Harder, better, faster, stronger?
Review: How To Be Alone: An 800-mile hike on the Arizona Trail by Nicole Antoinette
Reading Nicole Antoinette’s book How To Be Alone: An 800-mile hike on the Arizona Trail felt more like getting reacquainted with an old, familiar story than a new one.
That’s in part because the book draws heavily on the Instagram captions Antoinette wrote from the trail. Those posts—rich in detail, fresh, open, immediate—had a profound effect on me. They became the model for my own trail journals. And they inspired a persistent, irrepressible desire to hike the Arizona Trail.
So when I read, “I am a raw little nerve, a hollow shell,” I remembered that turn of phrase! I remembered the filthy water sources, filled with algae and flies and cow shit; the elk noises she Googled from inside her tent; the chocolate almond milk; the trail angel kittens. I reread those stories with pleasure—and speed. I ate up How To Be Alone in just two days, and it would have been one if they weren’t work days.
But it was also familiar because Antoinette vividly captures the embodied experience of thru-hiking. Anyone who has gone on a longish backpacking trip will nod in recognition at her litany of aches and pains, the way the brain and body fixates on food (and, in bone-dry Arizona, water), and the mental calculus necessary to get from here to there by when.
The downside to this familiarity is that I found myself wanting even more on this (re)read. Specifically, I wanted to better understand the author’s motivations—both the emotional ones and the physical ones.
The explanation Antoinette gives for wanting to hike the Arizona Trail—that she’s “stuck in a loop of codependency and people-pleasing”—is sketched out at the very beginning of her tale, but rarely and only superficially discussed during the hike itself.
For example, Antoinette says she can no longer make a decision without consulting half a dozen other people. (I exaggerate, I think, but only a bit.) Then, on day four, she has to decide between camping somewhere very unpleasant, illegally camping someplace else more pleasant, to an unknown degree, or hiking 13 additional miles to a campground.
Antoinette sits down on the ground and cries:
I do not want to be here, making all of these impossible decisions. I do not have to do this. I have a house in Oregon, a warm, safe, comfortable life.
A life in which you care way too much about what other people think, I remind myself. A life in which you can’t seem to decide anything on your own.
This is why I came out here, I realize. For moments like this when I would be forced—literally, forced—to rely on myself.
I would never fault someone for crying—I would probably do the same in this situation—but I think she’s really overthinking this! This is a tough decision, not because it is heavy with meaning or that anyone would judge her for doing one thing instead of another, but because none of these are very good options.
This is a pivotal, defining moment early in her hike (more on this in a bit). But I feel it has either been imbued with more significance than it deserves, or that I have not been given enough information to appreciate the gravity of this decision.
Antoinette describes her reasons for hiking in broad strokes, without going into detail about her personal life. That is her right; she has explained elsewhere that she carefully chooses what to share and what to keep private as a long-time blogger and podcaster, and there are hard limits.
But it might have been a richer and more fulfilling read if Antoinette had chosen to open up more.
Say, for example, Antoinette’s marriage wasn’t going so great. This is entirely speculation, of course, but she was married while hiking the Arizona Trail, and yet does not mention her spouse once. Only in the acknowledgements, thanking him, does she reveal that he is now her former spouse, although they are on good, friendly terms.
Could this be one of the codependent relationships alluded to but never described, never unpacked? Maybe—even if the marriage was fine—maybe it was just fine?
There are lots of completely understandable reasons Antoinette wouldn’t want to write about her marriage! Failed-marriage stories also have the potential to be maudlin and cringe; perhaps this authorial decision was a blessing. It’s also possible, of course, that Antoinette’s marriage had nothing to do with it. Perhaps, like so many other thru-hikers, she simply found her day-to-day lacking that intangible something she thought the trail could provide.
But when a book about a hike undertaken while married is titled “How To Be Alone,” it does make one wonder about this pretty significant elision. I suspect that if Antoinette had shared some of her thoughts and feelings about her partner, however briefly, it would have helped illuminate the central query at the heart of the book.
But that isn’t the omission that bothered me the most.
Let’s rewind to that decision on day four: Camp in the bad spot, illegally camp in a less-bad spot, or hike 13 more miles to a campground. Antoinette chose the latter.
27 total miles. On day four. Spoiler: She hiked them!
I remember reading this in 2017: my mouth fell open in disbelief and my eyes bugged. I wanted to throw my phone across the room.
I also overstretched myself on the fourth day of my first thru-hike, on Vermont’s Long Trail, in 2016. I hiked 15.3 miles that day. They just about broke me. My knees were in a bad way, not just for the rest of the hike, but for the next couple years.
So when Antoinette later wrote, many more days into her hike, that she never once thought she could finish it, I wanted to scream bullshit. Bull-shit. How could she say that, when she was catching up to thru-hikers ahead of her, and met a hiker who had temporarily gotten off trail to set up water caches because he couldn’t hike fast enough to get from water source to water source—couldn’t hike, in short, as fast as her. She was either lying, or deluded.Both are equally frustrating.
Antoinette completed her hike in 44 days—just over six weeks—averaging over 18 miles per day. Most sources (the first page of Google) give the average time to complete Arizona Trail as six to eight weeks. Not only did she finish the hike, she completed it pretty quickly!
I have so many questions. Is this false modesty rooted in a deep, inexplicable, unfounded insecurity? I want to shake Antoinette—or give her a hug—and tell her she’s an idiot and a very strong hiker (which at this point in her life I think she knows, but still).
Or, is it just a better story if a self-described former indoor kid transforms into a hiking badass over 44 days without mentioning, for example, that she used to run marathons? Because that seems relevant, especially for any prospective thru-hikers considering a long hike and wondering if they could do it, and looking to Antoinette as an example.
Long-distance running is fantastic mental and physical training for long-distance hiking. And yet reading How To Be Alone, one would think Antoinette had never pushed herself to her mental and physical limits before. One certainly wouldn’t know that she once planned to run across the country!
I don’t know why it seems she never followed through with that plan, or why she apparently stopped long-distance running. But I think talking about it would have been a welcome complication in Antoinette’s tale. Perhaps it would have helped explain the doubts and anxieties that plague her throughout her hike, and which seem to me entirely misplaced.
The conclusion that the book seems to arrive at is that [physical] strength = [mental] strength = Strength. When she chooses to hike 13 more miles on day four, she writes, “If you are not strong enough to do this, you need to become someone who can.” She then proceeds to basically muscle her way into self-transformation.
There’s nothing wrong with this, but I am left to wonder where this obsession with athleticism came from, and what a broader understanding of strength might look like.
Obviously, hike your own hike, write your own book—and this one is a rousing read! But I wish Antoinette had trusted herself—or her readers—enough to reveal more of her interior life.
Inviting a friend to join for the last few days of her hike without modifying her itinerary to accommodate their completely fresh and untested trail legs?? This, to me, is the most painful part of Antoinette’s tale. Did she really think her totally-new-to-backpacking friend could keep that pace? Did she think so little of herself that she thought anyone could do what she was doing? Or did she know and not care that she would be, at that point, significantly stronger than this other person? Who knows—maybe this guy just wouldn’t take no for an answer when he asked to join. Antoinette did say she was too much of a people-pleaser! Either way, it ends up being a tough lesson.
Same goes for her previous long-distance hike; she finished the Oregon section of the Pacific Crest Trail in 26 days, all 460 miles. That’s averaging more than 17.5 miles per day! On brand-new hiker legs! She writes that she cried nearly every day (again, why??), but still, she did it.
Have you read Shiny Objects on Substack?