This review first appeared in the Boulder, Colo. Daily Camera March 1, 2021.
Memoir gives readers a chance to live the experience through a relatable view
At first glance, non-technical backpacking is one of the most boring activities you could write an entire book about. There’s no adrenaline-pumping action, no moments of suspense like you’d get with action-oriented sports and endeavors. The author is walking, and walking, and walking, sometimes for thousands of miles, and seldom moving faster than three miles per hour.
So it makes you wonder how a book like former long-time Daily Camera columnist Clay Bonnyman Evans’ “The Trail is the Teacher” is such a delight from end to end. You aren’t reading about someone’s thru-hike for the gripping suspense — you’re reading it to experience the hike: The honest, raw descriptions of blisters and chafing, suffocating heat and freezing rain, absurdly steep ascents and descents, and the utter destruction of the author’s feet over thousands of miles of rugged terrain up the eastern seaboard.
The field of Appalachian Trail thru-hiking memoirs is a crowded one these days. Many aspiring writers finish the life-changing 2,190-mile journey and decide they’re going to write an inspirational account of their experience. The problem with this notion is the experience of a five-month AT hike is seldom groundbreaking. Thousands of people attempt an Appalachian Trail thru-hike each year (though only about 25 percent finish), so if you’re going to write about a hike, you need a unique angle, or you need to be a really good writer.
With that said, Evans’ book is one of the most skillfully written accounts of a thru-hike I’ve read. He is savagely blunt about the drudgery of trail life without sinking too far into the weeds of the daily experience, but he doesn’t shy away from working to evoke the elation and joy present during one of these hikes.
Evans cracks jokes about his personality that will make you burst out laughing, and he’s also poignantly honest about his shortcomings as a thru-hiker. His mileage and competitiveness with himself are at times agonizing to read — “Take a break!” you want to scream at the pages. Evans pushes big miles and takes few breaks, eventually wearing down his body and psyche enough that he leaves the trail, returning to hike the final 500 miles from Maine to the middle of Vermont in the opposite direction after taking an R&R break.
He displays a refreshingly relatable view of this, at once proud of his accomplishments and lamenting the fact that he didn’t pace himself better.
“The AT hikers I admire the most,” he writes, “are the ones who make steady progress, taking time to rest and care for themselves so they don’t burn out.”
But Evans makes no apologies for his intensity, and after reading his entire book, you feel you know who he is, not just as a hiker, but as a human being.
There’s a certain type of person who gravitates towards accounts of thru-hiking a 2,000-mile trail. Those people are likely in the process of planning their own thru-hike, dreaming about a thru-hike, or have recently completed one and want to relive it through the words of another hiker. Evans’ book scratches all of those itches. You get an almost visceral sense of the joys and miseries of a thru-hike, reliving the highs and lows through each of the 14 states. He’s is also refreshing in that he isn’t trying to inspire you with cloying, sappy text. This is a thru-hike: Take it or leave it.
As a former Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, Evans book brought back my own vivid memories of the 2,190-mile experience — from the snowy, frigid Great Smoky Mountains, to the unrelenting heat of the mid-Atlantic states, to the impossibly slow progress through New Hampshire’s rugged White Mountains — it’s all there.
Evans is an experienced and natural writer. He knows intuitively what details to skip and where to focus. He spends time to revel in the delights of a particularly nice shelter on a pond but avoids repetition in the logging of days over hundreds of miles that seem very much the same. This is a trap into which many thru-hiking memoirs fall, but which Evans mostly manages to avoid.
Evans gives equal time to ruminating on his own interior experience and the sheer, physical effort of hiking thousands of miles, which is entirely indicative of the experience of a thru-hike. You are at once experiencing an intense range of nature-driven trials and joys, putting your body through some of the most intense pain and suffering, all while being trapped in your own mind at 2.5 miles per hour.
“The Trail is the Teacher” is up there with other thru-hiking memoirs from self-described “average hikers” — David Miller’s classic, “AWOL on the Appalachian Trail” comes to mind. These authors are skilled writers, incredibly relatable, and give you exactly what you want from a thru-hiking book: living the experience through someone else’s honest words.
Maggie Slepian is a freelance writer based in Bozeman, Montana. She is an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker and founder of BackpackingRoutes.com.