This thoughtful, precisely written Southern novel concerns the emotional and moral quandaries of Robert Martin, a man whose beloved wife of 34 years, Angie, has died of breast cancer. Stirred by Angie’s deathbed wish that he “hike for me; hike for us,” the widower and father of two sets out alone to conquer the length of the famed Appalachian Trail, from Georgia to Maine. His physical baggage is minimal: sleeping bag, gorp, compact edition of the New Testament, a carved walking stick called “Old Hickory.” His heavier burden comprises “grief and memories.”
Georgian Frank Wardlaw Wright, a retired Army budget officer and avid hiker himself, wastes no time turning his hero’s walk into a classic voyage of self-discovery. Martin, whose “trail name” is “Dance With Snakes” (“Snaky” for short), meets up with a collection of fellow travelers who challenge his values and assumptions. He argues environment, basketball and theology with a cocky young Duke graduate (and self-proclaimed atheist) nicknamed “Socrates.” Further north on the “AT,” they pick up “Preacher,” a Christian evangelical who believes God is always on America’s side; a drawling Alabama veterinarian (“Southern Bell”) and her lovable Labrador retriever, and a lesbian couple (“Mother Superior” and “Czechmate”), whose presence often turns the sometimes heated trail-side talk from sin, redemption and international politics to the varieties of sexual experience.
Some of the arguments sound staged and schematic (Wardlaw has a bit of debate-team captain in him), but readers will find themselves intrigued as they confront burning issues, both contemporary and eternal, through the interplay of vivid, intelligent characters. The author also provides a jolt of Deliverance-style violence in the woods that electrifies his narrative.
It’s Martin’s grapple with faith and fate that engages us most deeply. “God, I’m a thru-hiker,” he declares more than once. So he is: by the time “Snaky” reaches the end of the trail, we understand the hard-won value of his trip, eloquently expressed by a talented novelist.
Also available in hardcover.