When I was a teenager, long before Bill Bryson hiked the trail and brought it to the mind of a world-wide audience with A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, I was fascinated with the Appalachian Trail. Although it was a continent away, I dreamt of hiking the 2,000 miles, very much aware that no through-hiking maps or guides existed, and even in those days before the internet, I found information and started to collect snippets, maps, routes, and hints. But somehow I never made it.
The idea of long hikes, or hiking as something that is ingrained in humankind came with The Songlines, by Bruce Chatwin. I love reading about long outdoor tours, and
was on my to-read-stack for years. Finally, while sitting in a lounge chair in Thailand in a fine resort, quite the opposite to the journey Winters describes, I found the time to enjoy this book.
And I did enjoy it – Kelly Winters is a gifted writer, and her love for the great nature and the outdoor life shine through her words.
As the title suggest, this is a book about her personal pilgrimage, rather than a travelogue, although it has most of the necessary components of the latter. Walking „the trail“ is an arduous journey, and one she doesn’t take on lightheartedly – in contrast to many hikers starting this endeavour, she is sort of prepared, coming from a family who went camping in the wild, and being in pretty decent shape. Kelly has at least an idea what she is doing.
This doesn’t apply to her personal life, though. She lives in a bad relationship, which she describes in more ugly detail than necessary, and although her boyfriend is a creep, she doesn’t muster the energy to leave him for a long time. I wished Winters had shortened these paragraphs. Some might say they are necessary, because her sexual identity is something else she strengthens during her journey, but I think that having a pervert boyfriend is neither a reason for nor a consequence of being a closet lesbian.
The book takes the reader onto the trail, with all its natural beauty. Nonetheless, there are many eye-opening passages on weather, being cold, being hungry, being alone, the need for rest and water in a constant struggle with the necessity to keep on walking, to make it through, stay true to the timetable, the plan. Although starting in a good state of fitness, eventually her knees give in, she puts too much strain on them, and finds out she cannot carry enough calories with her to cover the loss, even with a 50-lb backpack.
Some reviewers on Amazon.com found too much complaining in her narrative, but I disagree. Winters gives an honest description of what she went through. That may not sound as romantic as some other books on the subject, but paints a rather realistic picture of how such a walk may turn out. She struggles with herself and the people she meets on the trail and discovers „trail magic“ and friendship. In the end, Kelly does not „hike thru“ but decides to go home. Her knees are failing her, she is afraid for her health and life, and she feels she has reached the inner clarity she was looking for, so she doesn’t have a compelling reason which would drive her to crossing the finish line anymore.
Overall, the books is a good and gripping read, some parts made me laugh, some made me shiver. I could have done without the whole lesbianism angle, especially since it is very obvious from the beginning, and not something she „unearthes“ while hiking, and some plot lines seem to have been exaggerated slightly.
It is not a book about a „true“ through-hike, and probably not as inspiring as many other books out there; I didn’t feel the urge to buy new hiking boots and get going. But if you love true stories from people who have actually done what most of the others (myself included) have only been dreaming of, it is worth reading.