Mount Agamenticus – First, Second, and Third Hill Loop (York, ME)

 

Mount Agamenticus summit
View of the Atlantic from the summit of First Hill, Mount Agamenticus

Mount Agamenticus, overlooking the southern Maine coast, apparently derives its name from an Algonqiuan coastal place name also used in Gloucester and Charlestown, Massachusetts.  It’s not a giant, only 691 feet tall, but is part of the Mount Agamenticus Conservation Region, which covers over 10,000 acres, including over 40 miles of trails, with a trail map here.  Its location in York makes it readily accessible from the Maine Turnpike and Route One.  I had never climbed Mount Agamenticus, and figured that a looping walk over rolling hills would be a perfect spring tune-up hike.

View towards Mount Washington from First Hill, Mount Agamenticus
View towards Mount Washington from First Hill, Mount Agamenticus

These trails allow for a variety of hikes by length and ability.  On this spring day, I traversed the First, Second, and Third Hills, using the Ring, Fisher, Big A, Sweet Fern, Chestnut Oak, Ridge, Wheel, Third Hill, and Great Marsh Trails, along with Old Mountain Road, Porcupine, Rocky Road, and, again, Ring Trails to complete a loop of around 7 miles.  Much shorter loops are available (the complete Ring Trail loop is only 1.9 miles), and the Ring (west) and Witch Hazel Trails contain a “Story Walk” that might keep younger hikers moving from storyboard to storyboard, up the hill.

Observation Deck, First Hill, Mount Agamenticus
Observation Deck, First Hill, Mount Agamenticus

It’s not a long hike from the Mountain Road trailhead to the top of First Hill via the Ring (west) and Fisher Trails – I covered it in fifteen to twenty minutes at a moderate pace.  For those with mobility issues, there are also parking lots closer to the top.  The open summit has observation decks to orient you to the sights in all directions, from the Atlantic to Mount Washington, and a Learning Lodge is open weekends from 11 am to 3 pm from Memorial Day to Columbus Day.

Picnic Tables, First Hill, Mount Agamenticus
Picnic Tables, First Hill, Mount Agamenticus

There are picnic tables with views of the ocean, and restroom facilities.  Songbirds abound, and I spotted an American Goldfinch near the old ski lift structures.  Descending toward Second Hill, the trail still held some ice in shaded places, the only sign of winter’s clutches.  The low points around Second and Third Hills were dotted with vernal pools, which were already riotous with the sounds of peepers.

Tree on Second Hill, Mount Agamenticus
Tree on Second Hill, Mount Agamenticus

While First Hill is well-trafficked, with trail runners and dog walkers, the only other human being I saw on Second and Third Hills was a mountain biker.  The trails here are not as well-marked as those on First Hill, and I had to double back several times to find the trail, particularly on the Ridge Trail, and Third Hill Trail.  In addition, the summits are wooded, with less spectacular views than that of First Hill.  But the hiking is not strenuous, and the scenery contains peaceful brooks and ample wildlife viewing opportunities.  I saw turkeys, deer, and innumerable songbirds, as well as sizable ant mounds on the way down Third Hill.

Mount Agamenticus is an easily accessible, family-friendly trail network which allows the user to build his/her own itinerary based on activity, ability, and time, and provides boundless opportunities for observing fauna and flora.

Seal on observation deck, First Hill, Mount Agamenticus
Seal on observation deck, First Hill, Mount Agamenticus

Pleasant Mountain (Bridgton, ME)

Dad and daughter atop Pleasant Mountain summit
Dad and daughter atop Pleasant Mountain summit

(Updated in February 2019 to include winter hiking details)

Pleasant Mountain (2,006 ft) is a mountain in Bridgton right next to Shawnee Peak ski area, with trails mostly on land owned by the Loon Echo Land Trust (see here for detailed maps).  Dad and daughter hiked this with our cousin in April 2017 as part of our preparation for our 100 Mile Wilderness trek via the (moderate) Southwest Ridge Trail (also known as the MacKay Pasture Trail), 5.8 miles up/back.  I hiked this most recently in February 2019.  Map and description are also available in the stellar Maine Mountain Guide.

