After reading Wild, which I’ve yet to review (but it’s excellent, go read it) I’ve been looking forward to reading more of the hiker memoir subgenre. I was shopping for microspikes and ran across this book and had to buy it – barefoot hiking the Appalachian Trail? I don’t think I wore shoes in any sort of consistent manner until I was in college, so I was immediately hooked.
That being said, I have mixed feelings about this book. It’s by two sisters, Lucy/Isis and Susan/jackrabbit, who, as I said, decided to hike the Appalachian Trail barefoot after graduating college. Their biggest motivation, I think, was to take some time to figure out what to do with the rest of their life. The book flows a little too seamlessly between the two sisters’ point of view – their writing styles are so similar that I often lost track of who was narrating, even though each section had a header stating the name of the narrating sister.
There’s very little introspection in the book – perhaps the sisters didn’t have that much to figure out or perhaps they just didn’t feel like sharing. But either way, it’s not the close personal narrative that Wild was.
Neither is it a book that really connects you with nature. They seem to spend as much time off the trail as on, and though I know they narrated some of what they saw on the trail, none of it particularly impacted me. They do spend a lot of time on the various other hikers they met and interacted with, which I found very amusing and engrossing (with one major exception.) They also don’t spend much time speaking towards their hiking technique, gear, ect… – they talk about their wood-burning snow and brush on the difficulties/advantages of hiking barefoot but not in any technical depth.
I guess my big question after reading this novel was – what kind of book is it? It’s neither deeply personal, deeply connected to nature, or a hiker’s novel. It brushes against all three but doesn’t really settle on anything, which left me wanting more depth in one area or another. I loved all the narratives of the people they met on the trail – I think that was rather the best part – but given that many of these encounters took place in motels, hostels, and towns on the trail, it seems that the best part of the book isn’t actually about hiking.
That being said, the book itself was engrossing. I wanted to see what happened next, and I loved hearing about the difficulties and ease of life on the trail. I sped through the book – it’s an easy read, though long – and certainly, I think, it’s worth the time spent reading it if the subject catches your fancy. I would categorize this as a beach read book – light, fun, easy to get through and very enjoyable. Sometimes lack of depth – though unexpected here – is exactly what you’re looking for in a book.
The biggest caveat about the book is the winter portion, which focuses on their interaction with a family known as The Family from the North. This family has been evicted from their homestead in Maine due to tax evasion – the parents are fundamentalist Christians and don’t believe in the government – and are hiking the Appalachian Trail south for, I guess, lack of better options. (Ironically, the father of this family – while HIKING THE AT – says that he doesn’t pay taxes because he takes nothing from the government.)
While the family is certainly sweet and kind, they – along with the sisters – end up hiking through the worst winter in 19 years, starting in south Virginia and continuing on through the Smokies. I have spent some time winter hiking, and, while I love it, it’s not a sport I would include my two year old child in. Or, heck, even my twelve year old child, if it were an extended trek. Though the sisters highlight the many good characteristics of this family, it’s clear that all four of the children’s educations are being neglected for over a year. More concerning, the entire family nearly dies in a blizzard, multiple people sustain long-term frostnip-induced injuries, and the children are repeatedly placed in extraordinarily dangerous situations where they survive mainly by luck.
I certainly think that adults should do as they please, and the sisters wanted to brave winter hiking with little training and even less preparation. That’s fine. And the parents of the family can do the same. But risking the children’s lives, from hiking in dangerous weather to a lack of cash to purchase quality winter supplies to not having enough money to buy food (the parents were undernourished, especially the mother) is not something I can agree on, in the sense that there were other, much less dangerous options to deal with the problems presented by poverty. And while the book doesn’t hide the facts, the sisters definitely choose to emphasize the nature of the family over the reality of their decisions to a very extreme degree. Unlike Wild, which had frank acknowledgement that Cheryl Strayed did not do enough research and was not prepared and was incredibly lucky, I didn’t get the same sense from this book that the people involved regretted and acknowledged their lack of preparation.
So I can’t really recommend this book to non-hikers, because it’s a lot of escaping preventable situations only by luck and I’m not sure I would want anyone to model their behavior off this. And I can’t really recommend it to hikers, because I imagine it will make most experienced hikers’ heads’ explode. So what I will say is that it’s a decent story about the trials of hiking unprepared, and if you read it, you should do so realizing that one would actually need to be much more prepared to hike the AT (or the PCT or anywhere, really.)