Thru-hiker extraordinaire Liz Thomas shares her wealth of hard-earned experience in Backpacker Magazine’s Long Trails: Mastering the Art of the Thru-Hike. She covers the subject thoroughly, from why thru-hiking is appealing to an overview of several long trails to mental and physical readiness to logistics to nutrition to equipment.
One of the strengths of this book is how much Thomas emphasizes the “hike your own hike” philosophy. Each thru-hiker has his or her own reasons for hiking, as well as an individual approach to the trail. What is right for one hiker is not the right choice for another. This book highlights alternatives that will benefit different types of hikers instead of a “one-size-fits-all” method.
The sections on budgeting and scheduling are practical, presenting useful strategies for breaking down the daunting job of planning a thru-hike into manageable tasks. I benefited most from her tips on preparing for the physical and mental challenges along the trail–lots of useful pointers here, such as practicing packing and unpacking as part of the daily exercise regimen and how to communicate clearly with a resupply contact back home.
Rather than being intended for the beginning backpacker, Long Trails assumes some familiarity with backpacking and seeks to bridge the gap from shorter trail experience to thru-hiker. The information is focused on long trails rather than a weeklong trip.
The lush photography makes for both a beautiful and well-presented book. The pictures illustrate concepts nicely and show some of the wonderful scenery along the trail. I also appreciated Thomas’ cheerful, friendly tone; she comes across as very down-to-earth.
Several “asides” of paragraph-to-page length recount other hikers’ experiences. These frequently amplify Thomas’ points, and sometimes present alternative opinions and methods. A lengthy section examines different hiker’s gear lists piece-by-piece, showing multiple individual approaches to equipment.
Long Trails is vital reading for anyone interested in a longer trail–say, any trail where a resupply is necessary. Whether you’re headed for a more modest challenge or setting out on the Continental Divide Trail, this book will help you get there.
3.5 stars. Henry David Thoreau’s Walden recounts his time living on the shore of Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts. For two years, he lived in a small cottage, eschewing society and excess for simple fulfillment of the necessities of life.
The first chapter, “Economy”, outlines what he saw as the bare essentials for his life, and how he met those needs by living off the land. I found this chapter to be the most meaningful, especially how his life was richer, and he was happier, for living sparsely. Later chapters evaluate what humans should aspire to be, namely living a clean, disciplined life. He stresses the need for ongoing evaluation of one’s moral standards as the tool for progress as a society. I was also struck by his emphasis on living deliberately–consciously deciding one’s actions, as well as being present in the moment (what you kids these days would term “mindfulness”)–and its role in self-determination and happiness.
I’ll let some quotes from Thoreau speak for themselves:
In short, I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely…
A simple and independent mind does not toil at the bidding of any prince.
Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.
…the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.
Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.
We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features, the seacoast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thundercloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.
While I enjoyed and appreciated Thoreau the philosopher and Thoreau the naturalist, I’m not particularly sure I care for Thoreau the person or Thoreau the writer. There’s a certain snobbery to his ersatz self-reliance; he conveys the idea that his idyllic condition is the natural state of mankind, and to deviate from his philosophy is to deviate from this One True Path. And while he makes a great deal of his situation, the reality is that he lived on a friend’s property that was a 40 minute walk from Concord, sheltered from extra cold nights at the Emerson’s house, and took his laundry home to his mom–hardly the life of a rugged individualist solely responsible for his own survival!
I’m certainly aware that I’m judging 150 year old writing standards, but Thoreau seems to prefer unnecessarily complex sentence structures and long, rambling passages:
In the meanwhile all the shore rang with the trump of bullfrogs, the sturdy spirits of ancient wine-bibbers and wassailers, still unrepentant, trying to sing a catch in their Stygian lake—if the Walden nymphs will pardon the comparison, for though there are almost no weeds, there are frogs there—who would fain keep up the hilarious rules of their old festal tables, though their voices have waxed hoarse and solemnly grave, mocking at mirth, and the wine has lost its flavor, and become only liquor to distend their paunches, and sweet intoxication never comes to drown the memory of the past, but mere saturation and waterloggedness and distention.
