Famous American Trails
The Appalachian Trail
The Appalachian Trail hike runs approximately 2,200 miles (3,500km) through 14 states from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine.
The Pacific Crest Trail
The Pacific Crest Trail runs 2,660 miles (4,280km) from the Mexican border northwards through California, Oregon and finally Washington, as far as the Canadian border.
The Continental Divide Trail
The Continental Divide Trail runs 3,100 miles (5,000 km) between Mexico and Canada. It follows the watershed along the Rocky Mountains traversing five American states – Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico.
These three trails form part of the so called “Triple Crown” for hikers who complete all three.
The John Muir Trail CA
The John Muir Trail (JMT) is a long-distance trail from Yosemite to Mount Whitney passing through Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. The Trail is 210.4 miles (338.6 km) long, with an elevation gain of approximately 47,000 feet (14,000 m)
Balancing on Blue by Keith Foskett (2015).
This book about Keith’s northbound Appalachian trail hike is full of minute detail about the changing terrain, plants, geology and weather systems as the trail progresses. Keith generally manages to maintain a good balance between the various elements of this genre of books, discussing preparations, gear, physical and mental struggles, meditations, and trail towns and landscapes, managing to make it all seem effortless. What makes his books especially enjoyable is the social and character detail he provides about the unique community of hikers who undertake long distance routes around the world. This book is no exception, and as a fellow hiker I read it in less than a day and a half.
Rattlesnakes and Bald Eagles: Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail by Chris Townsend (2015).
Chris Townsend also completed the trail solo in the earlier days of the PCT, when it would have been very challenging. Only about 100 people hiked the trail that year, and Chris was one of a small group of people to finish it, making him a real trailblazer. He was confronted by many challenges, including unusually high snow levels as he crossed the High Sierras in California. Unlike Cheryl Strayed, he always intended to complete the entire trail, and had prepared for his hike by making sensible kit decisions which kept him safe during some very challenging sections. These sections made gripping reading at times and give a real sense of life on the edge. This account of the journey is much less about the author, and more about the extraordinary landscapes and wildlife he encounters. I relished the physical descriptions of the landscapes and I enjoyed this book very much.
The Last Englishman: A 2,650 mile hiking adventure on the Pacific Crest Trail by Keith Foskett (2012).
This account of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail is a well written book by Keith Foskett which shows how much busier the trail is now. Taking a more leisurely approach to hiking the trail means that the book is rich with descriptions of the social etiquette and camaraderie of the hike, the trail angels, the trail towns, and fellow hikers, all of which are fascinating. The pressures of winter approaching mean that Keith is forced to jump forward to complete the last segment of the trail before the snow makes it impassable. He then returns to complete the section he omitted by hiking southbound. The wealth of incidental detail, the steely determination of the author to finish, and the description of the obstacles he faced, made this a really good read.
Wild: A Journey from Lost to Found by Cheryl Strayed (2013).
This book on which the film (below) is based received an upsurge of popularity following a plug from Oprah Winfrey. Cheryl Strayed found herself hiking part of the Pacific Crest trail following a difficult separation, the death of her mother and a flirtation with drugs. Her account of the early errors she made with her boots, backpack and kit, and the physical struggle she faced while she became trail-fit, are disarmingly honest. In this book, the trail becomes a metaphor for her personal development. Purists have criticised the book on the grounds that the author doesn’t complete the whole trail, and is a complete novice, so if this is you then you may not like this book.
“127 Hours” directed by Danny Boyle (2010).
Described on Wikipedia as a biographical survival film, the title 127 hours refers to the duration of the events of the film as described in canyoneer Aron Ralston’s autobiography “Between a Rock and a Hard Place” (2004). This true story illustrates how a highly experienced climber and canyoneer encountered serious problems whilst out exploring the remarkable Canyonlands National Park in Utah, America.
Aron, played by James Franco, sets off on a solo day out in territory which was very familiar to him, feeling exhilarated and full of confidence. Danny Boyle examines the near fatal accident which occurred that day, changing Aron’s fate and the tone and pace of the film in an instant. Boyle concentrates on the painstakingly minute details of Aron’s survival techniques, thought processes and decision making on which his survival depended. In some ways the story is made more tragic by the ease with which the outcome could have been prevented.
In summary, the film is a tale of the smallness of the details on which our fate sometimes depends set in the achingly beautiful scenery of Canyonlands in Utah. It contains scenes which are not for the squeamish.
“Into the Wild” directed by Sean Penn (2007).
