The Long Walk by Stephen King is yet another book I was told about a few years ago but only now have taken the opportunity to read. I was told about this particular book by a hiker while out on the Appalachian Trail. I had forgotten about it until my sister mentioned it to me; it reminded her of me. Now having read it, it isn’t too hard to see the connection it would have with any hiker.
First off, I should start out saying that in my experience, it seems like Stephen King is one of those authors that you either love or you hate. I tend to be on the “love” side of the spectrum however if you’re on the “hate” side, I think you should still give this one a try. The Long Walk is not phone book size, like some of his others, but a more average novel size (about 400 pages). It should also be mentioned it was not originally published under Stephen King’s name but instead his pseudonym “Richard Bachman”. Which means technically it isn’t a King novel, right? Regardless, for all the haters, you should at least give it a shot.
Since King is such a popular and well-known author let me focus a little on the story. The Long Walk was first published in 1979 but written in a way that allows it to be ageless. It is set in a future anti-utopia America where for whatever reason and without question, a yearly event called “The Walk” takes place. One-hundred boys under the age of eighteen willingly sign up to take on this challenge of walking south down the east coast. They can wear whatever they want, carry whatever they want, but cannot accept any outside support other than the food and water the guards that follow them provide. Yes, I said guards (don’t forget this is a Stephen King novel).
Once the walk starts, they (the walkers) must all continually walk without going under a pace four miles an hour or they will receive a warning. After three warnings they are shot; as in shot dead. The walk is complete when only one walker remains. The winner then will receive whatever they want for the rest of their life. Needless to say, there is a lot of walking going on in this book and because of this, there are several similarities between the story and long-distance hiking.
King writes this novel from the perspective of one of the participants Ray Garraty, whom like any long-distance hiker takes on this challenge willingly. He does as much research that he can on the walk and reads his rule book lining up to start walking nervous, anxious and hoping for the best like the other ninety-nine boys also participating. If you have ever taken on a long-distance hike or dropped a hiker off to start a thru-hike, this is all very common. Families drop off loved ones and eventually leave them behind ready or not, another similar experience for the new long-distance hiker basically described by Garraty at the start of the walk.
King then allows the reader to start walking along with Garraty and at first things come easily; conversation with the other walkers, the walking itself, etc. but the walk continues into the heat of the day, and the cold of the night, all of which start taking a toll on the walkers. They must learn to deal with their basic human functions without stopping long enough to accrue too many warnings. After the first few boys are given three warnings and shot, the reality and seriousness of the challenge they have taken on start to be realized by the walkers; another reality check a hiker may have after their first night on trail.
Several hours into the walk cramps develop, vomiting occurs, fevers rise, diarrhea happens, exhaustion sets in, paranoia develops, delirium takes over etc. etc. Garraty starts to recognize these ailments in his fellow walkers and helplessly watches as many of his friends collapse. He begins to fear his own body, knowing that at any time he himself could collect his third warning when his body starts breaking down uncontrollably.
It seems that each walker presented, represents a very real issue that could potentially affect a hiker both physically and mentally. Garraty’s own fears are a big part of any hiker’s reality. If their physical body doesn’t fail the walkers, some start to turn in on themselves mentally, finding comfort within themselves and slipping farther away from the pain and exhaustion of the walk.
The feeling of confidence one may have at the beginning of any venture and then the harsh actualities of that same venture are what King takes and magnifies in this book. The origin story of the walk itself is never discussed but it doesn’t matter. King makes it clear that for his characters, it is only the walk that exists and nothing else. The walk seems to take on a life of its own as many dirt trails do for the hiker.
Obliviously this book is not about a long distance hike or any hike for that matter, but you will not be able to deny the constant similarities. I understand now why a hiker would listen to or read this while on a trail; it would be incredibly motivating and relatable. I understand why my sister was reminded of me when reading it. I had many conversations with her while out on my own long walk; about my random body functions, mind wanderings, the inability to eat, and exhaustion all of which are presented in this book.
Again, no matter if you’re a Stephen King fan or not, The Long Walk is worth a try especially if you are planning a long distance hike or if you have done one already. You will be motivated, repulsed, and may be reminded of the darker parts of long-distance hiking. After reading this book, I have often wondered if King has ever attempted a long distance hike of his own. Perhaps he has spent some time with hikers becoming inspired by them and the Appalachian Trail that’s northern terminus is in the same state of his residence in Maine. The Long Walk although fiction shockingly points out some of the ugly realities of long-distance hiking.
If you would like to read The Long Walk yourself, you can find it via Amazon with this link or check it out at your local library!
(Picture From The Long Walk First Edition Cover)
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