How Hiking Saved a Novel

Four years ago, lacking gainful employment and with “Write a novel!” on my to-do-before-I-die list, I hammered out a three hundred page post-apocalyptic disaster. The story wasn’t bad, but the writing sure was. I created so many problems for myself to fix that to do so would involve a major rewrite, so I slipped it into an electronic filing cabinet for later, as I had other story ideas to get down on the page.

Ironically, one of the major settings in the novel is Damascus, VA and the portion of the Appalachian Trail that runs through the self-proclaimed Friendliest Town on the Trail. The funniest part is that I wrote huge scenes in the book about those places having never been near Damascus or the AT. I did a little bit of online research and voila! I was done writing those sections. Or so I thought…

Fast forward two-plus years. I began taking an interest in hiking in general, and the AT in particular. After reading many journals and blogs, I discovered some embarrassing errors in my previous research. I’m glad the novel is still an unpublished disaster. I’ve made notes to fix the problems when I finally pull the book out and blow the e-dust off it.

But simply adding accuracy to the Damascus portions of my novel won’t save it. However, the AT itself will. I’ve figured out how to shift certain plot elements to make the story more realistic and tighter, the key change of which is to put my protagonist on the AT in Harper’s Ferry and have him hike to Damascus while being pursued by the authorities present in this new dystopian world. Best part? I’m going to hike the key parts of that section (if not the whole thing; we’ll see what my schedule holds at the time) myself and take copious notes for the rewrite.

So, as it turns out, the dozens of books, trail journals and blogs I’ve read, along with my new enthusiasm for hiking have all conflated to bring salvation to my first novel.

Now I just need to find the time to actually fix it.

Note: This past Saturday I completed the first draft of my second attempt at writing a novel. Much better than the first one. A few rewrites and I hope to have it published by this time next year. Mild spoiler: Among other things the protagonist is, of course, a hiker. 


Can You Hear Me Now?

On my first trip out to the AT trailhead in Monson, I noticed a marked drop-off of cell coverage in the area. Given that Maine has always been a U.S. Cellular stronghold and I’m an AT&T subscriber, that didn’t surprise me. But it did get me thinking: Which carrier has the best shot of delivering service over the length of the entire Appalachian Trail?

A curious hiker sure can’t ask the carriers themselves. Branding slogans and coverage map hyperbole being what they are, I decided my best bet was to trample the backpacking forums and blogs for my answer.


The majority believe that Verizon delivers the best coverage over the length of the AT, though no carrier can deliver reception bars everywhere on the trail. That means that, once I’ve graduated beyond day hikes out there, I’ll need to reconsider my choice of carrier. I’m not under contract, so the jump would be as easy as doing it, I guess. But that means surrendering my trusty Galaxy Note 4 (that whole GSM to CDMA incompatibility thing), which I’m even less excited about given the current rash of fires the newest version of the venerable Note is causing.

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I can’t imagine life without my S Pen.

I have no desire to turn Great Smoky Mountains National Park, well…smoky.

I could always get a second cheap pay-as-you-go cell locked to Verizon’s network to use while hiking. Or invest in a device like a satellite communicator, which delivers better coverage in remote areas. But they can be expensive to buy and, like a cell phone, require some form of subscription plan.

If there’s any good news, it’s that my backwoods hiking has been pretty tame so far. With winter coming, getting a device with better coverage isn’t really urgent, as I have no desire to tackle the Hundred Mile Wilderness when there’s four feet of snow gracing (gracing?) the ground. But it is something I need to consider for spring, when I begin doing overnights and weekends solo…



‘Tis the Season for Vicarious Expeditions

In August of last year I began toying with the idea of supplementing my running with some hiking and backpacking. I’ve always loved the quiet solitude of trail running, much more so than risking my life at the hands of distracted drivers on the roads of this great nation. And the thought of “slowing down to enjoy the view” while traversing said solitude really appealed to me.

About that time Cheryl Strayed’s book “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” kept popping up in my face. Amazon offered me a good deal on the Kindle version so I bought it. And Amazon, as they are wont to do, kept peppering me with other suggested hiking-based reads, so on Labor Day weekend I grabbed David Miller’s popular “AWOL on the Appalachian Trail.” While “Wild” was readable (I’ll forgo a full review; the TL:DR version? Meh), it was Miller’s book that truly lit the fire. A handful of other hiking books kept the coals smoldering during the long winter that followed while I fidgeted, anxious to begin my transition to hiking in the spring.

Since devouring Miller’s tome (twice) I’ve read an additional twenty books and countless journals centered around hiking the three long trails here in the United States. While I can’t see myself ever attempting a thru-hike of any of them, I’ve managed to gain some familiarity with each of the Big Three thanks to vicariously hiking along with an incredibly diverse group of characters. From the epic AT hikes of Emma Gatewood to Keith Foskett’s escapades, these books have allowed me the joy of expedition-by-proxy, and given me deep and honest glimpses into the mindset of the long distance backpacker.

As Baxter State Park (and by extension Katahdin) closes for the season this weekend and winter looms, I’ll turn once again to intrepid tales of ordinary people conquering vast miles of rugged wilderness in pursuit of their personal dreams. And I’ll use those stories to keep my hiking desires burning until next spring, when I’ll load up my backpack and head out once again for purposeful doses of trial-and-error on my favorite long trail.