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.

Northland: A 4,000-Mile Journey Along America’s Forgotten Border, by Porter Fox

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In an age of technology and enlightenment, physical borders remain enigmatically relevant.  While information and intellectual property pass by on hidden virtual pathways, we are confronted daily with news of aggressive border incursions, walls, migration and separation.  Porter Fox’s book Northland: A 4,000-Mile Journey Along America’s Forgotten Border (W.W. Norton and Company) navigates these troubled waters in a modern pilgrimage along the U.S.-Canadian border from Maine to Washington State.

Fox’s adventurous journey along the border (which splits both man-made and natural features, and has constantly been re-drawn and argued by the U.S. and Canada) was conceived during a 2014 lunch with Fox, his editor, and his agent, and brought to life “three years and four thousand miles later” by canoe, freighter, car, and foot.  The fourth dimension of this journey is the history of tribal peoples and European exploration, which Fox weaves skillfully alongside his own narrative.

Fox divides the journey into five parts from east to west: the Dawnland, the Sweet-Water Seas, Boundary Waters, Seven Fires, and the Medicine Line.  Not by accident, the origin of most of these names is drawn from the native populations who are omnipresent in the narrative, their proximity to the border a fateful combination of ancestry and displacement.

Fox finds commonality in all the populations banding the U.S.- Canadian border: social and personality traits mandated by the climate, economy, and the very nature of the stark world between two countries which these “northlanders” straddle.  These commonalities include “[e]thnic communities with centuries-old histories, small towns that modern America skipped over, forgotten industries and Old World professions that rely on hands, not machines.”

The saga of these northlanders is not the only origin story: the birth of many things, from the U.S. Coast Guard to Thousand Island Dressing, is hidden within these pages.  Fox takes the best approach in a travel book, making himself an observer, rather than an actor, and documenting the stories of those he encounters.  This is not navel-gazing, this is journalism.  Fox’s own story only emerges during brief memories of his own northland origins in Maine, or in humorous or poignant interactions with people along the way.

Fox also refrains from preaching or taking sides – any reasonable person can make their own conclusions regarding the effects of global warming, incompetent border management, marginalization of native peoples, or over-fishing and deforestation, making a diatribe superfluous.  Fox observes:

It looked like night.  The sky and land were dark.  Flames blazed above tall, cylindrical smokestacks, casting orange light on the ship.  The waterfront was barricaded by dunes of iron ore pellets and coal.  It was nine in the morning.  The water was oily green.  I looked through the porthole in my cabin and saw a truck pour molten slag into a ditch.  A bright-orange splash flew into the water and incinerated a duck swimming by.

Thus continues Fox’s story of his journey from the Saint Lambert Lock in Montreal up the Saint Lawrence Seaway through the Great Lakes (Ontario, Erie, Huron, Superior) to Thunder Bay, Ontario on the Algoma Equinox, a 740-foot freighter, reading like the opening of a post-apocalyptic version of Ben E. King’s Stand by Me.

It is in this excellent section on The Sweet-Water Seas that Fox truly hits his stride, capturing the chaotic, spooky world of the Equinox and its crew, as well as the unforeseen benefit of only traveling ten miles an hour.  Fox writes beautifully, carefully, and sympathetically about the people and places along this route, interspersing modern vignettes with the movements of glaciers, floods, Champlain, La Salle, and inexorable commerce.

The book is full of these interactive moments that capture so much.  Fox visits the Boundary Waters of Minnesota with Paul and Sue, legendary guides and explorers, watching Sue swing a canoe onto her shoulders for portage, “like putting on a sweater, except the sweater was a sixteen-foot Kevlar hull.”  In North Dakota, Fox visits the Standing Rock protest camp of the Sioux Nation, against the Dakota Access Pipeline, and in Idaho, interviews a militia leader, who gives him “the kind of cheery welcome you’d expect from a car salesman.”

An otherwise-mundane guided tour (“The tour group itself was a thing of antiquity.  I was the only one under the age of eighty.  The comb-over on the man beside me was a work of art.”) of the Glacier Park Lodge in Browning, Montana yields an unexpected insight when the tour guide shows Fox and the group a large-format black-and-white photograph shot in the late 1800s:

The image was of two Blackfeet riders on a grassy knoll.  Behind them were a forest and a few high peaks.  Their hair was braided.  The one in the front wore deerskins; the one behind wore blankets.  Mist covered a valley at the foot of the mountains.  There was no sun – just a dark line between earth and sky.

Amid the cedars, buffalo skulls, and antique china, the photo was indeed the only object in the lodge of extraordinary value.  It was a split second in time from a lost world.  “I like showing people this last,” the guide said.  “I like them to know that we weren’t the first people to live here.”

