26: Three Hundred Zeroes, by Dennis R. Blanchard.
Three Hundred Zeroes: Lessons of the Heart on the Appalachian Trail purports to be “a true account of the author’s two-year venture on the Appalachian Trail.” Blanchard had planned a thru-hike in his sixtieth year, 2007, but he made it only as far as Pearisburg, Virginia, before deciding to return home to check out recurring angina pains. In mid-July his doctor ordered him into immediate heart bypass surgery, after which he took 300 “zeroes” (days off the trail) in recovery and preparation for returning to the AT. This he did in May 2008.
Blanchard is a good writer, and his book is well edited. His prose style flows well, and he avoids appearing repetitive. Although Blanchard tells of his social encounters, his writing does not revolve around these. He shares with us what it was actually like to hike the AT—something that some AT memoirs struggle to do.
Along the way, we get acquainted with the author himself. Blanchard is an amateur ham radio enthusiast. Regardless of its weight, he brings a ham radio with him and makes it his mission to communicate in Morse Code from every state he enters. Unable to hike with his brother, who was killed in action in Vietnam, Blanchard carries his brother’s Purple Heart medal with him all the way to Katahdin. The author has a decent sense of humor, and he doesn’t shy away from sharing his opinions on a number of topics that arise in the course of his writing.
My chief criticism is that his sub-title had me expecting a much different book—one that would attempt to impart “lessons” from the “heart” or spiritual faculty. Once I became more acquainted with the book, I supposed it would teach certain truths gleaned as a result of the author’s life-saving surgery. Blanchard really doesn’t attempt to do either of these. Yet, in one very nice passage, describing his experience in the White Mountains, he comes close to achieving both ends:
“The next day we hiked through spectacular country; every turn of the Trail was a new panorama of mountains and valleys, streams, waterfalls, and pristine country. I’d been given a second chance at life with my heart surgery and it was here, more than anywhere else, that I was overwhelmed with the knowledge that I was truly living the gift. It was so exhilarating to breathe the cool fresh air, feel the warmth of the sunbeams and take in all that was around me. It was as close to a religious experience as I have ever had.”
Although Blanchard does not attempt to teach his readers, he says that his AT hike did teach him several things: “to live with less and make everything serve more than one purpose,” and “that life doesn’t end when you’ve had heart surgery; in fact, it begins all over again.” But, “above all else,” Blanchard learned “that regardless of what the popular media has to say, there are a bunch of wonderful, wholesome Americans out there.”