactions with hiking associates and friends. But this is not to say that Sizer altogether neglects the immediacy of his physical environment and its challenges. In fact, when the author does relate his experience with his physical surroundings, including the weather, and its impact upon his body and psyche, he does so fully and with artistic talent. For instance, in his “epic” trip up Roan Mountain, he combines social and environmental, physical and emotional detail to paint an engrossing portrait of his total experience as a hiker. Apparently aware of the deficit of the mundane in his writing, Sizer includes a mid-book chapter titled “Everyday” in which he surveys the daily considerations of a thru-hiker, touching upon many of the details that he elsewhere omits. Sizer is not merely a writer of social interaction; he is also an able nature writer:
Walking along Franconia Ridge was like hiking in the sky. Craggy drops on either side of the worn rock path fell hundreds of feet into lesser waves of peaks and valleys. . . . For an hour we walked along the winding granite tightrope, through the clouds amid yellow beams of light. Some of the lower clouds piled up along the ridge below, building in height and mass until they rolled over us in slow motion waves of gray, crashing on the rocks, leaving blue sky and golden streaks in their wake.
Purists may be troubled by Sizer’s decision to “yellow-blaze” twice, once in Virginia and, again, in Pennsylvania, due to his getting behind schedule and on account of Morton’s Neuroma (a painful foot condition) and Lymme Disease. We are not told that Sizer ever went back to make-up those 150-or-so miles, but what he has confided to us makes us feel confident that what we are given is an honest (as well as a well-told) account of one thru-hiker’s journey.
9: Balancing on Blue, by Keith Foskett.
Balancing on Blue: A Thru-Hiking Adventure on the Appalachian Trail is much more than a memoir of author Keith Foskett’s 2012 five-month northbound adventure, it is also a source of information and useful advice for those contemplating their own backpacking adventure.
Foskett, a.k.a. Fozzie, identifies himself unapologetically as a dromomaniac:
Dromomania, from the Latin dromas (runner) and mania (excessive or unreasonable desire, even insanity) is an uncontrollable impulse to wander, the kind that is appeased often as the expense of careers, relationships and maintains a blithe disregard for mortgages and pensions.
The author learned to satisfy his dromomania through long-distance hiking, and has backpacked not only the AT, but also the Camino de Santiago and the Pacific Crest Trail.
Foskett introduces his readers to several characters who, to one extent on another, he associated with at shelters, camp sites, and towns, but although there is this social aspect to traveling the AT, for the author long-distance hiking is largely a solitary enterprise in which the hiker is, for the most part, alone with his thoughts and thrown upon his own inner resources. And for Foskett, who identifies as an introvert, this is both natural and freeing.
While in the process of narrating his adventure, Foskett often comes upon a topic about which he has something to say, and so we have informative sections on a wide range of subjects, such as mice, bears, mosquitos, trail magic, trail romance, trail maintenance, rain, injuries, introversion, body odor, and zoos. He is never lyrical, but he nevertheless succeeds in relating his experience—such as a storm witnessed from within Standing Indian Shelter in North Carolina:
The wind had intensified, there was a damp smell to the air and, well, just that sense you get that it’s going to rain. All hell broke loose about 9.30 when the skies erupted in a torrential downpour and the noise, oh my god, the noise! I stood and surveyed the carnage from my haven, in awe of the deafening roar as rain tore through the trees and smashed into the ground.
Poetic this is not, but it does place the reader’s imagination just where the author wants him, on the AT.
My one complaint about this book is that it begins without an appropriate introduction. I expected that what I was reading was written by Foskett, and when I saw that the subheadings for Chapter 1 were the names of various persons, I supposed that Foskett was introducing me to these people. But, in fact, under each person’s name, we have a section written by that person. Thus, both Chapter 1 and Chapter 15 are written by the persons that appear as characters within Foskett’s narrative. A short introduction to these chapters would have been helpful.
10: The Longest Mile, by Ryan Watkins.
The Longest Mile: Nine Days in the Great Smoky Mountains is the story of three men who, together, backpack the Appalachian Trail southward from Standing Bear Farms Hostel (three miles north of GSMNP) to the parking lot at Fontana Dam. This book of 145 pages gives a detailed account of their trip in early May of 20161 over about 75 challenging miles, punctuated by stops at the following shelters: Cosby Knob, Tri-Corner Knob, Pecks Corner, Icewater Spring, Mt. Collins, Double Spring Gap, Derrick Knob, and Mollies Ridge.