By the time the journey ends, on a coastal Lummi tribal reservation at the western end of the border in Washington state, the reader has skillfully been transported stride-by-stride with Fox through the past, and across the northland.  In his introduction, Fox explains that he wanted to visit the northland again before it changed for good.  The borderlands seem to change more slowly than the center, giving us a glimpse into the past.  In these margins, we see the cost of progress, and the stark natural beauty of the land that was, giving us pause about the right way forward.

AMC Maine Mountain Guide, 11th Edition, Compiled and Edited by Carey Michael Kish

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The hardest part about replacing my earlier (10th) edition of the AMC Maine Mountain Guide, 11th Edition (Appalachian Mountain Club Books), compiled and edited by Carey Michael Kish, was carefully transferring all of my handwritten notes and highlighter marks.  The smashed mosquitoes and coffee stains I will have to replace as I go.  Kish recently posted an article on Maine Today regarding the new edition.

As referred to many times on this blog, this indispensable book has been the starting point for countless adventures over the last couple years.  According to the back jacket of the new AMC Maine Mountain Guide, this new 11th edition features 175 new trails, 50 new mountains, and 17 additional in-text maps, “capturing Maine’s booming trail building and expansion during the past five years.”  Additionally, the existing trails include more details and updates, including more than 450 trail revisions.

In his Foreword, Carey Kish relates his hiking history, with the interestingly prescient detail that Kish bought his first Maine Mountain Guide in 1976.  The Acknowledgements section shows the true breadth and depth of the book, with tips of the cap to AMC staff, Maine state departments, and a long list of names from “Maine’s incredible community of land trusts, conservation organizations, environmental agencies, trail clubs, trail advocates, outdoor recreation groups, and other good friends of Maine trails.”  And it really must take a village to compile this book.

The introduction includes helpful information and advice for hikers specific to Maine, including descriptions of Maine geography and geology, climate, vegetation, animals, and trail etiquette.  For map and GPS nerds, the section on Maps and Navigation (at the tail end of “How To Use This Book” is packed with reference books and maps to use as companions to the guide, with a short segment on LiDAR data, and how it has been used to correct the summit height of peaks.  There is even a sample packing list (you are going to want those convertible pants), and a common-sense primer on backcountry hazards.

So what changed? The first Section is on Maine’s showpiece, Baxter State Park and Katahdin, and the new layout is apparent.  The Suggested Hikes, which were previously at the end of each Section, are now at the beginning, in order from least difficult to most.  The Trail Descriptions of the sixteen trails to the six major summits of Katahdin are now each prefaced with a table showing distance, elevation gain, and projected time to allow yourself.

These information-age upgrades haven’t changed the narrative, however, or characterizations such as that of the Knife Edge: “The dizzying height, sheer cliffs, and extreme exposure combine to make this one of the most spectacular mountain trails in the eastern United States.”  This descriptive prose, fortified with weather warnings, sources of water, and historical notes on the trails, is the continuing magic of this guide.

The Sections of Maine have been broadened from ten to twelve, with stand-alone sections for Mahoosuc Range and Grafton Notch (Section 5), and White Mountain National Forest and Evans Notch (Section 6).  It really is an expansion, and I skipped to some recent hikes I’d done to see the differences.  I noticed subtle edits in the Downeast hikes I’d done recently, and updated road names added to trailhead directions.

Viewing the Southwestern Maine portion (Section 8), I noticed six brand new in-text maps in that section alone, with popular trails Bradbury Mountain State Park, Douglas Mtn. Preserve, Bald Pate Preserve, Burnt Meadow Mtn., Mt. Cutler, and Mt. Agamenticus all getting their own cartography.  New trails also debut, like the 47-mile Hills to Sea trail through eastern Waldo County from Unity to Belfast, which was opened to the public in 2016.

The book ends with Appendices listing alphabetical contacts for the trails and lands listed in the guide, from the Appalachian Mountain Club to the Woodstock Conservation Commission, and checklists for New England 4,000 footers and New England 100 Highest.  And in the back of the book are two pull-out map sheets, containing a total of six large-scale trail maps of Baxter State Park, Maine Woods, Bigelow Range, Camden Hills, Eastern Mount Desert Island, and Mahoosuc Range-Evans Notch.

The 11th Edition of the AMC Maine Mountain Guide has been completely revised and updated while maintaining its essential character, an impressive achievement.  This is truly the hiking handbook for the state of Maine, and a must-have for outdoor explorers of all levels.

