Why the Most Popular Hiking Memoirs Don’t Go the Distance

The question arises: why are the three most famous accounts of hiking three of the world’s most famous long-distance trails written by people who did not hike the whole distance?

The loneliness and skull-bound nature of a long-distance hike fits quite nicely with the thinking out, if not the actual writing, of books. The dusty back aisles of Amazon are glutted with first-person accounts of successful thru-hikes, most of which tend to be buffed-up re-writes of the author’s trail journal. These books have a limited audience (namely, other thru-hikers), whereas the books that become best-sellers speak to people who would never embark on a long-distance hike in the first place.

The rare best-sellers leap this pitfall by hitching onto other well-established genres: Bryson’s is a humorous travelogue, Strayed’s a memoir about healing, and Coelho’s a quest novel. They also avoid the doldrums of strict, day-by-day linear storytelling.

Because they began in places of utter ineptitude and painfully ascended to the status of hardened veterans, Strayed, Bryson, and Coelho were able to fashion engaging emotional trajectories for their books. But that same lack of preparation and training made it exceedingly difficult for them to finish the trail, so they were ultimately forced to trim back their ambitions.

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