Appalachian Trail Books–Bill Bryson, Skywalker, and AWOL
“What books do you recommend that I read?” I’m often asked by people contemplating a thru-hike of the famed Appalachian Trail. Objectively, it’s a good question. But it’s a bit ironic that they ask me. For two reasons.
To begin with, I wrote a narrative on the Appalachian Trail called Skywalker–Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail. And as we all know, authors are notoriously poor judges of their own work. So anything I write here must be taken with a grain of salt.
The reason I decided to write a book on my Appalachian Trail thru-hike was simple. I have found that most hiking narratives are writen by experts, for other experts, in a narrow kind of ‘hikerese‘. And as anybody who has read my Appalachian Trail narrative knows, I am anything but an expert, even after having thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail. The good news is that this made it easier to write a book. Why? Think about it. Most any narrative you read, especially outdoor narratives, are chock-full of moments of treachery, fear, errors, and outright blunders.
I had wondered, before undertaking this narrative, whether I could, in fact, write an entire book. Wow, what a surprise lay ahead for me. The Appalachian Trail is such an intense experience, especially for a novice hiker like myself, that I vividly remembered each one of the 171 days. In fact, after the second draft I had 150,000 words. I soon decided that it was presumptuous to turn out something that looked more like a Russian novel. And it was a bit agonizing. Freud’s famous reference to “the narcissism of small differences” comes to mind. Every one of those 145,000 words meant something to me, or else I wouldn’t have written them. But the larger question was ‘Does this mean something to a larger audience?’ Eventually I forced myself to cut 45 out of very 100 words, leading to a final manuscript of 83,000 words. Most of those cuts I now look back today and laugh at myself for having ever written it. But a few of them I still get a bit nostalgic about, wondering if they would have improved the final product.
My goal was to turn out a ‘page-turner’ that appealed to the non-hiker, as much as the hiker. Judging by the sales results, this objective seems to have been achieved. The book has been out 4 1/2 years, and sales this year are better than ever. We Appalachian Trail authors are pretty lucky, truth be known. I know of many very good writers who publish books that garner almost no sales. This seems to be especially true of novels. But Appalachian Trail books sell.
Of course, Bill Bryson is the gold standard. His bestselling narrative, A Walk in the Woods, came out fourteen years ago and still sells like hotcakes. Better yet, it opened the eys of enough people (including myself!) that the population of Appalachan Trail hikers jumped upon its publication. The rap against this book is that Bryson completed only about 1/3 of the trail, despite having set off on a thru-hike attempt. Of course, his hapless hiking partner, Katz, deserves a healthy portion of the blame. Another more personal critique of Bryson is simply that he has gained so much from his Appalachian Trail book (Robert Redford has bought the movie rights to it), yet has given back so little to the hiking community. He is not an ATC member, and does not ever attend trail events. These criticisms are indeed substantive. However, I am eternally grateful to him for having opened my eyes up to the possibilities of the Appalachian Trail.
AWOL on the Appalachian Trail, by David Miller, is another very popular Appalachia Trail narrative. Combined with his very well-done-guidebook, many people choose to read Miller’s narrative before embarking on an Appalachian Trail thru-hike. It is written in the present tense, meant to show the trail unfolding before a hiker’s eyes. David did the Appalachian Trail in 146 days, and seems to have avoided the gruesome blunders that often plagued me. Some have even commented, not completely in jest, that you read AWOL on the Appalachian Trail to learn what to do, and Skywalker–Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail to find out what NOT to do. Hey, I accept that analysis. After all, it’s just as important to know what not to do!
So to the question, “Which book should I read–yours or AWOL’s?” the potential hiker has only one logical course of action–purchase both of them!
Bill Walker is the author of Skywalker–Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail (2008). He is also the author Skywalker–Highs and Lows on the Pacific Crest Trail (2010), as well as ‘The Best Way–El Camino de Santiago (2012)’. Walker, who is just shy of 7-feet tall, is currently working on a whimsical book on the subject of height.