Barney Scout Mann Shares Trail and Writing Wisdom Through “Journeys North”

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Korrin Bishop | Sep 22, 2020

How can a person possibly capture the story of 2,653 miles? Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) thru-hikers face both the enormity of the journey’s physical challenges, as well as how to communicate its messages to everyone on the other side. In Journeys North, published this past August by Mountaineers Books, legendary trail angel and thru-hiker Barney Scout Mann does just that.

From Mexico to Canada, Barney reveals a compelling tale of six hikers, including him and his wife Sandy, as they traverse interpersonal and environmental landscapes. Both droughts and severe winter storms test their mettle. All the while, they forge deeper relationships with one another through the grit and compassion of striving for a common goal. It’s a must-read for anyone drawn to time spent on the trail.

Interview with Barney Scout Mann on Authoring Journeys North

We caught up with Barney to learn a little more about his PCT journey, writing the tales of his adventure, and how he got introduced to Gossamer Gear. We hope his wisdom will help inspire your next trek into the woods.

Gossamer Gear: Can you start by telling us a little background on when you hiked the PCT and how you got interested in doing this kind of long distance thru-hike?

Barney: The scrawny me who grew up in west Los Angeles didn’t look like a backpacker. My parents weren’t campers, much less backpackers, and I was the shortest boy in any class. But starting at age eleven, they took me to Boy Scout meetings. At age 13, our troop did its first-ever 50-mile backpack and I was on it. The second day, three boys quit, hiking out with one of the dads. The choice was put to me — all of 80 pounds, 35-pound pack: “No, I’m staying.” It was the hardest thing I’d ever done. But in the Sierra Nevada, short and skinny didn’t matter. I was one of the “big” boys. And it was beautiful, it was raw, full of animals not behind bars.

It’s a good thing, too, because my wife Sandy tells me she never would have married me if I hadn’t been a backpacker. We never had a first date; we went on a first backpack. We took our firstborn backpacking three times before he was one, and in the late 1990s we started serious talk about doing the whole PCT.

In 2003, we thru-hiked the John Muir Trail (JMT), and soon afterward, we targeted 2007 as the year. Our three kids were raised. At work we made sacrifices and bargains — or in Frodo’s case, she told the school district, “Your choice is whether I come back or not. I’m going.” And so we did — setting out in the summer of our 30th wedding anniversary to thru-hike the PCT.

People experience such a range of emotions and events on the trail. It can be hard to capture a journey like this. How long did it take you to write Journeys North? Did you find in telling your story that it revolved around any particular themes, or how did you otherwise choose which scenes to include?

We live a lifetime out there. Five months feels like that. Capturing that lightning in a bottle required hard choices. On the trail, I kept a journal, 400 to 600 words a day, and then I spent nearly two years interviewing and researching. I interviewed over 70 people, many multiple times. I’ve said: “I write best when I have fifty to one hundred times the material I need. Making those incredibly tough choices gives me the hope of producing something worthy.”

The Andersons, wonderful trail angels — edited out. A chapter where I saved a hiker’s life — edited out. The first draft took over three years. Then I thru-hiked the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) in 2015, and two years later the Appalachian Trail (AT). In between, there were repeated cycles — wash, spin, rinse, rewrite, edit, write.

As for themes, whether you are a dyed-in-the-wool hiker, a novice, or an armchair dreamer, I want you to experience what it’s really like to be out there. To feel what it’s like to have a conversation every day that you wouldn’t have back home with a best friend once a year. To make decisions with no 911 backup. To feel what it’s like to meet another hiker for the first time and know they’d give you the shirt off their back. To laugh, cry, and thrill, and be gripped with suspense, and in the end my goal is that you feel a bit better about yourself and the human condition.

You completed this hike with your wife, which means she’s also a character in the book! Was she involved much with your writing process, or tapping back into particular memories?

Every writer has a first reader. The person who first sees their work, who they most want to please, to hear laugh or cry. Mine is Sandy.

I once read: “To be a writer’s spouse is to be immortal.” Sandy adds, “is to be embarrassed.” Her older brother adds, “TMI about my sister.”  

I had a clutch of early and late editors, but the one consistent hand was Sandy. I bounce ideas off her, as well as text. I’d give her the pages and her green pen. Again, and again and again.

One paragraph she didn’t edit was my thanks to her in the acknowledgment. Which ends with: “So, a thousand times, thank you. When you read this paragraph at long last, I hope you’ll reach for me with a hug. We are now forty-two years married, and I still notice each touch.”

Any advice for other couples looking to take on a thru-hike together? 

Through 2019, we’ve hosted over 6,000 starting PCT hikers at our San Diego house. Couples used to be rare, but more and more, they are not. I often take them aside and give this advice: “You will be together 24/7 in some of the most miserable conditions you’ve ever experienced. So, here’s the deal … be kind to each other.

When did you first learn about Gossamer Gear, and did the lightweight backpacking movement inform how you packed for your PCT hike? 

Gossamer Gear and Glen Van Peski, its founder, were an integral part of our thru-hiking story. Sandy says she wouldn’t have married me if I wasn’t a backpacker, and she also says she might never have done the PCT if we hadn’t gone ultralight. Before 2003, we’d been old-school — leather boots and external frame hikers. Then we heard about “ultralight,” about GVP Gear and Glen Van Peski, the “Guru of Lightness” who — imagine that — lived twenty minutes north of us. Glen spent two hours with us at his house during one of his kid’s birthday parties. We walked out with frameless G5 packs that weighed 8 ounces. Our backpacking was transformed. We hit the JMT with base weights of about ten pounds, not thirty or more.

Finally, what lessons do you hope readers take away from your book, or how do you hope it gets them thinking or feeling? 

That you don’t need to go out for five months — even an afternoon walk opens the door to possibility, to being and feeling different. To encourage you to do something special at least once in your life, or at least make the attempt. To not take for granted that water comes out of the tap, and to regard a shower — I control how hot or cold — as a miracle. Kindness when we are driving on a road is the exception; kindness when we are hiking on the trail is the general rule. I am my best self out there, so will be most all of you. See you on the trail.

Grab Your Copy of Barney Scout Mann’s Journeys North Today

We hope you’ll order a copy of Barney’s book for some inspiration for your next outdoor adventure. You can learn more about Barney and follow along with his continued adventures on his website, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.