Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Appalachian Trials by Zach Davis review

It’s not often we see a Good Badger execute somersaults. But one, who chose to share his antics on the Appalachian Trail, did.  In the recently published,  Appalachian Trials: a psychological & emotional guide to successfully hike the Appalachian Trail, Zach Davis, the owner of the trail name, Good Badger, rolls from funny and glib to serious and profound, proving to be a complex person, as many are who attempt the AT and make it. Hikers and their families are lucky he chose to write such a book, an honest and astute take on the Appalachia Trail, and a must read for those who are currently, or will in the future, find themselves walking the 2,000 odd miles form Georgia to Maine. 
Zach’s not talking off the cuff but from cataloging both the inner and outer experience. His personal stories back up his psychological insights and mental hygiene. As Zach slogged the miles in the rain, climbed the rocky outposts, endured the Green Tunnel he took note of the AT’s effects on hikers both physically and mentally. He endured his own set of unusual trials while hiking, from being rejected for an important job he hoped to start after his hike, to contracting a debilitating illness while on the trail, which was not diagnosed until he was off the trail. 
Published on the heels of a number of memoirs and some incredible guide books, this is may very well become one of the most important books in the hikers prep box, simple because it addresses what Zach believes, to be the main reason hikers make it all the way.  Mental attitude. Appalachian Trials may prove even more important than choice of equipment or how many maps a hiker carries, because it prepares the long distance backpacker for what the mind goes through while pushing the body to such limits and how important the right frame of mind can be when confronting the obstacles of the self, including the interaction with society before and after the journey and most importantly each individual’s purpose and motivations for such a challenge.
Zach’s approach, reminds me of how crucial Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell viewed the role of quests, initiations and challenges in the invocation and development of the “hero” or the authentic individual, as Jung called it.
On those mountains, 100s of them, one must come to know himself inside and out without the trappings of society to protect them, and therefore must learn to rely on their own inner resources and strengths.  Sure there’s times each hiker curses the trail, but more times than most, it’s the opportunity to discover an inner ally. Out on the trail everyone is reduced to their absolute center – there’s no way to be fake to impress or best someone. Personas and habits we adopt to comply with society’s expectations slip away with the miles until every hiker comes to know their true self better than ever imagined. 
So far this review may make Appalachian Trials sound like a complicated book.  Quite the opposite. Throughout his book, Zach employs user friendly analogies anyone can relate to and offers solutions, methods, and techniques to better prepare both the hiker and the worried family back home as to what may, can and should happen while going through such an extreme experience for four to six months.
It’s practical, readable and most of all insightful, without being preachy or pretentious.  Zach’s humor, off beat, quirky and often self-deprecating proves this is a guy who can take himself seriously when he has to, but more often than not, will just as soon laugh at his foibles. He’s taught himself to be intuitively aware when of when it’s time to find a way around a mental mountain with the potential to come crashing down and therefore avoids or survives each setback. 
But Zach doesn’t stop there, he goes on to warn and suggest measures to deal with the post-trail let down, the adjustment back into society and how to use the new awareness gained from this pivotal life journey to found a meaningful and enriched lifestyle.
 My son Jeff or Loner, as he’s known on the trail, started his thru-hike on April 7, 2012 on the approach trial at Amicalola Falls. As a family member of an AT thru-hiker, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this book. Once Jeff left, I found Zach’s Good Badger blog and read every word, hungry for more. Appalachian Trials delivered even more than I’d hoped.
Throughout Appalachian Trials, Zach makes user friendly analogies anyone can relate to and offers solutions, methods, techniques to better prepare both the hiker and the worried family back home as to what may, can and should happen while going through such an extreme experience for four to six months. It helps us understand why our family member or friends is taking on such a feat and what they go through en route, in addition to offering us ways we can offer them some advice without becoming obsessively worried.
While reading Appalachian Trials, I felt like I was sitting in a room with Zach, a large window to our sides, offering a panoramic view of the woods on a beautiful day, that’s how the conversational style of this book engages the reader.  I felt like I came to know Zach, as well a man, who while often exhibiting his off-kilter sense of humor, also, at the same time offered a thoughtful, insightful view not just of the AT but also of our society’s culture and how easy it is to forget one’s true self trying to measure up to outer standards.  On the AT, it’s just the hiker and nature, bottom line.  More than just a hiker’s backpack is pared down to the core necessities.   

I think this book is also a valuable resource and comfort to family and friends of long distance hikers since it offers concrete steps to take at all stages of such a life-altering journey. Of which there are more than the hiker expects: from the prep through the early trail anxieties to the endorphin highs spurned on by exercise and small successes, through the periods of boredom and possible depression during Virginia’s 550 mile Green Tunnel, where as Zach explains, the honeymoon stage is over.  Zach offers ways the thru-hiker can deal -   all the way to the exhausting, emotional and exhilarating summit of Mt. Katadhin.
 The writing in Appalachian Trials appears to be an effortless task on Zach’s part, so easily do we read it and understand his observations and advice. But, as an editor, I know differently. Pay attention to a normal conversation and you’ll hear how to rambles, is tangential, wanders off course, sometimes to never veer back, stops and starts, and sometimes ends abruptly without flow. Zach put more time and effort in completing this book than is evident on the surface, like taking a bad day on the trail with its missteps and lost footing, and using the time in the shelter of an evening to recall it with all its wonders and remarkable lessons intact.   
That’s the landscape of this book, the path Zach leads you on, not only on the Appalachian Trail but also in life.

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