As one who is planning his own hike southward through the Smokies, I am intrigued by the difficulty Watkins experienced in reaching Cosby Knob Shelter. I will take heed and plan accordingly. And this, perhaps, is the chief value of the book: it provides an informative guide and suggestive preview to anyone planning a similar venture along the AT.
“Day Two: Surviving Bear Attack” is an almost comical chapter, as the alleged bear attack is nothing more than a momentary approach by a curious bear. The event described is not even a false charge by a bear. Tim Rubbert, in Hiking with Grizzlies (2006), states, “Probably the single most important action to take when a bear is encountered is to freeze and remain calm while watching the bear’s reaction to your presence.” Throwing rocks at the bear will probably not help to persuade it that you are not a threat.
1. Although Watkins never explicitly gives the year of the trip, he does say that, at one point, the men discussed the movie The Revenant. Since the movie was released in December 2015, and Watkins’s book was published in 2016, the trip had to have taken place during 2016.
11. Appalachian Odyssey, by Jeffrey H. Ryan.
One hardly needs to be told that Appalachian Odyssey: A 28-Year Hike on America’s Trail (2016) is not a memoir of a thru-hike. Ryan has pieced together, in chronological order, an account of his and hiking partner Wayne Cyr’s section hike, beginning in 1985. Compelled by their sense of adventure and devotion to the AT, the two begin their hike at Mount Katahdin, return to the trail generally once or twice a year and usually in the autumn, and complete it at Springer Mountain in 2013.
Although the adventure is shared by both of the men, it is Ryan’s personal experiences—his physical and emotional highs and lows— that are detailed in this book. Ryan, a resident of Maine and a writer of product descriptions for L. L. Bean, is usually filled with delight at each prospect of several days in the woods. His feelings are notably different during a hike in Tennessee, after having pushed himself too hard at work. But Ryan recounts much more than his subjective experience. His account has frequent physical description of the natural surroundings, and is often informative in regard to physical landmarks or features and backpacking equipment. To a lesser extent, he takes notice of the people that he meets along the way. Unlike a few thru-hiking memoirs, this is not a book predominately descriptive of a social affair.
There is not a great deal of advice in this book, except for the hiker adage, “Hike your own hike” and, perhaps, that one should embrace the adventure in its entirety, from the moment that one steps outside one’s door. Although his experience of half a lifetime could not have been other than life-changing and affirming, Ryan doesn’t share any final words of wisdom gleaned from the odyssey. What the reader takes away from the book is that hiking the AT is both physically challenging and mentally rewarding, and that the rewards are well worth the challenges.
No tears are shed by the author upon reaching the summit of Springer Mountain. A goal is achieved, but nothing is concluded:
“The only thing we knew with any certainty was that more life on the trail was—and would always be—in order.
“The adventure continues.”
Ryan includes graphs that provide a visual aid to understanding the elevation changes of each trip, where the shelter and campsites are located, and how many miles are accomplished each day. The work is printed on quality paper, which, although adding to the cost of the book, is necessary given the frequency of beautiful color photos of the trail and its surroundings that are interspersed throughout the text. Given the overall quality of the book, it is a shame that the text is not better edited, but the errors are only technical, not substantive, and are a minor distraction from a otherwise well-done work.
12. Becoming Odyssa, by Jennifer Pharr Davis.
Becoming Odyssa: Adventures on the Appalachian Trail, published two years after Davis’s 2008 women’s speed record of hiking the AT in fifty-seven days, is not the story of that achievement. Rather, it is about her four-month northbound thru-hike of the A.T. in 2005. “For most people,” says Davis, “I am defined by my 2008 Appalachian Trail record, which is strange to me, because it was my first thru-hike in 2005 that defined me.” Becoming Odyssa is the aptly titled book that tells of the transformation of Davis into Odyssa:
“Odyssa wasn’t just a nickname; it was a second identity. . . . For me, the distance between Jen and Odyssa marked the journey between naivete and experience. I knew that when I reached Katahdin, Odyssa would be a person far removed from the girl who started the trail.”
