Thursday, July 16, 2015

Tackling the Appalachian Trail

Charlotte Canelli is the library director of the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, Massachusetts. Read Charlotte's column in the July 16, 2015 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.

 This past weekend, an ultra-marathoner (41-year old Scott Jurek of Boulder, Colorado) finished “hiking” all 2,189 miles of the Appalachian Trail. His journey ended at Mount Katahdin in Baxter, State Park, Maine. Katahdin.

What makes his hike unusual is the fact that he finished in the fastest time ever – 46 days, 8 hours, and 8 minutes. He averaged 50 miles per day, beginning on Springer Mountain in Georgia on a day in mid-spring, May 27. Katahdin means “the greatest mountain” and the hike ends in Maine in what is called the One Hundred Mile Wilderness.

 I once fancied hiking the Appalachian Trail – an entirely unrealistic journey for me. It was fun dreaming, though, and I took books out of the library and briefly charted a course until I remembered that I didn’t really like to hike.

 What strikes me about Scott Jurek’s journey, of course, is that it is very unlike most of the experiences on The Trail. Some hikers take it one segment at a time, perhaps one journey a year or maybe two. Others begin and never end. It’s estimated that 2-3 million people hike a portion of the AT each year. But, in fact, one-quarter of those who seriously attempt the entire hike make it to the end.

 Ultra-marathoner Jurek has beaten many other impressive race records – many times. Running the Appalachian Trail, however, is most assuredly his longest “shortest” record. However, it’s hard for me to believe that Jurek enjoyed the journey as much as he lusted after the prize – that of being a short-lived record-breaker. Let’s face it; someone else is bound to best (or attempt to beat) his record in short order. More importantly, though, it just doesn’t make much sense to me to race the trail with most of the 2,000 plus miles along lovely scenic routes full of flora and fauna.

Perhaps I’ve na├»ve (and a dreamer) but doesn’t running the trail as a race against time contradictory to being one with nature?

 In her book, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed details her 1995 1,100-mile hike which began in the Mojave Desert. 94 days later, she completed her journey after crossing the Bridge of Gods, which spans the Cascade Locks between Oregon and Washington. The most important aspect of Strayed’s journey was not that she bested a record or even completed every mile.

The PC Trail is actually longer than the AT by over 500 miles. It begins at the border of the California and Mexico and ends at the border of Washington and Canada. Strayed’s personal and compelling accomplishment was in every step of her sometimes slow, sometimes painful struggle along the trail. Along the way, she came to grips with her failures and the grief of losing her mother when she was in her early 20s. Perhaps once of her greatest achievements was the bestselling book (made into the movie starring Reese Witherspoon) which was published 17 years after she completed her hike.

 There are many other personal stories written about hiking the Appalachian Trail. In April 2012, I wrote a column about the Six Mountain Marching Mamas, who hiked portions of the trail beginning in the 1970s until they had walked all five million steps of it forty years later. Charme Burns, one of those Mamas, wrote about their journeys in It’s Always Up. Charme Burns came to our library and described her journey early in 2012, just weeks before Cheryl Strayed’s book Wild was published and captured the American public’s fancy. (That From the Library column, “Charmed by the Hike,” can be read in the library in spiral-bound versions of our columns which are cataloged by year beginning in 2009.)

 My fascination with the Appalachian Trail led me to a recently published book of fiction written by Paul Doiron. What’s unusual about that is that (1) I don’t read much fiction, and (2) I’ve confessed that I’m not very motivated to hike. Reading the review of Doiron’s latest crime novel, I was compelled to read it as soon as the book was published last month. Doiron has written six novels featuring his fictional character, Maine game warden Mike Bowditch.

In The Precipice Bowditch follows the path of a murderer deep within the One-Hundred Mile Wilderness. Two young female hikers have disappeared and Maine wildlife officials team up to find them. It’s a riveting novel full of descriptions of both the backwoods residents of Maine and the trailheads, scenery, and wildlife along the end of the Appalachian Trail. Of course, there’s much more to the story including the feisty romance between Mike and biologist Stacey Stevens, the desperation of the Evangelical parents of the two missing college students, and the recent spate of coyote attacks along the trails of Maine. There are bits of Maine history, some family lore, and plenty of familiar landmarks.

 I was immediately drawn to Doiron’s five other books which begin with The Poacher’s Son (2010). In the introduction to that book, I learned that Maine was home to several of the prisoners of war camps where the United States government housed German and Italian prisoners during World War II. I was astounded to learn that not only were four of the camps in Maine, but all but a few states in our country had camps. Over 425,000 European prisoners came to American soil on empty ships returning across the Atlantic. Once processed, the prisoners were spread across the country from California to the woods of Maine (although most were housed in complexes in temperate climates in southern and western states.)

 In the Poacher’s Son, Bowditch not only attempts to solve a double-murder, but he battles his past in the backwoods culture and beautiful wilderness of Maine. Paul Doiron’s Mike Bowditch includes four other books before his last: Trespasser (2011), Bad Little Falls (2012), Massacre Pond (2013), and Bone Orchard (2014). Minuteman libraries have copies of the books in many formats, including large print and audio. While our library does not have Doiron’s book in every format, each can easily be requested online or by calling our library, 781-769-0200.