Book Review: The Barefoot Sisters: Southbound

The Barefoot Sisters: Southbound
The Barefoot Sisters: Southbound by Lucy and Susan Letcher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My seven-year-old daughter decided recently that she wants to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, and she wants to hike it from Maine to Georgia. Her reasoning is that then you get the toughest part of the trail out of the way at the beginning. She and I have talked about the extra challenges of the southbound route compared to the more popular northbound route (not the least of which is beginning the trek with the Hundred-Mile Wilderness and running the risk of hitting winter in the Smokies if you don’t hike fast enough), but she’s undeterred. She says we can practice and get stronger and learn more and then we can attempt a family thru-hike when she’s 17 and her brother is 13.

Incidentally, I like the southbound route because it’s not as well-traveled. Not only am I not keen on the idea of crowded trail shelters, I’ve read that less of the party atmosphere that follows northbound hikers follows hikers traveling southward. I’d kind of rather avoid the party atmosphere if at all possible, especially hiking with my kids (even though they’ll likely be teenagers by the time we hit the trail, they’re still my kids).

The Barefoot Sisters: Southbound is the first narrative I’ve found describing a southbound thru-hike. It’s helped me to see more clearly the challenges of thru-hiking in general as well as the challenges unique to the Maine-to-Georgia thru-hike. One thing I know for sure after reading the book: I have no interest in hiking in the wintertime. I know that regardless of which direction we go, we’re going to hit chilly weather. It will still be chilly at night in Maine and then chilly again in the Smokies if we go south, and it will be chilly in the Whites if we go north. Chilly I think I can handle, especially if I’m out in it all the time and become accustomed to it. But blizzards and ice storms? I spent much of my childhood living along the California coast; winter and I are tentative friends at best. I fear winter camping would push that relationship beyond the breaking point. Although I suppose that even that’s subject to change. We’re planning to snowshoe this winter (provided we get enough snow, unlike last year). If we love it, heck, maybe we’ll schedule in some winter on our thru-hike.

It was interesting reading about Isis and jackrabbit’s perspective, too, because had I gone with the original timing I’d planned for my thru-hike, I would have done it the year after I graduated from college, two years before they did their thru-hike. So they’re nearly my contemporaries. As a result, the book had a bit of a “this is what it might have been like had I…” quality for me. I would, however, have been woefully underprepared, and I most likely would not have finished. Even though the sisters’ descriptions of the physical toll on their youthful bodies has left me a little nervous about how well my body will do with nearly three decades more wear on it, I think on the balance, my chances of completing a thru-hike will be better at nearly fifty than it would have been when I was 21.

Although not as funny as Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, this book is much more detailed in its depiction of trail life, and it includes the Letcher sisters’ original poems, songs, and even an excerpt of their trail romance novel. Southbound exults in the wonder, beauty, and transformative power of the trail while it simultaneously pulls no punches in describing the daily discomforts and dangers of the trail. The result is a vivid and compelling story that leaves me craving the trail even more. I’m so glad they also wrote a book about their hike back home. I’ll be picking that one up next time I have the chance and letting both books fuel my fantasies (and nightmares) about thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail.

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