A retiree’s adventure, reviewed by mother and son
A Retiree’s Appalachian Trail Adventure, by Peter King. 340 pages. Published by Peter King. $23.99.
Reviewed by Luke Vidic
Three weeks ago, when I saw Peter King’s book on my desk, I was unsure what to do. Before me was a story about a 55-year-old retiree conquering the Appalachian Trail, written like a guidebook.
I am a hiker. There’s a pair of muddy, well-worn, almost-fermented pair of hiking shoes in the trunk of my car; I can draw a map of Vermont’s peaks from memory, and I love the rich scent of a fern-strewn forest after a storm. The thought of reviewing a book about the Appalachian trail — a book that chronicles every step taken from Georgia to Maine — sounded lovely to me.
The unfortunate (or perhaps fortunate) reality is, however, I am about 50 years shy of being a retiree. I am man on the younger side of twenty-something who scrolls on his phone until 1 a.m., and chapter one of Mr. King’s book begins, “As a mature adult…”
So I decided to enlist some help. I found one person who could bridge the gap between myself and the author — my mom.
I figured she was closer to the book’s intended audience, as an active fifty-something who regularly summits the rolling mountains of central Pennsylvania. And while not retired, as a teacher and paraprofessional, she has had wide open summer schedules for the past three decades.
“I understand his age and achy knees and maybe not being able to carry such a heavy pack,” she told me.
But she, too had, a barrier to understanding. She isn’t quite the serious hiker Mr. King is. “I could relate because I do hike, although just day hikes no longer than two hours,” she said.
Here, I filled in, having ample experience with day-long hikes in the Adirondacks, Green Mountains, and the Whites of New Hampshire.
And together, with my mother’s aged experience and my many-houred hikes, we tackled this book, written by the Belvidere resident.
The book is at its best when showing the quirks of the Appalachian Trail. When the day-to-day humdrum of putting one foot in front of the other breaks into the surreal. Bear encounters, homeless hikers, strange privies, et cetera. Even the simple act of meeting another hiker breaks the monotony, and often leads to a beautiful moment. To this, both my mother and I agreed.
As the trail crosses through western Massachusetts, “Lucky Pierre” (as Mr. King was called while on the trail) had such an experience.
“I heard feet shuffling on the side trail to the lean-to. When the person appeared, I could hardly believe my eyes. It was a lady around 50 years old and she stood at about three-feet six-inches.”
The two chat, and the woman reveals that she is attempting the Appalachian Trail, covering just two to three miles a day and sleeping in a shower curtain liner. Mr. King fails to explain why she sleeps in a shower curtain, but this only further builds the mystery around the woman.
This moment became only one of Mr. King’s many memorable experiences. For the reader enjoying the book from the comfort of home, the description pulls one into the hiking experience more than the consecutive descriptions of rock screes, meadows, and trees ever could.
But all in all, as my mom said, “Peter was mostly in his own little world of himself and the trail.”
Page after page is devoid of human interaction, and simply describes the subtle changes in scenery and passing views. The descriptions are in-depth, and often include glimpses into the history of the region. Mr. King regularly cites moments from pre-Civil War history, and tells tales of settlers and old forgotten towns turned to dirt and moss-covered stone chimneys.
For the hiker on the trail, the descriptions prove valuable. They develop an appreciation for the trail one walks.
But for my mom and I, two armchair hikers at home, the descriptions had to take on different roles.
My mom enjoyed the pictures Mr. King paints. They brought her into the woods “up and down the mountains and over rocks and boulders and by streams. I didn’t exactly feel like I was hiking with him, more like he had a GoPro and was adding the voice-over along the way,” she said.
For me, it turned stale rather quickly. Without a driving narrative with suspense and consequence, my mind often wandered, and the words moved through my head without any understanding.
But Mr. King’s book isn’t really that kind of book. It’s not a gripping novel about overcoming adversity, even though Mr. King suffers a debilitating knee injury halfway through his journey and is set back a year. That moment only steals a few paragraphs, and I believe that is because Mr. King saw that the true purpose of his book was to inform and perhaps inspire.
Mr. King’s eight-year, 2,192-mile undertaking is extremely well documented. He describes terrain, vistas, and even the quality of restaurants and hotels. Seemingly anything of note to a traveler — a plush retired traveler, that is — on the trail is recorded by Mr. King.
While there is no wrong way to traverse the Appalachian Trail, Mr. King takes ample advantage of his extremely generous wife, Susann, and is met at the end of most days with a free ride to a hotel and a homemade dinner. My mom described Susann’s extensive role — the planning and the driving — as hard to comprehend. I imagine few hikers who make the attempt are blessed with such an opportunity.
I don’t say that to discredit Mr. King’s accomplishment. I say that to inform readers that it’s likely only a niche audience can utilize Mr. King’s book as an effective guidebook.
Yet for those who can, it would likely be invaluable, given the extensive details in his writing.
A Retiree’s Appalachian Trail Adventure would serve well those hikers with the same aspirations as Mr. King as an informational guide for planning the journey, and a handy guidebook to have once on the trail. The book certainly works well. Just don’t expect the story to entrance you.