This hike can be busy in summer, particular up the Ledges Trail, but a winter morning can provide solitude.  There were a few hikers, but I also saw woodpeckers, crows, and a herd of deer.  The deer were using the same path, and bounded away from me, big white tails flashing, every time they heard my footsteps crunching in the snow, coming no closer than about fifty yards.

Winter morning view of Moose Pond from near Southwest Summit, Pleasant Mountain
Winter morning view of Moose Pond from near Southwest Summit, Pleasant Mountain

We have hiked this mountain via the Ledges Trail from the east, and enjoy the western approach more, as the ridge hike provides wonderful views on the way up, including at the Southwest Summit (1,900 ft).  The parking area on Denmark Road is well-maintained, plowed in winter, and easy to find (for directions, use Google Maps to search “Pleasant Mountain Southwest Ridge Trail“), and it is a fairly steady climb to the top, with a steeper climb after the junction with the Ledges Trail, for the last .2 miles to the top.  A wood teepee structure near the Southwest Summit makes for a good point to take a break along the way.

Wood teepee near Southwest Summit, Pleasant Mountain
Wood teepee near Southwest Summit, Pleasant Mountain

 

A mix of sun, shade, and elevation provide different challenges throughout the hike in spring and summer, as the ridge northeast of the Southwest Summit blocks the sun during most of the morning.  As of February 2019, the trail was well-packed, and I used micro-spikes from the trailhead to the summit, with no need for snowshoes.  Steps to the right or left of the packed snow, particularly in the valley between the Southwest Summit and the Main Summit, will put you post-holed into deep snow. There were cross-country ski tracks parallel to the trail, providing more options.

View of the White Mountains from Pleasant Mountain main summit
View of the White Mountains from Pleasant Mountain main summit

A depressed area in the section between the Southwest Summit and Pleasant Mountain Summit is a vernal pool in spring, with incredibly loud peepers, a heavy covering of snow, and probably the first ticks of the year in April.  The pool gave us our first chance to use our water filtration system, the MSR Sweetwater, in April 2017.  A couple of pumps produced clear, cold water.

Pleasant Mountain summit in winter, with observation tower guideline and Mount Washington in background
Pleasant Mountain summit in winter, with observation tower guideline and Mount Washington in background

As seen above in the summit photo, the views of the White Mountains to the west, particularly Mount Washington, are wonderful on clear days.  An old fire tower still stands on the summit.  The descent requires a slight uphill climb in the valley between the main summit and the Southwest Summit, but it’s a quick downhill (careful of footing) after that, back to the trailhead, about a three-and-a-half hour out-and-back hike.  If you can time it right, stop by Standard Gastropub in Bridgton after the hike to enjoy craft beer and unbelievable food.

Where You’ll Find Me: Risk, Decisions, and the Last Climb of Kate Matrosova by Ty Gagne

Where You'll Find Me: Risk, Decisions, and the Last Climb of Kate MatrosovaManaging risk in the outdoors, particularly that of winter in the White Mountains, requires learning hard lessons.  Focusing on one tragedy can have its pitfalls, but Where You’ll Find Me: Risk, Decisions, and the Last Climb of Kate Matrosova by Ty Gagne (TMC Books, 2017) is respectful of that tragedy, avoids sensationalism, and expands in scope to use the narrative as a guideline for the analysis of risk.

Gagne’s book follows the ill-fated attempt of the Northern Presidential traverse by thirty-two year-old Kate Matrosova in February 2015, and the ensuing rescue and ultimately, recovery operation.  Gagne presents a scrupulously researched narrative and timeline of events, which is interspersed with maps, drawings, and analysis.  The level of detail is astounding, and simultaneously gives the reader a bird’s-eye view of the unfolding drama along with granular details about the people on the ground.

We see Matrosova’s movements in comparison to other hiking groups in the White Mountains on the same day, and what the would-be rescuers were thinking, feeling, even eating.  To his credit, Gagne keeps the reader hoping for a different outcome for Matrosova throughout the book, even though the ending is already known.  All this detail leads to the central question of the book: if someone this fit and prepared lost her life, what measures can be taken to ensure one’s own safety?  Gagne addresses Matrosova’s planned route:

In establishing bailout points and packing cell and satellite phones, a GPS device, a map, and a personal locator beacon, Matrosova is acknowledging the existence of risk on the traverse.  She has established a risk management plan.  But given her inexperience in the White Mountains, is her plan comprehensive enough to address the multitude of exposures that exist there, especially in winter?

