Reading Reflection: She Walks These Hills

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Julia with a copy of McCrumb’s book.

With ancestry members dating back a hundred years ago as circuit preachers in North Carolina’s Smokey Mountains, author Sharyn McCrumb has inherited her ancestors’ love for the mountains has extended to the Appalachian Mountains. The nature of the Appalachians and its surrounding community is clearly shown through her fictional novel, She Walks These Hills. The novel not only depicts the juxtaposition of past and present and inexperienced hikers from experienced hikers on the Appalachian Trail but also the Trail’s lasting effect on nearby communities.

Viewpoints of the Trail, Novice and Experienced

As the novel shifts viewpoints, we are able to experience varying perspectives of the Appalachian trail. First time hiker and historian, Jeremy Cobb is backpacking through the Appalachian Trail in hopes of understanding the journey of Katie Wyler, a woman back in 1779 who was kidnapped by the local Indian Tribe but escaped and traveled through the mountains to get back home. Jeremy views the trail as parts that are necessary in order for him to reach his final destination.

Besides his unfortunate experiences with the weather and lack of survival knowledge for the wild, Jeremy simply tracks his progress through the mountains as a scholar, quantifying distances and describing his location based on map locations. In the beginning of his hike, his focus towards reaching his goal is shown with his descriptions of where he needs to walk such as,

The Bridge leading to the Iron Mountain Trail was within sight of the road, giving him a feeling of trail mastery that was perhaps unwarranted, but was reassuring nonetheless.” 

This gives insight on how individuals might have changed their perspective while on the trail; to go hiking to reach a destination with an end goal and not to hike simply for the pure enjoyment of it.

In contrast to the first-time hiker, Harm Sorely, an escaped convict with memory loss, travels the Appalachian Trail with a destination in mind but often becoming distracted by the changes in wildlife he observes in addition to forgetting what he was doing moments before. His description of the trail can be described as that of a man returning home after a long period of absence. Unlike Jeremy, Harm is unafraid of possible challenges that he could encounter and simply relies on his knowledgeable experiences from the past and luck from God. As an escaped convict, he has no map or supplies and simply uses instinct and general intuition as to where he needs to walk to get back home.

Harm is described as the last true renegade of his time, where he simply didn’t commit crimes as an act of malice but more as a form of entertainment or justice. He represents the way the Appalachian was in the past: primitive and uncivilized but also displays an area of familiarity and refuge for those willing to encounter it. As he travels through the trail, he travels as a hiker of the past: without maps or superfluous amounts of supplies. On the other hand, Jeremy represents the present as he walks through the Trail with maps, books, solar showers, tons of canned foods and more.

Inexperienced vs Experienced Hikers

Through the various journeys of the different characters, we are able to view and observe the difference between an experienced and inexperienced hiker.

Jeremy, a scholar who has never hiked before, enters the Trail ambitious. He views himself as, “an educated man, planning to hike in a “wilderness” dotted with villages”. For his journey, he initially carries

a wool blanket; candy bars; a water purification kit; a camp stove and extra fuel; some used paperbacks; and field guides to birds, flowers, minerals, and reptiles so that he could better understand his journey”.

By the end of the novel, he has either discarded or lost all of his items and is in such a poor physical condition that he is almost unable to walk and in need of medical assistance.

Since Harm escaped from the prison he was in, Harm entered the trail empty-handed. However, as a country native, he was able to successfully survive his journey without facing many of the hardships that Jeremy faced. His walk through the trail is seen as a calming and dazed (since he can’t remember anything in the present) experience. He takes his journey one step at a time, often relying on his knowledge of the Trail and God to supply him with what he needs. Somehow, even with his jaded memory he is able to successfully reach his destination as if it were a stroll in the park instead of a hike through the Appalachian Trail.

With the juxtaposition of an inexperienced and experienced hiker, it makes us reflect on what’s important when hiking: supplies or experience. This can be relevant for Technology on the Trail as there can be a combination of the two which can be used to enhance the experience of the hiker while not hindering the hiker’s connection with nature.

Effect on Community

Since She Walks These Hills was published in 1994, certain aspects of the novel have changed significantly. The most distinct difference is the way people communicated and spread information with each other. Unlike today, where people can easily communicate with each other by email, text, phone, or social media, the town in which the novel takes place communicates primarily through word of mouth, stories, and by hearing information on the radio.

Information is spread through the whole community by listening to the radio host, Hank the Yank. As Hank the Yank is investigating the escape of Harm, he tries to gain information about the escaped convict. While he attempts to research the topic by going to the library and looking at old newspaper articles, the best information he receives is through hearing the local gossip and the stories that the locals tell him when the call in. He realizes this while he is talking to a librarian worker when the worker tells Hank,

See, in small towns people don’t find things out from reading the newspaper… Gossip takes care of most of the local news long before the paper comes out, and certain topics never make it into print at all”.

This take on communication is relevant to Technology on the Trail since it reconsiders how to allow people to communicate on the Trail. While maps and GPS will help a hiker reach their destination, could they also gain information from local/experienced hikers to find a quicker/less dangerous route to reach their destination?

Overall, Sharon McCrumb’s novel, She Walks These Hills, was an insightful novel. Not only did it have a great story comprised of a bunch of separate stories that merged and connected at the very end, but it also made me realize that in order for Technology on the Trail to be successful, it must find a way to seamlessly merge technology with experience in order to help and enhance a hiker’s journey through the wilderness.

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