Monday, April 9, 2012

Appalachian Trials - A Review

(11/12/12) NOTE:  Please read the author comments and my response that follow this rant. 

Recently I finished reading a book written by a 2011 thru-hiker named Zach Davis, aka The Good Badger.  The full title of the book is Appalachian Trials: The Psychological and Emotional Guide to Successfully Thru-Hiking The Appalachian Trail.  What follows is my personal opinion of said work.

The internet has ruined things for me, but at the same time made them easier.  In the case of my goal to hike the Appalachian Trail it has been a boon of information for my planning, gear research, and most importantly shopping.  It has also permitted me to tap into a resource of first hand knowledge I would never have had when I first imagined this trip at age 16.  That last part sucks.

I am by no means ungrateful for this knowledge, and will undoubtedly find it useful on the trail.  It will, in my opinion, lessen the experience quite literally.  By standing on the shoulders of others who have gone before, the impact of the journey will not carry the same weight if I were going in "unschooled" so to speak.  Thru-hiking the AT is quickly becoming more akin to visiting Disneyland than a true venture into the unknown.  My cynical side has foreseen Taco Bell vending machines at every shelter and REI outlet stores in every major town along the trail.  In 100 years, the trail will be one long airport conveyor, or worse yet a simulated hike in Google Earth.

But I digress...

Last year I decided, for better or worse, to investigate who was utilizing the social network tools to chart their own progress along the trail.  I discovered three individuals and one couple who peaked my interest and seemed to have a grasp on the English language.  The first was a young woman named Lindsey.  Her blog, Five Million Footprints, though not consistent was interesting.  I hope she and Bearbag enjoy their life together.  The second was a young lady on Facebook who's name I forget.  The couple, Nick and Mel, were from Canada, but I won't hold that against them.  They had the joy of being adopted by a canine companion who allowed them to join him on the trail.  You can see pictures of Blaze and his humans on their blog.

The final candidate for my in-field researchers goes by the trail name (and blogger name) The Good Badger, and is known by his parents as Zach Davis.  This young man, at least young in years, took on the trail at the right time in his life.  Something I should have done if I had been as wise then as I am now.  My circumstances where different however, so I can not compare nor regret my decisions at the time.  Now is now.

Mr. Badger completed the trail, as he put it, in "five months and one day."  From what I have researched, that is well above average, and not done without a price.  In his book, which he pounded out I think in less time than was spent on the trail, Mr. Badger (I hope I can call him just Badger someday) speaks primarily of the mental discipline required in preparation for and on the AT journey.

Brandishing well composed prose and a dryly appropriate wit, Mr. Badger expresses his personal take on getting into and sustaining a positive and adaptable outlook for the strenuous self-imposed task.  He describes a well thought out methodology, including written assignments to the reader, in establishing a set of goal oriented affirmations to create and keep that outlook.

The author also describes how those affirmations and methods were utilized successfully on the trail, and more importantly analyzing where those methods fell short when superseded by his own weaknesses.  That goes back to my previous statement regarding a lessened impact.  The AT is not and never should be a goal in itself, but as a challenge used to gauge where one is in the ultimate goal of creating oneself, whether one hikes all or part of it.  Mr. Badger sees this, and does a fair job at aiding the reader to see the application not only for a thru-hike, but in everyday life.  As he suggests repeatedly, a well prepared mind is far more important than any physical ability or technological advantage.  I agree wholeheartedly.

Though Mr. Badger does not have a degree in psychology, he certainly talks a good game.  After living and debating at length with a gifted psychology student going on nearly four years I can attest to the veracity of his methods.  However, he would have done greater service to his readers and afforded more credibility to his effort if he had cited relevant research to support his point of view.  For all the valid expounding and examples of genuine positive psychological methodology, he has but one formal reference regarding meditation.  He did make reference to a physician in regards to diet, and  cited some articles on ticks and Lyme's disease, but in general he lacks a professional polish to his main focus by not citing relevant references.  He even mentions the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), but only to make a joke concerning "Gear OCD."  I know from personal experience this is not good literary practice and can screw an author in both reputation and litigation.  But I suppose in today's open source (i.e. its free if I can find it online) environment, that level of professionalism and regard for other people's work has been relegated to academics and pure scientists.  I fault the public education system.  As my college sociology professor commented on my miserable example of an article summary, "You should go back to your high school English teacher and slap them for not teaching you properly."  Some days I wish I could.

I realize this book was intended as a practical self help guide for the uninitiated.  At the very least there should be a "For Further Reading" appendix with relevant books and research papers.  Maybe the next edition will expand on his thoughts, adding some useful references for those who desire to go deeper into the rabbit hole.

I want to state again, this is a good read, for what it is.  As a self published book, which seems to be the trend of late, it is extremely well written.  There are a number of spelling and grammatical errors, but those are minor and present in all first run books.  That is not an issue nor does it interrupt the read.  As with his lack of factual backing, the book also lacks a strong narrative approach that tickles the emotional complex of the reader to embed the message into the soul. There are emotional parts, but they seem detached in the telling as if the author is suffering a stress induced disassociation from the events just recently endured.  This may be the case, but I'm no shrink.  Or it could just be me, which is equally if not more likely.

