This journal follows Chris Quinn, aka The Esteemed Stooge, Sir Charles Guilons on his thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail in 2013. Starting atop Springer Mountain in Georgia, Sir Stooge makes his way over more than 2,100 miles of earth to summit the beautifully lonesome Mount Katahdin in Maine. Along the way, he meets some great friends: from Tangy and Munchies in Georgia to the silent John in the Wilderness, and all the rest between. Through the beauty of the Earth, the laughs, celebrations, struggles, and pain, Sir Stooge learns some things about himself, and the thing we collectively call life.
When Quinn sent me his book for review, he told me he did not intend to create a traditional trail narrative in which he polished his journal entries and massaged a story from them, manipulating context to draw a story arc. He wanted something more raw
— something more real, gritty, and earthy
— something more true to the daily existence of the trail.
Quinn created two different perspectives
— one on the trail and the other one after the trail. He chose an unusual format, blending his verbatim trail journal entries, and then adding post-trail commentary. In this way he felt he could portray an holistic experience of the Appalachian Trail. It takes into account each moment on the trail, unhindered by a storyteller mindset, then later framing each moment from his real-world mind.
For a while Quinn succeeded in his goal. Through Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee he diligently recorded his journal nearly every day, describing his experiences along the way… sometimes funny, sometimes painful, but always registered in his memory for good.
Falls are expected on the trail, so getting my first one out of the way was a relief. But despite the contrasting emotions of my euphoric alignment on Blood Mountain and my clumsy fall, something subtle tied them together: a willingness to accept them at what they were.
After a week or so on the rugged trail nearly every potential thru-hiker will have self doubts. Perhaps it is their stamina that worries them. Maybe it is their will to succeed. Your muscles ache, your feet have blisters. Not just your body, but your mind as well is fatigued. The first time experiencing hour-after-hour of unrelenting rain saps whatever remaining thoughts of fun you may have had.
The threat of injury and pain was ever-present on the trail: sometimes it was dark and overbearing, other times it was light and distant. But I also worried about intangible injury: the weakness of my will to thru-hike.
Quinn also takes time to share potential benefits derived from his myriad of experiences. Thru-hikers and recovering addicts are similar in one simple way. In recovery it is important to take it one day at a time. Quinn came to realize the importance of that for a thru-hiker.
What’s the most important piece of advice that you would share with someone thinking about thru-hiking the AT? Pack light. Besides making it physically easier, it makes life mentally simpler. Also, enjoy every moment, no matter the circumstances. That moment is all we ever have.
As he crossed from Georgia into North Carolina, Quinn came to an important self-realization that sustained him through the length and breadth of the Great Smoky Mountains:
After a couple hundred miles Quinn was becoming accustomed to the daily rigors of the trail. It was hard. It was sublime. There were new friends each day, and the concept of a day seemed illusive. The green tunnel at times becomes pure drudgery, and at others it is a release from the structured world. Quinn put it like this:
Time did not seem to pass consistently and concretely. Instead, it flowed like water, surging quickly past or lulling in a still pool. In the modern world, it would perhaps be an intellectual regression to lose track of the labels imposed upon natural processes. But on the trail, it was a spiritual progression. Life is not made for measuring.
In Virginia weather and fatigue were constant companions. Quinn began to wonder whether Maine was in the cards. So many people have dropped out before reaching the half way point. Was that to be his fate as well?
Rain became a daily visitor. I learned to get through it as though it were a tedious daily chore, like setting up camp or cooking dinner. It rained almost daily until Harper’s Ferry, 600 miles north. The rain fell because it was supposed to, and I could do nothing but accept it.
I began to slack on the frequency of journal entries. As I got deeper into my journey, the gritty details of my daily hike became more important. Secondly, the level of physical exertion began to increase drastically. Once I began to put in more miles per day, I was more fatigued and had less time to camp.
And my experience is they have less time for everything, not just keeping up with their journal. Beating in miles day after day becomes a constant requirement. In life, we talk about stopping to smell the flowers. On the trail, there simply isn’t time. I’ve asked thru-hikers how they liked Roan Highlands or Max Patch, and they give me a quizzical stare. Unfortunately for the thru-hiker it is difficult to enjoy the magnificant scenery.
My trail life was slow to reach paper.I still had a lot of events to record. Each night that I fell asleep without writing, I felt the burden grow heavier. I knew my memory would shift and alter. So I needed the journal
—a piece of the present made eternal. The written word may only be a set of cultural symbols, yet it pulls at something deeper than the ink marks.