(And that’s just a sentence I picked at random.) It’s fairly easy to zone out on page after page of raising beans or measuring the depth of Walden Pond anyway, and when combined with convoluted prose, it gets pretty darn near unreadable.
If Thoreau would only have applied his philosophy of economy to words–most of the passages I wound up highlighting were sparsely worded and the richer for it:
Man is an animal who more than any other can adapt himself to all climates and circumstances.
The morning, which is the most memorable season of the day, is the awakening hour.
It is a surprising and memorable, as well as valuable experience, to be lost in the woods any time.
A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself.
The nature lover in me enjoyed his lush descriptions of Walden Pond. He definitely has an eye not only for the details of nature but for the responses and feelings that nature imparted to him. The chapter “Sounds” particularly struck me as an excellent example of naturalist writing as he describes the noises both natural and man-made that punctuated his days.
I regret that I did not visit Walden Pond on either of my recent trips to the Boston area (a business trip in 2015 and a vacation in 2016), and I will remedy that exclusion the next time my travels take me to New England.
Walden deserves its place of importance in the canon of literature. I feel wholesomely enriched by reading it. Even though the writing was not always to my taste, I am appreciative of Thoreau’s work and philosophy. While I may not read it in its entirety again, I’m sure I will revisit parts–perhaps even those I didn’t care for the first time–and continue to evaluate my own principles against those set forth here.
After suffering through the stultifying Starz adaptation of American Gods, I felt the need to reread Neil Gaiman’s novel–a reminder of why this book is such a glorious, sprawling, and meaningful mess. With the comparison between the book and the TV adaptation fresh in my mind, I noticed three primary failures of the series.
First, the pacing was horrendous. The material covered in the series was around the first 130 pages of the 500+ page book. Not only was new material invented (an episode of Mad Sweeney and Laura together, that actually was one of the better parts of the series), but scenes were painfully stretched to their extreme limit as the filmmakers tried to milk every visual nuance from matches being lit and checkers being moved.
Second, the dialog and phrasing that makes Gaiman’s writing so rewarding was dropped from the show or clumsily reworded as painful narration. A lot of the fun of the book is the repartee between Shadow and Mr. Wednesday; very little of that exists in the show.
And perhaps most importantly, the series lost the sense of irreverant humor of the book–instead of the mix between tall tale and long-running con game of the novel, we got a massively overinflated dose of “this is important filmmaking, not some story you can enjoy!” An example of this is the checkers game between Shadow and Czernobog, which is a fast-paced affair in the book, with Shadow’s redemptive victory in the second game immediately followed by a humorous suggestion for best two out of three. In the show, every portentous play is shown in high-saturation and slow-mo detail. The story of American Gods is undeniably, intentionally weird. The novel celebrates that weirdness while the show bogs down in it.
Ultimately, readers are continually rewarded with Gaiman’s wit, storytelling ability, and talent for phrasing. We know, even when we can’t make heads or tails of the story itself, that Gaiman will bring it home with panache and impact. The Starz series does not inspire anywhere near that confidence; clumsy scene after clumsy scene shows that the filmmakers understand visual imagery better than stories. In this battle between the old god of the book and the new god of networks seeking the next Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones, there’s no question who wins.
— My original review of the book–
5 stars. Vast, sprawling, rambling, yet still engrossing and extremely readable. One thing that I really appreciate about Neil Gaiman is that, even with his heavy use of allegory, he trusts his audience to let them draw their own conclusions. This lack of heavy-handed messaging allows his books to have different meanings to different readers. “American Gods” is a love-it-or-hate-it sort of book; I thoroughly enjoyed the snappy prose, kitschy road trip plot, examination of mythology as storytelling, and fast-paced yet insightful look at the American character.
