Birch’s Reviews, Page 2

25: 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.”

26: Lost on the Appalachian Trail, by Kyle Rohrig.

Lost on the Appalachian Trail (2015) is the inspirational and engaging memoir by Kyle Rohrig that narrates his 2014 195-day northbound thru-hike. North of the Great Smokey Mountains, in southern Tennessee, Rohrig had to take possession of his 15-20 lb. dog, Katana, his Shiba Inu, and so his memoir is really an account of their joint adventure. Rohrig does not advocate taking a dog on a thru-hike. He was well aware that having a dog placed the success or failure of his hike less in his control: “She was simply another factor thrown in that could potentially end my hike.”

As for the title of the book, I can say that it misled me for awhile, as I suspected that the book was a work of fiction. After all, who gets lost on the AT. However, Rohrig explains, “I truly lost myself on the trail.”

This is a book about experience—predominantly Rohrig’s, but it also asks us to consider how we experience life. It is not a didactic work, and yet it does challenge us to think deeply about the quality and purpose of our lives. Thru-hiking the AT had taught Rohrig the purpose of his own life:

“To be clear, the purpose wasn’t long distance hiking. The hiking gave you clarity of mind that helped you realize and understand the purpose. The purpose is happiness in simplicity.”

Rohrig does not set out to be a great nature writer. His aim is not to inform us of the appearance, smell, feel, and taste of ramps and mushrooms, for instance; but he does, at times, describe nature as he experienced it. And when he does his writing can be captivating, as in this paragraph:

“The highlight came atop Middle Carter Mountain in the early afternoon. It was as I looked back towards Washington and the other Presidentials across a vast landscape of rolling hills and smaller mountain peaks that I was greeted by a beautifully unique sight. A thick blanket of clouds washed over dozens of other mountains and hills, spurred on by the fierce winds. The surface of the sea of clouds was completely smooth as it rushed over the mountains, surging down and then rushing back up as it engulfed one mountain after another. The most amazing aspect was watching it play out below me as it quickly came my way. I would have sat up there and watched it longer if the winds hadn’t been so strong.”

Lost on the Appalachian Trail is a well-written work, one that deserves to be kept in print—despite the fact that it is missing both title and copyright pages. More important, it is, at times, a profound work, one that deserves to be read.

27: Painted Blazes, by Jeffrey “Loner” Gray.

If you are planning your thru-hike and looking for information on towns—suggested places to board, eat, or shop—but are also looking for a hiker’s memoir, then perhaps Painted Blazes: Hiking the Appalachian Trail with Loner (2017) is the book for you. If you are only interested in a hiking memoir, then you may be disappointed with this book, for Jeffrey Gray offers his readers an abbreviated memoir, interspersed throughout with historical information, practical information and informed advice, impractical information or “fun facts,” and the occasional rant.

Gray, who successfully thru-hiked the AT northwards for five-and-a-half months in 2012, does not give his readers a day-by-day account, but offers sectional highlights of his journey. As much as half of his highlights are off the trail, in towns. It may be frustrating to the reader to find that Gray devotes as much space to his experience on Mount Moosilauke as to his following experience with “Magic Fingers Relaxation Service” in a motel in North Woodstock. But Gray appears to be mainly interested in providing his readers with a hiker’s manual for use in towns.

Although I would have preferred that Gray devoted much more space to his experience on the AT, my main criticism is that his book lacks continuity. It doesn’t flow smoothly, but jumps from one subject to another and from one genre to another without any attempt to establish an evolving narrative or consistency in his approach. A paragraph of memoir could, at any time, be followed by a paragraph of historical information or bullet points providing advice. Since there is little or no continuity, the book is easy to put down.

28: Walk with You, by Spencer “Warpzilla” McKay.

McKay’s Walk with You (2018) traces his and his friend’s fast-paced 94-day northbound thru-hike of 2007, which they undertook to honor their deceased friend. Because McKay had to consistently hike 20 to 30 miles every day, his journey does not take on the aspect of a predominantly social affair, and yet McKay gives disproportionate attention to his social encounters. McKay spent little time in towns, and yet it seems that every moment in town is described in detail. “A changing environment,” he says, “helped propel us through seemingly tedious and trite portions of trail.” This, perhaps, explains why the trail itself receives so little attention by McKay. It is only when the tedium of the hike is broken up by social encounters and changes in environment that the experience becomes memorable and sufficiently interesting to be related.

