Why write a seven-part autobiography covering sixty-three years about a twenty-eight-year section hike of the Appalachian Trail? Hiking the AT has been chronicled by a multitude in all sorts of print and digital media: trail journals, blogs, YouTube videos, and even in the case of Bryson, a semi-fictional best seller. A few have started their coverage with their pre-trail life, one or two their childhood. But no one has used their hike as the organizing idea for a 1200 page-digital-fully illustrated-meta tragicomic epic with an apocalyptic science fiction framing and three narrators, each with his own font color. Blame this overkill on a pretentious retired English professor who had polio at ten and was afflicted with a progressively worsening spinal curvature.
Born in 1942, my journey into the wild grew out of a conflict with my Lutheran clergyman father (and male authority figures), the influence of my Nature-loving mother, and my nerdy, sex-obsessed teen years in congested downtown Norristown, PA. To stabilize my curvature, I had a spinal fusion and was in a body cast most of my sophomore year in high school. Marriage at age 21 in my last year at Gettysburg was followed by four crisis-to-crisis years in graduate school at Penn.
Then with the responsibility of two young children, I got into the woods with radical politics and hippie culture in Flint, MI (figuratively) and became jobless. After I finished my dissertation, I landed a job in 1973 in an almost jobless market after a year’s delay at Salisbury State College. In 1975, I got into the woods (literally) a la Thoreau. My first big AT hike was Mt. Katahdin, but at that time I had no intention of finishing the trail. However, after Katahdin, I tried to parlay my success with two badly managed family hikes near Mt. Rogers and up Mt. Madison. All this while I was fulfilling my duties as a full-time junior faculty member and researcher, flailing in my pursuit of tenure and promotion.
In the early eighties, I was drawn West and did peak ascents in the New Mexico and Colorado Rockies. Around the same time, I was mentored by an ex-Marine, former Boy Scout leader who taught me how to do straight-line AT hiking and also promoted me as Advisor of SSC's Outdoor Club and Freshman Orientation in the Wilderness in Algonquin Provincial Park. This led to a NOLS course in the Beartooths in Montana in 1985 and in the early nineties to an Outward-Bound course in the Collegiate Range in Colorado. In the midst of this, I was still preparing for class, sitting at my desk to mark student essays, and then sitting even longer to write a critical study of Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Marriage Poetry. This was making my curvature worse.
Annually, I was cranking out three trips a semester with the Outdoor Club including weekend AT hikes in the Middle Atlantic, a twelve-day ski trip in the Laurentians, caving, and top-roping. Over spring break, I hiked longer sections of the AT in the south with faculty and student partners and then in the north in the summer with student partners and a group from Salisbury called the Eastern Shore Mountain Goats (hut-to-hut in the Whites). At the end of each summer (20 total), I was back canoe tripping in Algonquin leading another trail crew of seven newbie and one experienced peer counsellor (often a repeat from a previous year).
After placing my book on Marriage Poetry with University of Georgia Press in 1993, I quixotically undertook a project on arctic narratives. Pursuing this, I survived two major trips to the sub-arctic and the arctic: in 1994 an extended traverse of the Auyuittuq Peninsula on Baffin Island and in 1996, a month trip to Alaska where I visited Denali, the Inupiat island Kaktovic on the North Slope., the Gwich'in Arctic Village and did a partially aborted canoe trip on the Noatak above the Brooks Range. The Alaska trip was in part a crusade to oppose drilling in the 1002 area of the ANWR.
Meanwhile by 1997, I had section-hiked a little more than half of the AT. That year over spring break, I was given my trail name Professor Hardcore. This was at a campsite overlooking Burkes Garden after surviving a severe thunderstorm under my tarp. Giving up on the idea of more ambitious peak ascents out West and downsizing my arctic narrative project, I committed then, almost in default, to finishing as a LASHER (long-ass section hiker). My curvature was getting progressively worse, and the pain from it was making me testy and petulant, a prickly pear of a hiking partner.
Between 1997 and my second spine surgery with titanium rods in November of 2003, I completed all my remaining trail mileage (about 1000). Shortly before my surgery my scoliosis had progressed to 110 degrees, and I was doing shorter sections more frequently with more pain. The quad in my right leg was atrophying due to a pinched nerve. In 1992, I fell in the Hundred Mile Wilderness near Bodfish Farm and had to be evacuated by Blackhawk helicopter. Then later that same summer, still hurting, I did a 250-mile canoe trip with class 3 and 4 rapids down the Coppermine River in NWT and then Algonquin again. The next summer I hiked three difficult sections in NH and ME, including the section where I fell.
I only finished the trail with the forbearance of my hiking partners and my wife and family. I went through three Salisbury University faculty and staff, three partners I located on the internet, and numerous groups of loyal students, especially a couple who were NOLS alumni. My relationship with all of them and with myself is a central dynamic of my autobio/journal. Readers who have who have difficulty stomaching my narcissist ego may be thankful for the superego of my android narrator/editor from Saturn's moon Titan in the year 2525--actually a humatron who has learning capabilities.
Like multiyear TV serials, each part begins with a summary of previous parts. So readers may choose where they begin. The AT Hike starts in III. Links to the full text of some parts are available on Google.Docs after the banner for that part. Please contact me at email@example.com for additional info.