4 stars. Hike Smart: Tips and Tactics for Improving Your Treks by Ann Marie Brown and Terra Breeden draws from the authors’ extensive backpacking experience to present a readable, instructive guide that benefits novices and experienced hikers alike. Topics range from safety to comfort to gear selection to navigational skills.
What I appreciated most about this guide is its conversational tone. Most hiking guides read like a textbook, alternating checklists with dry instructional material. The authors here do an excellent job relating information on a personal level, as if they are discussing what works for them, and most importantly why it works for them. In addition to their own experiences, they relate many anecdotes from other hikers. These anecdotes blend well with the text, either illustrating the rationale of the authors or providing an experience that they analyze and use to teach.
I also am a fan of the authors’ middle ground stance on ultralight gear. Many ultralight advocates are far more willing than I to trade ounces on their backs for substantial reductions in comfort and safety and/or more investment of time in camp and on the trail (and, to their credit, they have mastered the skills and attitude necessary for that). Brown and Breeden favor an approach of understanding and evaluating the trade-offs presented by ultralight gear–shedding weight where it makes sense, yet not being shy to pack something heavier that elevates one’s hiking experience.
Brown and Breeden’s self-deprecating wit adds to the warmth of Hike Smart. They don’t take themselves too seriously, and little asides like “If you’re a worry-wort like Terra, carry both” are a refreshing break from the “ZOMG You’re Doing It WRONG!!!” attitude that’s unfortunately found in many online hiker communities.
The only real shortcoming of this book is that some topics seem biased towards the experience of backpacking either solo or duo. For example, the section on stoves can be summarized with “use a Jetboil/MSR Reactor integrated canister stove.” While that is a good solution for the solo hiker, it’s not nearly as good when cooking for 4 or more.
I’d also say that this book is very western US-centric. This would be a complaint if the gorgeous pictures of all their Sierra Nevada hikes hadn’t managed to take all my breath away! But I did notice that while topics such as how to secure a tent when tent stakes cannot be driven are covered, whereas there is no real discussion of the use of a hammock as bed and shelter, as is popular in eastern US backpacking.
Rather than the traditional hiking guide which focuses on instruction in a particular method, Hike Smart relies on teaching sound decision-making skills for hikers. I found myself agreeing with a great deal of this book. In many cases, the authors have put into words what I have discovered through experience or by accident. I checked this out from the library expecting to skim it, and found myself reading, enjoying, and learning from it.
Middle Tennessee is a lush, rolling landscape of hills, farmland, woods, and rivers. Bordered by the Tennessee River to the west, the ground rises through the karst topography of the Nashville Basin and the bluffs of the Highland Rim to the breathtaking Cumberland Plateau gorges and gulfs that form the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. The limestone bedrock creates a fascinating combination of caves and prairie-like cedar glades that are home to several unique species of plants.
The human history of Middle Tennessee is as rich as its fertile soil. Several Native American tribes lived, hunted, and roamed the area, primarily the Cherokee and Chickasaws. Early European visitors found the land wild and daunting. Legendary frontiersmen such as David Crockett and Daniel Boone cemented their place in American history with their roles in settling the state. The Civil War turned much of the state into a pivotal battlefield as the territory changed hands repeatedly.
Tennesseans value our outdoor resources highly, with a huge number of parks, trails, and greenways available throughout the state. We’re fortunate to have the fantastic Tennessee State Parks to preserve our lovely landscape and cultural heritage. The 56 parks in the system all offer hiking, as well as many other activities such as fishing, boating, and camping. The park staff and volunteers universally embody another bountiful Tennessee resource–Southern hospitality and friendliness. And one more wonderful thing about our state parks… admission is FREE for all!
With so much to offer, it’s hard to know where to start when it comes to Tennessee trails. I’ve been hiking in Tennessee all my life, and I still have a long list of trails I haven’t done! Over the next several articles, I’m presenting my favorites within an easy day trip distance of Nashville that showcase the beauty and history of our state. Happy hiking, and hope to see you on the trail soon!
