I don’t even remember why I clicked on this story. It was in one of my digests simply listed as ‘One Heckuva Hike’. Mild curiosity was probably the culprit. But what started off as a beautiful story about the Appalachian Trail ended up going deeper into the human psyche than I ever expected.
It’s long, but really, really worth the read. Especially if you’re a writer.
So go on. Dive in without knowing anything like I did. It will be much better that way. I’m just going to sit here for a while and wait.
Not done? Fine, but here there be spoilers…
I’ve never been someone who reads a lot of non-fiction, but I have read a lot of crime non-fiction. I think it started in my childhood with the crime magazines my older cousin left out in her room. Back then, I’d read anything new I could get my hands on in a household that had books, but rarely bought new ones. The magazines were horribly violent, had pictures of crime scenes and were definitely not meant for a child still in primary school, but they were fascinating. I loved the way they related police investigations, even if they did give rise to my unfortunate ability to be terrified by just about any true crime story because, ‘it could happen to me’. However, those magazines were not particularly well-written. They were about shock and gore.
A Long Walk’s End is the exact opposite. It’s a masterpiece that uses some of the best tools of fiction writing. It just happens to be non-fiction. Truman Capote would be proud. I was blown away by how the writer suckered you in with this heart-warming story of Bismarck the hiker, only to bit by bit, mind-blowing twist after mind-blowing twist, peel away the layers of this affable man to reveal a sordid story worthy of the Coen brothers.
Even with few answers presented to us about motivations, the missing money, what really happened in Bismarck’s brain all those years, and what happened to his first wife, we have a story here that builds tension to revelations we never saw coming. Is Hammes guilty of the crimes the FBI suspects he committed? A trial will tell us eventually. Perhaps even fill in the blanks.
But it’s the way the writer wove the story out of the low-key, mostly unknown, laid-back and genteel life of those hikers that walk the Trail that really made it work. You come away feeling you’ve experienced something beautiful, peaceful and right. Something that makes you smell the pinecones and long for the vistas. That Hammes was part of this world–a valued, loved part of it–boggles the mind, even as it does nothing to diminish its pureness. You want to join that Trail. You want to escape. You want to remake your life and leave all the mistakes and trials and problems behind.
For a brief span of minutes, you can relate to what this man did and why. For an instant, you run away with him to this beautiful place where you can be anyone. Where you can start over.
It is a profoundly disturbing realisation and key to this article’s impact. If what the FBI believes happened is what happened, then Hammes is that most terrifying of villains. The guy next door. The monster that wears a normal-skin. The one you think is just like you, until you realise too late, he’s not even human.
I’m not surprised William Browning has won awards for his writing. It’s hard to spin captivating truths out of your imagination, as writers do. It’s even harder to do it when you’re writing about the real world, and your main characters will never fully be known to you.
I take my hat off to this piece of writing and to Mr. Browning. And I’d tell every writer, new or old, to read this and take a look at how drama, tension and stunning plot twists can work in fiction, and non-fiction, if you know how to wield theme, setting, pacing, characterization and revelation the right way.
It’s a lot harder than it looks, we all know that. But when someone gets it right, it’s looks so, so easy. And we should all take notes.
Feel free to let me know what you think in the comments.
Stay thirsty, my friends!