Review: “Thru, An Appalachian Trail Love Story”

I love to hike. Obviously: I hiked to my wedding last year, every weekend I’m out on 20+ mile overnights, my purse is actually a day pack that has all the essentials necessary for a quick scurry up a mountain (water treatment, paper tape, Neosporin) but rarely can I find lipstick or a hairbrush. However, my true passion is reading. I was lucky enough to grow up smack dab in the middle of the Harry Potter series (I turned 11 the year “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” was released in the US). My parents read to me or I read to myself every night since before I can remember, and to this day I have a hard time falling asleep without a book in hand. Thus, whenever a book about hiking enters my biosphere, I snatch up a copy like a thru-hiker snatching up trail magic.

Thru: An Appalachian Trail Love Story” was first introduced to me last year as we hiked through Pine Grove Furnace State Park. We spent a happy afternoon chatting with the volunteers at the Appalachian Trail museum. I gravitated towards the book section and my eyes alighted on a novelty- a book about hiking that I hadn’t read yet! Unfortunately, our funds were low (too many Digiorno’s pizzas and AYCE’s), and I don’t believe in stealing. I filed the title in the back of my mind and carried on.

Almost a year later, I was surprised by an opportunity to read and review “Thru” for App Trials and leaped at the opportunity (again like a thru-hiker and trail-magic, maybe a free hamburger as you limp down Blood Mountain and finally, blissfully into Neel’s Gap). It was worth the wait! I absolutely loved it! I laughed, cried and practically sweated along with the characters. This is a book any thru-hiker can relate to, any aspiring thru-hiker can learn from and any Appalachian Trail newbie can appreciate. Why, you ask?

1.  The Characters

Richard Judy creates some wonderful characters. In 2011 my dad and I hiked Springer to Neel’s Gap together; I left him three days later on a cold, rainy morning and headed through Walasi-Yi Center, alone in the woods for the second time in my life. I met Enzed a few miles in and we hiked together for the next 500 miles. We met Peregrine, Mammoth, Chainsaw, Lego and Redwood, Cascade and Sierra, and Earl Gray between Georgia and Hot Springs and our trail family was created. Somehow, without even knowing them, Judy recreated my entire trail family in his book. I encountered bits and pieces of us all (one character, in particular, prompted a Facebook message to Enzed along the lines of “Is this you, or what?!”). The subsequent happiness and longing that came with the memories still have me on Cloud 9.

Now, I can be sentimental and quick to give my approval. So, I asked my husband to read the beginning of the book and give his opinion on the characters. He hiked alone in 2008 and didn’t hook up with one specific trail family, instead weaving in and out of groups at his own pace. Still, he thoroughly approved of the characters, too. They’re believable, relatable and, in some cases, downright lovable. My favorite from day one was Captain Stupid; his, Doug or Linda.

2. The Story Line

The book starts in Amicolala State Park as various strangers make their way up Springer Mountain to start an unforgettable adventure. Each chapter consists of journal entries (of one form or another) from different hikers. One of the best parts of the whole book was the repeated question in the first few entries, “What have I gotten myself into?” How many of us wrote that in our own journals or the shelter logs throughout Georgia (or Maine)? All but one of the main characters meet up at Springer Mtn. Shelter; Captain Stupid memorably collapses into the shelter gasping for breath.

The fragile bond of friendship begins, and the newly established trail family heads north, encountering obstacles both physical and emotional along the way. They persevere as best they can, but I won’t go into the details here except to say that adventure definitely awaits these nomads! Some of the experiences seemed unrealistic, but to the unbeliever so does much of the AT itself. In order to pass along the extreme sense of connection so many of us gain out there on the trail, Judy created some rather extreme situations for his hiking heroes. I’ll admit I was put off by a few of them, but I also realize how hard it would be to describe the events and the strong bonds created on the AT. For instance: climbing Speck Mountain together in a down pour (on the fourth sunless day in a row); sleeping with 16 other people in a shelter built for 8; hiking in file through waist-deep snow, switching off the leader so no one gets too tired breaking trail. These things are hard to describe back in “the real world.” (Another favorite quote, “After adapting and surviving for six months or so, they would find themselves… trim, triumphant, transformed and ready to return to a world that would never again be ordinary.”)

The story line was a source of contention for Iceman (the previously mentioned husband forced to read a book just so his wife can write a review). He got about halfway through the book before I cornered him, demanded his opinion on various topics and started writing this review. There were a few aspects to the plot that irked him, but overall he agreed the story was true to form. The likelihood of six (sometimes seven) strangers staying together through some of the perils Judy creates is low, but that doesn’t take away from the overall story, which is engaging, realistic and heartwarming to boot!

3. Just Plain Good Writing!

Judy is a good writer. As I said before, I read a lot. I also read a wide variety of books. My favorite authors include Stephen King, JK Rowling, various Young Adult writers and Robert B. Parker/Ace Atkins (authors of the humorous Detective Spenser novels). I like it all. Hemingway and Thoreau have found their way onto my bookshelves; Diana Gabaldon is newly arrived to my collection. Richard Judy can stand on his own among the lot of them. He kept my attention, being both funny and serious in turn. As with the AT itself, I felt the Virginia Blues about halfway through the book. It’s not easy to write a book about walking for 2100 miles. However, after just a few monotonous pages, I was once again captured by Judy’s characters and story.

This is a book I will return to and a book I’ll send to friends and family for holidays and birthdays. Anyone who’s spent any time on the AT can relate to and enjoy this book. In the same vein, someone totally new to the world of long-distance hiking would enjoy this story. It’s a great read on its own, but from the perspective of a Appalachian Trail addict, it’s a God send. I knew I missed the trail, but I didn’t realize how much until Richard Judy put it in his own words.

 

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