If you are looking for a book that will tell you what you can expect on the trail, you should look elsewhere. Although there are a few passages that shed light on the thru-hiker experience generally, this book is predominantly about Davis’s unique and sometimes unusual experiences, her interactions with and reactions to people, places, and things. To a great extent, the book delves into Davis’s emotions, her joy and her indignation, as well as her religious faith.
However, Davis’s reaction toward day-hikers and section-hikers keeps me from fully enjoying this book. She makes the following statement in Chapter 13:
“I already had a bias against most weekenders, but after my night at Manassas Gap Shelter, I decided I didn’t like section-hikers much either. . . .
“It seemed to me that, as a thru-hiker, I should be able to pull rank over a weekender or section-hiker. But I was discovering that the weekenders and section-hikers thought they were just as important as me, if not more so.”
The author’s attitude toward non thru-hikers continues throughout the book and makes one wish that Warren Doyle had informed Davis before her hike that all A.T. hikers are, in fact, equal.
A couple of the characters developed in this work are especially memorable—namely, Moot and Mooch. The story of Moot appears in the ninth chapter, “Oppression.” Davis meets him at a restaurant in Damascus and finds that, for 165 miles, do whatever she may and try however so hard, she cannot rid herself of his annoying presence. The latter character is an addition to the second half on the book. Often humorous and. ultimately, likeable, Mooch becomes a solid friend of Davis’s.
The “thirteen snippets of accumulated wisdom” offered by Warren Doyle in the book’s Introduction should be valuable to all prospective thru-hikers and to section-hikers as well.
13. Southbound on the Appalachian Trail, by Ken Sarzynski.
Sarzynski began his four-and-a-half month long southbound journey in mid-June, 2007, at the summit of Mt. Katahdin. He says, “They say that Southbounders are introverts who prefer to keep to themselves and make the AT into a quiet and humbling experience. That was certainly the case for me.” But that is not the reason why he chose to travel southward. The reason is simply because he was unable to start until June.
Whereas most trail memoirs are arranged in chronological and geographical order, from the commencement to the termination, from south to north or north to south, Southbound on the Appalachian Trail (2010) is not predominantly so. Sarzynski observes, “Many books are simply straight-forward re-tellings of journal entries, and that was certainly not something I wanted to emulate.” Although his book does include chapters recounting the highlights of each state, in order, from Maine to Georgia, the book consists, for the most part, in Questions and Answers. “Did you get any trail magic?”, “Did you ever slack pack?”, “Did you ever want to quit?”, “How much does it cost?”, “Do you ever build a fire?”, “Have you seen any wildlife?”, “What’s you trail name?”, and “What did you do with your food at night?” are only a few of the questions that Sarzynski addresses. Because the book is arranged in this way, some subjects come up more than once. For instance, the White Mountains are discussed under the Highlights of New Hampshire, and also while answering the question, “What was the hardest section?”
Thus, the book recounts various experiences that the author had during his thru-hike. It includes his personal perspective on various issues and his advice on a few matters. What the readers will not get from this book is the immediacy of the hiking experience. There are no moments of excitement or aggravation, no moments of awe or boredom. Rather than peering into the writer’s private journal, we are attending the hiker’s public lecture. This is not to be critical. There is room for such a book as this in the literature of the Trail. But the book will be most useful for the reader that is without much hiking experience and is inquiring about the AT for the first time.
On a personal note, I was happy to see that the author lost the trail at the Blue Ridge Parkway just south of Shenandoah National Park. My wife and I spent a good half hour looking for the southbound trail at that same place.
14. Skywalker, by Bill Walker.
Walker, who, in his mid-forties, thru-hiked the AT from Georgia to Maine, tells the story of his adventure in Skywalker: Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail (2008). Like Jennifer Pharr Davis, Walker attended Warren Doyle’s Appalachian Trail Institute in 2005, but he doesn’t mention meeting her. His thru-hike, which took place in the same year, lasted four-and-a-half months, ending on September 27.
“Skywalker” is a trail name self-chosen by Walker, emphasizing his most prominent physical attribute—his height, 6’11”. No doubt, it is a trail name that Walker’s companion hikers found easy to remember.
