Mr. Mouse totally poached this book from me. When I brought it home, he started eyeing it immediately. “That looks like something I might like to read,” he said, “Can I just take a look at it?” Next thing I knew, he was 98 pages into it and I had to wait until he fell asleep to pry it out of his fingers.
In A Walk for Sunshine – a 2,160 mile expedition for charity on the Appalachian Trail, we hike from Georgia to Maine along with Jeff Alt, as he walks to raise money for the Sunshine Home, the residential home that cares for his brother Aaron, who is severely afflicted with cerebral palsy. Hiking the Appalachian Trail (“AT”) is an epic accomplishment characterized by extreme weather, stunning scenery, the kindness of strangers and strength of body, not to mention the force of will it takes to put one foot in front of the other for over 2,000 miles. Thousands of people start the AT every year but only a small percentage of them finish: in 1998, Jeff Alt (trail name: “Wrongfoot”) and my own father (“Lowtide”) were two of the few who made it, giving them entrance into the elite club of “thru-hikers.”
Alt planned his AT adventure well, training with his backpack filled with 50 pounds of sand and preparing six months’ worth of meals in packages to be mailed to him at strategic locations along the AT to facilitate his re-supply. With a background in marketing and sales, his fundraising presentations went smoothly and he ended up raising $7,000 of his $10,000 goal for the Sunshine Home before even setting foot on the trail. His family dropped him at Springer Mountain in Georgia, the southernmost terminus of the AT and he started walking north on March 1, 1998. 147 days later, Alt reached the top of Maine’s Mount Katahdin, thirty pounds lighter, bearded, stinky and jubilant.
A Walk for Sunshine is the chronological narrative of Alt’s journey. The first half of the book reads almost like a journal, each chapter covering 1-3 days on the Trail. Alt includes some great anecdotes (the skunk that curled up on his sleeping bag for warmth one night, for instance) and does a good job of conveying the physical toll the AT demands. AT hikers walk all day, nearly every day, with 40-50 (or more) pound backpacks over brutal terrain and in all weathers. Early March is still winter, even in Georgia, and Alt found himself in rain, sleet and hip-deep snow for most of his first month on the Trail.
His trail name came from a rookie mistake: he inadvertently switched the arch supports in his hiking boots and ended up blistering both feet into hamburger by the end of the first day. Luckily, Alt was young and strong and pushed through the pain. He clocked impressively high mileage for his entire AT tenure, consistently walking around 10-15 miles each day, but often doing twenty miles and at least once getting thirty miles under his belt before day’s end.
By the time Alt reached Virginia, however, the book’s time gaps widen with sometimes up to ten days between chapters. At the end of the book, he allots only two chapters to all of New Hampshire and Maine, including the rugged White Mountains and gorgeous Baxter State Park (by comparison, Georgia gets seven chapters); I was disappointed that the beautiful and daunting 100-Mile Wilderness didn’t even get a mention. I think I understand the rationale, however. Much of walking the AT is dreary routine: get up, pack up, walk, set up camp, eat and go to bed. Repeat until you’ve covered 2,160 miles. At the start of Alt’s walk, everything was new and exciting to him. With only 330 miles to go, however, he’d moved past the novelty of it all and ended up writing only about the big events: climbing Mt. Washington, seeing his first moose, the final ascent up Katahdin.
A Walk for Sunshine is a quick read. The bulk of this second edition is straight narrative, with notes on fundraising (to date, the annual fundraiser inspired by Alt’s hike has raised over $100,000 for the Sunshine Home) and some inspirational thoughts as the closing chapters. Alt isn’t a particularly eloquent storyteller – he’s no Bill Bryson, but then again, Bryson didn’t come close to finishing the Appalachian Trail – but his words do bring you out into the woods with him, bug bites, blisters and all.
I was keen to read this book to see how Alt’s experience matched up with that of my parents (my mom, “Periwinkle,” also walked the AT in 1998 but had to come off for a couple hundred miles because of an injury; she rejoined my dad in New Hampshire for the last push). Wrongfoot may have been younger and faster than my folks, but the Appalachian Trail affected him just as it did them, instilling a deep appreciation for life outdoors, an affinity for simple routine, a profound respect for the body’s boundaries and pure joy at going for a long walk.
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