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The Onion vs. Mr. Magoo

On your mark, get set ... hike. Inside a 5,600-mile footrace on the country's hardest trail.

"Backpackers always say, ‘What do I really need?’ That’s how I systematically look at my existence," Tapon told me in Berkeley, California, last fall. "I may not be as funny as Bill Bryson or as good as Stephen Covey. But I think my books can form a niche." At press time, he’d sold 2,000 copies of the self-published Hike Your Own Hike, placing him somewhere around 427,000 on Amazon’s sales-rank charts. But the low figures don’t discourage Tapon. Few things do.

"He doesn’t realize limits like most people, whether they’re true limits or not," says Lisa Garrett, who thru-hiked the AT with Tapon and remains a close friend. "Francis wants to do something that’s a little more courageous and pushes boundaries farther."

Such courage enabled him to do something few people do: reject the American dream. The Harvard-educated Tapon got his MBA in 1997, launched a Silicon Valley startup, and promptly became a subject in a feature about next-gen entrepreneurs in The New York Times Magazine. He then worked at another technology firm, and by 2005 Tapon was pulling down $200,000 a year at Microsoft. But in one way, Tapon has always been like his minimalist-minded, ultra-distance hiking peers: He could never get excited about money and its trappings. His immigrant parents–a French father and Chilean mother–were self-made, and taught Tapon and his older brother not to place importance on material goods. Tapon claims he has never owned so much as a couch, and to this day he frugally counts his pennies and doesn’t have his own place. Between trips, he stays with old friends or his mom. So when he started camping in 1999, it’s not surprising that he was immediately drawn to its simplicity. Soon came the AT thru-hike, followed by a thru-hike of the PCT in 2006. "The AT transformed me. It helped me reprioritize my life," says Tapon. "I wanted to have rich and fun experiences."

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