Although I would have liked the trail itself to have appeared more prominently in his book, McKay writes with an engaging style, and his adventure never becomes either tedious or trite.

29: Sole Searching on the Appalachian Trail, by Sam “Sam I Am” Ducharme.

Sole Searching on the Appalachian Trail (2018) is Ducharme’s account of his 2015 AT northbound thru-hike. Having just retired from Connecticut’s Department of Corrections, having sent his two sons off to the Air Force, and having just lost his canine companion, Ducharme, at age 49, suddenly finds himself free of responsibilities and decides, in February, to begin hiking the AT in the following month.

Having worked for many years in the prison system, Ducharme naturally learned to be wary of people, but along his thru-hike, he encounters many people whose only ostensible motive is to be genuinely helpful. Gradually, Ducharme finds the layers of distrust fall to the side. Thus, the title to this book might aptly be Soul Searching on the AT, although the author may have wanted to avoid the directly spiritual suggestiveness of such a title. And, indeed, Ducharme does not write pointedly of spiritual things, even though his memoir is, in part, a story of spiritual renewal.

Ducharme has a highly engaging persona and style, and his account avoids, to a remarkable extent, being redundant or tedious. His adventure becomes the reader’s, and it is easy to empathize with him when he sustains an injury:

“The knee pain hadn’t let up and the ibuprofen wasn’t touching it. Not only was the brace ineffective, it was causing terrible abrasions all the way around my knee. . . . I was panicking, feeling my journey was nearing its end, and I was angry. I wasn’t angry at anyone or anything. I was angry because I was really enjoying the experience, the people and the trail. I really loved the excitement of discovering what was on the other side of the mountain, and around the bend and at the next town. Somewhere along the trail I went from not caring how far I got to only quitting if I sustained an injury. Now, having one, I was having a hard time accepting it. I was angry.”

Fortunately, Ducharme’s injury did not prove so serious as to end his hike.

Although Ducharme tended to avoid shelters, he nevertheless makes a few good friends along way, and his journey does not want for a social dimension. Even so, he does not fill his memoir with dialogue and social interactivity. It remains, throughout, his account of his personal experience, of his inward thoughts and feelings, as well as of his outward activity.

30: Walking to Maine, by Glenn Justis.

Walking to Maine: A Scoutmaster’s Journey on the Appalachian Trail (2018) is a detailed account of Justis’s 2018 northbound thru-hike of 145 days, beginning on January 30. Justis relates that he was inspired to hike the AT by reading Paul Stutzman’s Hiking Through (2012) and—in preparation for a Scout hiking trip in the Grand Canyon—by viewing YouTube videos by AT hikers on lightweight hiking gear.

This book is, more clearly than most thru-hiking memoirs, a reproduction of the author’s journal entries. Given the fact that the book was prepared during the same year that Justis completed his thru-hike, perhaps this is to be expected. But since his memories were still fresh, I had hoped for greater elaboration and more reflection from him.

Justis’s writing style does not generally lend itself to quotation. He writes predominantly in simple sentences and moves rapidly from one idea to another. Even so, as a section-hiker myself, this passage caught my attention:

“When I met and spoke with section hikers, I could see in them the person I was before starting the trail. They loved hiking and they loved all that the trail had to offer, but they felt trapped in their day to day lives. . . . They asked me how I was able to do it and convince my wife. I told them everything changed when I stopped telling myself all the reasons I could not do it now and I started asking myself how I could do it now.”

The author of this passage had a supportive wife whom he had no need to convince. His job as a Criminal Prosecutor, along with his wife’s job as a Registered Nurse, gave them the means for Justis to take a five-month hiatus from work. He was fired before he left, but this only pushed him to do, after his hike, what he had, indeed, wanted to do—to set up a private practice. I mention these facts so that readers may determine, for themselves, the height of the hurdles over which Justis had to jump in order to become a thru-hiker.

