Book: Over the Top & Back Again, Hiking X the Alps, by Brandon Wilson, illustrated by Ken Plumb, NEW 2011
Once an experienced travel writer whom I admire explained to his class how to write a good travel story.
“Put yourself at risk,” he said. The closer the writer comes to total disaster, the theory goes, the more interesting the story will be.
Partly true, but I would rather read a story that makes me want to go and do likewise than to come away from a story thinking, “Why in the world would I do that?”
In Over the Top and Back Again, the author and his wife set off to follow the Via Alpina, connected trails that cross eight countries, traipsing 3100 miles along the ridge of the Alps. Brandon Wilson explains that there are five variations on the route, including some trails that go through valleys, and some that demand mountain climbing skills. While everyone they meet is traversing small portions of the paths, they are determined to go the whole route.
Nothing, of course, goes quite the way it is planned, and Wilson and his wife Cheryl liken their approach to jazz–skipping from one trail to another, depending on weather, injuries, etc. Despite the relaxed attitude of the locals–a Swiss friend tells them it is okay to take the mountain trams up the side of the mountain, for instance–the Wilsons seem intent on doing everything the hard way. The locals, you see, believe that a trek in the mountains is meant to be fun. The Americans seem convinced that it must be an ordeal.
They set out without any mountain climbing equipment. They sustain injuries and refuse to get them treated. They plod doggedly through rain and snow squalls, rarely taking a day to rest.
Now, look…Badertscher is a Swiss name, so of course we have gone to my husband’s homeland, Switzerland. We did only short hikes, a lot of cog railroads, regular railroads, boats, buses and car travel through meadows and mountains, lakes and rivers. And it is so gorgeous that my son, a teenager at the time, said, “This whole country is like a picture postcard.” And that is true of the entire Alpine region. But you would barely know that from Over the Top and Back Again.
It seems we only hear about the scenery that the couple cannot see because it is raining–again. And on a rare sunny day, we get maybe a sentence about the meadow and then it is back to the mind-numbing recital of place names–small villages that usually aren’t even on the maps provided in the book.
In general, if someone out there has her heart set on trekking the Trans-Alpina, this book can serve as a step by step guide to hiker’s huts, trails to take and trails to avoid. But I cringe to think that someone might model himself after the needlessly difficult and sometimes dangerous approach demonstrated here.
Step-by-step guides sacrifice the overall feel of a place that the armchair reader may be looking for. In fact, I was trying to stay focused as day followed similarly dismal day, and when I got to the photos tipped into the middle of the book, I suddenly realized what I had been missing. The trek was NOT all gruesome. The beauty of the area was there in the photographs. Too bad it wasn’t reflected more in the narrative.
On the next to last page of the book, Wilson relents and tells us the good stuff:
“We were content. We’d discovered the Alps, one-step-at-a-time. It’s a land of much more than mountains, cheese and gnomes. It’s a revival of the senses. It’s the crisp freshness of the air, the scent of pine, the riotous splash of wildflowers, and the taste of sweet milk straight from the cow…It’s the chance to free yourself and seize the most from life, day after challenging day.”
Really? After reading the preceding 217 pages, I thought it was only blisters, sprains, hunger, cold, damp, ill-marked trails, slipping on dangerous trails and trying to sleep in noisy hiker’s huts.
Wilson won a Lowell Thomas Award in 2009 for his first travel book, Along the Templar Trail. That award, in case you are not familiar with it, is a BIG DEAL. Of that adventure, he says, “Originally walked by those Crusaders who became the first Knights Templar, we re-blazed what I called the Templar Trail, narrowly dodging missiles and jihadist fervor. We survived, but just barely.”
Perhaps it was his success with that book that persuaded him that he needed to make the Alpine trek sound as dangerous and uncomfortable as possible, instead of sharing the joy.
The author provided his book for review. The pictures above are from Flickr, with Creative Commons license. Please click on the pictures to learn more about the photoraphers.
If you are planning a trek–Alpine or otherwise, and would like a copy of Over The Top, leave a comment on this post before 6:00 a.m. MST Wednesday Jan. 19, to be entered in the drawing. I’m throwing in a second book for this drawing–another one for backpackers, this time in Thailand, the very good 2010 novel, Currency by Zoe Zolbrod. And remember, ALL comments until the end of January count toward a chance on a two night stay at a Cambria Suites of your choice. Complete rules here.
What Cambria Suites hotel would you like to stay at (look at their pull down menu under cities on the home page). OR: Are you a backpacker? What’s the longest trek you have attempted?