Finally, I’ve made it from Georgia to Maine! It has taken me six months, not much longer than the average thru hiker. Not with my feet did I travel from south to north, but with my eyes, mind, and heart, following nothing but the path of the words on a page. In fact, the only traveling I did along the way was not much farther than from my bed to the couch, with a few plane rides thrown in there. I have completed reading THRU: An Appalachian Trail Love Story by Richard Judy. While I have never physically stood on top of Katahdin, there’s definitely a part of me that feels I have after reading this book.
About the Author: Richard Judy is no stranger to the AT or a thru hike. In fact, he thru hiked in 1973, and also has completed a 15 year long section hike. Both of his children have completed thru hikes as well. He claims his wife has only hiked the entire ‘width’ of the AT. It is clear from his background that he is passionate about he AT and outdoor adventure. His other accolades include a long distance bicycling trip in California in 1975, and adventures near my current home, such as a climb up Mt. Rainier and exploration of Olympic National Park.
Judy transforms his passion and experience into stewardship for the Appalachian Trail and the community and culture of hiking. He serves as the president of a non-profit organization maintaining the Len Foote Hike Inn, near Amicola Falls and the approach trail to the AT in northern Georgia. The Len Foote Hike Inn has offered respite and fun to hikers since 1998 in and around its LEED certified building. While I have never been to the Hike Inn, I imagine it is not unlike the AMC huts that I’ve worked in and the Judy mentions numerous times throughout his book. Most important to note, I believe, is that all of the profits from Thru: An Appalachian Trail Love Story go right back to the Appalachian Trail Museum in Pennsylvania.
It is clear that this book is just another extension of Judy’s passion for the AT and the hiking community. It is his way of giving back to the trail that has given so much to him. It is without a doubt a way to draw people closer to the trail and its magic.
Context: I recieved this book back in November, but really didn’t get underway with reading until I found more free time beginning in January. Apparently, I didn’t do enough research before beginning to read. I was under the impression that this would be an account of Judy’s 1973 thru hike, and if not, at least a non-fiction account and exploration of thru hiking. I guess I believed this because the majority of my other adventure reading experience has either been from a first person perspective or historical accounts. When I began to read something felt fishy. Upon further reading and research, I realized that this is actually a work of fiction.
At first, I must admit, I was a bit skeptical. At the beginning, I wasn’t in the mood for a fiction story. I wanted a true thru, a nitty gritty account of the peaks and valleys, both literal and metaphorical, of attempting a thru hike. I wanted to learn from a real person’s successes or failures.
Format/Writing Style: At first, I was also unsure of the format of the book. The book’s format consists of multiple journal and trail register entries and emails and letters written by the characters as they move along the trail from south to north. As there are many characters, none of whom seem to stand out necessarily as the “main” one, I thought it was going to be hard to follow the story, jumping from entry to entry. I had read non-fiction historical journals before, but they’re easy to follow as all of the entries are from one person.
As I read however, my apprehensions were put to ease, and I realized that a fictional account involving multiple entries from many characters was an extremely effective format for telling the story that plays out in this book. Here’s why:
As you continue to read, it begins to feel less and less like fiction. It is clear that Judy has a very intimate knowledge of the places, sights, and sounds along the trail. He even includes interactions with famed individuals that help hikers along the trail. The way he allows the fictional characters to describe the places they go displays fine detail and descriptions, supporting the tangible nature of these real places. It is equally helpful that the majority of the entries come from the individuals that are part of a larger group called the “Bly Gap Gang.” Bly Gap is a location not far into North Carolina over the border from Georgia. Reaching Bly Gap is one of the first real notches a northbound thru hiker can add to their belt. A group of characters seems to formulate on their way to Bly Gap, which is why they get the name. First, I like this group because they remind me of other groups of AT thru hikers I have met with funky names and gregarious members, such as “The Fat Kids” and “The Thru-Tang Clan.” More importantly for the reader, following this group provides constistency throughout the reading experience. While each character of the Bly Gap Gang has their own entries with their own perspectives and personalities, their stories are somewhat consistent, referencing other characters, similar places, and group interactions. By reading their entries, you begin to see how group dynamics form, opinions about locations on the trail, and more, all at a pretty consistent pace. This is far more effective than if Judy had chosen to create characters and journal entries from entirely different locations and paces on the trail, with characters who are not even in connection with one another (which I admit, was one of my initial fears). Other characters come in and out of the picture from time to time, but ultimately all in relation to the group you become quite attached to, The Bly Gap Gang. You additionally begin to realize that these characters might not be all fiction, but fictionalized representations of real people that Judy actually knows, had interactions with, and has memories of. They are or may be representations of actual people that have been a part of actual events on the trail. This point is important to me, as I said before that I wanted a ‘true thru’ or a real account. While these characters are fiction, they become realer than you might have initially expected. It is also fun that most of the characters are referred to by nothing but their “trail names” (nicknames they recieve while on trail).
