Friday, August 7, 2015

Recent Reads (Book Review): Hiking Edition

When I went to the library a few weeks ago, I was looking for some 'outdoors' books.  Not field guides, but just some accounts of people adventuring in the great outdoors.  Something about the summer makes me want to immerse myself not just physically, but mentally, in the natural world as well.

Back when I read Wild (which if you recall I LOVED), I heard about another highly recommended  hiking account and put it on my reading list.  I forgot about it for awhile, but then it seemed to be checked out of the library every time I remembered it.  In fact, when I went to check on it again a few weeks ago, the system said the book was in, but it was not on the shelves and the librarian said it was 'missing'.  [Do people steal library books?! I wondered]  She told me she would go "in the back" because there was one more place she could check for it.  As an aside, I'd love to know the deep, dark, secret places that are off limits in the library.  Ha.  Anyway, she came out a few minutes later, with the book in hand:

This has quickly become one of my favorite books!  If you are a serious/semi-professional hiker looking for specifics and intricacies of hiking the Appalachian Trail, then this may not be the book for you.  But if you simply love the outdoors, humor, or both, I think you will LOVE this account as much as I did!
This was the first time I've read anything by the author, Bill Bryson, and I immediately found him so endearing and hysterical.  I now have more of his books on my reading list.  Bryson is an American author who spent most of his life growing up and living in Britain.  He's no pro hiker but after moving back to America he decided to hike the Appalachian Trail as a way to get to know the American wilderness.  He had done some recreational (day) hiking in England and was in fair shape, but he had never done a thru-hike like this.  His plan was to hike the entire extent of the Appalachian Trail over the course of several months, which stretches from Georgia to Maine and is more than 2,100 miles.  He put notes in his Christmas cards before he set out, inviting friends and family to hike with him, hoping to find companions for at least part of the way.  Only one person responded, and it was a long-lost (incredibly out of shape) college friend named Stephen Katz, who said he'd do the whole thing with him.  The hilarious dynamic and misadventures between these two guys is what made the book (and I'm sure their hike) so entertaining. 
There were so many laugh-out-loud lines in this book, like this:  "What on earth would I do if four bears came into my camp? Why, I would die, of course. Literally shit myself lifeless. I would blow my sphincter out my backside like one of those unrolling paper streamers you get at children's parties - I daresay it would even give a merry toot - and bleed to a messy death in my sleeping bag."
What I also liked about this book was that Bryson gave a lot of historical context about the trail itself, the National Park Service, and the sad state of deforestation and (lack of) ecological conservation in this country.  His comedic retelling of the journey is often interspersed with a lot of important facts and back stories about parts of the trail or wildlife contained therein.
This was one of those books I read so quickly, but made myself put down a few times to make it last longer!  I won't give you any spoilers as to their success rate on the trail but if you're interested in the outdoors at all I would absolutely recommend this book! I almost want to read it again right now...
After that stunner, I picked up another autobiographical trail account.  This one:

This was a first hand account of the Pacific Coast Trail hike on the opposite coast of the US, written by Gail Storey.  The PCT runs from the California/Mexico border to Canada on the west coast and is over 2,600 miles.  This one paled in comparison to the book above for me.  I don't know if I just enjoyed the male perspective in A Walk in the Woods more, and/or Bryson's humor, but I Promise Not to Suffer was much more instrospective and it became a bit annoying at points for me.  I realize Wild is a hugely instrospective book as well, but Strayed drew me in more and made me feel more connected and concerned with her struggles. I didn't connect as much with this author, although it was still a fair read, and I started to enjoy it the more I read. 
Storey and her husband, a hospice care doctor, have done some long-distance bike rides and similar adventures together.  When her husband quits his job to hike the entire PCT over a 6 month time span, she decides to tag along, even though she defines herself as not much of an outdoors girl.  Her husband is knowledgeable and does a lot of prep leading up to the hike.  If you've read Wild, then you might remember how much gear and preparation is required for a hike of the PCT (Strayed was admittedly not very prepared.)  They have to plan out their needs months in advance, and pack up supply boxes to be shipped to various posts along the hike to replenish their food/hygiene products/clothing.  Unlike Bryson who was not into gear or gear talk at all, Storey's husband Porter did an immense amount of research into their gear so their packs would be as light as possible. 
Despite all of this, Storey herself had a difficult time physically on the trail, and despite eating 6,000+ calories a day, she ended up losing 20 pounds throughout the journey! Hiking 20 miles/day will do that to you I suppose.  The dangers she talks about on the trail are almost unbelievable at points.  I really can't fathom crossing flooded, high current rivers wearing giant packs on your back, scaling mountains with 5,000 foot elevations only to have to go right back down the other side, this time in ice, sleeping with bugs and rodents literally crawling all over you, facing down mountain lions and rattlesnakes daily, and hiking nearly the equivalent of a marathon day after day, week after week, throughout all of this!
I won't give any spoilers here either regarding their success/completion of the trail, but reading both of these accounts of people hiking as duos on the trail just makes me more in awe of Cheryl Strayed (Wild) being able to accomplish this ON HER OWN.  I guess that's one reason I loved that book so much. 
It's still absolutely a bucket list item of mine to plan out and do one of these thru-hikes someday before I die.  After reading accounts like these, I wonder how long I could actually manage out there.  Would I make it out alive? I hope one day to find out.  
Despite all of our modern advances, I think deep down most people still long to return to their wild roots.  To seek that from which we originally came, before shopping malls, cars and cubicles became our way of life.  I know I do!

"Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters, and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books."  ~ John Lubback

Also linking up with MamaKat today!

Have you read either of these books?

Do you have any desire to do a thru-hike of this magnitude?



  1. I totally agree with you re: most people wanting to return to their roots. And there's nothing quite like the outdoors to make you feel this appreciation for natural beauty. That said, I'm not sure I could ever embark on one of these crazy hikes though both books DO sound very interesting (and I did read "Wild" partially--I'll admit there were moments where I kind of zoned out and eventually I had a hard time returning--and also watched the movie).

    Going to check out A Walk in the Woods--your excerpt (and book review) sounds like something I'd enjoy :)

    1. It's something I definitely want to attempt in my lifetime. Even if I only make it thru a section of it! I love being outdoors in the summer. But even in other seasons it brings me a sense of peace and renewal. Thanks for stopping by Charlotte!

  2. My step-dad is a semi retired hiker now, but he would eat these books up! Thanks for sharing them!

    1. Oh awesome! I'd love to hear more about his adventures!

  3. My parents scarred me for LIFE when it comes to hiking! I just cannot get myself to go outside and DO IT. Now that I think about it, my parents sort of scarred me for life about a lot of things, LOL!

    1. What happened?!? Do tell Gigi. Unless it's too traumatic. And did I ever tell you years ago my nickname was GIGI?!? True story. One of the little babies I watched could say Jill so he said Gigi and it just stuck! But now I live in a different state and its all but been forgotten. But Gigi is good name my friend ;)