Trail runner Laura Clark reviews North: Finding My Way By Running the Appalachian Trail, by Scott Jurek with Jenny Jurek. Published by Little, Brown and Company, 2018.
Folks who set out to hike the 2,189 mile Appalachian Trail are most likely on a quest to discover their inner selves. If they have no compelling reason to be there, they will be among those hanging up their hiking boots on some forsaken tree. But, after a career spanning twenty years, what would Scott Jurek need to prove? Arguably one of the top ultrarunners and a larger-than-life character in Christopher McDougall’s epic Born to Run, and himself the author of Eat and Run, Jurek had seemingly done it all.
But, that was the problem. Before he retired to reinvent himself he wanted to recapture the uncertainty and excitement that comes with laying yourself bare in the face of extreme challenge. More than that, however, he and his wife Jenny were also mentally and physically drained by her second miscarriage. They, like many trekkers before them, needed to escape to reconnect with themselves.
Admittedly, Jurek was woefully underprepared. Unlike like many previous Fastest Known Time (FKT) hopefuls, the Jureks had never hiked any sections of the Appalachian Trail and had never even visited half of the fourteen states it traverses. But, as Jenny writes, “this wasn’t a race or an event, it was more of a multi-week vision quest and much more complicated than anything either of us had done before.” They came to refer to the trail as a “green tunnel,” crammed with towering tree branches, rocks, and roots, totally lacking the high elevation, and open vistas they were familiar with out West. It was almost as if they had been dropped off in another country entirely. But then they would have expected difference; this time they were nearly overcome.
Reading North is rather like watching the film Titanic. Ultimately, you know the outcome. Jurek overcomes initial injuries and deprivations, eventually breaking the record. But, that is the script line. What sucks you in is the fact that the Jureks’ daily struggles matter. Their candid sharing of each day’s minutia places you on the trail alongside them.
The sense of immediacy is further heightened by the narrative form itself; each section retraces the same ground, but alternates between Jenny’s and Scott’s point of view. There are no neatly delineated chapters, with Jenny’s retake of the ground Scott had previously covered, appearing abruptly almost as if she is interrupting him. While initially confusing, once you learn to expect these turnabouts it is almost as if you are experiencing the trail from two separate points of view: runner and crew. You picture Scott worrying about his wife, alone and exposed as well as Jenny’s anxiety when Scott is behind schedule. Their takes are completely candid and uncensored. Initially, I was wondering how their marriage would survive as Jenny chafes at Scott’s lack of planning.
It is enlightening and satisfying to see how their focus shifts from “I” to “Us.” At the end, Scott puts himself completely in the hands of his constantly changing pace team while Jenny abandons her “what ifs” and focuses on the task at hand. The documentary is enhanced by the accompanying photo sets, helpfully labeled by day and section. Not only did I enjoy thumbing through, a temptation I succumbed to way before the appropriate placement, but I found myself referring back repeatedly when my reading finally caught up. It was then I discovered that they were not the usual random photos but key “you-are- there” snapshots.
When the compass needle finally pointed 10 miles true north toward Katahdin and the record was assured, Jurek told his triumphant team, “I’m going for a birthday hike with my wife and our best friends.” Jurek rekindled the fire he thought he had lost and best of all he and Jenny were a fulfilled family once more, whatever lay ahead. It was as if he and his wife had been on a vacation, however arduous, from themselves and their past lives, and had returned newborn, eager to adjust their mindset toward a new set of expectations.