The “close encounters” that the sub-title refers to are Walker’s fellow hikers. The author seems rarely to have hiked solo. At least, the impression is that he was almost always in the company of other hikers, either section-hikers or thru-hikers. He does a splendid job at capturing the various characters and representing their dialogue, although his apparent attempts at humor I found to fall flat. Perhaps, one simply had to be there.
His self-deprecating tone can be detected in his description of southbounders:
“For my part, it certainly was easy to detect them as they approached. They not only had the swagger and sense of purpose of thru-hikers, they had the smell. They walked down the center of the trail as if everyone else was supposed to clear out of the way. When they stopped they acted as if they were doing you a favor talking to you. At shelters their body language bespoke, ‘Approach me at the risk of reproach.’ In fact, the more I saw of them the more I thought they reminded me of, well, us.”
Walker’s book isn’t often descriptive of his physical surroundings. It may be that there is not a lot to say about the green tunnel. Even so, when he is descriptive, he can be informative as well. This is his description of the descent from Mount Moosilauke:
“The trail is, for miles, a jumble of rocks that run parallel to a creek with several cascading waterfalls. There was nothing particularly dangerous about this, except it was laborious, picking from one rock to another. But then the trail amazingly went straight down some smooth, wet rocks with wooden ladders and steel rungs built into the rocks to aid in the descent. It required getting one’s body perpendicular to the rock being descended and moving at a snail’s pace. One misstep could and would result in serious injury, or even worse.”
I particularly appreciated Walker’s applauding of environmentalism and of his lament that there is a dearth of nature writers in this generation.
15. Wild Revival, by Mark W. Kelley.
Kelley’s short book, Wild Revival: Surviving the 100 Mile Wilderness on the Appalachian Trail (2015) is about his southbound trek, in mid-July, from Katahdin Stream Campground to Monson. The year of the hike is nowhere indicated.
“This story,” says Kelley in a preface, “is written for the modern day adventurer who balances, and perhaps struggles with the contradictions of career, family, adventure, and vice.” The book ends with Will, the protagonist (a.k.a. Wayward) still struggling over these “contradictions,” as he listens to Sour Punch advocate for a thru-hike of the AT:
“You’re turning it over in your head, weighing the pros and cons, the risks and rewards. But the logic and rationale doesn’t matter. Soon, it will become a matter of the heart. If that happens, you’ll stay on the trail.”
The first forty miles of Will’s adventure is pure misery. Between the pouring rain, the deep mud, the swarms of mosquitos, the loneliness of the trail, and the aching flesh and bone, it seems as though there is nothing to uplift Will’s spirit, and the reader may well wonder why anyone would choose to undergo such torment. But then part of the reason for Will’s predicament is made clear. Not only is Will, a novice backpacker, carrying 60 pounds, but he weighs 220 pounds, and the author confides, “Before I embarked on my journey, I celebrated a debauched and unhealthy lifestyle.” Subsisting on fast food, alcohol, and cigarettes, while living a sedentary life, Will is unprepared for the trail. Yet, he quickly begins to adapt, and as he gets deeper into the wilderness, moments of delight and unexpected pleasure begin to emerge. By the time he reaches Monson, the lure of the trail has caught his imagination, and he decides to hike all the AT sections of Maine.
16: Believe, by Ethan Jenkins.
One of the most entertaining memoirs by an AT would-be thru-hiker is Believe: One Man’s Epic Journey Hiking the Appalachian Trail. Jenkins has a rare gift as a story teller. His account of various episodes with people he met on the trail and the people with whom he traveled is frequently humorous. Also, his story is inspirational. Jenkins proves that being a recovering alcoholic with bi-polar disorder is no obstacle to great physical and mental accomplishment.
The year of Jenkins’s northbound hike is never given, but his website says that it took him three years to write his book, which was published in 2017.
For a couple of different reasons, I would have to say that Jenkins did not have a successful thru-hike. Not only did he skip New Hampshire and most of Maine, but he did not enjoy his hike. Unfortunately, he did not hike his own hike. He hiked on another person’s terms, and the experience became unbearable to him. On the other hand, Jenkins did not walk away from his hike empty-handed. He states, “I learned that I have no limitations only ones that my mind thinks I have. If I can push through the pain even when I think I’m going to drop dead, it means I can do anything.”
Believe is only incidentally about the Appalachian Trail. Very little in the book would be different if its background were the Pacific Crest Trail or any other trail. The book is really about people and about the author himself.