Walking to Maine is certainly not one of my favorite thru-hiking memoirs, but neither is it my least favorite. I find Justis’s persona as a writer to be agreeable, but I wonder what Justis had hoped to accomplish, or whether he intended in any way for his memoir to fill a gap in the literature already available. If he simply desired a print version of his journal so that he could distribute it to friends and family, then I suppose he was successful.

31: Free Outside, by Jeff Garmire.

Garmire’s memoir, Free Outside: A Trek against Time and Distance (2019), recounts his 2016 successful attempt to hike the Triple Crown (AT, PCT, and CDT) in one calendar year. In fact, he accomplished this is 252 days. This is not only an exceptional athletic feat; it is, perhaps even more so, a feat of mental and emotional fortitude.

What I am most concerned with here, in this review, is the first section of the book, on the Appalachian Trail (pp. 5-79). Interestingly, given Garmire’s time constraints, he began with the Approach Trail at Amicalola Falls State Park. Because of his time constraints, he began his hike in February, with snow on the ground at Springer Mountain in Georgia, and ended his thru-hike of the AT in April, with snow on the ground at Mount Katahdin in Maine. In fact, almost throughout his hike on the AT, Garmire had to deal with winter conditions. This sometimes involved navigating a snow covered trail and often involved dealing with freezing extremities.

Because Garmire began weeks and months before most AT thru-hikers begin their journey, his trip was especially solitary. The only notable exception to this is his meeting up with Mary Moynihan, the Triple Crown author of Married to the Trail (2016), in New York. Moynihan, in her own attempt to re-hike the Triple Crown, this time in a calendar year, had begun the AT in January. Garmire and Moynihan appear to have hiked together up into Vermont, before Garmire set out ahead.

This memoir is painted in broad strokes. By focusing on a couple of morning routines, we get a sense of Garmire’s mornings generally, but we are spared the day-by-day details. Garmire moves fast, and this is a fast moving narrative. But, when he slows down to focus on a particular event, it is because it stands out and deserves narration. For instance, when—in Maine—Garmire comes to the Kennebec River and finds that the canoe service is not yet operational, he decides to ford it, at great risk to his life. The narrative is thrilling and cannot be done justice by a single quote.

This book does not present a typical thru-hike of the AT. The pain, suffering, and solitude of Garmire on the AT would not, typically, inspire a thru-hike. The pages dealing with the AT have to be read in the broader context of the trek against time and distance.

My chief criticism is the near absence of dates and time references in this narrative. For instance, I can only surmise that his AT adventure came to an end in April by clues given in the next section of the book, on the PCT.  Since Garmire does not provide a day-by-day account, he could aid the reader in understanding the passage of time by providing some sort of time frame, even general references, such as “early February,” “late April,” etc.

32: Flip Flop on the Appalachian Trail, by Meribeth Crandell.

Like Leslie Mass, Meribeth Crandell details a flip-flop hike of the AT; that is, after proceeding in one direction for part of the way, she removes herself from the trail in order to begin again at a different location, proceeding in the opposite direction. As with any other thru-hike, the object is to hike the entire trail within one calendar year. Crandell is successful in her thru-hike. Beginning at Springer Mountain, she hike to Shenandoah National Park, picks up her northbound hike again at Harper’s Ferry, and continues as far as Stormville, NY. There, she parts company from the trail for awhile, only to pick it back up again in Maine. After climbing Katahdin, she commences her southbound hike, covering the remainder of the trail, including the miles missed in West Virginia and Virginia. Flip Flop on the Appalachian Trail (2018) is an account of Crandell’s 2006 eight-month adventure.

Crandell is profuse in her writing. Her memory catches everything that transpires, especially if it is social, and her northbound hike is particularly social. I often found myself wishing that she related less of what occurred at the stopping points and more of what occurred during the hike itself. For instance, “The next twenty-five mile day brought us into Palmerton, Pennsylvania,” and then she proceeds to tell of herself and companions at Palmerton. I would have liked to have known something of that twenty-five mile hike. Fortunately, this is not a consistent habit of hers. Two pages later, she surprises me with this paragraph:

“The next twenty mile day brought us to the Delaware Water Gap, a place of significant beauty and history. Though this day was much like the last, with morning showers and miles of bouldering and dancing on pointy rocks, I enjoyed the walk up Mount Minsi where I paused to look north across the river. A mountain stood out like a tall, lopsided layer cake with streams of broken rock spiraling up its sides. As I looked at it in the distance and admired its majestic beauty, I thought, ‘They’re going to make us climb that one, too.'”