After explaining the steps to an effective risk management plan, Gagne goes on:

A key to all this is timing.  Even with a well-developed risk management strategy and the ability to implement it effectively, Matrosova will have to decide if and when to trigger alterations to her original plan.  In the end, it will be the timing of her decisions that will make all the difference.

Gagne describes this timing, including the rapidly worsening weather, and subsequent warnings issued by the Mount Washington Observatory after Matrosova had already embarked on her hike.  As Matrosova slowly falls behind her self-imposed timeline, her challenges become more and more complex, and Gagne explores the biases that may have factored into her decision-making.  Whatever the reason, these decisions found her exhausted, frostbitten, and facing “an impenetrable wall of wind,” on Mt. Adams, “80-plus-mph headwinds,” that caused her to turn back, at a point that was too late to save her own life.

In the background of this heartbreaking human drama, Gagne illustrates the science of survival, with details regarding the functioning of the locator beacon, the progression of hypothermia, the record-setting extreme weather, and tactics and techniques of Search And Rescue (SAR) personnel.

Gagne fittingly ends the book with an account of his own February 2016 anniversary hike to where Matrosova’s body was eventually found, guided by her GPS track, and by one of her would-be rescuers.  The conditions are different, far milder, and Gagne and his companion are together, well-prepared and equipped, but the ghost of loss still lingers on the periphery: “As I turn my back to the col and make my way down, I say my goodbyes to Kate.”

 

 

Burnt Meadow Mountain (Brownfield, ME)

Descending from the North Peak via the Twin Brook Trail, headed toward the White Mountains
Descending from the North Peak via the Twin Brook Trail, headed toward the White Mountains.

(Updated in January 2019 to include winter hiking details)

Burnt Meadow Mountain in Brownfield, Maine, is a favorite hike of ours in all seasons, including when daughter was much younger.  Brownfield is less than an hour from Portland, and during mid-late summer, the wild blueberries all the way to the summit make for a pleasant distraction and motivator for younger children.  In winter, the moderate climb through vanished foliage yields great views of the White Mountains.

Burnt Meadow Mountain map and trail description from trailhead kiosk along Rte 160 in Brownfield.
Burnt Meadow Mountain map and trail description from trailhead kiosk along Rte 160 in Brownfield.

Our preferred route is via the Burnt Meadow Mountain Trail (blue blazes) and Twin Brook Trail (yellow blazes), an approximately 3.6 mile loop, which took us about 2.5 hours at a relaxed pace in summer, and 2 hrs, 10 mins in winter.  The spur trail up to Stone Mountain (blue blazes) from the Twin Brook Trail adds about another 1.4 miles round-trip, which was about an hour added to the loop hike in the winter time.  These trails are well-marked and maintained by the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) and the Friends of Burnt Meadow Mountain.

As usual, the best description of this hike is in the AMC Maine Mountain Guide.  And in the new 11th edition of this guide, Burnt Meadow gets its own map.  In winter, the parking lot is small and icy, and hikers may have to find a parking spot on the narrow shoulder of Route 160.  For updated winter trail conditions, check the Burnt Meadow Mountain Trail page on All Trails.  On the January 2019 day I went, the snow on the trail was packed, and micro-spikes helped with some of the resulting ice on rocks.  The only deeper snow was on the Stone Mountain trail.

Not quite ready yet
Not quite ready yet in June.

The Burnt Meadow Trail passes through shaded woods and over exposed rock faces up a short, steep climb to the North Peak (1,575 ft).  On the way, we saw hawks wheeling below us, and visibility was outstanding on a sunny, cool June day.  In winter, the climb had the effect of being a pleasantly continuous ridge hike without the leaves to obscure views.

Watching three hawks (a pair and a loner) hunt in the valley below the Burnt Mountain Trail
Watching three hawks (a pair and a loner) hunt in the valley below the Burnt Mountain Trail in summer.

