Book Review: "The Barefoot Sisters: Southbound"

sockedinhikes
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The snow is pouring from the sky, it’s mid March, and thru-hiking season is underway on the east coast of the United States. Although I would give just about anything to see Daffodils poking up through the soil, the weather in New England has decided not to participate in spring this year. Rather than lamenting over this, though, I have been scratching my warm weather hiking itch by reading about hiking. It’s been several years since I picked up The Barefoot Sisters: Southbound by Lucy and Susan Letcher. Re-reading this book has left me waxing nostalgic for a time when things were simpler. When communication was done through handwritten notes, phone call, or email. As thru-hiking season begins, I find no better book than this one to review first, as part of a series of posts dedicated to some of my favorite hiking and backcountry reads. 

The Barefoot Sisters: Southbound

Lucy & Susan Letcher

Aka Isis and jackrabbit 

Summary: 

In the spring of 2000, Lucy and Susan Letcher, two sisters ages 21 and 25, from Maine, set out to hike the length of the Appalachian Trail (2,175 miles) barefoot. They went southbound and it took them 8 ½ months to hike the entirety of the trail. The book is written from the perspective of each sister interchangeably and while this would normally seem like a jarring way to read a book, the sections flow really well into each other. This book is very much a typical thru-hiking memoir and although there are certainly spots where the story takes unexpected turns, there is not a substantial amount of drama or harrowing experiences. 

What I enjoyed most about this book is that it takes place before social media and smartphones. Reading about what a thru-hike was like over 20 years ago, and seeing so many familiar names of both people and places that are still part of the hiking community, was what I liked most about this book. It made me long for the simplicity of life sans smartphone. What I didn’t enjoy was its wordiness. It took the Barefoot Sisters 8 ½ months to do the AT and at times it felt like it was going to take me that long to finish the book. At 474 pages, this book is certainly not the longest I’ve read, but the font is small and the margins narrow. You’re going to want to take that page total and add a few hundred to it because this book is going to feel a lot more like a 600 pager.

Quotes I Loved:

  • “Each moment of my life is as unique, as irrevocable, as the patterns in this waterfall” (p. 471). 
  • “I feel like I belong to a different culture now. An older, nomadic one. I feel like I belong to the woods and stars and not at all to the houses” (p. 186). 
  • “People come, people go. Things change. You ride the river. You can’t get too attached to the way things are. Attach yourself to change, that is the only constant in the universe” (p. 78). 

Length: 474 Pages

Stars: 3.5 out of 5

Who Should Read This: Anyone who enjoys AT nostalgia or long descriptive writing. Those who want a more clipped down, clean read will find this book tedious. 

Pros: 

  • Details about the trail and the wilderness are incredible. In reading this book, you will get a visceral sense of what it feels like to hike the Appalachian Trail. 
  • Because this book was written back in the early 2000’s, and the hike itself took place in 2000/2001, reading it gave me a real sense of what a thru-hike would be like before social media and smartphones took over.
  • There are many people introduced throughout this book that are still part of the Appalachian Trail community to this day. For example, Miss Janet, Shaw’s Hiker Hostel, and the Pie Lady in Maine, as well as Bob Peoples, are all mentioned (and interacted with) in the book. 
  • The book offers a glimpse into the early stages of ultralight backpacking as it became the arguably more popular form of backpacking gear over the last decade. 
  • Reading about what people used to carry on thru-hikes in the early 2000s is really interesting to me. The few brands that were mentioned are ones that I’ve not heard of before. 

Cons:

  • Very wordy. As an MFA student, I had a really hard time with how long this book was. As much as I loved all of the details, there were times when I wanted to get out a red pen and slash through whole sections of the book that felt overdone.
  • In keeping with the theme of wordiness, I am not one to enjoy reading long stretches of poems or songs interlaced throughout books or essays. Although the sisters’ song, “Dig A Hole” that they wrote and continued to add verses to throughout the book, clearly felt special to them, it was, in my opinion, childish and silly. It didn’t need to be included in this book, in my opinion. 
  • The ending leaves much to be desired. It just ends, there is no real closing paragraph, and although I know this is book one in a two-part series, it feels incredibly abrupt when it ends.
  • Character development could’ve been better. I saw the two main characters grow and change throughout the book, but the people they interacted with were easily forgettable and had almost no individualizing characteristics. I could list off their trail names, but I couldn’t tell you one character trait about any of them because they weren’t well developed as characters (with the exception of The Family).