Crandell concludes her memoir with this thought: “Though it’s been years since I walked the Appalachian Trail, there are things that it taught me: the difference between want and need; that it’s best to travel light; the value of fine companions; and of good health.”

33: The Unlikely Thru-Hiker, by Derick Lugo.

Lugo (a.k.a. “Mr. Fabulous”), a metrosexual comedian of New York City, who had never before hiked or camped, began his northbound thru-hike at Amicalola Falls Visitor Center, on March 19, 2012, and 183 days later, on September 17, summitted Mount Katahdin. The Unlikely Thru-Hiker: An Appalachian Trail Journey (2019) is the well-told, engaging story of Lugo’s beginning, ending, and selectively of many of the events in between.

Much more than most autobiographers, Lugo is tuned in to his feelings and interior dialogue, and he unabashedly shares these with his readers. What most impresses this reader is how Lugo maintains an overwhelmingly positive attitude, making use of a good sense of humor, throughout his adventure. He explains,

“Just before I began my thru-hike in March, I decided a positive approach would serve me well during my quest into the unknown. I figured my mind would be my biggest strength out here, and if times looked bleak or a bit unbearable, I could use some sort of mantra to lead me out of it—some feel-good message I could follow and share with others. Peace, Love & All That Good Stuff is what I came up with. . . . It’s how I approach each and every day out here. With that attitude, I’ve enjoyed and embraced—or at least accepted—just about everything this unpredictable trail has thrown my way.”

Most of Lugo’s memoir is an illustration or demonstration of the truth of this statement.

As a writer, once Lugo reaches the half-way point of his trek, he far more selectively chooses what he wishes to relate, and the story becomes notably abbreviated. After relating his experience with the “half-gallon challenge,” Lugo seems to rush onward to his conclusion. I make this observation not to be critical, for I suspected that Lugo had said, by that point, nearly everything that needed to be said. The author avoids being redundant or boring.

Lugo is quite fortunate in his publisher. The Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) is not, typically, a publisher of memoirs. The book is very polished and well editied. It was a pleasure to read.

34: Whistler’s Walk, by William Monk.

Enlarging upon his trailjournal.com notes, Monk has provided, in Whistler’s Walk: The Appalachian Trail in 142 Days (2018), an engaging retrospect upon his northbound thru-hike of 2017. Retired and in his upper fifties, and having the full support of his wife, Monk says, “I found myself ready to take on one of my lifelong goals.”

Whistler’s Walk is arranged into brief day-by-day entries that cover Monk’s morning ritual, the peculiar challenges of that day, reflection upon the trail angels and other persons he meets during that day, as well as upon the places he visited, and some notice also regarding his meals. One might expect 142 entries of this sort to become routine and repetitive, but Monk adds his good sense of humor and positive outlook to make each entry unique. He also adds a number of his short poems that complement his entries.

Reflecting upon his summit views and upon some of the more than 700 photos he took along the way, Monk has this to say:

“It’s difficult to begin to describe in words the spectacular views I saw from some of the highest peaks along the Appalachian Trail. It’s equally as difficult to get an accurate and true perspective from photos I took, as they simply serve as nothing more than an injustice to the enormity and awe-inspiring beauty. . . . The photos were great, but the burning impressions on my brain will always be there, and I’ll never forget them. And every time I think of them, I’ll simply say to myself, wow!”

This memoir is also a testimony to the bond of friendship that developed between “Whistler” and “Scooby,” his hiking companion for much of the way. Knowing how difficult it is to find and keep congenial and similarly paced company on a long-distance hike, it is a pleasure to observe how this friendship blooms.

35: Old Lady on the Trail, by Mary E. Davison.

First, we might note that, in Davison’s perspective, “There was nothing pejorative about being old. In fact, when I spoke about being an old lady, I was bragging. . . . I call myself an old lady. I say it realistically, with joy and laughter—bragging.” In fact, if Davison’s title, Old Lady on the Trail, is a brag, so is her subtitle, Triple Crown at 76. Most trail memoirs are boastful, and rightly so.