I have read several books published by long trail thru-hikers. I have chatted with thru-hikers on those days when I’ve found myself on one of the national scenic trails. Before I retired, I worked regularly for two years with a fellow who completed an Appalachian Trail thru-hike in 2005. There is a theme that is consistent with them all.
Nearly halfway through the trip, the physical and psychological demands were making their mark. What drove others from the trail manifested itself differently in me. What for them was physical frustration with the drudgery of the trail, was for me mental frustration with my lack of self understanding. What was I doing out here? What am I missing?
Some of what they are missing is that beauty I mentioned above. Unlike you and me when we day-hike, the thru-hiker isn’t out there to enjoy the scenery, or listen to the breeze in the treetops, or the sounds of the pileated woodpecker. They are on a two-fold mission. The outward mission is Maine and the other end of the AT. The more subtle mission is to conquer the unknown… to find answers within themselves to the nagging quandaries of the outside life.
As long as they remain on the trail they are safe within their cocoon. They don’t have to worry about what life has in store for them on the other side… yet. Quinn admitted as much:
I was tagged with the playfully disparaging label of Mayfly: a thru-hiker who started in the month of May, and by implication, a thru-hiker who moved too fast, hiked too hard, and didn’t take it all in.
And this too…
I wanted to be home and to experience every moment with all my friends and family. But I also wanted to hike forever and experience all the good things there are to see in the world. I wanted to be free. I’m ready for it to end, but I don’t want to leave the trail. This trip has been such a mental game.
Eventually, though, the fears of the unknown future catch up with you. As you keep knocking off mile after mile, state after state, it becomes apparent that you really are going to make it to the end. A strong sense of accomplishment permeates your body, but an equally strong sense of dread fills your mind.
I was afraid to be done with my life on the trail. I wished I could turn back time and do it all again. I was afraid to leave the trail because I didn’t understand the demands of the outside world. I was afraid of my future.
And I had another task, one more difficult even than the Whites: I still had to come to terms with the fact that this trip would soon end. And with its end, I would return to the “real world” and the sense of dread that accompanied it. I was scared that what I had become would be wiped away by what I would become. I had become me. I did not want to become anything else.
There is so much pressure from everyone but myself to “succeed” in life. It all seems so backwards. When I have no one but myself to set my goals, I always exceed them. For some reason, I can’t live up to the success standards of the modern world.
Quinn did eventually find some answers. Most people who complete the entire trail do. I won’t go into the details so as not to spoil the anticipation for you, but here’s a little hint:
We’re not physiologically capable of answering the big questions. So we get caught up in the little questions. We make all our lives about the little things. And I’m tired of that. I want to struggle with the big questions and fail. I don’t want to think I know about the little things even when I don’t.
In the end, Quinn spoke in lavish terms of the people. To him, the people made the Appalachian Trail. Now, two years later, as he has published his book, I couldn’t help but wonder what the lasting remembrances will be for him. He is still a very young man… late twenties. Will he be proud of his life 10 years from now? Thirty? If he continues to document his experiences, perhaps he will once again share them with us.
Coming down off of Katahdin was like being cast out of Heaven. I knew I could never attain that experience again – those people, those places, and those experiences are forever locked away and sanctified. They are relics for me now
—to be revered, remembered, and smiled upon when I pull them from the cabinets of my mind.
When Quinn was writing in his journal nearly every day the first few hundred miles of his trek, I enjoyed the narrative. He talked a lot about the characters along the trail, and why he befriended many of them. He described his emotions in great detail, and even talked about mundane things like the weather and his equipment. If you’ve ever entertained thoughts of a thru-hike or a long section hike yourself, you could glean some pointers from Quinn’s experiences.
But as his body and mind tired, and he either forgot to write or simply didn’t have the energy, the narrative lost its focus. In the 2nd half of the book Quinn tended to wax philosophic rather than sharing experiences. I get that. I’ve seen it in other books about thru-hiking.
It’s a fine line between providing detailed experiences and teetering on the brink of boredom. Let’s face it, a 2,100 mile hike over five months is bordering on tedious. Perhaps in an effort to maintain the reader one does have to change the narrative. I found myself rooting for Chris to finish his adventure, but by the end was also ready for the book to be over. That isn’t a slam, just Quinn doing a good job of timing the real conclusion with the logical conclusion.
Chris Quinn grew up in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. After graduating from the University of Delaware, he lived and worked in Hoboken, NJ for a few years before hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2013. He is now a writer and teacher in South Jersey. For more of his works and stories, check out www.quinnwriter.com.
You can purchase copies of Adventures of a Trail Stooge from Amazon.