— Benton Mackaye, planner and creator of the Appalachian Trail
EAST MACHIAS, Maine — He was less than a mile from having hiked the entire Appalachian Trail, but when it came time Saturday to finish the final ascent of Mount Katahdin, 8-year-old Asher Molyneaux turned back without regret.
“The wind was knocking me right over. It had gotten up under my shirt, under my raincoat, onto my bare back. It had my jacket like a sail. We pretty much couldn’t get all the way to the top,” Asher said Sunday.
If anything shows how much Asher loved and learned from his exploration of Mackaye’s 2,175-mile Barbarian utopia, how tough the lad could be, it was his sober assessment that ending his quest was better than risking anyone’s safety, said his father, 52-year-old Paul Molyneaux.
“What’s cool is that he made the call, and he is not at all disappointed,” Molyneaux said. “We took off four days one time because he had a fever. Then 10 days because he was really getting underweight — but he never wanted to leave the trail.”
“Sometimes I would say, ‘Look, you start getting out of bed in the morning or we’re going home,’” he added. “Anything but that! That was the worst thing I could threaten him with.”
Under the trail name of “Venado,” which is Spanish for deer, Asher and his father started from Harper’s Ferry, W.Va., on March 9 to hike the trail in three installments: from Harper’s Ferry to Bennington, Vt.; Springer Mountain, Ga., to Harper’s Ferry; and Bennington to Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park, just north of Mil-linocket. Eleven-year-old Oona Molyneaux joined her brother and father for part of the trip.
Asher is one of the youngest Mainers to complete the trail in a season.
With his father acting as teacher and guide, the journey was for both Molyneauxs an immersion in geography, biology, geology, human relations and history, from which the home-schooled hiker aimed to learn one of life’s greatest lessons — how much anyone can accomplish with steady, patient effort, Molyneaux said.
“My son is just a regular 8-year-old kid,” he said. “You don’t have to be anything special to hike this trail. There are a lot of kids who could do something like this, boys and girls who would do something like this, if they had the opportunity.”
The Mackaye quote was among their inspirations, said Molyneaux, a world-traveling writer and former commercial fisherman who has published two books, “The Doryman’s Reflection” and “Swimming in Circles,” which combine anecdotes and science as they examine the market forces of the seafood industry.
Molyneaux plans to write about the journey, though the trip was his son’s idea.
“He said, ‘Can we do that, can we do that?’ and I thought to myself, ‘What would I give to have been an 8-year-old and have someone say yes to a question like that,’” Molyneaux recalled.
Molyneaux’s Facebook account on their hike, The Barbarian Utopia, drew 371 people as of Sunday who said they liked the page.
“This has been so exciting for me to follow you on your journey. Congratulations to you Venado and your family. You have many supporters who admire you all. I would love to be able to join you,” one wrote.
The hike was often grueling. Besides carrying a 12- to 19-pound pack, Asher endured exposure to all forms of raw weather; calluses on his feet; the grinding monotony of the same hiker’s foods, day after day; mountainous trails; and the fording of roaring rivers.
“There’s nothing bad about calluses. I wanted calluses. They make my feet harder, and then I can walk around barefoot,” Asher said.
Asher wasn’t a perfect travel companion. At night, he was supposed to pitch the tent and cook dinner. In the morning, he had to get up fast and pack his bag quickly. Getting up fast was never easy, he said.
“Only when we are doing a really big day do I do it,” Asher said. “Most of the times, I don’t, usually because it’s cold. One morning I woke up with frost on my pants.”
His father, who organized and led the Molyneaux Expedition while carrying almost twice the weight Asher handled — including all the food — only occasionally used profound verbal exhortation to speed up his son’s leisurely morning pace.
Molyneaux, Asher said, “was learning a lot about patience.”
Tears came to the boy’s eyes just once, Molyneaux said, when they had to walk through some icy waters of the West Pleasant River.
“Yeah, he cried,” Molyneaux said, “but so did I. It was cold, man. When we forded that river, we did it really early in the morning, and we were like, ‘What just happened to our feet?’”
Molyneaux said he found surprising reserves of mental agility, courage and prowess in his son. Asher was good at finding crossing points at rivers and bounded over them without fear. He asked thousands of questions about the nature and history of the trail, and would often proudly refer to being one of Mackaye’s Barbarians.
“That Barbarian utopia quote is awesome,” Molyneaux said. “He [Mackaye] meant people who understood natural systems and used that knowledge to help create the world we live in. That was really important to us.”
They also shared moments they will always remember, like the time they both staggered into a trail restaurant and each downed one-pound hamburgers.
Molyneaux marveled at how his son grew legs so strong that they look adult, even if “his upper body is Gandhi-like.”
Molyneaux recalled that pride and the ticklish challenge to his own strength a father feels when a son begins to dare him on the father’s terms, that glimpse Asher gave him of the kind of man the boy is becoming.
The two were ascending a small mountain in New York’s Harriman State Park when Molyneaux suggested they take the easier of two trails.
“I said, ‘Let’s go straight,’” Molyneaux said. “He said, ‘Hey, we’re through hikers. We don’t do the easier trails,’ and I said, ‘Oh. Great.’”