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.