Unfortunately, Jenkins’s book is badly in need of editing. Errors in sentence structure, punctuation, and spelling abound. I nearly made the decision not to read the book because of these technical errors. Had I made that decision, it would have resulted in my loss, for Believe has certainly been a source of rare pleasure to me.
17: Footpath My Ass!, by Terry Croteau.
Footpath My Ass! And Other Keen Observations Made by a Middle-aged Woman Hiking the Appalachian Trail (2009), chronicles the northbound thru-hike of fifty-five years old Terry Croteau (a.k.a. Bluebird) from Georgia to Maine. The book is edited from her journal entries, which were transcribed and first published online during her hike. Croteau was sponsored in her hike by the Hershey Company’s Children’s Miracle Network. She began her journey in March 2006, and although she was, in September, disabled from continuing her hike, when she fell in Maine and tore her rotator cuff in her right shoulder, in the following year she picked up where she left off and completed her epic journey on the summit of Mount Katahdin.
Croteau has an engaging, upbeat, and enthusiastic personality, which is sure to win over the reader. Frustration and pain may bring her to tears occasionally, but she never despairs or doubts her purpose. With the goal of Mount Katahdin always before her, she pushes on, despite the obstacles that the trail may place in her way.
She has a poet’s ability to observe and communicate, and she has a child’s ability to experience the simple gifts of nature with uninhibited pleasure. On June 25, 2006, she writes,
“The sky grew dark as I was preparing to go, and the smell of rain came on the wind. The trees turned their leaves belly up to take in moisture from the air, as the heavens opened and spilled down. The rain soaked the very top of the trees, and as those branches hung under the weight of the rain, a cool drink was released to the leaves below, cascading leaf over leaf till it reached me, cooling my hot head, refreshing me, and washing me. I began to laugh and laugh.”
Croteau’s facility with the language, her sense of humor, and her delight in nature and in the people that she meets along her trek make Footpath My Ass! rewarding to the reader.
18: Between a Rock and a White Blaze: Searching for Significance on the Appalachian Trail, by Julie Urbanski.
Urbanski’s AT memoir, Between a Rock and a White Blaze, published in 2012, recounts her outward and inward experiences during the ninety-six days of her northbound thru-hike, beginning on April 2, 2011. Because she hiked with her husband, Matt, she attempts, in part, to detail their shared experience. Urbanski establishes, first of all, that she and Matt are athletes, marathon runners, and this fact cannot be lost sight of while she recounts the high mileage days of their journey.
One thing that is clear from the beginning is that Urbanski is a highly intelligent and reflective writer. She not only considers the significance of her physical and emotional experiences, but she also has the ability to express her thoughts in a way that is meaningful to her audience. These facts make reading her memoir enjoyable, engaging, and perhaps an aid to reflection to her readers.
Urbanski and her husband had hiked the PCT in 2007. Afterwards, they worked corporate jobs. Urbanski relates that after three years she became a person that she could no longer recognize and no longer wanted to be, and—being on the verge of becoming thirty years old—she was ready for a life changing experience. Once on the trail, the experience of herself began to change. While still in Georgia, she says, “I was tired of hating the person I was and I finally felt like I was enjoying my own company again.”
In the mid-Atlantic states, Urbanski becomes on the brink of quitting, but is saved by the reflection that, since she could not justify herself to her blog readers, neither could she give reasons for quitting that would satisfy herself.
In Maine, she reflects, “I wasn’t sure if I had really changed since the beginning. . . . Mentally, even though I no longer felt negativity pulsing through me, I couldn’t fully grasp what had changed about me.” She knows that her hike had not been perfect, that “as another thru-hike came to a close, I messed up a lot of its pieces,”—even so, she comes to the realization that “finding” her true self is impossible, that instead she has to “create” it, and that the process of doing so is through adventures like thru-hiking the AT.
What especially distinguishes her AT experience from her PCT experience is the community that she encounters in the former: “The quality and sheer quantity of people we met along the way, whether on the trail, in town, or even through online connections, were unmatched. Even further, the generosity of those people was astounding.” On the other hand, “Because of a near void of shelters on the PCT, we just didn’t have that sort of social aspect.”
