Offbeat on the Beaten Path: An Interview with AT Memoirist Stephen Otis

Stephen Otis
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Stephen Otis set out on the Appalachian Trail with Colin Roberts in the Spring of 2002, taking the less frequented north-to-south route from Mount Katahdin in Maine to Springer Mountain in Georgia. More than a decade after their heralding thru-hike and its subsequent chronicling in A Road More or Less Traveled, Otis reflects on what motivated him to write about his trip down one of the most well-trodden footpaths in the western hemisphere.

Day 1
Day 1 Stephen Otis

This is a question posed dozens of times to everyone that attempts a thru-hike, so it seems only fitting to ask you. Why? Why did you attempt to walk the more than 2,100 miles from Maine to Georgia on foot?

Well, first of all, I have to say, "Why not?" I had the time window, the curiosity, and the friend to go with. I was in transition, which I learned is one of the major reasons people are out there. To get away from the noise of the megalopolis—the urban-metro machine—and find space for my mind and soul to roam. So...for ponderance's sake.

Also, I was spiritually seeking a deeper connection to the divine. I was ready to roam. So I left. I thought putting physical steps to my search (making it an actual journey) would somewhat help. Connect word to deed. Thought to practice. Spirituality to sweat.

Stephen Otis, left, and Colin Roberts pose for a photo at the base of Roan Mountain during their 2002 AT thru-hike
Stephen Otis, left, and Colin Roberts pose for a photo at the base of Roan Mountain during their 2002 AT thru-hike Knox News Sentinel

Thousands of people will attempt the Appalachian Trail this year, a few hundred will make it all the way through, but barely anyone (probably no one, actually) will decide to write a book about it. Let alone get it published. Why did you decide to write Road ?

At first, I wanted to put down our journey on paper so as not to forget how capricious and zesty it was. I mean, it was a big part of my life. SO much of my memories of long ago, even the big parts, are forgotten by time. Out of sight out of mind. I did not want this to happen to the people and places and smells of the A.T.

So I started to write them down with Colin. We went to a cabin on the lake for 6 months and just canoed, fished, played tennis, worked on the cabin, and wrote. It was solely for the sake of a personal memoir. Somewhere along that path, we both realized, "This is actually pretty lively and would make a good story!" So we decided to turn it into a narrative. I had always wanted to write a book. This was my chance.

Stephen and Colin at Clingman's Dome
Stephen and Colin at Clingman's Dome Stephen Otis

Full disclosure: I haven’t finished the book yet. But from what I’ve read and reviews I’ve seen, Road is considered delightfully weird. Endearingly off-beat. Is that what you were going for when you set out to write a book about your journey on the AT?

Not at all. I think it is delightfully weird and offbeat because the A.T. is precisely that. We sought to capture the journey a hiker goes through. We had read many different accounts from other hiker authors, from Brill [As Far as the Eye Can See] to Bryson [A Walk in the Woods]. Many offer a historical account, some write a practical guide for other people wanting to hike, and others try to create a sellable narrative (like Bryson).

We wanted something sellable of course, and interesting, but focused on capturing our journey as best as possible. What emerged was a cathartic and scattered memoir that truly captures the A.T. experience. It is full of searching, questioning characters that are more fabulous than fiction can invent. We tried to be as raw as possible about ourselves as well, in our questions and in how we felt about people and place.

Delaware River Valley, as seen from the Appalachian Trail
Delaware River Valley, as seen from the Appalachian Trail Nicholas Tonelli

Do you stay connected at all to trail culture now? How has it changed? Is there anything that you think will never change?

I think in some sense the trail is stuck in time, simply because it traverses through a landscape that people are fighting to preserve. I think, when this great empire called America is done and gone, the mountains will still be here. They have been here, they are, and they will be. The trail that cuts across the east that we call "Appalachian" will also be forgotten, but the places and memories will be dug into the lore and preserved as "history" in the scattered artifacts.

All that being said, one of the reasons I went hiking down this thing is to find an America that is preserved and still possesses some kind of resolve. The trail offers this. I have seen it change somewhat since 2002. I realize one of the reasons this is is because people write about it, and some that have (like Bryson) have done their part in changing the culture. I never want to change it, and so on some deep level, I hope my book stays "semi-famous" only in the niche that is Appalachian America, or in the trail community. I go hiking from time to time to meet other thru hikers presently trying to etch themselves onto the "plaque of accomplishment."

I go to hiking festivals as well. I hear similar tales of blood and sweat and laughter, and I see the same shop owners and hostel caretakers year after year. The Appalachians have a way of settling people. Whenever I drive into the mountains, I hear them say, "Come and stay awhile."

This is why the Appalachians are my favorite mountains of anywhere in the world. They are not stark like the Rockies, or brutal like the Andes, or monumental like the Alps. They have a sense of home. This works to settle anyone who cares to step into them for a while. They never leave you alone, and they always call you back.

The Appalachian Trail covers 2,168 miles between Mount Katahdin in the north and Springer Mountain in the south.
The Appalachian Trail covers 2,168 miles between Mount Katahdin in the north and Springer Mountain in the south. Wikimedia Commons

Stephen lives in Knoxville with his wife and two daughters where he teaches and hosts the annual Trimanathon. You can find his book, A Road More or Less Traveled: Madcap Adventures Along the Appalachian Trail, on Amazon.

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