Based on a book by Jon Krakauer, this film tells the sad, true story of Christopher McCandless, and his attempt to leave civilisation behind to explore the American backcountry. After graduating, he destroyed all his credit cards, donated his savings to Oxfam, and set out across America intending to support himself with casual work. Inspired by the ideals of writers such as Thoreaux, McCandless works and backpacks his way across America. During this time he is portrayed as quite happy, in spite of some rough encounters along the way.
After a settled period of work, he feels compelled to continue on his travels to Alaska. There he sets up camp on a remote abandoned bus in Denali National Park, where he lives for four months hunting and foraging, until his body is found by hunters on the bus. This moving film attempts to recreate this journey from his leaving home until his death. It is a story of survival, and in some ways a parable about the dangers of the wild, which will resonate with many people with experience of wild areas.
“Koyaanisqatsi” directed by Godfrey Reggio with music by Philip Glass (1982).
This experimental film with a soundtrack by Philip Glass was made in the formative years of the American environmental movement in the early eighties. The word ‘koyaanisqatsi” apparently means unbalanced life in the language of the native American Hopi tribe. Using only Philip Glass’s striking soundtrack and Ron Frickes powerful cinematography, this cult film explores the factors which have contributed to life on earth becoming unbalanced from the perspective of the indigenous peoples.
I realise that most of our viewing now takes place on small screens such as televisions and computer devices, but if you get a chance to see this epic film on a large screen with a good sound system grab it, because that is how it was always intended to be seen, heard and experienced. It is unique, hard hitting and special, employing few of todays arsenal of special effects.
“The River Wild” directed by Curtis Hanson (1994).
This film tells the story of a couple who take their son on a birthday rafting trip in Idaho in order to resolve some of their marital difficulties. This film is a refreshing repost to John Boorman’s “Deliverance” (1972), which focuses entirely on men to the exclusion of female characters. Like this film, the journey along the river becomes a dangerous battle when the family become involved with a couple of fugitive criminals. They turn to Gail, who is a former park ranger and water rafting expert, to facilitate their escape by guiding them through a closed off section of dangerous rapids known as the gauntlet. The tension between the characters becomes amplified by their isolation as they travel along the river, with Gail’s family held as captive passengers on their nightmarish journey.
It is lovely to see an adventure film of this calibre with a very skilled woman dealing with family issues at it’s centre. The film was largely shot in the magnificent surroundings of Glacier National Park in Montana. Meryl Streep’s performance as Gail, who performs some of her own stunts on the river, is excellent and many faceted. She is ably assisted by a good supporting cast and impressive technical crew and support.
“Wild” directed by Jean-Marc Vallee (2014).
I read the book Wild by Cheryl Strayed (reviewed in Books above) some time ago, and have been looking forward to this film adaptation of her journey along part of the Pacific Crest Trail. This gritty, unglamorized adaptation is a blisters and all portrayal of her life up to and during the hike. It is spliced with flashbacks of the events which led to her attempt to radically transform her life and to become the daughter her dead mother would have wanted her to be. To achieve this she abandons her ex-husband, her waitress job, her promiscuity and her experimentation with drugs, in favour of a completely new lifestyle.
Her failed early attempts on the trail will be recognisable to many hikers. However she gradually manages to get the better of more experienced hikers, and to deal with some of the dubious male characters she meets along the way. The central relationship between Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed and Laura Dern as her mother is well performed by both actors, and Strayed’s grief for her mother is movingly portrayed.
Unfortunately we don’t see much of the actual PCT, but it has been pointed out by the production company that filming in the wilderness such a long way from civilisation, would have been too tricky. Compared with the films I have seen shot on the PCT, there is little of the magical scenery.
Sitting in a packed cinema, I couldn’t help hoping that not all of the people present end up on the PCT.
“Mile, mile and a half” directed by Jason Fitzpatrick and Ric Serena (2013).
This feature length documentary is co-produced by a group of media friends with an ambition to document their thru hike of this famous 210 mile trail through the Sierra Nevada mountain range from Yosemite to Mount Whitney in California. The result is a revealing documentary which will appeal to anyone with an interest in both the setting and the technical processes involved in producing a wilderness documentary, rather like the out takes from some TV programmes do. Whether by chance or by design, their group gradually attracts a distracting tribe of hikers, artists and musicians as they progress along the trail. Although the crew try to incorporate them into the documentary, I personally felt that this decision produced mixed results.
I paid the normal price for the above films and books.