Book Review: “The Unlikely Thru-Hiker” Is a Dreadfully Delightful Memoir
Earl Schaffer, who in 1948 became the first person to walk the AT from end to end, didn’t publish his seminal memoir, Walking with Spring, until 1982, and few people were even aware that people walk thousands of miles on long trails until Bill Bryson published his huge 1998 bestseller, A Walk in the Woods.
Since–and partly because of–Bryson, thru-hiking has exploded in popularity, with the number of AT finishers surging from just over 400 in 1998 to more than 2,600 this year (through October). And now you can find scores of hiker memoirs for sale online.
Of course, not all hiking memoirs are created equal. While reading dozens, I began mentally sorting them into three categories:
Classics. A rarified echelon of artfully written books that use thru-hiking to illuminate something larger, with appeal to a broad, non-hiking audience. Examples: Despite silly grumbling from hikers that the authors didn’t “really” hike, I put both A Walk in the Woods and Cheryl Strayed’s powerful 2012 exploration of trauma, regret, and resilience, Wild, here.
Trail-journal+. Realistic, informative portraits of long-distance hiking with something more–humor, panache, insight. Examples: David “AWOL” Miller’s AWOL on the Appalachian Trail and Trek founder Zach Davis’s Appalachian Trials and Pacific Crest Trials, indispensable for their attention to the mental and emotional challenges of a long hike.
Glorified (or not even) trail journals. Usually self-published. May temporarily soothe a case of post-trail depression, but are neither artful, insightful, nor particularly helpful. Often lazily written and poorly edited, some unintentionally reveal unflattering facets of the author’s personality–whining, self-centeredness, ignorance–potentially turning off newbies. This is the largest of the three categories; you’ll know one if you read one.
Now comes Brooklyn writer and 2012 AT alumnus Derick Lugo with The Unlikely Thru-Hiker, in a handsome edition—fantastic cover—from Appalachian Mountain Club Books, publishing arm of the nation’s oldest outdoor group.
The title is apt, statistically speaking, with Lugo’s Puerto Rican and African American heritage placing him in a distinct minority. According to the most recent Trek survey, 95 percent of 2019 long-distance AT hikers were white, just 2 percent Hispanic/Latinx, 0.8 percent mixed race, and 0 percent African American.
And prior to starting that long slog up the stairs at Amicalola Falls State Park, hauling a 45-pound pack and sporting distinctive dreadlocks, vegetarian and lifelong New York City resident Lugo had never been camping, a profile he shares with a mere 2.8 percent of 2019 AT hikers.
“It is a different world,” he tells a fellow hiker early on. “It’s so unlike anything I’ve ever done.”
With admirable discipline, Lugo doesn’t try to cram six months of what is frankly an indescribable experience into 200 pages. Instead, he pares his journey to a progression of tight, pithy episodes, sometimes skipping hundreds of miles from one chapter to the next. On occasion, chapters read much like poignant short stories, as when he falls in love with a lost dog, going so far as to name him before reluctantly returning him to the dog’s uncaring owner.
“Magic, what did I do?” he writes. “It begins to rain, but I just sit on the railing without my friend. I’m alone–and this time I’m lonely.”
Lugo–trail name Mr. Fabulous–is a smooth, self-deprecating narrator with a rare skill for fluid comic flourishes and a quirky, lyrical way of seeing and describing the world of the trail.
“I wake to the sound of tents, backpacks, and sleeping bags being zipped, unzipped, and zipped again,” he writes. “There’s no need to set an alarm out here, because once daylight breaks, the morning air is filled with the sound of zippers.”
Readers get a glimpse–often, not much more–of his fellow travelers. But Lugo beautifully portrays the surprisingly intense, accelerated intimacy of trail life, a stark contrast to his encounters with street denizens in his native city.
“(F)orgive me if I’m a bit taken aback on the AT, where I find myself surrounded by unreserved affection with seemingly no hidden agendas. I’m beginning to realize that the rules of humankind are different out here,” he writes, describing his “slow conversion from doubt to belief … that not all strangers are schemers, that a gift from an unknown person can be just that, a gift, not some covert plan to separate me from my possessions.”
His appearance on occasion puts him in uncomfortable situations–drunken dudes hassling him for weed (which he does not have); an inhospitable encounter at an iconic AT refuge (the name rhymes with “soil”). But Lugo remains steadfastly charitable in return; he signs every logbook entry with, “Peace, Love & All That Good Stuff,” and he means it.
“Like watching The Andy Griffith Show and not realizing how few blacks are onscreen, it didn’t occur to me that hiking in general is a predominately white pastime. I’ve come to discover we’re a rare sight out here. Diversity has not yet reached the AT, although the trail does seem ready, wide-eyed, and with open arms,” he writes.
While Lugo provides the occasional tip or insight–e.g., that hoary, yet true, advice about taking photos of people, not just scenery–readers should not expect a comprehensive take on thru-hiking. It may have been due to the exigencies of publishing, but I confess I felt a bit cheated when he flitted past certain states (don’t worry, New Jersey and Connecticut; I still love you) and stuffed the miles from Harpers Ferry to Katahdin, more than half the trail, into just 50 pages. And though Lugo’s close encounter with a bear sounds nerve-racking, prospective hikers can, and probably should, take his recalcitrant bearanoia with a grain of salt. But those are just minor complaints.
Well-written, comical, insightful, and bursting with love, Derick Lugo’s debut memoir may not rank with the classics of trail literature. But it’s certainly one of the most artful and entertaining trail memoirs to come along in a good while.
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