Last month, I challenged myself to a daily writing practice. It has spilled over into this month, too. I’m writing about my Appalachian Trail odyssey. Writing turns out to be a lot like hiking. If you get up every day and put one foot in front of the other, or, in the case of writing, one word after another, eventually you get somewhere. If you’re hiking, you may look back one day and realize, “Oh my God, I’m in Vermont. And I walked here!” If you’re writing, when you look back, it’s “Oh my God, I’ve written 100,000 words. It’s a book!”
When I’m not stringing words together (67,800 so far!), I immerse myself in the craft of writing memoir. So I read a lot of memoirs. I study how other writers give structure to a life full of stories and make those stories come alive. I think of these writers—Mary Karr, Annie Dillard, Ariel Levy—as mentors. I want to surround myself with inspiring writers who know how to tell a story that makes me cry. And laugh. And stab me in the heart with their honesty.
Every once in a while, I find an author who writes a memoir about an adventure similar to mine and writes about it well. Their adventure transcends the walk in the woods they took over a summer.
Cheryl Strayed’s Wild was one such book. She didn’t string together a bunch of Trail Journals entries and call it a book. Her hike was a journey that transformed her and from which she gleaned more universal meaning. That’s why it was so successful. It wasn’t just about her. She touched a collective nerve.
It’s a rare treat to find a book about an epic adventure, especially a hiking adventure, where the author is generous and vulnerable with the details she shares. My heart breaks open when writers expose their underbellies and shine light on their dark shames. The most compelling journeys are the ones where, at the end, the pilgrim has stepped into the next highest version of herself and where she has stared without flinching at the raw, ugly parts she has walked away from. Those stories are special and uncommon.
I’m happy to add another book to that small collection. It’s called 48 Peaks: Hiking and Healing in the White Mountains by Cheryl Suchors.
I have a soft spot and a deep reverence for the White Mountains, where I’ve spent many summers dragging myself up indifferent mountains because it’s the only way to get to that someplace awesome—an open summit that touches clouds.
Apart from the grueling path the Appalachian Trail takes through them, the White Mountains offer another epic adventure for goal-oriented people who become obsessed with getting to the tops. There are 48 peaks over 4,000 feet tall in the Whites. If you climb them all, you get to join the exclusive 4,000 footer club.
Membership offers you nothing but bragging rights. No prize. No trophy. Not even a patch to sew on your pack or a sticker to decorate your van. You get nothing but the right to brag that you struggled to someplace awesome, to the tops of 48 peaks, a thing, let’s face it, most people will never do.
Bragging rights are not nothing.
Bagging all those peaks is not for the fragile, the easily discouraged or people with crusty knees.
Unless you’re one of those crusty-kneed people who believes you can do anything you set your mind to. But even then, nothing is guaranteed.
Nature is a motherfucker. She doesn’t care if you make it or not. She doesn’t even care if you get off your sofa and get out there.
Cheryl Suchors got out there.
And we all had our doubts at the beginning about how long she would stay out there. She started her quest to join the 4,000 footer club as a non-hiker when she was in her late forties. She had crusty knees. She battled the fear of heights, multiple injuries and grief along the way. She made rookie mistakes. She looked hard at herself. And she kept going even when it was hard, even when it scared her, even when the magic faded and the project became a more of a chore and less of an enchantment.
This book is so much more than a chronicle of climbing 48 mountains in New Hampshire. Yes, it’s rooted in an outdoor adventure, one that parallels a long distance hike in the many ways it challenged her over her time on the trail. You’ll get your nature on when you read it. Cheryl captures the unique and rugged terrain of the Whites with her descriptive writing.
But the story stretches beyond the specifics of climbing Mts. Washington, Lafayette, Moosilauke and the rest. It transcends the knee-jarring descents, the slick granite slabs like ice skating rinks, the crosswinds that could blow a hiker into the abyss like a piece of dandelion fluff.
It strums a universal chord because the way we have to dig deep to complete such a physically demanding project is often the way we have to dig deep to get through the project of life, with its same requirements for resilience and fearlessness and surrender.
48 Peaks is a meditation on friendship and grief and perseverance. It’s a testament to the transformational power of setting a goal and seeing it through to completion no matter what obstacles life, or nature, throws across your path. It’s an ode to the life-affirming power of nature. It’s a celebration of the healing power of the wild places through which we pass and also the wild places that we carry with us.
Most of all, this is a book that will inspire readers to get off the sofa, get out there and do something worth bragging about.
Get it here. If you think you’re ready.