Over the Top: Both the Title and the Style

HikingDestination: The Alps–Italy, France, Switzerland, Austria, Slovenia, Germany, Lichtenstein,  Monaco

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.

A sea of flowers
Photo by "angelocesare" from Flickr

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?

About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She writes frequently for Reel Life With Jane and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

12 thoughts on “Over the Top: Both the Title and the Style

  1. Thanks for your review, Vera. This was (and remains) an incredible journey, which began with leaving our jobs, selling most of our possessions, and leaving a cozy life in Hawaii, to face the daily struggles of climbing the unforgiving Alps for 111 days in all types of conditions. With that sort of commitment, there was no turning back. We knew we had 1900 kilometers to cover to complete the route and only a limited amount of time before the huts closed and snow covered the passes. I, too, had experienced the beauty of the area for the past 30 years on shorter journeys and looked forward to an Alpine rhapsody–but this experience proved that hiking the Alps is like love: hot, steamy, cold, stormy and ultimately demanding. One update for your readers: Over the Top & Back Again: Hiking X the Alps just received the 2010 Book of the Year Bronze Award (Travel Essay category) by ForeWord Reviews presented at the American Library Association annual conference in New Orleans.

  2. Loved your review of the book. At first I thought I might have to read this one but then you got the part about blisters… not really my kind of thing. I guess you would call my “trekking” more of a walk! Alps are beautiful no matter what you are doing in them.

  3. Always love a good read but love a great hike even more. The Alps have been on my bucket list for a long time! Thinking of the Haute Route, hiking the Dolomites or The Mont Blanc Circuit with my daughter this summer.

  4. My Dad and I are planning to do the circuit of Mt Blanc this year. Brandon Wilson’s Over The Top may have some insights for us. Thank you for sharing. -r

  5. I’m not much of a trekker- although I do love traveling :) Actually your review of this book has made we want to rush out and buy it :) ha ha!! You have a way of doing that- EVEN when you tell the truth (YOUR truth) about the book- I do admit, I’m a glutton for the travel stories which are ‘hard’ and full of ‘danger’- ha ha- so this will definitely be on my ‘must read’ list for this year.

  6. Along with the Camino walk through Spain, this one is on my bucket list. The Alps are stunning and to walk across them (though in summer) would be a great experience.

    1. Then you really should win this book, Mark! I think the walk would be wonderful, if approached with a bit more caution than the author of this book. And, by the way, he WAS doing it in summer, but still ran into lots of lousy weather.

  7. I hope Richard sees this post! He’s supposed to hike in Europe this summer. I’d hate to have him read a book about a whining walker!

    That crocus picture is beautiful by the way.

    1. I thought both of those Alps pictures were stunning. Both came from Flickr. What a lot of talent can be found there!

      I wouldn’t call this author’s descriptions of his travails whining, exactly. He actually comes off more as those stiff-upper-lip British explorer types who seemed to feel they had to put their life in danger. Rather than whine, he tends to disregard danger.

  8. once again, you tell the truth about a book. thank you. i might have picked up this book, since i can’t walk much and am intrigued by people’s journeys on foot. but, i think i’ll stick with his first book. thanks!

    1. Jessie: Ahh, the truth? But I hope my readers always keep in mind that it is only MY truth. Someone else is going to absolutely love this book. See the note from Mark H, who would like to read it.

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