My one speculative half-criticism about this novel is the length and detail of the journal/register entries. The entries are written in great length and detail, and I can’t imagine most thru-hikers journal to such a great extent. This is highly speculative of me, as I’ve never been a thru-hiker or kept a hiking journal. I just can’t picture them spending that much time on it. I have read many shelter and hut registers, and they mostly seem to involve quick notes from hikers, stating their presence at that place, the condition the place is in, or a note about how they’re feeling that day. I have also read historical journals before, and many times, the entries are just straight forward, simple messages and rememberences. However, I can understand why Judy did write in this way, as short, terse entries wouldn’t have provided the quality and descriptive writing that a gripping novel needs, which is why I call this only a half-criticism. Even if it does seem a bit inauthentic to how most thru-hikers would write, you eventually get over it because the story is too good.
Another thing I think Judy did well was provide a voice for female characters. I am not a female, nor is Richard Judy. I would imagine it is hard enough to be a male writing from a female perspective, let alone from multiple female perspectives like Judy has done. I think an additional difficulty in this regard is that there are fewer female thru hikers, and adventurers in general, than male. It is sometimes that female adventurers get lost in the conversation about outdoor sports and culture, despite the fact that they make up a growing portion of the community, and female accomplishments are not any less extroardinary than those of their male counterparts. Judy is able to find individual voices for each female character, and makes them bonafied parts of the story, none overshadowed by the men. They exhibit a full range of emotions and characteristics from confidence, humor, motherly instict, reverance, and sexuality to self doubt, anger, etc. For example, at some points the famale characters console a college aged male character named Blue Devil over lost love and the confusing and challenging decision to attend a top college and live up to his parents expectations. However, in another part of the book, a female character named Ultragrunge weilds an pistol and ends a physical confrontation with some criminal troublemakers. His female characters seem to be both beautiful and badass. I think writing in a first person female persective could be challenging to the male author, but in my opinion Judy rises to the challenge and does an excellent job, but that’s from my male perpective. Read more on the issues here:
My Favorite Part: Without a question my favorite part of reading this book was reading Judy’s, or rather Judy’s characters’ perspectives on places along the trail that are meaningful to me. I have been very fortunate to have experienced many places along the AT, particularly in Tennesee, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, New York, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. Many of these places have absolutely stolen my heart. Judy was able to hit many places on the trail that are really important to me, unlike Bill Bryson in A Walk In The Woods, who totally skipped southwest Virginia, a place near and dear to my heart. Judy’s characters visit and discuss at length the beauty, difficulties, and experiences they have in places such as but not limited to Smokies in TN, Mt. Rogers and McAfee’s Knob in VA, and the AMC hut system in the Whites of NH, all places I’ve lived and/or worked. A few of the characters even do a “work-for-stay” at Zealand Falls Hut, where I worked this previous fall. I’ll spare you additonal details, as I could go on and on. You can find reference to all these places on my blog. Each time the characters were approaching places of personal signficance, I would get all giddy inside, unable to put the book down until one of the characters reached that particular place and offered their perspective. The descriptions of the places Judy’s characters choose to write about are accurate, and many times breathtaking. It was amazing to read about these places through his characters’ perspectives as it brought back a wave of emotions and sensations for me, and many times prompting a desire in me to soon return by foot along this amazing trail we simply call the “AT.” Not only did Judy find a way to strike a nerve with me with places, but also with interactions he creates in the book. It was funny how eerily similar some situations in the book are to my experiences. For example, two characters Ultragrunge and Brave Phillie have a discussion while at Mizpah Springs Hut. Ultragrunge writes in her hut register entry, “Brave Philly noted that they call the low spots in ridges ‘gaps’ in the south and ‘notches’ in most of New England. Out west, they call them ‘passes.’ Regardless, it’s murder on feet and knees walking down into them, and demanding on the heart and lungs walking up out of them” (pg. 221). I had this exact same conversation with a thru-hiker this previous fall one evening at Zealand Falls Hut. This is just one of the many that arose for me as I read this book. Given my previous experience, I had a highly personalized reaction to this book. However, I do not feel this means that someone without any frame of reference for the AT couldn’t draw meaning from this book. But rather the places and characters throughout the book are so well described and exciting, it would inspire someone without any knowledge of the trail to do research, and hopefully, get out there to see it themselves.