Dunbar Cave State Park (website), Clarksville, Tennessee 1.9 mile loop via Recovery Trail and Lake Trail with shorter option available Difficulty: Easy Trailhead:N36.55095°, W87.30621° Highlights: Striking cave entrance, lake shore, historical interest
Dunbar Cave has a rich history, most notably as a venue owned by Roy Acuff for live music, dancing, and radio broadcasts. This attractive loop trail passes through a forest of cedars and hardwoods, along the shore of spring-fed Swan Lake, and next to the cave entrance that forms a natural bandshell. Tours of the cave require reservations for one of their ranger-led programs. Over 8 miles of cave passages have been explored, and it is noteworthy for its large, sheltered entrance.
This is a very popular area and can become crowded. While the suburban setting never quite escapes the hustle and bustle of Clarksville, it’s a peaceful respite nonetheless, and a haven for waterfowl and wildlife.
Hike this loop clockwise, saving the best parts of the trail for last. Start at the marked trailhead by the upper parking lot and follow the Recovery Trail. You’ll quickly pass a trail leading to the cave that goes off to the right; keep going on the Recovery Trail. Go left at the next junction to stay on the Recovery Trail (you can take the Short Loop Trail if you’d like a 1.1 mile total route). The path winds through mainly wooded areas, up a hill and along bottomland, before reaching the other end of the Short Loop Trail and the shore of Swan Lake. Some stairs will take you to the mouth of the cave. From there, it’s a short walk back to the parking area.
19. Jones Mill Trail
Long Hunter State Park (website), Hermitage, Tennessee 4 mile double loop with shorter options available Difficulty: Easy first loop, moderate second loop due to hill climb Trailhead:N36.07455°, W86.50989° Highlights: Wildflowers, cedar glades, lake views
One of the newer trails in the Nashville area, the Jones Mill Trail was designed for mountain bikes, but makes for a fine hiking experience too. This double loop winds its way through forests and meadows, ranging from the shore of J. Percy Priest Lake to the top of Bald Knob.
A noteworthy feature of this trail is that it passes through several cedar glades. This unique habitat occurs only in Tennessee and Kentucky. Limestone bedrock is either exposed or covered only by a thin layer of soil, leading to plant life typically found in desert environments. The Tennessee coneflower (Echinacea tennesseensis) is one of the interesting species you might see along this trail. This beautiful light-purple member of the sunflower family is found in less than ten locations, all within Davidson, Rutherford, and Wilson Counties. Thought to be extinct in the 1960s, successful habitat preservation efforts of the Nature Conservancy and Tennessee State Parks have led to its removal from the endangered species list.
Bikers have the right-of-way on this trail: listen for them and be prepared to step aside and let them pass. Note that there is wide variance of reported trail distances. The park website lists it as 4.5 miles, and it’s commonly listed as 3.6 in hiking guides. My GPS recorded 4 miles for the two loops as well as the shortcut connector in both directions.
Just past the trailhead, note the “Direction of Travel” arrow and follow it to do the first loop clockwise. The trail will ascend gently through scrub brush and cedar glades, and there will almost always be wildflowers here during the warmer months. At about 3/4 mile in, a shortcut trail leading to the right allows for a quick return to the trailhead. The first loop completes in bottomland. A short there-and-back segment crossing an old stone fence leads to the second loop. Follow this loop clockwise as well, climbing the steep trail to the top of Bald Knob. You’ll parallel the lake shore for the rest of the hike, completing the Bald Knob loop, then staying left when you reach the first loop. The lake shore is easily accessible from this portion of the trail.
18. Cheeks Bend Bluff View Trail
Duck River Complex State Natural Area (website), Columbia, Tennessee 1.8 mile balloon Difficulty: Easy Trailhead:N35.56813°, W86.88489° Highlights: River view, cave
The Duck River is the most biologically diverse river in North America, home to over 500 species of plants, 150 of fish, and 50 of mussels. It drains much of the southern portion of the Highland Rim, flowing into the Tennessee River southwest of Waverly. The Cheeks Bend tract of the Duck River Complex protects an overlook of the river.