While the blueberries weren’t ready in June, we saw vultures, crows, many lady slippers in peak color, and also ran across a few toads.  We used plenty of bug spray, but didn’t hit large clouds of black flies or mosquitoes, except in low-lying areas along the Twin Brook Trail (obviously, no bugs in the wintertime).

 

Winter ascent up to the North Peak, Burnt Meadow Mountain
Winter ascent up to the North Peak, Burnt Meadow Mountain

The broad, open summit of Burnt Meadow is a great place for a picnic.  We didn’t linger too long in summer, though, just enjoyed some jerky and proceeded across to the Twin Brook Trail.  A large cairn marked the point to start our descent.  The Twin Brook Trail was a rolling course back to its junction with the Burnt Meadow Mountain Trail, and from there back to the parking lot.

A cairn marks the descent from the North Peak to the Twin Brook Trail
A cairn marks the descent from the North Peak to the Twin Brook Trail.

In winter, I took the Stone Mountain Trail, as the surrounding area from the summit is easier to see without the leaves.  This trail is substantially less traveled than the North Peak or Twin Brook Trails, and required some travel through deeper snow, but nothing requiring snowshoes as of January 2019.

Follow blue blazes through a birch forest to the Stone Mountain summit
Follow blue blazes through a birch forest to the Stone Mountain summit.

One of the reasons we love this hike in the summertime is its proximity to the Brownfield Town Beach, which is a great place to cool off (Note: While dogs are plentiful on Burnt Meadow Mountain trails, they are not allowed at the beach after June 1st).

Brownfield Town Beach
Brownfield Town Beach

Sweetie’s Ice Cream in Standish is a great way to cool off on the way back to the Portland area in the summer.  Another option is the Whistle Stop General Store in Baldwin to grab food – open all winter for snowmobilers and other travelers.

Up: A Mother and Daughter’s Peakbagging Adventure, by Patricia Ellis Herr

Up: A Mother and Daughter's Peakbagging Adventure by Patricia Ellis Herr

Connecting kids with nature is a simple matter of allowing that inevitable relationship to happen.  The difficult part is deciding what boundaries to set, letting go, and helping children deal with the unexpected challenges they may encounter.  How to do that?  One path is described in Up – A Mother and Daughter’s Peakbagging Adventure, by Patricia Ellis Herr (Broadway Paperbacks, 2012) , the story of Patricia Ellis Herr and her daughters Alex and Sage, and the quest of her older daughter Alex, then five, to summit all forty-eight of New Hampshire’s peaks over four thousand feet before Alex turned seven.

Herr begins the book with an anecdote about a failed attempt to summit Mt. Tom, thwarted by a lightning storm.  This story sets the tone for the book: the weather forced Herr to make tough calls, and to explain her rationale for those decisions and the results to her daughters, including the realization that things can happen for which it can be impossible to prepare.  Also, there was chocolate at the end.

The idea to bag all of New Hampshire’s four thousand footers was born following another hike, this one of Mount Tecumseh in April 2008, when Herr and her daughters eventually turned back, unprepared for the deep snow at higher elevations.  Herr then researched the appropriate hiking gear and preparation, and they returned to summit Tecumseh that June, unknowingly beginning Alex’s quest.

During the peakbagging journey, they encounter unexpected obstacles, including the fear of “stranger danger,” the preconceived notions of other hikers regarding women and young children, and an aggressive spruce grouse.  Herr turns these challenges into teachable moments, and Alex quickly gains confidence, and even makes some converts.

Alex is clearly a unique child, and uses a fountain of energy to power up and down the mountains in the beginning.  Herr brings Alex back to earth, however, with a lesson from Alex and Sage’s father, Hugh, who relates the story to the girls of how he lost his legs on Mount Washington in the winter of 1982.  A rescuer was killed by an avalanche while looking for Hugh and his climbing partner, a mental burden still carried by Hugh.  The story has the desired effect, and Alex learns to be more careful, and respect the danger inherent in the White Mountains.  This comes in handy during the ensuing months, as Herr and Alex hike through the winter and spring seasons, and learn, “Real hikers know when to continue and when to turn back.”

