The Unlikeliest Backpacker by Kathryn Barnes

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The Unlikeliest Backpacker by Kathryn Barnes

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Category: Travel
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A no-frills, no-drama, spiritual-reflection-free account of a hike along America's Pacific Crest Trail. If you want to know what it's probably like for most hikers then this is probably the book for you. If you're thinking of doing it yourself, this is definitely the book for you. If you're a general reader interested in the great outdoors…maybe not so much.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 304 Date: March 2019
Publisher: Hornet Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-0995765849

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Almost on a whim (by her own admission) Kathryn Barnes and her husband Conrad Nicholas decide to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. Not exactly on a whim: they do invest some time in some (maybe not enough, maybe not the right) preparation. And not all of the trail: Kathryn has no intention of a walking a desert. That she intends walking at all comes as a shock to her family, that she would even contemplate camping has them staring in disbelief.

I can see why. The really surprising thing is that it takes them nearly half of the 900+ miles before they realise that maybe we're just not outdoorsy people.

I've said before that sometimes the books you need to read find their way to you. This is one of mine. The Bookbag offered it to me as 'calling to you' – and they weren't wrong. It's one I needed to read because of what's going on in my own life and my own plans for the future, but it's also a difficult one to review because, honestly, I'm not sure what I make of it.

It's a very honest account of what their trail was like. And what their trail was like was, it seems, pretty bloody miserable for most of the time. If you're looking for lyric connection to the awesome planet in the remote glory of the wild spaces, you won't find it here. If you're looking for epic adventure with many close shaves and near-death experiences, you won't find it here (though I suspect that some of their mis-steps were more dangerous than they come across on the page).

What you get is a couple of only-semi-prepared, more-than-a-bit-grumpy Brits determined to walk from just north of California to Canada, surviving for days on end on the sheer bloody-mindedness of wanting to prove they can do it. Every now and again, Kathryn will comment on a sunrise or the unexpected beauty that a sudden view provides…but as someone who is frequently heard to utter a very loud "Wow!" at UK equivalents, I found so very few of these moments. She did not seem to enjoy very much of the trip other than the parts where they were not actually hiking.

That's not a criticism. I'm sure she'll admit to being a girly-girl and a city girl – even if the experience has taught her that there is another side to her as well, one that can do what bears do in the woods, even if she spent the whole foot-slogging day fantasising about food. Who knows, maybe that's also what bears do in the woods. She owns the grumpiness, her own and Conrad's. She admits that there were times when she could have pushed him off a cliff. To be fair if you travel with anyone for a protracted length of time you hit that point, even without the rigours of hiking and camping. As she says towards the end, it was probably only the rigours that kept them together at the worst of times: the fact that they were sharing the kit carrying meant they had to stay together.

It is an interesting read, rather than an entertaining one. Unless you actually want to know what it might be like to do this kind of thing for real – no unnecessary drama – then I'm not sure what you'll get out of the book. It has a touch of Bryson's Walk in the Woods about it, but without his flair for language and turn of phrase. There is little out and out humour here. Most of the time Kathryn and Conrad are simply too tired to be funny.

The thought that came back to me time and time again was: so why exactly are you doing this? What's the point?

The point, it seems, was to get it done. To clock through the miles, get through the unslept nights under canvas until the next real bed, survive being grubby until the next shower. The point seems to have been more about the having done it, than the doing of it.

And for me that just felt wrong.

Believe me, I do admire the fact that they did it. I also admire the fact that Kathryn then managed to turn it into a publishable, readable memoir. But… ??? I don't know.

Part of my problem is that I just don't share the author's world view. In the penultimate chapter she is disappointed at not making a trailhead a day early but compensates by swimming in an isolated lake having free time to relax in such a beautiful setting proved a real treat…You've made the effort to reach these far flung places, so why not take the opportunity to kick back your tired feet and just enjoy them? This is something of a revelation to her. If 'enjoying them' isn't the purpose of being there, I have to ask again, what is?

But a few pages later, I realised why I wasn't really understanding. Finally being awestruck by a mountain sunrise with the moon still hovering, she contrasts it with home in London, where her first view of the day would be a repetitive scene of grey clouds and greyer rooftops. To see beauty I needed to schedule a trip to the countryside, which – let's face it was a massive pain in the arse because driving anywhere from south London is a bloody nightmare. That was when it clicked. She simply isn't used to looking for beauty. Her default setting is about what is missing rather than what is present. Her London isn't the London I know. Admittedly I don't live there, but I stay over quite often. I've seen some amazing sunrises and sunsets in the capital. You can get out into the country really easily by train. You can walk through miles of greenery without even leaving town – ok, the mountains it ain't…but nor is it dull and grey and repetitive.

The perception of the world we live in was further emphasised when (coming back to reality) she talks about having been off-grid for so long. Off-grid, in this case, means only being able to email every few days. It means texting on the trail. It means telephoning ahead for hotel bookings. It means listening to podcasts in the evening or to escape the rigours of walking. Again, I don't mean to criticise the sense of isolation they felt – but it is a generationally specific notion of isolation.

At the end of the day: I admire them for completing the trek. But I found I also admire those who didn't: those who talked about negative-fun and because they just weren't enjoying it decided to abandon the plan and do something else. Reminded me of a camping trip I was on 30-odd years ago, when being soaked for the third day running my then-boyfriend and I said: sod this let's get on a train and go south, walk somewhere else.

So: why did I need to read this book and what did I get out of it? I have my own plans for a long walk, just in the early stages of preparation. What this book has taught me mostly is: how I don't want to do it. I don't want to get there if the only point is getting there. I don't expect it to be a stroll in the park. I accept that the arduous nature of the thing is PART of the point…but it can't be the sole point. I don't want to finish and only afterwards enjoy the experience, only afterwards understand what it has taught me. I want to learn as I go along. I want to love the doing of it.

And I think it's a bit of a shame that Kathryn and Conrad didn't do that. My take from the words on the page is that their massive achievement is tinged with missed opportunity.

The book comes with kit-lists and hints and tips: sharing the knowledge…but is largely illustration-free despite repeated references to photo-stops.

I think the book succeeds on its own terms. It is a no-frills account of the trek. Whether that makes it one that you will want to go read is the tricky thing to determine. On a personal level, for me, it might rate 4 stars, if you're actually thinking of hiking the PCT then definitely so – but as a general recommendation to other readers, I can't give it more than three-and-a-half.

For more forays into the mountains we can recommend Chasing Angels by Sally Zigmond or for a more gentle approach read Into The Mountain, A Life of Nan Shepherd by Charlotte Peacock and then seek out Shepherd's own work. You might also appreciate Adventure Travel (AA Travel Guides) by William Gray.

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Buy The Unlikeliest Backpacker by Kathryn Barnes at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Unlikeliest Backpacker by Kathryn Barnes at


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