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Wednesday, 27 February 2008 00:00

Close encounters

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Skywalker: Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Walker. Indigo Publishing, 2007. 224 pages.

Bill Bryson’s account of his time on the Appalachian Trail, A Walk in the Woods, revealed that the chief amusements of the Trail are not the flowers, trees, peaks or bears, but the other human beings encountered on the trail. Katz in particular, Bryson’s fat and funny companion on the trail, stays in the minds of readers longer than the descriptions of the weather or history of the Appalachian Trail.

Bill Walker’s Skywalker: Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail (Indigo Publishing Group, ISBN 1-934144-26-6, $19.95) follows this same path — forgive the pun — but with even more of an eye for his fellow hikers as opposed to the terrain. In his description of his own hike — unlike Bryson, Walker hikes the entire trail — Walker does tell us much about the flora and fauna of the trail (he understandably seems concerned about bears). He gives us, as did Bryson, information about the building of the Trail and its history to the present. He tells us how miserable the rain can be, of sleet storms in North Carolina in late April, of steep climbs and rocky beds.

Despite such hardships, the Appalachian Trail attracts more hikers with each passing year. Near the beginning of the book, Walker points out that the annual hiker population by 2005 had reached five million people, a figure which readers are left to assume includes day hikers as well as thru-hikers. Walker likes company on the trail, and few days seem to pass when he must hike alone. He gives us a sense of how crowded the trail can become with passages like this one:

“Stories abounded on the trail of shelters so densely packed that everybody has to sleep sideways ... I never got in one that completely crowded, but this evening was the closest thing to it. We looked like circus clowns we were so packed in, with the hoods of our sleeping bags cinched in the cold.”

Walker’s descriptions of his fellow hikers are the best part of this fine book. Most of them have nicknames — Camel and Bear, Pee Wee, Study Break, Nurse Ratchet — that sum up part of their character. In describing them, Walker gives a sense of the comradeship that builds on the trail, of impromptu groups that form and then disintegrate, with companionship often determined by the pace set by different hikers. Some of these hikers have walked thousands of miles on the Trail, and from them readers receive good advice. “You can never go too slowly up a hill,” one of them says.

One of the funniest scenes in Skywalker occurs in Hot Springs, N.C., when Walker is approached by Tanya, “a tall, leggy brunette.” In the first few minutes of their meeting, Tanya explains why she receives her motel room free of charge, saying of the owner: “The deal is, and this is the third time I’ve stayed here, but he gets to feel my breasts for five minutes.” Walker and Tanya then go for supper at the Bridge Street Café, where Tanya calls out lewd jokes to the entire restaurant until asked to leave by the manager. Walker finally manages to slip away from her and go to his own bed.

Other encounters are equally amusing. Walker describes a group of nine males in their 20s who have acquired the nickname “Sleazebags.”

“Finally, I came upon the infamous Sleazebags. They were milling around Brown Mountain Creek Shelter, girding for the climb that lay ahead. Sure enough there were nine males, just as advertised. They had picked up the Sleazebags moniker because of the extra-short shorts they wore and because of their cavalier attitude toward women. One trail wit had even described them as ‘a posse of hikers’ ... All night I felt like I was in a junior high school locker room. Every girl on the trail was analyzed from head to toe.”

Bill Walker is himself as eccentric as the people he describes. He is a man named Walker who loves to walk, a living reproof to Shakespeare’s negatively-answered “What’s in a name?” He is 6’ll,” which surely makes him one of the tallest hikers ever to make the trail (Skywalker’s cover is a camera shot of Bill Walker standing atop a mountain with his upper body split by clouds, an eye-catching photograph that also reveals the author’s delightful sense of humor). He is a middle-aged businessman who had never spent a night outdoors before making the hike. Finally, he has a real talent for capturing the people he meets on the trail.

Skywalker does have mistakes. In referring to the Sleazebags, Walker writes that “hanging out with the Sleazebags was like a modern-day rendition of Hemingway’s famous short story, Men Without Women, which was not a short story, but a collection of stories. He later writes of Antietam, the Civil War battlefield which is a part of the Appalachian Trail, that 25,000 soldiers died there on Sept.16, 1862; he clearly mistakes the word casualties — killed, wounded, and missing — for deaths.

But these are small details that have little to do with the Appalachian Trail. Priced in hardcover at only $19.95, Skywalker is a bargain. Even more, Skywalker’s humor, its delight in human foibles, and its observations about human nature should appeal to a broad audience.

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