Personally, I could relate with Urbanski’s self-judgment over her unwillingness to go the added distance to take in a remarkable view, to attain a summit, or to see a monument. I too have often been unwilling to walk those extra steps, only to regret afterwards the loss of an opportunity that may never reappear. But, I could not relate to Urbanski’s athleticism and her data-driven perspective that insisted she hike according to her abilities rather than according to her emotions. I too much enjoy the experiences of camp to neglect it in order to hike as long as I am physically capable of doing so.
All said, this book is a valuable contribution to the available literature of its kind.
19: The Road to Damascus . . . and Beyond, by George Sandul.
The Road to Damascus . . . and Beyond: A Reawakening of the Spirit by Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail is an entertaining and informative account of the 2003, 164-day, northbound thru-hike of the AT by Sandul (a.k.a. Ole Smoky Lonesome). The title of Sandul’s book is an allusion to the conversion of the Pharisee Saul to the apostle Paul, which—as every informed Christian knows—takes place “on the road to Damascus.” As Sandul acknowledges, it is a title that “reeked of religious overtones which have nothing to do with the story.” Unfortunately, Sandul’s potential readers wouldn’t know that the title is misleading unless they read the book—and, thus, I establish this fact now, so as to remove a possible obstacle from prospective readers.
Sandul, at the end of his book, confesses that he had difficulty identifying and consistently writing to an intended audience and that, consequently, he writes alternately to a very broad and, then, specific audience. Even so, prospective thru-hikers appear to be a part of Sandul’s intended audience, so it is hard to take him seriously when he writes this paragraph in the early chapters of the book:
“If you are planning on hiking the Trail, do not—I repeat—do not read this book! Yes, it will be full of information for that is its purpose. Oh, and entertainment too, for that probably is the main point. However, it will try to talk you out of hiking the Appalachian Trail. Unless you are an absolute glutton for punishment and like to abuse yourself, this just may not be what you are looking for. The year that I hiked it, only 8 percent of us masochists finished. Eight percent! The odds are not too good, huh?”
Sandul does detail the trying times on the trail, but also the rewarding aspects of thru-hiking. Aside from the biographical chapters (which appear to have been written specifically for Sandul’s family and close friends), this is just the sort of book that a future thru-hiker might profitably read. This is particularly true since Sandul, at several places in the narrative, reminds his readers, “Whatever you do, don’t quit!”
Sandul identifies himself as a “purist” and doesn’t hesitate to offer his opinions on blue-blazing, yellow-blazing, and slack-packing. He is indignant at those who would compromise the integrity of a thru-hike: “My ides of a thru-hike just seemed to clash with too many that were involved in a similar endeavor.”
20: Two Tents, by Jim Haskell.
Between 1990 and 2010 (and including those years), Jim Haskell went on over 150 separate hikes on the AT, the majority of those hikes taking no longer than one day. Even so, those 150+ hikes covered the entire distance of the AT. Two Tents: Twenty-one Years of Discovery on the Appalachian Trail (2015) is a record of some of Haskell’s experiences both on and off the trail during this period.
Haskell’s clever way of telling his hiking stories is through conversation with other characters, fellow-hikers and hiking partners. So, we are given stories of previous hikes told within the context of present hikes. It is a fictional device used by the author to relate non-fictional accounts. In one of these conversations, Haskell relates the story of how he obtained his trail name, “Two Tents”—a story that I won’t relate here for fear of spoiling the enjoyment of readers.
Interestingly, Haskell is not an avid backpacker and camper:
“I much prefer to slack-pack. I love hiking the trail, but I don’t have to carry a heavy backpack to do it. I much prefer eating a good meal and sleeping in a comfortable bed at night than I do eating freeze-dried and sleeping in a shelter.”
Haskell’s preferred method of hiking the trail involves leaving a bicycle at his point of destination for a day’s hike, driving to the beginning point, hiking the section, then riding back to his vehicle.
Maple and I have hiked a few one-day sections, but we prefer taking our backpacks, going out for at least two days, and enjoying the full camping experience. Tenting, filtering our water from a spring or creek, and being fully reliant upon the food and clothing that we have carried on our backs is, for us, all an integral part of the AT experience.
Haskell has published an interesting memoir, one that tells his experience with great selectivity, and is very encouraging to fellow section-hikers.