Book Review: Thru and Back Again

4,600 Miles

The longest of America’s National Scenic Trails runs 4,600 miles through the North Woods of North Dakota to the High Peaks of New York. Although the North Country Trail has been in existence for more than thirty years, there have only been a handful of end-to-end hikers. Of these North Country Trail finishers, even fewer have thru hiked the trail’s 4600 miles – battling winter on both ends. On that very short list are trail legends like Andrew Skurka and Nimblewill Nomad.

Following in those footsteps (or post holes) is North Country Trail thru hiker number four, Luke “Strider” Jordan. Andrew Skurka had already completed an Appalachian Trail thru hike when he took on the North Country Trail as part of his Sea-to-Sea route.  Nimblewill Nomad was already a Triple Crowner with countless more trail miles to his credit when he took on the North Country Trail in 2009.  When Strider set off to hike 4600 miles through the unforgiving North Country he had very little backpacking experience. Thru and Back Again is the story of how Strider overcame seemingly insurmountable odds to become North Country Trail thru hiker number four.

Strider at the Western Terminus of the North Country Trail at Lake Sakakawea

If the reader is looking for some neat explanation of the larger question of why someone with very little backpacking experience would attempt such a difficult feat, they will be sorely disappointed. The book begins with a tantalizingly brief prologue and we are plunged straight into Strider’s journals.

Strider’s style is both straightforward and well documented. As a thru hiker, I appreciate his attention to the most seemingly minute details. Road crossings, trail conditions, navigation issues, exactly how delicious the burger at the last small town bar was, etc. As arm chair enjoyment, the reader is instantly overwhelmed with the magnitude and difficulty of this hike.

Snow, four pound snowshoes, more snow, melting snow, postholeing through melting snow, and plunging into half frozen streams all greet Strider before his one month Trailversary.

There are plenty of gasp inducing moments as, from the comfort of your own couch, you wonder why a person would ever continue a trek in this manner. It’s his first thru hike after all. He could easily say he bit off more than he could chew and call it quits. But, Strider placates the reader with careful descriptions of snowshoe hares, beautiful views, and kind folks along the way.

If the armchair adventurer is looking for big declarations or dark histories “Wild” style, they will not find it. Instead, Strider comes out of his shell through his small series of actions, how thankful he is of the smallest trail magic, delight at finding nice campsites, and his love for the NCT. In between the descriptions of trails and towns and the people he finds there, he waxes romantic about his childhood home, his friends, and his early backwoods experiences. It is these retroactive explorations that keep the reader engaged, searching among his footsteps east for the reason why.

Thru and Back Again is much more than trail journals edited and adapted for book form. Not so much because of the format, but because of who Strider is and what his journey entailed. As he walks from North Dakota to New York, the reader watches not only the trail change from the North Woods to the High Peaks of New York, but the reader gets the same sense of character affirmation that is a running theme in many an epic travel journal.

What sets Thru and Back Again apart is perhaps Strider’s consciousness of the purpose of his hike, and his dedication to that purpose that seems to increase with every mile. Strider never misses an opportunity to talk to someone about his hike, whether that be a television interview, or a trail town local at the grocery store. Just as he is seemingly tireless in scheduling interviews and appearances during his hike, he is seemingly tireless and focused regarding trail conditions, proposed reroutes, and where he thinks shelters could/should be on the future North Country Trail.

Thru and Back Again, like its North Country Trail counterpart, exists as an amalgamation of many different books. It is part trail guide for prospective NCT thru hikers, part arm chair adventure, and part opus on the state and future of our National Scenic Trails.

Strider takes on the mantle of  trail steward on his eastbound thru hike, tirelessly advocating for the North Country Trail as part of and the purpose of his walk. While Strider and thousands of volunteers take countless thousands of steps and hours of volunteer work to bring awareness to the North Country Trail, the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail are working to mitigate overuse problems.

Strider’s book and his monumental journey guide the reader almost unaware toward these larger questions. How can we make our trail systems sustainable not only for thru hikers but for section hikers, day hikers, and the trail communities that support these adventurers.

Although Thru and Back Again is a thoughtful and thrilling read, there is more here than trials and tribulations, there is vision.

You can learn more about Luke “Strider” Jordan’s North Country Trail thru hike here  and pick up a copy of his book in Paperback or Kindle here. If you are ready to quit your job and walk 4600 miles you can visit the fine folks at the North Country Trail Association here .

Disclaimer: Strider supplied me with a copy of the book for the review but had no input regarding content. All images courtesy of stridernct.com 

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Comments 1

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    Twinkle : Jun 14th

    Great write up, Puddin! Hiking that trail is an amazing accomplishment! Did you know that Strider is Andrea’s cousin, and they grew up together in Minnesota? The trail community, it’s so big, yet SO small! Looking forward to reading the full novel!

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