Fortunately for us, Davison took good and thorough notes of her section hikes on the PCT, AT, and CDT. In this review, though, we are concerned primarily with her telling of her experiences on the AT. The first half of her book, published in 2018, looks back to her beginning the AT at Springer Mountain in 2004, her hiking the AT during the same years that she hiked the PCT, and her completion of the AT in 2011.

We might note Davison’s attention to detail on the trail—particularly, her descriptions of animals and plants, and her delight in flowers. We might note her identification of friends and trail angels, and her evident gratitude for companionship and the gifts that she receives. But, I am most impressed with her delight in the trail itself, despite its many challenges and uncooperative weather.

In the context of her experiences in the 100 Mile Wilderness, Davison has this to say:

“The trail is not for everyone. It is work. It is sometimes annoying, frustrating, and hard, with challenges you may not have anticipated or for which you were not prepared. But there is so much to enjoy. Yes, there are roots and rocks. It’s the AT. What else would you expect? There was also bear and moose poop to marvel at, frogs and toads, trees, a few flowers, berries on bushes, streams and waterfalls, other hikers to talk to, occasionally a few feet of level, smooth trail and lakes and more lakes.”

What stands out here and everywhere in this memoir is Davison’s attitude—her ability to take in stride what challenges nature throws her way, her joy in what nature offers, and her resolute determination to complete what she begins: “More than brute strength, physical prowess, or gear, the deciding factor of success for me on multiple section hikes was mental strength and wanting to finish what I’d started. . . . I wanted to hike the AT. So I did.”

Although Davison found so much on the AT to like, it was not her favorite trail of the three. She explains, “I am a western girl and an old lady, partial to trails one can walk without having to use hands as well as feet scrambling over rocks.” Also, Davison prefers “western trails to the AT for the wide-open spaces and grand views.”

Overall, I highly recommend this memoir to all backpackers. Davison had me, as a backpacker, questioning myself. Had I become too soft by city living? Was I too quick to find fault with the environment and weather? Were my eyes opened to appreciate all that the trail has to offer? Did I have the mental strength to match an old lady of 76?

36: I Quit My Job and Hiked the Appalachian Trail, by Michael Falduto.

Falduto’s northbound thru-hike, lasting five months, beginning in March 2016, is recounted in daily entries in his memoir I Quit My Job and Hiked the Appalachian Trail (2019). Falduto’s book is a well-edited revision of his blog entries, published concurrently with his hike.

My initial impression of Falduto’s memoir was not positive. The author seemed to have the mindset of a young man in his mid-twenties on Spring Break, out to party hardy with friends. I doubted whether the author was enjoying the hiking experience for its own merits. Much of his memoir has to do with his social experience, and much of his social experience revolves around what he terms “brew-blazing” or tailoring his schedule “to cater to towns that contain breweries. . . . It could also refer to hiking while consuming beer.” While in northern Virginia, he attempts a “24 challenge,” requiring that he “drink 24 beers and hike 24 miles within a 24 hour time period.” Falduto even admits to spending just under $1,000 on beer while hiking the A.T.

If this seems to depict an immature author out for a 2,000 mile-long party, there are several entries that would seem to contradict this impression, clearly showing that Falduto is neither beneath solemn reflection nor insensitive to the beauties of his natural surroundings. For example, while in Maine, Falduto takes a break on a cliff overlooking the gorge south of Whitecap Mountain. There, he says,

“I found myself thinking of all the things I’m going to miss about this hike. Eating lunch of a cliff, on a summit or on the banks of a river literally everyday is right there at the top of the list. . . . Sleeping outside is far and away what I will miss most of all. . . . I don’t set alarms out here or worry about time—the sun, the moon and the sounds of the birds govern my days. I’ll miss the freedom and the simplicity of life in the backcountry.”

After having completed his long-distance trek, Falduto reflects, “Nature and the AT alone would’ve provided for an incredible trip, but it’s the people that throw it into overdrive.” This appreciation for, on the one hand, the AT and its natural setting, and on the other hand, the social experience, is what Falduto refers to in his book as “balance.” Perhaps he is right. Still, the direction that his social experience takes makes this reviewer strongly doubt that Falduto’s balance is the same thing as a mature equilibrium.