My Book

The 11 Universal Themes Currently in My Book

The New York Mets won today which means they can’t drop to below .500 until at least Sunday. Boo-yah! I’m in a good mood, so let’s get started.

Quick catch-up for those that don’t know. In 2017 I walked the Appalachian Trail. Now, I’m writing a book about that experience. I want it to be something hikers will want to read, but — even more so — I’m trying to make it something that will also appeal to those that have never (and probably have no desire to) walk 2,200 miles from Springer Mountain to Mt. Katahdin.

How do I make something as specific as a 159-day hike universally interesting? Well, I’m not 100% sure I can, but that’s the challenge and the goal. And, while hiking the AT is not universal, I think a lot of the themes I dealt with and wrote about along the way are.

I’ve been plugging along on the plot, but now that I can start to see how this book will take shape, I’m realizing I need to do a better job of mapping out how I introduce — and progress through — each of these themes.

In other words, just as I’m trying to be clear about how I progressed from Georgia to Maine, I need to be just as clear about how — for examples — my views on love and friendship progressed, or my use of technology changed. Weaving in transformations like those — which in many cases also took more than 2,000 miles — makes a richer story.

A little more than a year ago, I was listening to a podcast in which the host was interviewing the author, Ta-Nehisi Coates. They were talking about Coates’ blog, and he mentioned that one reason he likes to blog is because it’s a chance for him to test out material he wants to write for articles or books. His readers will challenge his thoughts and viewpoints, and that allows him to evolve and strengthen his arguments.

That’s happened for me every time I bring a thought about a specific theme to a friend (I’m lucky to have really smart and thoughtful friends), so I’m hoping it might happen here, too. So, what I’m thinking is that I’ll occasionally dive into a theme I’m thinking about on this blog and see how things hold up to your critique.

Today’s just an overview on the themes I’m targeting, but I’m always happy to hear your thoughts. Any that resonate with you? Any you think are missing? Please leave it in the comments section.

Some of these will stay. Some will go. Some will be combined. Some will be add. But, without further ado, here’s a brief summary of what I’m currently thinking:

  1. Relationships and Love. When I left for my hike, I was under the impression a breakup was the reason. It was certainly part of the reason, but I learned a lot along the way. Was I upset because a relationship I was happy with had ended, or was I upset because I was dumped and lost agency (couldn’t have what I wanted)? Was this unique to this particular relationship, or was this part of a story line that had popped up a few times in my life? Was this about the relationship at all, or was this more about trying to reassert some control in my life? Lots to think about here, including thoughts on how I need to change the way I approach romantic relationships. Also, sex.  It’s weird in the woods.
  2. Aging and Being in My 30s. Most the people on the trail were in there 20s or their 60s. I was mocked by a group of 20-year-olds for not having Instagram. And I remember when I shaved my beard the day before I left for Georgia, it was my first time seeing my full face in five years. I had old-person bags under my eyes. And where’s my hair going? What the fuck is happening to me? Help. I also might be maturing. Maybe not. More on that later.
  3. Technology. When Grandma Gatewood first attempted to hike the AT in 1955, the navigation tools are her disposal were so primitive, she was lost in the first couple of miles and ordered to leave the trail by rangers. Now there are white blazes marking the way and open source apps telling me every water source, tent spot, and moose sighting from Atlanta to Augusta. I also remember the wonder with which I stared off mountains in Georgia and Tennessee, and the apathy with which I swiped through Bumble on peaks in parts of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. And how did a trip that is supposed to remove me from society actually connect me to so many old friends?
  4. Friendship. I’m not quite sure what to say here yet, except that I thought about friendship a lot. My friends I left behind at home. The kind of advice they tried to give me before I left. How their support while I was gone was sustaining. How I started off on the trail alone, and then summited with six awesome friends 159 days later. But there were some rocky moments along the way, and I hiked by myself for most of the last week. A beautiful thing about hiking the AT is that you can be SO selfish. But you can’t make friends when you’re so selfish. Finding that balance was interesting and eventful.
  5. Happiness -vs- Contentment. One of the books I read on the hike was Here I Am, by Jonathan Safran Foer. At the end of the first chapter, a rabbi tells the main character, “While we pursue happiness, we flee from contentment.” This helped kick start a two-week debate with my friends on which was more important — being happy or being content. Finding a balance here is, I think, a big challenge for me.
  6. Adventures. Another book I read was The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes. Here’s a two-paragraph quote that got me thinking:

    I remember a period in late adolescence when my mind would make itself drunk with images of adventurousness. This is how it will be when I grow up. I shall go there, do this, discover that, love her, and then her and her and her. I shall live as people in novels live and have lived…There was a moment in my late twenties when I admitted that my adventurousness had long since petered out. I would never do those things adolescence had dreamt about. Instead, I mowed my lawn I took holidays, I had my life.

    But time…how time first grounds us and then confounds us. We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imaged we were being responsible but were only being cowardly. What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them.

    This certainly played out in my life, but I think this book and this hike were a reminder that it didn’t have to go on that way.

  7. Health and Food. Walking toward the parking lot at the end of my a five-month hike, I remember thinking about what I’d miss. It was hard to shake that I would no longer be able to eat a pint of Ben & Jerry’s without caloric consequence. I remember my first day on the hike, eating an apple during lunch. I was stupid and thought I could carry fresh apples all the time. On the last day I was eating gummy worms. Some of them were apple-flavored. I guess that counts.
  8. Family/Dad. Looking into valleys, occasionally I’d see a small town with a handful of homes. Sometimes I’d see just one home on farm. Smoke billowing from its chimney. I imagined a family inside eating dinner together and it made me real sad. Sad because I missed my family, but also sad because it was a reminder I’d never eat dinner with my dad again. A lot on the trail reminded me of my dad. I count it as a good thing — being out there gave me the space to think about him in a way I don’t normally allow myself to.
  9. Finding One’s Place in the World. I think this ties in a bunch to Happiness -vs- Contentment. What are we doing here? This often involved me thinking to the future — what did I want my life to look like when I got back to New Orleans? But maybe I should have just been thinking about the present?
  10. History. Every inch of this planet has an incredible history. Onions just waiting to be peeled. I appreciated that more as I went, and understanding what this trail and its surrounding towns looked like a decade ago, or a century ago, or a million years ago, is important in understanding how it is now.

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  11. Change and Transformation. Is it possible to make big changes in ourselves, or are we just making tweaks? I think the big and the small stuff is important. The most frequent question I’m asked is, “How did you change the most?” It’s a good question, but I feel like how I changed was in a lot of small ways. I don’ think I’m a very different person now. Happier (or more content), for sure. Change is gradual, and I saw that on the trail in everything from the mountains to the trees to the towns to the people. And I saw it in what feels like an infinite number of ways. I loved this aspect of walking a long distance: there’s a lot of change in two places that are 2,200 miles apart, but you’re going slow enough to observe it.

    pic5561709168.jpg

So those are the themes I’m thinking at the moment. Again — any that resonate with you? Any you think are missing? Please leave it in the comments section.

The two big challenges now are a) charting an accurate course of how my ideas on each of these changed throughout the hike; and b) weaving and integrating them with one another and with the plot.

I’d love your help. Thanks for reading!

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