Outdated Reader: Review of Hiking Through by Paul Stutzman
My Grade: Surprising A-
I purchased my copy of Hiking Through in the bookshop at Big Meadows in Shenandoah National Park. I was passing through with my girlfriend en route to Tennessee and the white blazes and trail signs were not lost on me--I knew we were near that famous footpath, the Appalachian Trail. As a fan of the outdoors and a bonafide dreamer, the AT is one of those illustrious adventures of which I fantasize. I picked it up and glanced it over, reading only part of the back cover's summary:
After Paul Stutzman lost his wife to breast cancer, he sensed a tug on his heart--the call to a challenge, the call to pursue a dream. With a mixture of dread and determination, Paul left his job, traveled to Georgia, and took his first steps on the Appalachian Trail. What he learned during the next four and a half months changed his life--and can change yours as well.
That was enough for me! Below we will explore a bit further some aspects of the book. We'll look at what the Appalachian Trail is literally, what it means to those who hike it (with a special look at the unique culture of long-distance AT hiking), and a bit about what this particular thru-hiker learned on his journey.
AT States by Trail Miles
The Raw Data
The Appalachian Trail, or AT, is a footpath marked by signs and white blazes that spans from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mt. Katahdin in Maine. The trail spans 14 states and, at current, its length is 2,180 miles, though from year to year, parts may be rerouted and result in length-changes. At the time Stutzman trekked it, the AT measured 2,176 miles. The sum of the trail's elevation changes is roughly equivalent to the height of sixteen Mt. Everests.
The Trail is maintained largely by volunteers, who contributed over 200,000 hours annually in order to keep it walkable. Public and private organizations and clubs work together to ensure its protection. These groups include federal agencies (the National Park Service and the USDA Forest Service), assorted state agencies, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and several dozen maintenance clubs.1
But for all that it is, physically, much of what it is has little to do with rocks and trees at all...
Paul's story begins, as far as this book is concerned, at the end. Aside from the brief prologue, this book starts with a diagnosis of cancer for Paul's wife, Mary. During the time she battled, we are shown the passionate faith of the Stutzmans--a frequently appearing character--but in the end, she dies.
Shortly thereafter, Paul makes the decision that he is going to chase down a lifelong dream and hike the Appalachian Trail. The notion is grand and beautiful and romantic. And downright terrifying. He fields significant doubts about whether or not to endeavor upon this adventure, but decides to do so, to his eventual satisfaction. Walking across fourteen states, however, isn't all gum drops and butterflies--there's plenty of rough times, and rarely does the author make any false pretenses, ignore any troublesome thoughts, or deceive his readers into thinking that the AT is anything other than what it is: 2,200 miles of chaffing (p. 72), bears (p. 105), tough dilemmas (p. 160), and emotional meltdowns (p. 311).
Nonetheless, Paul is able to find meaning in his journey, in his interactions with his fellow hikers, and in the events of his life. The trail opens for him new understandings.
The Trail has a Culture of Its Own
From the get-go, Paul is thrown into a whole new world when he steps onto the AT. There is a culture, an etiquette, a manner of speaking--and in no time, he's sharing it all.
It's common for thru-hikers to adopt trail names that reveal a bit about themselves and most characters in the book have such names. Because of the spiritual nature of his journey and his Christian upbringing, Paul adopts the trail name "Apostle." Some fellow hikers he meets include Sailor, Fargo, Marathon Man, Padre, and Lion King. There are also names for the way a hiker hikes. If he avoids all blue-blazed shortcuts and hikes straight through, he's a purist. If he sometimes hitches a ride and skips a portion, he's a yellow-blazer. If he hitches a ride, dumps his pack, and returns to hike the skipped-over portion, he's a slackpacker. Don't bother criticizing a fellow hiker though--"Hike your own hike" is all you'll hear in return.
Most thru-hikers will have a "trail boss," a non-hiker who will ship food to post-offices where a hiker can pick them up later. They'll also take "zero days"--rest days where no miles are hiked at all. The non-essential, but most satisfying thing for any thru-hiker, however, is trail magic! Trail magic is the surprise gift of food or drink given away for free by fellow hikers or non-hikers who wish to stay connected to the trail in some way.
Yes sir, the AT is a special place full of special people doing special things.
God Reveals Himself
What was perhaps most surprising to me was that Hiking Through, while marketed primarily as a Travel and/or Hiking book, is incredibly spiritual! I don't mean to say that it is a we-are-one-with-the-trees type of spirituality, but a very realistic, layman's version of Christianity. If hiking is the meat to this dinner, than God is definitely the gravy.
Time and time again, "Apostle Paul" (see the section to the right) uses the language of Christianity in his descriptions of his emotional responses to the stimuli of the trail. In between chapters about rocky hills and yummy flowers, the author expresses gratitude for the beauty of nature (p.174), his assurance that God makes and fulfills promises (p.181), and a belief in the availability of God to all people (p.201). His musings on God are brief, but poignant, and though he feels no qualms about dropping bombs of spiritual wisdom, he in no way pretends to have all the answers.
His relationship with God resembles that of some men of the Bible, in which his interactions are straightforward and untainted. He asks questions of God (p. 202), and sometimes he rages at Him (p.153). The manner of his relationship is simple, desirable, and pure. For all of his eventual expertise in walking, I think that his spirituality is the most appealing part of this tale.
The Long and the Short of It
Hiking Through is an interesting read for people from all walks of life. Dealing with grief? Grab a copy. Got God problems? Grab a copy. Enjoy hiking and the outdoors? Grab a copy.
This book is a rarity. Without the lofty language of a philosophical or religious treatise, you get the spiritual encouragement to pursue a true and meaningful relationship with God; without the tiresome and boring day-by-day recollection of all the tedious daily affairs, you understand how grueling the trail can become; without a guilt trip, you get enough inspiration to want to do things differently. Hiking Through is a winner.
Want to learn more about "Hiking Through"?
To learn more about Paul, to see more pictures, or to check out either of Paul's other two books, check out his website!
Considering a Thru-Hike of your own?
Other books by Paul Stutzman
After returning from his thru-hike, Paul realized he wasn't finished yet! Biking Through details his 5,000 mile cycling adventure across the nation.