On Amazon UK
How I discovered this book: I'd read Balancing On Blue by this author, and had to read another one!
Genre: non-fiction, memoir ~ hiking the Pacific Crest Trail
'Human beings have spent the vast majority of their existence in the wild - towns and cities are a relatively recent concept and, although they make us feel secure, we are not meant to be there. They are not our natural surroundings.'
In The Last Englishman, Keith Foskett starts out on the first of his US thru-hikes, the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), which runs from Mexico to the Canadian border. It was most interesting to read this after Balancing On Blue (about the AT~ Appalachian Trail), because at times this hike seemed almost like a learning process for the AT, in which he made errors he would not repeat in the latter, like taking too many 'zeros' (resting days), not working out exactly how many miles he needed to walk each day, spending too long in the towns for re-supplying, etc. Before he reached Oregon, he realised that the bad weather was going to overtake him.
As well as being an account of the hike, Keith's narrative often wanders off, as his mind must have done each day on the trail, into the right and wrongs of how he wants to live his life, compared with what he feels society expects of him, though he appears to be at peace with this now. More on this subject later, after the book review.
This isn't only an interesting story—I think it should be read by anyone considering embarking on such an adventure, because it tells what it is really like, on a day-to-day basis, the down-sides and difficulties as well as all the good stuff. It's honest, and you don't feel that Keith's motivation is to show himself in a good light, which, of course, makes him more likeable. He wrestles with his fear of snakes and bears (and some of the bear encounters are truly frightening), experiences the danger of serious dehydration, meets many like-minded souls, and talks about food, a lot (I particularly like the account of Nick Levy's unorthodox ways of obtaining it....), the mozzies (always a problem), the physical strain on the body. He talks about how hikers are perceived by the townsfolk when back in civilisation, and the simple joy of walking in the woods.
'One of my most enjoyable experiences was listening to the wind rush through the forest. It struck me several times how simple this phenomenon was. It transported me to an almost primitive era, before technology took over the free time of collective society. No other sounds intruded'
There are quotes from other hikers at the beginning of each chapter (I liked these, a lot), delightful tales of 'trail magic' (the generosity of non-hiking, sometimes anonymous friends of the trail who leave supplies for hikers), accounts of the thru-hiking maestros who break all speed records (fascinating!), the psychological reasons why some drop out half-way, and an excellent section about some of the daft, ancient laws in the US and England that have never been repealed; for instance, in West Virginia, children cannot attend school with their breath smelling of wild onions.
I knocked a half star off for blog purposes (though still 5* 'I loved it' on Amazon!) because I think this book is in need of some trail maps along the way. I didn't feel the need for them in the previous book because I know more about the geography of the eastern US, but in this I sometimes got a bit lost. Also, photographs would raise it to another level. One other thing, which doesn't matter a jot in the great scheme of things and some will consider a petty niggle but it massively gets on my nerves, is the use of the word 'I' when it should be 'me' (as in 'so as usual, he said he'd catch Trooper and I up'). Editor: a simple explanation of how to get it right HERE.
I found that I liked this book more and more as it went on, and read the last 40% in one go, snuggled up in bed and trying to imagine being snuggled up in my sleeping bag in a tent when it was snowing outside, like in Keith and Trooper's valiant push through snowdrifts to the end of the trail. Lastly, there are some stories from other hikers about their life post-PCT; the one by 'Flyboxer' is heartrending. Then there's a list from Keith about the reasons 'why' ~ I loved this. I loved the book, as a whole, and would recommend it even if the closest you will get to hiking the PCT is looking at videos of it on youtube. Now, which one of Keith Foskett's books shall I read next?
*Not part of the book review*
Keith's books are bringing up some memories for me. I mentioned in the review of Balancing on Blue that, after travelling canals on a barge for only a few weeks, I found being back in the 'real' world horribly depressing. This one made me remember when I began my first job, as a secretary in a solicitor's office. I sat there, on that first afternoon, thinking, 'this is what you have to do, 8 hours a day, forever, just so you can have a roof over your head?' I felt as though I was in prison.
A couple of months after starting this job, my boyfriend and I travelled around North Wales for a couple of weeks, sleeping in his van and doing stuff like walking up Snowden and traipsing round all the wonderful castles. I lived in jeans, jumpers and walking boots, washed up in the kitchen of a brilliant hikers' cafe in Llanberis Pass in exchange for food when we ran out of money, and felt totally happy. Going back to my job 6 hours after we got back was so awful I didn't know how I could possibly carry on doing it. It wasn't just post-holiday blues, it was the feeling that I was in the wrong place. Of course, what I should have done was to go and get a job in an outward bound centre, or something, but I didn't have the confidence to think 'outside the box' because I was brought up that the right and only way was the middle-class norm of studying hard at school, going to university (I had already disappointed my parents by being 'asked to leave' school half way through my 'A' levels), establishing yourself in a career in which you will slowly rise, buying property and then better property so that you can have a family and bring them up to do exactly the same thing.
As my parents got older, they relaxed in their expectations of us; Dad was really proud of me for having my own shop for a few years and, later, writing books that people actually buy, even if I haven't become or married an accountant and bought the sort of house he and Mum lived in. I should have had the confidence not to try to fit a wiggly peg into a square hole from the word go; I should have done stuff like walking the AT before my knees got too knackered to walk more than five miles without them hurting! Now in my autumn years (and it's my favourite season 😉), I keep being reminded that you only get one life and it's short ~ you have to do what you want. I have, mostly, but I do have regrets about not travelling. Please, if you're in your 20s and 30s and feel the need, just do it ~ you can worry about the small stuff later!
I'm currently trying to persuade a friend that she absolutely should rent out her flat and go to live in the old hippie style community for over fifties in Spain (yoga, painting, etc) that she keeps looking at, instead of worrying about keeping all her savings in her bank account for a rainy day. Fuck the rainy day. Unlike me, she is very sociable, and she's a yoga teacher; it would suit her down to the ground, and she knows this, she's just scared of taking the leap. I tried saying to her, 'What would make you happier? Living in that fab place in Spain with all those like-minded people, or sitting on your sofa looking at all the noughts on your bank statement?'
In 1971, my father and some of his friends started up a walking group they called The Strollers. They used to do countryside hikes once or twice a week, often at night time (and always finishing in a pub), and would go away for walking weekends. Dad was still walking with them into his eighties, and was the last remaining original member; many of the newer generation were at his funeral last October. The Stroller's motto, on their emblems, was 'Ambulare Sit Vivere' ~ To Walk is to Live.
In another life, maybe Dad and I would have walked the Appalachian Trail, too. 😎