By the time the family, by this time accompanied by well-wishers, summits peak number forty-eight, Mount Moosilauke, in August 2009, they have accomplished much more than the physical challenge.  Herr and her daughters have had conversations along the way wrestling with existential questions, mortality, motherhood, gender roles, and societal expectations:

What matters now is that they know, from experience, that they can accomplish something big, something huge.  What matters is that, for the rest of their lives, both my daughters understand that to reach a goal, they must put one foot in front of the other and persevere.  They know that they must expect and prepare for challenges.  They know to ignore the naysayers and, instead, to have faith in themselves and their abilities to learn what they need to know.  Above all else, they know that little does not mean weak, that girls are indeed strong, and that practically anything is possible.

This winning book, punctuated by mountaintop photos and small, sweet moments, shares a family’s triumph, and illuminates the lessons inherent in nature, waiting there to be elucidated by a mindful parent.

10 Best Hiking and Outdoor Podcasts of 2018

10 Best Hiking and Outdoor Podcasts of 2018
Katahdin – Knife Edge 2018

When we aren’t hiking, we often consume content related to the outdoors.  Podcasts are a great way to maximize transition to the outdoors and spark discussion during long drives to trailheads.

Outdoor content can be uneven – we tried some hiking podcasts that were basically unlistenable, for reasons ranging from long-winded alcohol or cannabis-infused monologues to insufferable condescension regarding non-thru-hikers.  Also, the experiment of podcasting while hiking never seems to work, and devolves quickly into nonsense conveyed over heavy breathing.

But the best podcasts can capture unique moments, seen through the interesting lens of people new to the outdoors, or drawn from experienced adventurers through long-form interviews.  They can also illuminate topics in science or history in a relatable way, including land and wildlife management, lightning, wildfires, and climate change.  Listeners can also experience life-or-death situations in the safety of their homes and cars and gyms, taking lessons and inspiration with them when they venture out into the outdoors.

These are the ten best (and several honorable mention) hiking and outdoors podcasts we listened to in 2018.  These are unscientifically and unfairly arranged by our own unique interest and enjoyment, with a brief description of each podcast, and the best audience and suggested gateway episode for each one.

A warning – playing podcasts or music on external speakers while hiking is basically a capital offense.  Playing podcasts or music through headphones/earbuds while hiking is somewhere in the spectrum of inadvisable to mortally dangerous.  Just from a common sense standpoint, why would you want to have your hearing and attention somewhere else if you want to maximize the benefits of being immersed in the outdoors (or, more basically, fail to hear the bear you just startled)?  All that being said, hike your own hike.


10 Best Hiking and Outdoor Podcasts of 2018

1. Outside Podcast

Outside Magazine has long been the leader in outdoor storytelling, and they launched this podcast in March 2016 with Science of Survival (killer bees or hypothermia, anyone?), expanding it to include The Outside Interview and Dispatches.  Each episode is a stand-alone experience, and the podcast explores every conceivable aspect of being outside.

Best for: Everyone – wide variety of outdoor topics in a tight, well-produced format.

Episode to Try: A Very Old Man for a Wolf (April 24, 2018)


10 Best Hiking and Outdoor Podcasts of 2018

2. Wild Ideas Worth Living

Host Shelby Stanger enthusiastically interviews leaders in outdoor fields, with a focus on “how they’ve taken their own wild ideas and made them a reality.”  Listen to this podcast for insights on breaking the mold and living wild from skiers, surfers, astronauts, authors, climbers, runners, and entrepreneurs.

Best for: Dreamers.

Episode to Try: Scott Jurek – How to revitalize your purpose, tackle the longest trails, set records, and write best-selling books


10 Best Hiking and Outdoor Podcasts of 2018

3. Outside/In

Host Sam Evans-Brown “combines solid reporting and long-form narrative storytelling to bring the outdoors to you wherever you are.”  This show sneakily weaves in science to explain and explore the outdoors.

Best for: The intellectually curious.

Episode to Try: The Sky is Burning


10 Best Hiking and Outdoor Podcasts of 2018

4. The Firn Line

This show might be worth it solely for the intro and background music, created by host Evan Phillips, an outstanding musician.  Phillips’ goal is “to have meaningful conversations with extraordinary people; the folks who choose to live full-value lifestyles, in the most wild and rugged mountains on the planet.”  Phillips interviews notable climbers in this Alaska-focused podcast.

