GRANVILLE FERRY, NS - One thing Bill Monk may not have expected when he set out to through-hike the Appalachian Trail was how life-altering a walk of 2,189 miles through nature can be. The other thing he didn’t anticipate was chronicling his 142-day trek in a 289-page book.
He came home a changed man and produced a kind of hiker’s bible that sets man not against nature, but in nature – and perhaps against himself. Monk’s was an awe-inspiring and humbling experience that keeps you turning the page as you walk every single day with him. It’s travel writing at its best – engaging and informative.
The response to Monk’s book ‘Whistler’s Walk: The Appalachian Trail in 142 Days’ since it was published in June and available on Amazon has been good.
“It’s been beyond my wildest dreams – good,” said Monk. “It’s been widely and wildly accepted and is doing quite well. I get great reviews. It’s something I didn’t expect to see happen.”
On the trail, you get a name. Bill’s was ‘Whistler’ and as he walked from the southern United States in Georgia in early March all the way up to the northern terminus of the trail at Mount Katahdin in Maine in late July, Bill Monk was gaining a following from around the world as he wrote about his journey every day online.
But there was no intention to write a book.
He was keeping a journal through trailjournals.com each evening hunkered down in his tent or in a bunk at a hostel, typing with his thumbs to more than 200,000 followers – and to friends and family so they’d know he was okay.
“So I knew there was an appetite for it,” Monk said from his home in Granville Ferry.
When he got back to Nova Scotia he thought about those online followers, what he learned on the hike, and how a book might just be the thing to do both for himself and for people like those who followed him online or hiked beside him.
“I personally read about 30 books prior to hiking the AT, but there wasn’t anything out there quite like what I had and what I had to offer,” he said. “So it was a standalone book, very much different from what you typically saw.”
The book isn’t preachy and he doesn’t pontificate. The sky at night and the view from mountaintops speak for themselves through Monk.
But that wild country did have an effect.
“It really did change me, walking the trail. It really did. I didn’t expect to have what happened to me happen to me,” he said. “There is a little bit of the flavour there of that in the book but not overstated.”
The book is the day-to-day journey, the trials, the tribulations.
“What a through-hiker deals with. It is the meat and potatoes. It is ‘here’s the facts Jack.’ This is what you’re going to deal with if you’re going to go on a through-hike,” he said. “It may not be exactly as I’ve written about because everybody’s hike is going to be different. It was truthful and honest, and I think that’s why it is so well accepted and is getting the reviews that it’s getting.”
Monk paraphrases a reader’s reaction to his book.
“One of the reviews on Amazon even states that if you’re going to hike the Appalachian Trail, read this book first. It sets you up for what you are going to expect to see happen to you as a person physically and mentally on the trail,” he said.
While Monk was well prepared physically, he said that’s not all it takes.
“It’s a funny thing. Hiking 2,189 miles is physically taxing, but also it’s a mental thing. I met so many people whose comments were ‘this isn’t what I expected, I quit,’” he said. “When you have only 20 per cent success rate of a through-hike, 80 per cent failure rate, you have to ask yourself why do so many people start the trail and not complete the trail.”
He believes it’s all in your head.
“Waking up every morning and hiking 20-plus miles a day? Sure that’s difficult – but it’s in your head that’s really difficult,” he said. “Beyond the physical, muscular, energy that’s expended, it’s also the weather. It’s like you’re getting poured on day after day. You’re just soaked to the bone and a lot of people say ‘this is ridiculous, I’m not doing this anymore,’ whereas I never had that thought. It’s like this is part of the territory. It goes with it. If you’re going to get from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Mount Katahdin, Maine the only way you’re going to do it is to keep putting one foot in front of the other regardless of what the weather conditions are.”
He never thought about quitting.
“Never once did I ever say ‘yah, I’m not going to do this anymore.’ That never even crossed my mind, the entire time knowing that, first of all whatever I start I finish, God willing, but also the only thing that would have kept me from finishing was an injury,” he said. “I saw people dropping off left and right all around me. People I thought were really good strong hikers – and tried to talk a few of them out of it. But at the end of the day it’s a personal quest you know, and it’s just one of those things that I’m so pleased I was able to accomplish.”