Maine Hikes Off the Beaten Path: 35 Trails Waiting to be Discovered, by Aislinn Sarnacki

Maine Hikes Off the Beaten Path

When I first looked through the 35 trails listed in Aislinn Sarnacki’s book Maine Hikes Off the Beaten Path: 35 Trails Waiting to be Discovered, (Down East Books, 2018) I remembered how much in Maine is left to be hiked, a realization which is both humbling and encouraging.  Sarnacki, the outdoor columnist for the Bangor Daily News, has assembled an eclectic, formidable line-up of trails spanning the Pine Tree State.  Her introduction to the book spells out her goal in writing this book, starting with her journey into hiking, detailing a mixed experience ascending Katahdin at age sixteen, when she was “far from hooked on the activity.”

Sarnacki discusses how hiking subsequently got her through tough times, culminating in an undergraduate thesis on the positive ways it can affect a person’s holistic health, and a job at the Bangor Daily News writing Outdoors features.  Sarnacki explains the changing map of trails in Maine, and her navigation of information provided by state parks, land trusts and other non-profit organizations to find these trails (did you know there are more than 40 other peaks besides Katahdin in Baxter State Park?  I didn’t).

Sarnacki continues the introduction with a wonderful explanation of the value of Leave No Trace, with a description of Abol Pond during a Leave No Trace trainer course, and the change in enjoyment of natural beauty with the observation of the policy, versus without.  She then provides helpful sections entitled Staying Safe While Hiking (all good tips – “Spoil Your Feet” and the limited use of helpful technology in particular) and At War With Ticks (common-sense strategies for dealing with an emerging problem).

The 35 hikes described by Sarnacki are spread across the state, bracketed by Wells Barren Preserve in in the south, Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge to the east, Scopan Mountain near Presque Isle to the north, and Aziscohos Mountain in Lincoln Plantation to the west (man, I hope I got that right).  Each includes a detailed description, detailing the Difficulty, Dogs (permitted or no?), any Cost or fee, Access (accessible overnight?  four seasons?), Wheelchair accessibility, Hunting, Restrooms, How to get to the trailhead, and precise GPS coordinates.

Each trail has a clear, accurate map (take a photo of the map with your cellphone if you don’t feel like carrying the book with you on a hike), and excellent photos that give you an idea of the trail’s surroundings and vista points. Sarnacki describes the plants and animals to be encountered, gemstones and rocks, trail markings (or lack thereof), interpretive signs, and everything in between.  To the extent there are land trusts, a town office, or other caretakers of the trail, Sarnacki provides web addresses and telephone numbers for more information, and personal notes with helpful anecdotes for the area or the trail.

These detailed vignettes brought back the best part of talking about hiking and trails, the part that is mostly lost in the technical focus of apps and guidebooks: word-of-mouth referrals for hidden outdoor gems, and personal stories about these special places.  It is these connections that keep us coming back, and Sarnacki’s writing does an excellent job of capturing that idea.  Having just come back from the Grand Lake Stream area, where we enjoyed the Baxter Outdoors New England Trail Series Downeast Lakes 5-Miler, I particularly liked Hike 25, the Little Mayberry Cove Trail, managed by the Downeast Lakes Land Trust (I agree with Sarnacki that the tiny silver and blue trail signs are aesthetically pleasing), and the photos capturing the changing light along the trails.

Reading through this book, I found myself continually reaching for my Maine Gazetteer to look at the hikes, and running through road trips in my head.  As a result, this new book is already dog-eared and bookmarked with ideas, which is the mark of a truly adventurous guide.  As Sarnacki concluded in her introduction, I was inspired “to get out there, off the beaten path.”

Book Review – Hike It Forward: Hiking the Appalachian Trail: Strong, Safe, and in the Spirit, by David Rough

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Thru-hikers can have many different reasons to attempt the Appalachian Trail (AT), whether it be the fulfillment of a dream, a personal challenge, or any number of life events, and in Hike It Forward: Hiking the Appalachian Trail Strong, Safe and in the Spirit, (self-published, 2015) David Rough recounts his successful 2014 thru-hike from Georgia to Maine, as part of an “unavoidable call” and an effort to improve tuition assistance at the Christian school system in Ohio of which he was Academic Dean at the time.  Rough blogged about his hike in the Hike It Forward blog.

Rough (trail name: Rowdy) details his preparations for the hike, and how these preparations stood up to the 2,186 mile test, including gear and clothing.  In addition, Rough’s book includes three bonus features: Trail Preparation, Trail Journal, and a State-by-State guide.  A bibliography includes everything from A Walk in The Woods to The Lord of the Rings.

Rough breaks down AT lingo, most importantly explaining the HYOH concept: Hike Your Own Hike, respecting the different goals, motivations, and methods of other hikers.  Rough also converts the “trail magic” concept to “trail blessings,” which reflects Rough’s Christian faith.  Most of the blessings involve food, which is central to the thoughts and well-being of thru-hikers.