Best for: Lovers of Alaska (and music).

Episode to Try: Alaska Vibes: Conrad Anker


10 Best Hiking and Outdoor Podcasts of 2018

5. Dirtbag Diaries

This might be the most wide-ranging podcast on the list.  It’s a collaborative effort, best described by the creators as an expansion of “the campfire tale,” and each listener is guaranteed to find an outdoor story that will resonate deeply and personally.

Best for: Lovers of outdoor travel stories.

Episode to Try: Better Than Good Enough


10 Best Hiking and Outdoor Podcasts of 2018

6. She Explores

This podcast hosted by Gale Straub is focused on female exploration, and has a variety of interviews and stories covering the topic, as a gateway to longer discussions.

Best for: Adventurous women.

Episode to Try: Episode 80: The Musical Mountaineers


10 Best Hiking and Outdoor Podcasts of 2018

7. Out There

Out There, hosted by Willow Belden, “explores big questions through intimate stories in the outdoors.”

Best for: Reflective explorers of the inner landscape.

Episode to Try: How do I make my children fall in love with nature?


10 Best Hiking and Outdoor Podcasts of 2018

8. Backpacker Radio

Backpacker Radio, co-hosted by Zach Davis and Juliana Chauncey, covers thru-hiking and long distance backpacking, complete with trail correspondents, interviews, and recommendations.

Best for: Thru-hikers and aspiring thru-hikers.

Episode to Try: #22 | “Guthook” on Building the Most Popular Thru-Hiking App


10 Best Hiking and Outdoor Podcasts of 2018

9. The First 40 Miles

Hosts Heather Legler and Josh Legler focus on backpacking, with advice and content regarding food, gear, long-distance trails, and other hiking topics.

Best for: Couples and parents.

Episode to Try: 181: Raising the Next Generation of Hikers and Backpackers


10 Best Hiking and Outdoor Podcasts of 2018

10. Trust the Trail Podcast

Hosts Scott & Ariane use their experiences to convey lessons (and laughs) about the outdoors.  No topic is too broad or too small, and there are great insights in these episodes on hiking and backpacking.

Best for: Outdoor adventurers.

Episode to Try: Episode 72: Weighing in on Trail Magic


Honorable Mention:

10 Best Hiking and Outdoor Podcasts of 2018

Tough Girl Podcast

Anyone seeking inspiration should check out this podcast, hosted by Sarah Williams, with stories of women overcoming great challenges.

Episode to Try: Susan Conrad – Kayaking ‘the Inside Passage’


10 Best Hiking and Outdoor Podcasts of 2018

The Adventure Sports Podcast

Unbelievably prolific podcast, with in-depth interviews twice a week with a wide variety of outdoor enthusiasts worldwide.

Episode to Try: Ep. 444: Winter Adventures in New England – Jay Atkinson


10 Best Hiking and Outdoor Podcasts of 2018Hike Like A Woman

This podcast by Rebecca Walsh provides inspirational trail stories for and by outdoor women.

Episode to Try: The #1 Thing We Can Do To Raise Brave Children

 


10 Best Hiking and Outdoor Podcasts of 2018

Hike or Die

Hosts Tom Griffin and Craig Brinin talk about hikes and adventures in Australia and beyond, with realistic advice and insights, all in Australian accents.

Episode to Try: Episode 004: Hiking with girls (April 25, 2018)


 

Disagree?  Have suggestions?  Leave a comment or Contact us.

 

 

 

 

Appalachian Odyssey: A 28-Year Hike on America’s Trail, by Jeffrey H. Ryan

Appalachian Odyssey: A 28-Year Hike on America's Trail, by Jeffrey H. Ryan

I first heard of Jeffrey H. Ryan’s book Appalachian Odyssey: A 28-Year Hike on America’s Trail, (Down East Books, 2016) at an engaging February 2017 talk Ryan gave at Frontier Cafe Cinema and Gallery in Brunswick, Maine, complete with a slide show of photographs from his almost thirty-year journey in sections of the Appalachian Trail (AT).  The timing was perfect – in the teeth of the Maine winter, I saw again the possibilities of getting on the trail.

