Paul Stutzman lost his wife to cancer. A Mennonite by birth and a restaurant manager by trade, Stutzman was used to being home and staying close. His family was very conservative, his life was under control. But the loss of his beloved Mary threw him for a loop he could not handle.
Unsure of how to grieve, he set off on a journey to find peace in his loss. This is not uncommon. What was a bit uncommon was that Stutzman decided to make his journey on the Appalachian Trail.
He hiked all 2,187 miles of the Appalachian Trail on a journey to find peace, to find God. He picked the wettest year of recent history (2008) and spent most of his 3 month long trek in mud and rain. He and the half dozen other hikers who appear in his book Hiking Through endured storm after storm all the way up the Appalachians. Mourning his loss, hiking through the rain and snow, and missing the birth of his first grandchild – it could have been worse, but I’m not sure how.
But Stutzman did it, and along the way he found new hope in his life. He found peace with his wife’s passing. He found a renewed faith in the God of all.
I have read a couple of books about hiking the AT. My personal favorite, A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, casts the trail in a humorous but slightly whiny way. (Don’t get me wrong. I love Bryson’s book.) This book, Hiking Through, had a very different take on the trail. For one thing, Stutzman was in much better condition than Bill and his friend Steven Katz. For another, Stutzman had a reason for hiking other than writing a book.
The two books are very different, not only because of the authors but also because of the trail. Bryson section hiked a large chunk of the AT in 1996 and Stutzman thru-hiked in 2008. The separation of twelve years changed the trail quite a bit. The trail is far more popular now, thanks in part to Bryson’s book, and so there is a lot more interest in it.
Hiking as a whole is far more popular now, and the equipment is vastly, dramatically better. Bryson walked with a giant pack, carrying mostly dehydrated noodles and snickers bars. Stutzman hiked with an efficient pack, wearing high tech shoes and eating all kinds of prepared foods.
Another difference is that Bryson and Katz were incredibly unprepared for the hike. Their knowledge of walking and hiking was limited mostly to the midwest and Europe, where ambles are possible. The AT is not an amble and the ill-equipped are miserable. As a result, where Bryson complains of wilderness conditions and maddening shortages of food. Stutzman, on the other hand, came prepared. He knew what he was doing. Bryson, as much as I love him, had no clue.
I love both books for different reasons. Bryson’s book left me laughing so hard I fell out of bed but also having the sneaking suspicion that normal people should stay away from the AT. Stutzman sparked something in my mind, and I thought, “Yeah, I could do that – well, except for sleeping outside.”
(My idea of roughing it is a hotel without a continental breakfast.)