Stories of the Appalachian Trail: A Recommended Book List
Thru-hikers and section hikers always have a story about what brought them to the trail. The Appalachian Trail in particular is swarming with folklore, so nearly everyone remembers the first story they heard about the 2,000+ mile footpath that weaves uninterrupted from Georgia to Maine. Sometimes the magic is captivated in a single moment; for others of us, several instances over time bound us closer and closer to the trail.
Personally, I found magic in the words and stories of others. When I read A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson I was intrigued. I thought perhaps one day I’d hike it. But then Jennifer Pharr Davis gave me a story I could really attach too—one that I could see myself in—and I knew it was game over for me. I had to make the trek. For many of life’s greatest endeavors, that’s all it takes: someone’s story to inspire us, blaze a path, and serve as a beacon to guide us.
Because stories are so powerful, below I’ve listed some of the powerful stories that set the stage for my 2020 thru-hike. It’s not all-inclusive, but it contains the books that had the most powerful effects on me and my dreams. Many of you may have already read these stories, but if not, I highly recommend.
The Books that Brought Me to the AT
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
This is an iconic AT book. Bryson, in all his wit and humor, describes his attempt at thru-hiking the trail with his old friend Katz. The two men—neither in peak physical condition nor totally aware of the difficulties that lie before them—bumble along (most of) the trail and learn a lot about themselves along the way. Bryson alternates his hilarious encounters with stories and facts about the AT, ultimately leading to a profound respect for the trail and its hikers.
Becoming Odyssa by Jennifer Pharr Davis
As a kid you hear so many stories about a young hero (usually a boy) who feels out of place in society, but eventually discovers his strength and turns into the hero he was destined to become (think Hercules, Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, etc.). Jennifer Pharr Davis is that (s)hero. This story follows her first thru-hiking experience as she “finds” herself—her strength, beauty, confidence, passion, and values. I love this story for how well it captures the trail and for the inspiring way it clearly altered the course of Pharr Davis’ life. A truly wonderful read, especially for young women considering a thru-hike.
AWOL on the Appalachian Trail by David Miller
Another great story of finding oneself on the trail. Miller describes his thru-hike the way you might expect a former computer programmer to describe it: in seriously specific detail. I may as well have been right there with him. Additionally, Miller does not hold back in describing the difficulties of thru-hiking. You read this and you feel like you get a pretty good sense of the mess you’re getting yourself into.
Grandma Gatewood’s Walk by Ben Montgomery
If you want to thru-hike the AT and you’re unfamiliar with “Grandma” Emma Gatewood, read this story. She’s an AT legend.
Walking Home: A Woman’s Pilgrimage on the Appalachian Trail by Kelly Winters
Another great story of how a journey on the AT mirrored a journey to self-discovery.
North by Scott Jurek
For those who don’t know, Jurek is a badass in the ultramarathon world. He’s won several of the world’s toughest endurance races (ahem, SEVEN TIME Western States champion, excuse me??), all on an entirely plant-based diet (side note: I recommend the latest documentary on Netflix called The Game Changers, especially if you’re contemplating a plant-based diet and have questions). Anyway, in 2015 he set the fastest known time on the AT in 46 days, eight hours, and seven minutes (breaking Pharr Davis’ previous record) and wrote about it in North. His wife, Jenny, also writes sections of the book from her perspective crewing for him. It’s a fun read.
The Pursuit of Endurance by Jennifer Pharr Davis
Pharr Davis held the fastest known time for the AT for four years (46 days, 11 hours, and 20 minutes), all without running a single step. She’s a total badass. This book shares some of that experience, but also discusses other great endurance feats and examines the work that goes into endurance. The endurance athlete in me geeked out pretty hard.
These books were key in nudging me closer and closer to the AT, but my hunger for the books is never satiated. They provide me with a chance to escape reality and travel to the place I want to be. That said, below is a list of my planned future reading. I’m not limiting myself to these reads alone, but they are ones I’m looking forward to at this time.
There Are Mountains to Climb by Jean Deeds
I’m making an emergency edit to this list by adding this on. I can’t believe I forgot it, because this book pushed me into the realm of “I’m really going to do this.” Deeds is from my home of Indianapolis, so the story of her AT thru-hike felt even more close and special. Much like Pharr Davis, Miller, and Winters, she shares her story in an intimate and honest way. It’s another great read.
My To-Read List
Where’s the Next Shelter? by Gary Sizer
I discovered this one while google searching AT books awhile back and it just sounds fun. Tales from the thru-hikes of an unlikely group of friends, what’s not to love?
Skywalker: Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Walker
OK, basically I just love hearing people’s thru-hiking stories. Maybe I’m living vicariously. Whatever.
Called Again: A Story of Love and Triumph by Jennifer Pharr Davis
You may notice a theme here. What can I say, JPD is a shero.
Dead Men Hike No Trails by Rick McKinney
In the wake of a friend’s suicide, a man struggling with depression himself finds joy on the trail. Seems like good trial inspiration to me.
Walking with Spring: The First Thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail by Earl Victor Shaffer
I’ve heard a lot about this book. Seems iconic. Probably should read that.
Appalachian Trials: The Psychological and Emotional Guide to Successfully Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail by Zach Davis
If you’re reading this on The Trek’s website (you are), then this choice is self-explanatory. If you don’t know why it’s self-explanatory just google it. (OK, I’ll tell you. Zach Davis runs this website.)
The AT Guide 2019 (or 2020) Northbound by David Miller
AWOL’s AT Guide is said to be the best, so this is an obvious must-read for my 2020 thru-hike preparations.
Bonus: While walking up and down the aisles of the public library I found a book called The Natural Navigator by Tristan Gooley. It’s about using clues from your surroundings to understand the geography around you and navigate yourself without the help of GPS or other technology. The book is meant to help people feel more in-tune with their surroundings. I haven’t reached past the first couple chapters yet, but it has helped me be more mindful when walking around outside.
What’s your go-to AT book? I’d love to hear more recommendations!
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