Book Review: The Barefoot Sisters Southbound

From Trail Walker January/February 2010

The Barefoot Sisters Southbound
By Lucy and Susan Letcher
Stackpole Books, 2009

Reviewed by Georgette Weir

I was skeptical: 474 pages about hiking the Appalachian Trail barefoot? It seemed a bit much. But Lucy and Susan Letcher quickly won me over with their exuberant, humorous, honest, and well written reporting about their eight and half months hiking from Katahdin in Maine to Springer Mountain in Georgia.

The Letchers, known individually on the trail as Isis and jackrabbit and collectively as the Barefoot Sisters, take turns telling their story, leapfrogging their narrative of progress along the AT. In their early 20s, they set out from Katahdin, hiking barefoot "because it was the way we had always walked . . . in the mountains near our home on the coast of Maine. We loved the sense of connection to the ground that barefoot hiking gave us...We didn't want to sacrifice that link with the earth." This one fact soon makes them celebrities in the AT news and gossip that is shared by hikers in shelter registers, around campfires, and in passing en route.

The Letchers naked feet are, thankfully, of secondary interest, even to them. (They do don boots when winter strikes.) Their primary interest is in the AT thru-hiker community, which they call "a strange fringe element of American culture." Their take is frank and sympathetic, and it includes themselves.

People take to the AT to escape from civilization, to test their endurance, or to seek direction and meaning in life. "I follow the white blazes, and I feel like I know where I'm going," one hiker tells them. In the Letchers' telling, the trail also is a surprisingly social environment. "Stories were a kind of currency out here," jackrabbit writes. "The Trail community, always in motion, was held together by the thin fabric of stories." She and her sister recount them well.

They also give a vivid account of the challenges-physical and emotional--of long-distance hiking: the aches and pains and reliance on ibuprofen (vitamin I, in hiker parlance), the logistics of resupplying, the sometimes desperate search for water, the inevitable and seemingly never-ending rain and mud, the nightmarish dangers of a fierce and unexpected blizzard in the Grayson Highlands of Virginia.

If you are contemplating an AT thru-hike, Southbound can give you an idea of what to expect. If you are content with an armchair thru-hike experience, I recommend it.