Birch’s Reviews, Page 2

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.”

27: 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.

28: 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.

29: 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.

30: 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.

31: 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.