The book reveals a daily life on the trail containing surprises, nasty falls, and unexpected acts of kindness.  These vignettes range from uplifting conversations with other thru-hikers, most of them referenced by trail name, to lighthearted musings on moose encounters, to an incident with a peeping tom at a hostel.

These stories illustrate lessons learned by Rough, and his trail journal provides a sense of scale regarding the sheer mileage of a thru-hike, and its effect on his mood.  Additionally, Rough is careful to credit his wife and sister, and the many others who supported his hike, showing that while an AT hike is inherently a solitary endeavor, the added motivation and encouragement to see it through can be the difference between success and failure.

Rough also discusses the challenges faced in adjusting to normal life again after his AT experience, and how small things like shoes, being inside, and changing his diet caused stress, and how Rough dealt with this, and how reconnecting with friends from the AT cushioned some of the loss felt upon leaving the trail.  Rough concludes:

The Appalachian Trail is forever etched into my life.  God allowed me to experience a path that few have walked.  My hike was so uniquely mine and the spiritual journey so personally embraced me that words cannot describe its intimacy.  A one hundred and fifty-two day walk incorporates 3,648 hours of experiences and people and blessing and adversity and adventure.  To capture it in a book, to recall it in words, to reflect it in pictures, or even to fully understand it myself seems to evade my abilities.

Overall, Rough’s narrative effectively describes his initial romantic view of the trail being replaced by hardship, but then re-forged, one step at a time, hiking his own hike, into an appreciation of the trail as it is.

Book Review: On Trails: An Exploration, by Robert Moor

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The combination of a March Nor’easter and a good book given to me by a friend convinced me that winter was a good time to add a Book Review section to the Hiking In Maine blog.  On Trails: An Exploration by Robert Moor (Simon and Schuster, 2016) is a perfect first entry in that section, as the book blends a description of the practical realities of hiking with the deeper and more existential reasons for these exertions.

The book opens with a prologue containing Moor’s description of his 2009 thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail (trail name: Spaceman), and how he came to be there.  It also quickly reaches the questions raised by this journey:

As hundreds – and then thousands – of miles of trails passed beneath my eyes, I began to ponder the meaning of this endless scrawl.  Who created it?  Why does it exist?  Why, moreover does any trail?

And so, Moor dives deep, not just into his own Appalachian Trail experience, but into the history of the Appalachian Trail, and the origin of all trails, those created by humans and others: pre-historic organism, slugs, ants, caterpillars, elephants.  In-depth scientific and psychological explorations are punctuated by colorful, whimsical vignettes from Moor’s life, including an amusing stint as a shepherd assisting a Navajo couple in Arizona.

These stories help to anchor the larger themes of the book, including the complicated relationships between man and wilderness, and the American rediscovery of this concept.  In describing the forests of New England, Moor says, “Walking through them- wolf trees, walls, and all – one starts to realize that the only thing more beautiful than an ancient wilderness is a new one.”  Moor skillfully interweaves insights like this one with his section hike of the Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire alongside Gilliam Jackson, a Cherokee man, and the other hikers along the way.

A trip to the Atlas Mountains in Morocco to scout routes for the International Appalachian Trail (IAT) ends the main section of the book, and again, Moor blends explorations of the concept of the trail with humorous and poignant anecdotes of his interactions with the people involved, from planners in Maine and Iceland, to guides, to a prickly Moroccan dog owner.

Moor brings the book to a close with a superb epilogue, in which he connects the trails he has described with the paths taken in life, illustrated by the parallel lives of Han-shan, an ancient Chinese poet, and M.J. Eberhart, AKA Nimblewill Nomad, a legendary modern hiker who has given away most of his possessions, and makes observations on why we hike:

One of the chief pleasures of the trail is that it is a rigidly bounded experience.  Every morning, the hiker’s options are reduced to two: walk or quit.  Once that decision is made, all the others (when to eat, where to sleep) begin to fall into place.  For children of the Land of Opportunity – beset on all sides by what the psychologist Barry Schwartz has called “the paradox of choice” – the newfound freedom from choices comes as an enormous relief.

Moor’s book has the character of a journal entry that expanded and took on a life of its own, supported by anecdotes, science, and literature.  In the hands of a less capable writer, this concept could sprawl endlessly and without direction, but here it flows brilliantly.  Moor’s book is truly a meditative exploration, as the sub-title indicates, and its composition is as excellent as Moor’s insightful prose.  Where he could create trite axioms or smug conclusions, Moor acts instead as a skilled guide, allowing the journey to create a deep question, and leaving the final destination to the reader.