Ryan, having thru-hiked the Pacific Coast Trail (PCT) in the early 1980’s, began his Appalachian odyssey with a hike of Mount Katahdin with eight friends, including eventual AT companion Wayne Cyr, in September 1985.  Hikes on the AT in Vermont and Massachusetts followed, and Ryan realized that he was completing the AT in sections, beginning a twenty-eight year quest to finally complete the 2,181 miles of the trail.

Ryan’s book breaks up this journey with Cyr into twenty-four chapters, including photographs, maps, gear lists, and salient historical facts about the AT and its surroundings.  The anecdotes and (often self-deprecating) trail stories are excellent, and my personal favorite was the saga of a hungry Vermont porcupine, and the havoc it wreaked on the underside of Ryan’s parked vehicle, punctuated by the instructive note entitled, “Why Porcupines Love Working on Cars.”  Ryan concludes the chapter describing his unexpected porcupine encounter with an understanding:

Because it’s the unexpected that fills life with excitement, joy and gratitude.  When you let go of your expectations and allow journeys to unfold before you, you discover they are filled with wonder – clouds screaming past the moon, climbs to summits with vistas beyond belief, hoards of black flies that send you into the tent, porcupines that eat vehicles and strangers that give you a lift to the hardware store just when you need it most,  I wouldn’t trade one bit of it – not even the black flies, the forced vacation or the $900 repair bill – for a more predictable and less fulfilling walk through life.

Throughout the book, we continue to see this theme resonate, and readers of the right age can nod, and remember not being able to reach people by cell phone, or puzzling over a map, prior to the advent of GPS and Google Maps.  The appeal of returning to a new section of the trail each year for Ryan seems to include this passage back to a world of limited priorities, of perspective, of strictly the essential.

While many trail journals are immersive, and discuss the alternate thru-hiker universe, Ryan’s is different, as he also explores the physical and emotional challenges of getting on and off the trail in sections over the years.  The physical effects of residual stress from work and travel, the betrayals of aging and benefits of maturity, and even the changes in technology on the trail over time are currents running through this book.

In following Ryan and Cyr through the years and miles, it’s impossible not to start seeing it through their eyes and pick up the trail shorthand they use.  “First flat spot” to a hiking partner is a three-word utterance that says all that needs to be said about exhaustion, and the need to pitch a tent and call it a day.  Ryan’s inner “drill sergeant” is the alternately self-motivating and abusive internal voice that drives him up and down hills when his reserves of energy are gone.

A brief encounter with a solo thru-hiker at the Sawmill Overlook in Virginia who admits to having the “Virginia Blues” causes Ryan to re-evaluate the mental load being carried by himself and Cyr on the trail.  The Virginia Blues are the result of a formerly ambitious thru-hiker’s realization during a 550 mile section across Virginia of the realities of the length and deprivations of the trail, a two thousand mile endeavor with a 75% dropout rate.  Ryan’s thoughts on the Virginia Blues are an unmistakable metaphor for the trials of middle age, the broader trails we all walk alone and together, and the societal supports we all need.

These times of exhaustion and doubt, however, are like the low points in the rolling “sawtooth” terrain Ryan crosses in his section-hiking journey – left in shadow by peaks bathed in sunshine, unexpected kindnesses from strangers, hot meals, and special places inaccessible except by the AT.  Ryan conveys tricks of the trade in breathing, arranging gear, and staying in the game mentally, and says this about continually moving forward:

But my greatest source of strength was the reason I was out here in the first place.  From the beginning, I have felt that it is a privilege to walk through some of the most fascinating and inspiring places on earth.  It is something that makes me feel more complete and connected to nature than any activity I can imagine.  Trying to do it for as long as I can is the greatest gift I can give myself.  Yes, there are tough days.  There are also many more glorious ones – just like life in general.  And experiencing them out here helps keep things in perspective when I return to the man-made universe of projects, deadlines and the like.

Every person who punches a clock can understand Ryan’s realization that “my greatest challenge in getting to the trail wasn’t the travel, it was carving out the two week chunk of time I would need to make the trip happen.”  But Appalachian Odyssey shows a blueprint for finding a balance between the things we must do, and those we dream of doing.