Standing on top of Mount Katahdin — with more than 2,000 miles of trail behind him, dirt caked into his hiking boots and matted into his hair, his frame much thinner than it was six months ago — Appalachian Trail thru-hiker Gary Sizer already knew his journey wasn’t yet over.
In January, just a few months off the trail and back in his home of Asheville, Xpress sat down with Sizer in advance of an AT cover story. “I really feel like anything from this point on that I decide to do, I can do,” he said. “I now have an example I can look back on and say, ‘Goddamn, you can really do some amazing things, can’t you?’”
By then, he had already begun work on his next venture: a book about his experiences on the trail. And, as he stated earlier this year, he’s not a quitter — the trail proved that to him. Anything he decides to do, he can do.
A little more than a year after his return from Maine — which, by no coincidence, is also when he began work on his book — Where’s the Next Shelter? rolled hot off the press, and went on sale Nov. 8.
Passionate about both the outdoors and writing, Sizer says the book was always part of the deal when planning for the trail. And to generate interest, he even set up a blog of the same name pre-hike, updating it frequently from atop mountain ridges, beside campfires and, of course, from the occasional Wi-Fi-equipped hotel room.
Hearing news of his completed book, Xpress reached back out to Sizer to chat about Where’s the Next Shelter?
Xpress: Tell me a little about your book.
Sizer: I’ve wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail for as long as I’ve known it existed. A few years ago, I began taking the dream seriously and turned it into a plan. Last spring I quit my job and hit the trail. Where’s the Next Shelter? is the book I wrote to capture and share the amazing things that happened out there.
What’s your favorite part (without giving anything away)?
The characters. There were new and interesting people every day. For example, one of my best friends on the trail was a cartoonist from Israel. So many things about our ecosystem and culture were new and surprising to him, and it was fun to experience the freshness of things vicariously through him. My other hiking companion was a young lady right out of college who had never backpacked for more than three days. Spending time with them in beautiful places and ridiculous situations was the best, so I tried my hardest to put the reader right there with us. There were a few crackpots, too, but everyone was unforgettable.
What was the most challenging part of the writing process? Did you ever find yourself stuck when writing about a certain time, place or event?
Leaving things out. If I were to describe every breathtaking view with the detail it deserved, or tell each person’s story to the fullest, it would be a five-volume set of 1,000-page epics. All of those places and people were special to me, but this isn’t a list or a guidebook: It’s a story.
What differentiates Where’s The Next Shelter? from other Appalachian Trail reflection pieces? I’m at the bookstore, and I’m trying to decide between WTNS and A Walk in the Woods — why should I pick yours? Sell me on it.
Because you’ve already read that other one! But seriously, A Walk In The Woods is a terrific book about a couple of old guys attempting the AT as a way to reflect back on their lives. Where’s the Next Shelter? is about a tight group of young men and women that forms on the trail and uses the experience to look forward. It’s funny, surprising, sad in some parts and hopefully inspirational. Woven throughout are detailed descriptions of trail life, not just the sweeping panoramas, but also the little things that no planning guide ever tells you.
You’ve hiked a 2,000-mile uphill trail and you’ve written a 334-page book. Which was harder, and why?
Each of those things was challenging for different reasons. The hike was definitely more demanding physically, but both tasks required levels of focus and drive I never knew I had. I began writing almost immediately after finishing the hike. I spent months hiking around Asheville, carrying writing materials and my tent into the woods. I have been reliving the trail throughout the process, and now that both are complete, I can say they both felt like work in a way — incredibly difficult, immensely rewarding work. I’m already chomping at the bit for the next one!
Where can we find Where’s the Next Shelter? Will it be available locally, and will you be doing any book signings or special events/promotions for your book?
It’s on Amazon in paperback and Kindle now. The book was released so recently that I don’t even have my copies yet, so getting them (and me!) into stores around town is next on the list. I’ve been making the rounds at REI locations in the Southeast, and I’ll be at all of the big AT events next spring: the Kickoff, Trail Days and a few others. And I’m a regular at The Moth, an international story slam and podcast, hosted locally every month in West Asheville [at The Mothlight]. Special events will be listed at wheresthenextshelter.com, along with links for the book and the original blog posts from my hike.
Interested in volunteering to maintain the Appalachian Trail? Sign up with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy at avl.mx/0p8 or with the Carolina Mountain Club, responsible for a 93-mile local stretch, here: carolinamountainclub.org.