This is a trail that is simply fun to do. My favorite part is a small cave leading from the top of the bluff to a riverside view below. Note that the cave may be closed at times to protect bats from the spread of white-nose syndrome; please respect the closure if the signs are present. The cave slopes downward steeply; watch your head! You’ll be able to see the light from one of its entrances throughout the passage.
From the trailhead, follow a there-and-back portion of the trail for about 3/4 mile to the loop junction. Keep left, coming quickly to the riverside bluff. After enjoying the view, look for the eye-catching blue and red blazes that denote the cave entrance, which is several steps behind you if you’re standing on the bluff facing the river. As you complete the loop portion, the porous limestone geography that lends itself to caves is obvious in the sinkholes and exposed rock.
17. Hidden Lake
Harpeth River State Park (website), Kingston Springs, Tennessee 1.9 mile double loop with shorter options available Difficulty: Moderate due to bluff-top trail around lake Trailhead:N36.08790°, W87.02458° Highlights: River views, stone bluffs, beautiful lake, historical interest, wildlife
The Hidden Lake tract was recently added to Harpeth River State Park, which protects several segments of this 115-mile tributary of the Cumberland and provides nine access points for canoe and kayak launches. This tract is easily accessed from McCrory Lane off I-40, and its appeal to both hikers and paddlers can lead to busy weekends.
This hike has a little something to offer to everyone. Abundant wildlife and birds will please any naturalist. Hidden Lake is formed by an abandoned quarry, and its deep blue waters make for picturesque views. The trail is interesting, climbing the rim of the quarry to circle the lake. The ruins of a resort from the 1940s add a little bit of long-ago pizazz to the hike.
The Blue Bird Loop Trail departs from the informational kiosk through a mowed path in a field, skirting the treeline at the banks of the Harpeth. A feeder stream marks the edge of the meadow. Follow the Hidden Lake Trail through heavier woods to a trail junction. Stay left on the Hidden Lake Trail. The steep bank to your right leads to one part of the quarry–scramble up it on the social trail if you like. Soon you’ll near the Harpeth again, and just around the corner is the first view of Hidden Lake. Climb the steep path around the edge of the quarry, enjoying several viewpoints over the waters. Stay wary of the steep edge! After skirting the lake, you’ll come to a junction with the Ridge Loop Trail. Choose whichever path you like–they wind up in the same place. A shortcut trail leads between the two halves of the loop. As the two halves meet again, you’ll find the ruins of the resort at the side of the trail. Turn left on the Hidden Lake Trail just as you complete your descent of the bluff and follow it back to the Blue Bird Loop Trail. Take the half you didn’t follow before back to the trailhead.
16. Bledsoe Creek
Bledsoe Creek State Park (website), Gallatin, Tennessee 3.1 mile loop with shorter options available Difficulty: Moderate due to one steep climb Trailhead:N36.37843°, W86.36026° Highlights: Wildlife, lake views, peaceful forest and pastureland
I’m quite fond of Bledsoe Creek State Park, as I grew up near Gallatin and visited it many times. Its lakeshore location makes for great wildlife viewing. Hawks, herons, egrets, turtles, ducks, and geese are common sights along the shore. The park is bordered to the north by open pastures, and the transitional zone between forest and meadow is prime habitat for whitetail deer.
The park also provides a special opportunity for natural encounters with the paved, ADA-compliant Mayo Wix and Birdsong Nature Trails. A long boardwalk and a boat dock are good viewpoints for wildlife watching as well.