After following Mr. Badgers blog throughout his ordeal, I was surprised and disappointed to find a dearth of  emotionally charged anecdotes from the trip.  I was particularly dissatisfied with the limited reference to the trail angels, praised and treated as gods in his blog, barely made mention of or expanded upon in his book.  I was not expected Dr. Zhivago, but a bit more depth and time given to those who undoubtedly contributed directly to his success would have been appropriate.  Asking and answering the simple question "Why are you helping me" would have done wonders for giving  the book an emotional appeal Mr. Badger, in my useless opinion, is somewhat lacking.

Granted, the author is I think more adept and experienced in the short attention span prose of blogging.  But once one crosses the line into a published work that people actually pay for, one must create a satisfying product for a broader, more attentive audience.  They just plunked down nine bucks for your book, which means they have committed to giving up substantial time to learn what you have to say.  Don't short change them by not bringing your A-game.  Produce a well rounded, deep, and richly entertaining story.  To parody the Voice in Field of Dreams, If you write it, they will read.

Before I conclude, just another reminder that my opinion is my own.  If Mr. Badger has taken any of this personally, I would recommend he revisit his affirmation list on writing this book which I would hope includes "I will not take personally any bullshit criticism some lame blogger may lay at my feet."

As Mr Badger might say, the takeaway to all of this is:

  1. Appalachian Trials is a worthwhile read for potential thru-hikers and normal folk alike.
  2. While extremely practical and informative, do not expect anything similar to "A Walk in the Woods"
  3. The Good Badger is one to watch.
  4. This Sage is never too old to learn new tricks.

I wish the Badger best of luck.


  1. Jim,

    First of all, thanks for the very well thought out and lengthy review of Appalachian Trials. I am open to any and all criticism that comes from a place of good intentions and valid logic. Yours clearly fits this criteria.

    "The book an emotional appeal Mr. Badger, in my useless opinion, is somewhat lacking." No - definitely not a "useless opinion". But to address your points, the lack of first person narrative and emotional appeal was intentional.

    I knew there would be two categories of readers for Appalachian Trials - those who followed my blog, and everyone else. In the beginning obviously the first group would be (and was) the overwhelming majority of the book's readers. To best appeal to this group, I knew it should include detailed stories/behind the scenes emotional personal journal type entries - essentially a more vivid retelling of my experience.

    Then there's everyone else.

    Because there's already a wealth of AT first-person, "finding yourself" dramatic journey style books, this is something I made serious efforts to avoid. I debated with myself at length with the few personal stories that I did include, and made sure that they made the cut only if they served their purpose of exemplifying a point I was attempting to get across. Because the book was written for the purpose of preparing hikers for the psychological battles they will encounter, I didn't find it relevant to speak of my trail angel encounters. Although it is undoubtedly a good story, in my opinion, it lacks relevance to the content of the book. The book does include a link to the blog post for those who are interested in reading more.

    My goal with Appalachian Trials was to make it different than every other AT book on the market. A true "how to", but examining the mental, rather than physical components of the trail. The appendix of the book includes some of the "extras" (e.g. gear recommendations, taking preventative measures against Lyme disease, FAQ), that are the common concerns for those going into the trail - but for someone who was fresh off of this half year journey, I felt compelled to write a book that confronted the real reason why people fail - and discard everything else.

    "There are a number of spelling and grammatical errors, but those are minor and present in all first run books. "

    Yes, and yes. An honest assessment that I am unfortunately all too aware of. The next edition (coming out soon) will be squeaky clean. When I used to collect basketball cards, those with misprintings and errors were always much more valuable. Hopefully this applies to (self-published) books as well :)

    Anyways, I don't want my response to your very thoughtful blog post to end up being longer than my book, so I will wrap it up with the most important message that I would like to convey.

    Truly, thank you for reading and let me know how I can help in the preparation for your own thru.

    Best of luck Jim.


    1. My Good Badger,

      Your response is greatly appreciated and would have been posted sooner if it hadn’t been inadvertently auto-dumped to the Blogger spam folder. Shame on Google.

      I’d like to congratulate you for being the first to actually comment on one of my rants. Your prize will be a signed copy of my first novel...when I manage to finish my first novel. I admire your diplomatic approach to addressing a slightly less than glowing review. It is certainly refreshing and hope it catches on with others.

      After several more weeks of percolating the prose of your book, and learning what your mother does for a living, I have developed a better understanding of where the Badger is coming from (+1 for nurture vs. nature). I realized some of my criticism stemmed from imposing my own perspective upon your work. Humans do have a tendency to criticise anything that doesn’t align with how they would have done something and it is therefore wrong in some way. Most folks seem unable to reconcile the new concepts with their own related ideals and therefore continue to act like an ass regardless of how beneficial the new concept may be. I personally am a bit slow, but generally will come around to a new idea in due time. I am now more appreciative of your book, and try to see it for what you intended rather than what I think it ought to be.

      The only part of my critique I do stand firm on is the thinness of references to related published works and empirical data. I strongly believe it lends credibility to anyone’s work, showing the author’s depth of research beyond the anecdotal. Case in point, I am a sci-fi novel fan. Writers like Arthur C. Clarke and Frank Herbert frequently had footnotes and bibliographies referencing genuine scientific papers and books, and this was for fiction! At the very minimum, you could have played up your mother’s line of work so as to bolster the point that the Badger has a clue when it comes to psychology. Hell, you’ve been in the family business since day one I imagine. Flaunt it.

      Beyond that, it’s all good.

      Wishing you continued success.

      - P. Sage

      P.S. - If for some reason I have my wires crossed as to your mother’s occupation, I apologize in advance.

      P.S.S. - Spent nearly a week trying to convince the Blogger site this reply was ok to post...ack.