Words on Trails: or, Not All Who Wander Are Lost
Let me get this out of the way up front: Yes, I have read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. Yes, I liked it. No, I do not think it’s the best example of its genre. Those of you who feel that this is heresy of some sort may feel free to bow out of this article now.
Still here? Good, because I’m about to talk about some books that are, in my humble opinion, much better.
Since I brought up Wild, let’s start with a couple of books about the Pacific Crest Trail, or PCT, which runs from Mexico to Canada. This trail is no light undertaking–it takes an average of five to six months to walk, and hikers can expect to contend with heat, snow, rain, bears, mosquitos, switchbacks, rivers, and occasionally even other hikers. Its beauty, however, is legendary, and those who walk it find themselves awed by the journey.
You don’t have to be a big, strapping athlete carrying a massive backpack to conquer this trail, though. Barbara Egbert’s Zero Days is a memoir following a family–mom, dad, and daughter–who through-hike the entire thing. (Through-hiking means hiking the whole trail in one continuous attempt. Section-hiking means covering in stages over the course of months or even years.) Even more impressive is the fact that the daughter was only ten years old at the time of the hike. And yes, she did finish the trail.
I liked the fact that this memoir is family-oriented, chronicling what it’s like to spend that much time together as a group, especially with a young child in the mix. This book is also a bit different from others in the genre in that it focuses a little less on the details of the hike end-to-end and instead tackles topics that give readers an idea of what you need to successfully hike the trail.
Moving on, Erin Miller’s Hikertrash is much more of a standard memoir chronicling the hike start to finish. Erin and her husband Carl decide to pull up roots and hike the trail in search of something new in their lives. She describes their adventures through a series of journal entries, and she tells their story with candor and humor. If you want a good idea of what it’s like to do this hike, this is a good book to pick up.
As celebrated as the PCT is, it’s still a youngster compared to the Appalachian Trail, or AT, the granddaddy of long-distance trails. This is an East Coast trail that runs from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. It’s not as remote as the PCT, rarely straying more than a few miles from civilization, which brings its own set of dangers and challenges.
My favorite book about the AT, and indeed my all-time favorite hiking memoir, is Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. Bryson and his friend Katz hiked the trail in the mid-1990s, both of them out of shape and yet still struggling to through-hike the trail. I’d say that only half of this book is about their actual hike, as Bryson also talks a lot about the history of the Forest Service, the construction of the AT, and the troubles facing America’s public lands. Don’t think that this book is boring, though, because it’s laugh-out-loud funny. Bryson’s dry British humor constantly upends your expectations of what hiking is like and doesn’t sugar-coat his difficulties, but it also points out the myriad benefits of taking off for a walk in the woods.
My other AT memoir pick is Jennifer Pharr Davis’s Becoming Odyssa, which features a woman solo-hiking the trail. I have to admire the guts that it takes to set off alone into the wilderness, even on a trail that rarely strays far from towns. Davis learns very quickly that it takes a certain kind of courage and perseverance to tackle over 2000 miles of trail, especially after she encounters a terrible situation that shakes her to the core.
Many other long-distance trails exist around the world, but these are the two most well-known. Other people have written about their adventures on paths other than the two big ones, and there are a few that I’d like to showcase, not only because they’re interesting books, but to make readers aware of the other opportunities for hiking.
One of the most beautiful trails in California, and one that runs concurrent with the PCT, is the John Muir Trail, or JMT. It passes through some of the loveliest areas of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, starting in Yosemite National Park and finishing at Mt. McKinley. It’s 211 miles long, crosses several mountain passes, and takes anywhere from two to four weeks to traverse.
Suzanne Roberts’s Almost Somewhere is the only book about this trail that I’ve read, but it really struck a chord with me. Roberts and two friends decide to hike the JMT the summer after college graduation, and the book is not only about their hike, but about Roberts’s growing appreciation for the world around her. As a woman who likes to hike (although I lack a lot of experience), this memoir resonated strongly with me. I felt that it was an excellent portrait of what it’s like to be a woman in a setting that is traditionally more male-oriented, and while it didn’t shy away from those challenges, it gave me the insight to feel more comfortable in the outdoors.
Finally, we’re going to move to a couple of trails that are not wilderness trails, but instead are pilgrimage trails in Europe. Even in the modern age, pilgrimage trails are well-used, and people walk them for more than just religious reasons. One of the most well-known pilgrimages is along the Camino de Santiago, which runs through Spain to the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela and is just shy of 500 miles long.
Kurt Koontz’s A Million Steps is my current favorite memoir about walking this path. While any long hike can be a time for contemplation and soul-searching, it’s especially pronounced on the Camino. Since the path is still primarily a spiritual journey, and one that puts walkers in contact with many opportunities for contact with Spain’s Christian community, it’s hard not to understand Koontz’s introspection. Of course, it’s not all serious, and the balance between humor and solemnity is what I liked most.
One more pilgrim trail–and the book about it–has recently come to my attention: the Macmillan Way in the south of England. John Cherrington’s Walking to Camelot takes him and a friend through the small rural communities of such places as the Cotswolds and Dorset on the way to Cadbury Castle, one of the purported sites of King Arthur’s fabled Camelot. This book is much more the traditional travelogue than others mentioned here. Cherrington’s musings are more on the nature of the country and people that he encounters than about exploring any inner territory. As such, it’s hard not to compare it to Bryson’s books about England. Although I still like Bryson better, this unassuming little book does a lot to make one wish to take a nice amble in the lands where Arthur and Lancelot might have lived.
Those wanting a visual of the trails mentioned here can watch the following films:
The Pacific Crest Trail: Do More With Less
The Appalachian Trail: A Walk in the Woods
The John Muir Trail: Mile, Mile and a Half
The Camino de Santiago: Walking the Camino