Walking the walk: Novelist takes Appalachian Trail in new direction

Ask most novelists and they’ll tell you theirs is an awfully tough lot in life.

All that typing and character development and plot thinking-up to do. Plus, having to look purty in their book jacket photos.

Clearly, Richard Judy isn’t “most” novelists. The way the Roswell resident tells it, getting published on his first try was a walk in the park.

Compared to his other walks, anyway.

“Doing a thru-hike is much harder,” Judy said swiftly and with the unassailable assurance of a man who’s hiked all 2,180 miles of the Appalachian Trail.

Twice.

Eat your heart out, Tolstoy. Not only did Judy, 63, a retired public affairs executive for Big Oil, come up with a unique way to get his book out there. The Appalachian Trail Museum happily agreed to publish “Thru — An Appalachian Trail Love Story,” the first-ever such venture for the iconic institution located near the trail’s midpoint in Gardners, Pa.

Maybe even more impressive, by crafting a lively and surprisingly moving page turner about a group of mismatched strangers who start out hiking the “A.T.” together in North Georgia, Judy’s laid claim to largely unexplored authorial territory. Hundreds of books have been published about the A.T., from Bill Bryson’s belovedly bemused “A Walk in the Woods” to more earnest first-person accounts and straightforward “how-to’s.”

But until Judy came along, almost no one had successfully set a fictional story against the backdrop of the trail, which winds through 14 states and takes about six months to hike all the way from Springer Mountain here to Katahdin, Maine.

“There are less than half a dozen novels that I’m familiar with, and most are murder mysteries where the Appalachian Trail is almost tangential,” said Larry Luxenberg, himself the author of the nonfiction classic “Walking the Appalachian Trail” and current board president of the A.T. Museum. “This (‘Thru’) required a lot more creativity. And it captures what it’s really like to hike the trail, maybe better than any nonfiction account could.”

Well, Judy is donating all proceeds from “Thru’s” sales to the museum. Still, readers shouldn’t be surprised if they find themselves similarly hooked from the book’s opening line — “What have I gotten myself into?” — which an overweight, woefully underprepared character who’s dubbed himself “Captain Stupid” asks himself.

“When I started the book, Captain Stupid was going to be a sideshow, but he quickly became my favorite character,” admitted Judy, who’s now board president of the nonprofit that oversees the Len Foote Hike Inn, located in the Chattahoochee National Forest some 4.4 miles from the A.T.’s southern “terminus” at Springer Mountain. “He decides, it’s now or never. He’s going to pursue this crazy dream.”

The Captain quickly joins forces with about a half-dozen other aspiring “thru-hikers,” a diverse group who’ve tagged themselves with similarly descriptive “trail names” like “Ultragrunge,” “Bone Festival” and “Momma Llama.” Like many real-life A.T. hikers, they keep written or recorded journals and regularly correspond with friends and family via letters and emails sent from trail towns along the way; these accounts form the bulk of “Thru’s” narrative.

About 2,000 people attempt to continuously hike all 2,180 miles of the trail each year, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Only one in four makes it. (Some 2 million to 3 million visitors walk a portion of the A.T. each year, including “section hikers,” who may spend years piecing together an entire trail walk in smaller chunks.) Which, if any, of “Thru’s” characters might join that elite group provides a suspenseful throughline in a book that’s shot through with smaller, yet no less meaningful, episodes of self-discovery, fatigue, humor, and yes, romance (not all of it requited).

Real-life spoiler alert: After graduating from the University of Georgia with a journalism degree in 1973, Judy (trail name: “Peregrine”) successfully thru-hiked the A.T. So did, years later, his son and daughter. (Patsy, his wife of 38 years, is more of a day hiker.) Following his thru-hike, Judy worked for a year as a reporter/ad salesman/circulation guy at the Dawson News, a weekly paper in Terrell County; then he spent nearly three decades as a public affairs director for Amoco and BP; and, finally, in what seems like a real sea change, he was executive director of the environmental organization EarthShare of Georgia for two years.

But maybe not.

“I don’t regret one day I spent working in the oil industry,” said Judy, whom BP temporarily called out of retirement, soon after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, to help with its media relations efforts. “Being an outdoors guy, I think I was valuable to the company and its thinking. We need environmentalists in the oil industry.”

As for that, uh, “retirement:” Along with his Len Foote duties, Judy recently completed his second, section hike of the A.T. (he’d started it in 2000), and he spent two weeks hiking the Balkans from Albania to Kosovo this fall. And he’s already started working on ideas for a second novel, this one most likely set in one of the trail towns that assume outsize roles in the lives of many A.T. hikers (and vice versa).

His timing, arguably, is perfect. Hollywood has just discovered hiking big-time, with the shot-in-and-around-Atlanta film version of “A Walk in the Woods” (starring Robert Redford as Bryson) set for release next summer; meanwhile, “Wild,” based on Cheryl Strayed’s nonfiction account of her solo hike along the 1,100-mile Pacific Coast Trail, is scheduled to open in early December with Reese Witherspoon in the lead role.

But who has time even to think about possible movie deals? Right now, Judy sounds more like a veteran thru-hiker as he gears up to write another novel.

“My second attempt at fiction will probably turn out to be brutally demanding,” he chuckled, “because the first time around was so much fun, at least the way I remember it now.”

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