Skywalker: Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail

19 August 2013 9:59 am1 commentViews: 97

“A profound fatigue greater than could be remedied by a mere good night’s sleep was setting in.” – Bill Walker, Skywalker — Close Encounters on the AT

Another great adventure book, is the Appalachian Trail memoir of Bill Walker, an exceptional storyteller who thru-hiked the AT in 2005. Skywalker — Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail is the humorous and humbly-told account of this first-time backpacker learning his way on a 2,175 mile hike. The name of the book, Skywalker, comes from Bill’s trail name, which referenced his distinguishing height of 6’11″ (2.10 meters).

I have greatly enjoyed everything I’ve read from Skywalker. I also had the pleasure of seeing a presentation he gave at 2013 Trail Days, where I learned that Skywalker is as compelling of a story-teller in person as he is in his writing. In addition to an entertaining narrative, Skywalker — Close Encounters on the AT yielded some great lessons.

Spending Way Too Much On Gear

“It seemed logical to start my preparation by finding the best hiking equipment…and I was determined to spend whatever it took to gain the greatest odds of success on this quixotic journey.”

The above quote from early in the book epitomizes a costly pitfall that novice backpackers encounter when outfitting for a trip. The desire to spend your way into greater odds of success is fundamentally problematic, even if held in a slightly tongue-and-cheek manner.

In his reflections while writing the book, Skywalker was able to recognize a theme running through his excessively expensive encounters with gear outfitters:

“This first of several shopping trips set a pattern. I was unusually vulnerable to the equipment recommendation of whichever “expert” I was speaking with at the time. Usually, I just ended up following the suggestion of the last person I spoke with. I was the easiest lay in town.”

Skywalker was right. He was paying quite a large amount of money for gear, and, as a novice, he lacked the trail knowledge that could have saved him from the costly mistake of walking doe-eyed into an outfitter in search of gear. This sort of overspending on gear is exactly why I go to great lengths in my budget backpacking course to help novices gain backpacking experience without being walloped by cost of being oversold backpacking gear.

Learning from the Trail Experiences of Others

Skywalker started his bid to attempt a thru-hike as a true novice to backpacking. He was incredibly wise to seek out, and gradually implement, the advice of persons with extensive backpacking experience. Attending the Appalachian Trail Institute, and the preparations he made as a result of attending, provided valuable gains of knowledge and experience prior to commencing his thru-hike.

Lessons from Skywalker

I got two major takeaways from Skywalker’s book. First, his desire to complete the trail was necessarily seeded very deeply. With hikers dropping like flies around him, he credits his determination to push through at critical times to the fact that he had dreamed for more than 6 years of completing the AT prior to beginning his hike. This mirrors what I have heard (but maybe not heard) in the past from other thru-hikers about how a long held desire to complete a trail can be beneficial while hiking (more so than rushing out to begin an endurance hike on your first impulse).

Second, Skywalker retained an incredible humility and respect for the trail throughout the journey. He puts it very aptly towards the end of his book when he says:

“The key to my success in completing the entire trail was due to never overestimating my own abilities and rarely underestimating the difficulty of the trail.”

Skywalker demonstrated that completing the trail was not a matter of conquering the wilderness but of enduring what it impartially doled out.

Skywalker’s Other Books

Bill Walker has gone on to hike the PCT, the Camino de Santiago, and the Annapurna Circuit, and has also written books about each of those journeys as well. As a heads up to you, his AT book and his bestselling book on his PCT thru-hike attempt are occasionally available free of charge on Amazon in Kindle format (I picked this book up for free in the fall of 2011 and have seen the two of them free as recently as summer 2013).


“The Appalachian Trail and the outdoor life definitely offer the opportunity for great fulfillment and happiness.” – Bill Walker, Skywalker — Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail

[Image: Flikr user Forest Wanderer]

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