Start at the Mayo Wix Trailhead, following the paved path to the Shoreline Trail. At the first junction, turn left for the quickest route, stay straight for a slightly longer one, or go right for the long way. After checking out the wildlife viewing area, follow the Shoreline Trail along the Bledsoe Creek embayment. You’ll pass near camping sites and cross a park road. The trail goes through a wider bottomland to the junction with the High Ridge Trail. Get ready, because the High Ridge Trail starts with a bang as it ascends a steep hill to (you guessed it!) the top of a ridge. The trail meanders along the ridge, with forest to the left and pasture to the right. You’ll pass junctions with the Owl Ridge Trail and a shortcut as the trail descends back to bottomland. After crossing the road by the park entrance, use the Mayo Wix Trail to return to the starting point.
Hiking is a fun activity, but a bit of preparation will pay off in comfort, enjoyment, and safety. Adventure Alan’s excellent article 13 Essentials for the Modern Hiker will help you be prepared with gear and skills to stay safe on the trail.
Leave No Trace
As we are fortunate to have such wonderful natural treasures to enjoy, so are we obligated to protect and preserve them. The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics is a wonderful resource to learn about using these beautiful places in a manner that will leave them for future generations. Their 7 Principles should guide you in all your outdoor activities.
I recorded all tracks with either a Garmin GPSMap 60CSx or a Garmin GPSMap 64s. I cleaned the tracks to remove spurious points and split into separate trails (to allow each trail to be individually labelled) in Garmin’s BaseCamp software. I imported the tracks into CalTopo to generate the topographic map, then edited the resulting image in Adobe PhotoShop to add captions and icons.
All photographs were taken by me using either a Canon EOS 10D or a Canon 5D Mark II (with maybe the odd iPhone shot thrown in for good measure). I usually hike with the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS lens, which is a good combination of versatility, image quality, and weight. I occasionally use a Canon EF 50mm f/1.4, a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L IS, or a Canon EF 17-40 f/4L.
It unfortunately bears saying, in our litigious culture, that you are responsible for your own safety while hiking. This includes evaluation of your own abilities and limitations, bringing proper equipment, evaluating the current conditions of a trail, learning appropriate outdoor skills such as navigation and safety around wildlife, and much more. I assume no liability for any consequence arising from your use of the information provided here, from any omission, or from any out-of-date or obsolete information.
3 stars. In the 1970s, Gretel Ehrlich went to Wyoming on assignment for work. After her partner died of cancer, she stayed as a ranch worker, finding comfort in the bleak landscapes, hard work of sheepherding, and tight-lipped but warm residents. The Solace of Open Spaces is a collection of her essays describing the land, people, and animals around her.
Ehrlich’s prose is very lyrical, and she has a good eye for detail. She describes the connections between land and people eloquently. The writing shows her command of language and description with moments of tenderness, humor, and erudition.
The weakness of this collection is that I feel like I’m looking at pretty postcards that are written to someone else. I can admire the picture and the writing, but I never connect with it. Ehrlich talks very little about herself or events that occur, so the vignettes felt flat to me. Given the title of the book and her situation, I perhaps expected something more moving on the personal level.
The Solace of Open Spaces seems, to me, more a book to admire than to enjoy.
4 stars. Some Kind of Courage by Dan Gemeinhart is equal parts adventurous, thrilling, and touching. All that young Joseph Johnson has left of his family is his pony Sarah, and now she’s been sold to a no-count horse trader against his will. He sets off to get her back, encountering bandits, whitewater, a grizzly, and other dangers, as well as unexpected friendship and sense of belonging.
Gemeinhart’s talent is that he writes both action and emotion very well. Told in Joseph’s folksy first-person narration, the book is readable both for the theme and the plot. I tore through it fairly quickly, starting it in the evening and finishing it on lunch break the next day, excited to read both the bittersweet and the valedictory moments of Joseph’s adventure.
The only real flaw of the book is that there are some moments that feel a little “Chicken Soup for the Soul”-esque, slightly overwrought with morality and message. Neither bad nor emotionally manipulative, mind you, just a little sweetly maudlin.
I continue to be impressed with Dan Gemeinhart’s writing; he’s talented with words, characters, and story. Some Kind of Courage is one of those books that is instantly appealing. Recommended for adventure and animal lovers of all ages.