Book Review: Where’s the Next Shelter?
There were several times when reading Gary Sizer’s Where’s the Next Shelter? that I had to stop and put the book away for several days.
This wasn’t because I was bored or disgusted or thought the writing was terrible—on the contrary, the journey of Gary “Green Giant” Sizer through the ups-and-downs of an Appalachian Trail thru-hike—literal and figurative—is fantastically chronicled in what can best be described as a “laugh-a-minute philosophical travelogue.”
In fact, that was exactly what made me put the book down so many times: it made me long for the trail in a way that few books or trail journals have accomplished, to the point where I had to stop myself from once again running off into the woods for another five-month pilgrimage to Katahdin. If I had kept reading, I might not have been able to stop myself.
While that may sound hyperbolic—we hikers never exaggerate, do we?—I can honestly say that Shelter rests comfortably among my top three thru-hike chronicles. This is primarily due to Sizer’s honest, straight-forward, and consistently hilarious writing style. Even when Sizer is at his lowest, such as when he experiences a degree of foot pain that makes walking on glass seem like an improvement, he is able to find some degree of levity and hope that keeps him trudging toward the Maine backwoods. It’s one of the purest glimpses into a thru-hiker’s mindset that I’ve seen on the page, giving Where’s the Next Shelter? a very authentic personality.
The book also benefits from a tight focus: rather than trying to mix in the tell-all A.T. history lesson like A Walk in the Woods, or attempting to capture a sense of the grandeur that simply can’t be replicated on the page, Sizer focuses exclusively on his own immediate experiences throughout the journey. Instead of descriptions of the vastness of the valleys or the majesty of the mountaintops, we are treated to hilarious/insightful interactions with the Yellow Deli commune members; and to the slow, painful degradation of Sizer’s feet; and to the bitter feud between Sizer and a New York deli owner over—quite literally—a single cent of electricity.
By focusing on the small details of a thru-hike, Sizer has done readers a great service: he allows us to focus on the truly memorable aspects of a thru-hike instead of just the scenery, which, in hindsight, mostly looks like a giant wash of green.
This attention to the small details of a thru-hike finds its true worth through the descriptions of Sizer’s hiking companions. Great care is taken to depict the variety of friendships developed throughout a thru-hike, particularly the reality of how the trail can simultaneously bring together and tear apart dedicated companions within hours.
Throughout the tale, Sizer relays the days he spent hiking with a wide cast of characters, including “Voldemort,” a spunky female thru-hiker renowned equally for her speedy gait and her capacity for nonstop conversation; “Ninja Mike,” a yoga fanatic with a hardcore lust for the outdoors and an equally hardcore mustache; and “Lemmy,” an eccentric Israeli artist who draws a comic strip in nearly every shelter and has a penchant for animal-themed headgear.
Sizer creates a unique voice for every one of his companions and describes their slow, sometimes-horrifying transformations as the days and miles crawl by, showing just how close they become in their quest for Katahdin—and sometimes, how infuriating it can be to be surrounded by these same people for weeks or months on end.
Which brings us back to Sizer himself. Many may recognize him mostly as the guy who went through an extreme body transformation while hiking the A.T. in 2014. What those pictures cannot tell, however, is the subtle insightfulness of his writing style.
Sizer takes a certain glee in mocking the self-serious nature of the various people and situations he meets along the trail: in particular, he seems most critical when his own preconceptions and ideas get in the way of his true enjoyment of the situations around him. This point of view—a retrospective introspection—allows us to again see the changes in temperament and mindset the further Sizer journeys up the trail. “It’s about the smiles, not the miles,” he repeats to himself time and time again. By the end of his trek on the icy peak of Katahdin, I have no doubt that he has become the living embodiment of that mantra.
I started reading Where’s the Next Shelter? expecting another trail journal that has been slightly adapted into book form. Yet I was constantly surprised and rejuvenated to find that Sizer placed so much extra care into developing and focusing on the spirit of a thru-hike, a written nostalgia for the days when absorbing life in the backwoods of the Appalachians was his sole purpose for six months of his life.
If you are looking for a detailed description of the sights or historical landmarks present throughout the A.T., you may be better served elsewhere; if you want a depiction of the reason why so many individuals look back at their thru-hikes with a romantic longing, Where’s the Next Shelter? will have you counting the days until you can start your own journey on the path following the white blazes.
Full disclosure: Gary Sizer and I are both writers here at Appalachian Trials. Gary provided me with a copy of the book for review but had no input regarding content. All images were provided courtesy of WheresTheNextShelter.com.
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