Two Tents is Jim Haskell’s nom de guerre (or rather, de sentier) on the Appalachian Trail. A trail name is something that comes to most thru-hikers, generally reflecting some event or aspect of their attitude while spending time on one of America’s pre-eminent – and certainly most venerable – hiking trails. Thru-hikers are those intrepid spirits who set off from one end (Georgia’s Springer Mountain or Maine’s Mount Katahdin) and arrive 2,200 miles later at the other.

Haskell, however, is not of their number. Although he had been obsessed with hiking the trail since climbing Mount Katahdin at the age of 12, he was never able to carve out the half a year or so needed to do it in one shot. Instead he decided to do it bit by bit over 21 years, which makes him a “section-hiker” in trail parlance.

It’s an interesting trade-off. By his account, shorter chunks don’t make it much easier physically, while the mental discipline to “keep going” would seem to me to be as difficult to maintain over two decades as half a year, though perhaps for different reasons. I can’t think of any time in my life when I could see 21 years ahead with sufficient clarity to commit to such a task.

Not only was Haskell committed, he was punctilious. He would walk every step of the Appalachian Trail. One of the last sections he walked was a mere 200 feet spanning the outlet of Pierce Pond. They had been part of a section he had otherwise completed many years earlier. Except that on that occasion, an unexpected downpour upstream made the crossing – along a dam – impossible. Which didn’t stop him trying, but after realizing he was dicing with death, he ended up backtracking and taking a long way around: more steps, but not on the trail. So he just had to return to tie up this loose end, at the cost of a 14-hour, 470-mile round-trip drive.

Haskell’s first attempt on the Pierce Pond dam is one of several potentially catastrophic experiences that befell him in the course of this self-ordained pilgrimage. In “Two Tents, Twenty-one Years of Discovery on the Appalachian Trail,” he relates them with delightfully self-deprecating wit. To be honest, when I picked up the book I had my misgivings. In tales of this kind, I am a fan of neither sweaty swagger nor epiphany-laden self-retrieval, and that word “Discovery” definitely had me worried. In fact, there is discovery in Haskell’s book, but it is mostly on the part of the reader. We are introduced to and get to know – at a most civilized pace – a very likeable, interesting man who happens to have been strongly motivated to hike the Appalachian Trail. He is also consummately able to write about it.

If told chronologically, a “walk in the woods” (as Bill Bryson memorably called his own account) by sections whose order was anything but geographical would make an unsatisfactory story. Haskell makes no attempt to include every stretch of trail. Instead, he frames his book as a series of tales told on the way to capture the numerous features of the experience. He is the Ancient Mariner, and his Wedding Guest is an invented fellow hiker called Rex with whom he shares the trail for a few days, after he is within 200 miles of completing his goal and therefore with 90 percent of the experience behind him.

It’s his only concession to artifice, and it works remarkably well, as he uses different events to explore any number of interesting trail-related issues. There’s a chapter on the AT’s founding – or “feuding,” as he says – fathers, Benton MacKaye and Myron Avery; on hiking equipment; on rescue; on bears, etc. There are also nuggets of history. Through it all winds his own life story in a way that is never cloying or self-important.

Inevitably this kind of narrative device risks getting repetitive. The reader starts to see the next one coming: sitting around the campfire, Rex pops a question the answer to which will be the book’s next reminiscence. My one quibble is with the dialogue that brings this about. It sometimes sounds uncomfortably contrived.

But the feeling is only momentary. The fun of “Two Tents” is that Haskell makes his story unfold at just the right rhythm. I should also add – especially since I have been critical of its work before – that Maine Authors Publishing has produced a most attractive paperback volume. You don’t have to be planning a hike on the Appalachian Trail to enjoy “Two Tents”; Jim Haskell gives you the highlights and much else besides. So put your feet up and relax.

Thomas Urquhart is a former director of Maine Audubon and also a past board member of the International Appalachian Trail.