It’s All About Love: Ultimately, the subtitle of this book describes Thru as “An Appalachian Trail Love Story.” It turns out, this is in fact a love story on many levels. It displays the love that grows amongst a group experiencing euphoric highs and heartbreaking lows together through physical exertion in the wilderness. Anyone who has ever hiked, and even moreso backpacked, can relate to this feeling. I know I can. Time in nature is both the best equalizer and unifyer, and this book clearly displays that. It also seems that time is faster in terms of relationship building, while going through triumph and hardship in nature. Relationships form faster and stronger than you ever could have imagined. The Bly Gap Gang is a group of mismatched individuals, from a college aged guy at his physical prime, to a hugely overweight guy who could hardly finish the approach trail to Springer Mountain, Georgia, and everyone in between. In the end, the entire group molds, and each person’s individual successes become group successes. That is love. The book does not steer clear of romantic love either. A few of the characters develop romantic relationships and exchange physical intimacies. Once again, the AT and the experience it provides can reveal sexual attractions, but also can help people realize that if they could get through the entire trail together, they can get through anything together, helping to solidify true love and confidence for the future health of the relationship. I believe both of these formations of love, whether friendly or romantic, to be true and to exist on the AT. I have run into many thru hikers, and sometimes it is clear to see who are the best of friends and/or extraordinary and dedicated couples. Sometimes, these dynamic duos or groups did not even know eachother prior to beginning their thru hike. Most importantly though, and this may not come as a surprise, is that this book is about the love for the trail. If nothing else, it is at least a reflection of that. In order to write a full length book about anything, you have to have absolute love for the subject or story about which you’re writing. It is clear that Judy has a love for the trail. It is easy to see how the characters of this book develop a love for the trail, as they reference it many times. I will not tell you exactly how to the book ends, but it does so with a triumphant and celebratory return by the characters to the beginning of the trail (not just celebratory for completing the trail, but something else that you’ll have to read the book in order to find out). Each day, and each year, people return again and again to the trail, in many different capacities, to show their love for this trail. You can only imagine Judy’s characters would do the same. Whether young or old, day hiking, overnighting, volunteering, or working, the Appalachian Trail inspires and instills love of many forms, and the trail recieves love in return. Judy’s book encapsulates every form of love found on the trail, and transfers that love from the pages into your mind and heart, displaying that Thru is just that, a love story.
Conclusion: I spared you the details of the plot, because you already know the deal. It’s a group of people that hike from south to north, more commonly referred to on trail as northbound or “NOBO.” I hope I revealed a useful personal opinion and review on Thru: An Appalachian Trail Love Story. This novel comes together nicely, with a surprising ending, and a reveals a deeper significance to the book’s title. This book is highly readable, and agreeable to many different reading levels. Judy’s depictions of day to day travel along the trail are not mundane descriptions of putting one foot in front of the other, but exciting references to places laced with conflict, joy, love, introspection, extroverted outbursts, and even references to history and natural history. It is a great blend between fiction and reality. I highly recommend it to all AT enthusiasts and hikers, but also those who have never set foot on the trail. I believe this book can warm you on the coldest winter months when hiking may be less desireable, bring you closer to the mountains when you happen to be farther away, or inspire you to attempt your own thru-hike regardless of age, fitness level, hiking experience, or circumstance. Happy reading and happy hiking!
I encourage you to learn more about the Appalachian Trail, Richard Judy, and this book. Better yet, buy a copy of your own and support the trail! Here are some useful links:
Thru blog: http://thru-novel.com/
Thru facebook: https://www.facebook.com/THRUstory
Len Foote Hike Inn: http://hike-inn.com/
The AT Museum (you can purchase here, too): http://www.atmuseum.org/
booksforhikers.com description: http://www.booksforhikers.com/
Barnes and Noble for book purchase: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/thru-richard-judy/1118583755?ean=9780991221516
The AT Conservancy: http://www.appalachiantrail.org/