Sunday, August 28, 2011

Review: "How to Hike the A.T." and "Long Distance Hiking"

Although there are a plethora of books that cover the topic of long-distance hiking the two books "How to Hike the A.T.: The Nitty-Gritty Details of A Long-Distance Trek" by Michelle Ray and "Long-Distance Hiking: Lessons from the Appalachian Trail" by Roland Mueser are two very good reads that use the experiences that the authors gained from their hiking of the Appalachian Trail. Unlike the book "A Walk In the Woods" by Bill Bryson, these books are not humorous tales of the author's adventures, but rather they contain useful reference information about what you'll need to perform a long distance hike. Interestingly, they approach the same topic in completely differing ways such that it is hard for me to say that one book is better than the other.

Michelle Ray presents the book by combining her experiences on the trail with a plethora of supporting research to fill in the gaps. The book covers all the topics that you would expect; everything from the type of gear that you will need to a brief overview of the types of plants that you can expect to see on the trail. There is the obligatory sample gear list, and for those of you who are planning on hiking the entire AT and using mail-drops or bounce boxes, there is even a list of all of the post offices that are along (or nearby) the trail. Although a seasoned hiker will know what he/she likes to eat while out and about, there is an entire chapter devoted to types of food that can be taken and a fairly detailed list of "backpacker foods" that can be found in regular grocery stores. Although all of the information that is provided in the book is a great starting point for any long-distance hiker, the multitude of links to other resources (whether they be links to webpages or references to other books and guides) make it a great starting resource for the enterprising long-distance hiker.

Roland Mueser, on the other hand, approaches the topic of long-distance hiking not solely based on his own experiences, but those of 136 hikers (101 men, 35 women). While on his own thru-hike in 1989, he handed out surveys to fellow hikers and the book is a compilation of the survey results. Thus, instead of, for example, presenting information about the differences between light-weight and heavy hiking boots, he presents an actual percentage of hikers that used each type of shoe. What makes this style of writing interesting is that it brings a slightly more "scientific" approach to answering questions like "What brand of backpack should I buy," "What type of food should I eat," or "How should I purify my water? Filter? Chemicals? Not bother?" For those of you who like to see actual percentages next to answers (i.e. "75% of respondents chose X over Y and Z" rather than simply stating what the relative merits of X, Y, and Z are), this is a great read. While he spends most of the book explaining the results of the survey, the actual survey and the results of each question are also included.

In the end, it's really up to you which book you will end up liking more. I enjoyed Michelle Ray's book for all of the information that she provided without passing judgement as to which item(s) is better than the other. As aforementioned, I found it especially useful as a starting point to then go out and find more information. On the other hand, the scientist in me thoroughly appreciated Roland Muesser's approach of presenting all of the information in the context of survey results from actual hikers. You might as well do as I did: read both and decide for yourself.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Review: "A Walk In The Woods" By Bill Bryson

I recently finished a copy of Bill Bryson's "A Walk In The Woods" and thought I would share my opinions. The book tells the story of two out-of-shape middle-aged men, Bill Bryson and his friend Stephen Katz, and their experience of hiking (part of) the Appalachian Trail. The tale begins with Bill purchasing his equipment (and the sticker shock that ensued), meeting his "friend" Katz for the first time in many years, and them setting off to Georgia amidst one of the coldest winters that Springer Mountain had seen in quite some time. While neither of them actually hiked all of the 2,200 miles of the trail, and they never make it to Mt. Katahdin in Maine (it's just "'Another mountain,' ..., 'How many do you need to see, Bryson?'" p. 271), it is a amusingly witty book that plunges the reader into their version of the Appalachian wilderness and all that that entails.

Apart from the many hilarious moments and comments, such as his reason for attempting the hike ("I wanted a little of that swagger that comes with being able to gaze at a far horizon through eyes of chipped granite and say with a slow, manly sniff, `Yeah, I've shit in the woods.'" p. 4), it contains a slew of historical information that is expertly woven into his narrative. It's not often that you can find a book that talks about a man, Katz, being chased around a town by the husband of a 300 pound woman who he helped at the laundromat by untangling her oversized underwear from the washing machine in one chapter, and then discusses the rise and decline of the tourism industry around Mt. Washington in another.

Although he manages to tell their tale with a generous helping of satirical humor, some may find some of the actions taken by the two men slightly distasteful. For example, there are several occasions in the book where Katz throws items ranging from coffee filters to woolen sweaters from his pack into the woods to lighten his load. Some have said that for a book that attempts to praise the ideals of the Appalachian Trail and the opportunity it provides for anyone to experience the serenity of the trail, this brazen disregard for nature detracts from the story and message. Others have said that it feels as though it is just a story of two whining men that can't wait to get to the next hotel. In part this is true, but the fact that they are not children of nature is what makes the story so memorable. If they were die-hard hikers, most of the funny and sometimes downright stupid (throwing rocks and sticks at a pair of eyes in the dark that Bryson thinks may be a bear), would not have happened.

So, if you are looking for a fun, well-written story about the experience of two men and their experiences along the Appalachian Trail sprinkled with nuggets of historical information, then I would most certainly recommend this book. If, on the other hand, you are looking for a guide that explains how to prepare for a hike, or are completely incensed by littering, then I would stay clear. For my part, I thoroughly appreciated the humor of the book and enjoyed reading several chapters of it on my own hike of the Pemi Trail.