It is not that difficult to write a mediocre trail journal, one that adds little to the many that have come before. What is more of an achievement is to produce a trail journal that is inventive and which brings something new to the genre. Fortunately for us, Keith Foskett slips into the latter category with his new book Balancing on Blue, an account of his walk on the Appalachian Trail, a 2,700 mile trail from Georgia in the deep South to Maine in the North.
Keith captures the reader right from the first few sentences. The book starts with a number of short pieces, not by him but by those he walked the trail with. This introduction gives us an insight into Keith’s walkers, their motivations for walking the trail and something about their background. There are those who have always loved the outdoors but have fallen into dead end jobs; they are looking for relief and for escape. There are others who have spent their young lives engaged in intensive academic studies. One is a professional juggler, dedicated to his task who’s talents eventually see him as a World Champion; this trip is his chance to experience a completely different world. And there is one character who’s life has been driven almost completely, firstly by his own family and secondly by that of his wife. He has of trekking the wilderness and so he wakes upon morning and announces to his wife he will be leaving for the next eight months of so!
Within the first few pages it is clear we are not talking you average trail journal! These initial vignettes give way to both the start of Keith’s journey but they also lead us into Keith’s story, naturally flowing from the introductions from the others. Here Keith wants us to understand what drove him to travel, to explore the wilderness of the trail. As a young man he wasn’t suited to school and left early for a series of mind numbing jobs in offices. He had a difficult time in his twenties, a natural introvert he had difficult relating to groups bigger than four and difficulty forming lasting relationships. We might think of him as a loner but that would be unfair. Keith stands up for introverts. They take their time, they observe, they come up with solutions. The world owes much to the introvert.
Keith describes what sounds like a pretty miserable. It was travel — of all kinds and not just the trail — that saved him. Keith describes himself from someone partial to dromonania — from the latin dromas (runner) and mania (excessive or unreasonable desire, even insanity). Dromonania is an uncontrollable impulse to wonder, but it is an obsession that you get the impression saved Keith.
No, if you thought this was going to be a book about the solitary life on the trail of a self confessed loner, you would be very wrong. This is a book about the trail community, about comradeship on the AT.
Walking any lateral trail will inevitably see you meeting up regularly with that group of hikers who move more or less at your pace. At the first miles are tackled the relationships come together and much of the book describes what comes to be recognised as a good trail team. The team shares responsibility, looks after those of the group who suffer bad days or illness. They share technique, they share the challenge of overcoming obstacles, the share information about gear but mostly the share their love of the natural world and of the wide open spaces of the trail.
Of course, all the usual trail elements are here as well and I’m glad they are. The AT is, perhaps, not as well known — or as well written about in recent years — and the Pacific Crest Trail. The PCT and the Continental Divide Trail go through western territory, crossing desert and mountains such as the high Sierra. In the main the AT forges a green corridor with most of the walk being in forest, with only the occasional glimpse of a vista or a break for mountain summit. The terrain dictates a different technique as well — this is as much (or more) the land of the hammock than of the tarp pitched on flat ground. Anyone looking to walk the AT, either on its own or as part of the ‘Triple Crown’ will learn a lot.
There is much that is common with other trails though. Trail head towns — big and small, lovely and dead — are remembered in detail and, of course, the search for a real breakfast dominates these pages as much as it does in other trail journals.
I could go on but I won’t spoil the fun.
The book ends with a selection of reflections from those who were introduced to at the beginning. We learn of changed lives, of new inspiration, of new challenges and new goals. We see how for many life was never quite the same again after the trail. And Keith — modest to the end — slips in his own end story amongst those of his walking companions.
This is a trail journal yes but it is much more besides. It is entertaining, informative and — I think — more than a little brave. It is my outdoor book of the year, so far, of 2015.