That’s not to say there weren’t bad days and wrong decisions. Monk writes about those like every other day – in a conversational, unforced narrative. He throws in backstory where needed, chides himself for his stupidity where needed, introduces a cast of characters as he treks through snow, rain, over ice, through mud, and up and down mountains in an experience of a lifetime.
“Quite simply I find that things I used to think were really important don’t seem quite as important anymore. And I find that I’m quite a bit more relaxed than I was before,” he said. “I’ve always been an everything’s-urgent, everything’s-important kind of guy. But I find, you know what? It’s gonna be okay. If I don’t get it done today there’s going to be tomorrow.”
“One thing that’s changed is I’ve never written before, and I’ve certainly never written poetry before. And while I’m out in the middle of God’s glorious beauty, what he provided for me to walk through – even the big, the bad, and the ugly was still beautiful – I describe the burned forest in the book,” he said. “That was hard for me to walk through, that forest. And I walked through part of the forest that was devoured by gypsy moths and that was difficult. That was an emotionally difficult thing to do – to see God’s beauty being destroyed all around me but realizing at the same time there was a purpose behind that.”
The poetry was more of the unexpected.
“It’s like ‘Bill Monk doesn’t write poetry.’ But it came so easy. And I think sometimes when you’re removed from your daily life and what you’re (normally) exposed to, and what your responsibilities are, it becomes quite easy to have thoughts that you wouldn’t ordinarily have and then be able to put those thoughts into something that maybe other people can enjoy,” he said.
The Appalachian Trail can knock the hubris out of anybody. Mother Nature as reset button for Human Nature.
“When you walk with 30-plus pounds on your back and you climb a mountain, you get to the top of the mountain – you’re looking at your feet the whole time – and all of a sudden you look up and then all you can say is ‘WOW!’ You’re trekking and all of a sudden you’re at the peak of this majestic mountain and you look up and it’s like ‘Oh my God! Wow!’ And you don’t want to leave. You just want to hang there.”
Monk describes those moments in ‘Whistler’s Walk.’
“The unfortunate thing is that it’s not easily accessible,” he said. “But I think that’s why there’s so much value to it. If anybody could just transport themselves to the top of one of these majestic peaks would there be the same value in it than if I climbed thousands of feet to get there? ”
The summit of Mount Katahdin may have been the over the top, so to speak, emotionally for Monk in his five-month experience, and it was a blessing knowing he’d achieved it, but it was really difficult for him to come to the understanding and realization that he was done.
He started March 5 and finished on July 24, 2017.
“Other lessons learned on the trail, and I write about this in the book too, is the pleasure I had to hike with some of our young people,” he said. “The majority of those hiking the trail aren’t 58 like I was. They’re in their early 20s. I met some of the most wonderful young people that really, I think, lesson learned for me, regained my confidence and faith in today’s youth and knowing that we’re going to be okay because they met that same adversity head on that I did and they trucked on.”
Pacific Crest Trail
Bill Monk may have reached the peak of Mount Katahdin in Maine, but he isn’t finished hiking. The Pacific Crest Trail beckons.
“My plan is to start this coming April,” he said. “That’s a 2,650-mile hike, and that starts from Campo, California which is right at the Mexican/California border, right up to Manning Park, British Columbia.”
Bill Monk was born in New York, raised in Miami, and is in Canada by way of Charleston, South Carolina. He and wife of 38 years Ann Marie own her ancestral home in Granville Ferry, A Seafaring Maiden Bed and Breakfast.
Bill Monk was a grocer by trade -- a district manager for a large supermarket chain in the United States for 31 years.”
If you want to talk with William ‘Whistler’ Monk in person, he’ll be signing books at the Box of Delights in Wolfville Aug. 4 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. He’s been asked to do readings from ‘Whistler’s Walk’ as well.
The book is available on Amazon, and also at Bainton's Tannery Outlet & Books, Annapolis Royal.