A CHILD’S WALK IN THE WILDERNESS by Paul Molyneaux, February 2013, Stackpole Books, 224 pages, paperback, $19.95.
A few hundred headstrong hikers complete the Appalachian Trail each year, and most end their journey at Millinocket to sign to a ceiling tile at the Appalachian Trail Cafe, as is tradition. It was no different for 8-year-old Asher Molyneaux of East Machias, who in 2010 became the second youngest hiker to walk the entire 2,200-mile footpath from Georgia to Maine. His family looked on proudly as he scrawled his name on a tile, and people read about his trek in newspapers statewide.
Now 10 years old, Asher retains vivid memories of his experiences on the trail. In fact, he and his father, Paul Molyneaux, can recite about 200 shelters they stayed at during the 7-month trek, in order. The AT was indeed a grand adventure, but the boy has a hard time coming up with stories about the trail to tell his curious friends.
“I go into the woods here at home anyway,” said Asher during a recent interview. “Out there [on the AT], that was just farther away from anything. I had a lot more time to ask my dad more questions, so it was quite educational for that reason, because I could ask so much at that time. I just ask whatever I think about.”
That’s what Asher’s about: asking questions, observing the present, forging ahead.
His father and hiking companion, on the other hand, is an author — a professional storyteller. After the 2010 thru-hike, Molyneaux sat down to tell the story for the both of them in “A Child’s Walk in the Wilderness,” which will be released to bookstores in February.
“It’s more than just an A-to-B story,” Molyneaux said. “It’s about the philosophy behind the trail, homeschooling. It’s about saving your marriage. I tell [people] that there’s a lot to it. And the people I’m hearing from, I’m hearing better reactions to this book than anything I’ve written so far.”
Thru-hike books are common, especially in an era when self-publishing is simple and relatively cheap. But unlike many trail-derived tales, Molyneaux’s book reads like a story, not a journal. A skilled nonfiction writer, Molyneaux brings the Appalachian terrain to life through natural and cultural history. And the conversations he has with his son help the readers see the forest, mountains, wildlife and trail community through a child’s eyes.
Prior to hiking the trail with his son, Molyneaux authored “The Doryman’s Reflection” (2005) and “Swimming in Circles” (2007), and worked as a freelance journalist, writing for publications such as the New York Times and Yankee magazine.
He and his wife, Regina Grabrovac, live primarily in Maine, with a second home in Mexico. Their children, Asher and his older sister, Oona, are homeschooled.
Molyneaux was educating Asher about the AT one day when Asher asked a question his father would have never anticipated: “Can we do that?”
“When Asher asked, I remember I was so astounded that he would even imagine it,” Molyneaux said. “Then, there was a part of me that thought, ‘What would I have given at his age to have asked that question and have the answer be yes? What would I have given to have the opportunity?’ And I would have given a lot.”
But it wasn’t just his desire to indulge in his son’s wishes that caused him to drop everything and take a leap of faith into the wilderness. Molyneaux, a seasoned outdoorsman, felt it was the right time for a number of reasons.
“I would say we needed it. You know? We needed it. And it was really effective. I think it really did a lot for our family,” he said.
“At the point at which Paul and Asher were considering the trail, Paul and I were feeling very fractured and fragile, and it was a difficult time,” Grabrovac said. “And when he left, I know it was an important thing for both of them to do. I knew it was a wonderful opportunity for Asher, and I knew Paul needed to do it. But I was very scared what it was going to mean.”
Grabrovac provided funds, shipped supplies and kept things running at home. And both she and their daughter tread some serious miles on the trail when the going got rough for the father-son duo. At times, it was Grabovac who filled in for her husband. At other times, Oona hiked with her dad and brother.
The father-son team was also supported from people they met along the way — the man who gave them a ride and handed them $20 before they left his truck, the pizza parlor that allowed them to wash their socks in the sink, the “trail angels” who invited them to their dinner tables.
“It’s interesting how it’s like a whole different society that I don’t think a lot of people would understand because of names and language and terms that you use,” Asher said. “There isn’t really any way to explain the society that we have on the trail.”
On the AT, it’s a thru-hiker tradition to adopt a trail name. In fact, most thru-hikers don’t know each other’s actual name, though they may hike hundreds of miles with each other, sharing their meals and dreams. Asher chose his trail name, “Venado,” Spanish for “deer”; while Molyneaux chose “Tecolote,” Mexican Spanish for “owl.” Later, he learned that the word also is slang for “guard,” which seemed even more fitting for a father leading his son through the wilderness.
“We had to have a lot of faith to go through what we did and stay connected,” Grabrovac said. “But I think the space gave us a chance to figure things out. And I think, what I hear from Paul a lot, is being on the trail just simplified everything for him — what was important — and our family was the most important thing. And then we just started very slowly coming back together.”
Asher hasn’t just read his father’s new book, he helped edit it, catching at least 30 errors, he said. And his trail sketches are located throughout the pages, to help readers see the wilderness through his sharp eyes, which often spotted things his hiking companions missed, including 25 black bears.
“Most kids would love to have that chance to see that bear in their natural habitat, but they just don’t have the chance,” Asher pointed out.
Along that vein, Asher offered some insight for adults: “A kid that wants to go out there — he or she obviously needs the experience of being out there. Obviously that’s what he or she needs.”
Moving forward, the family is planning on hiking on both the Benton MacKaye Trail, which runs nearly 300 miles through the Appalachian mountains, and The Long Trail, which runs more than 270 miles through Vermont. They’re also in the process of building a log cabin behind their home in East Machias. The family project, in which all four are involved, will be a space to escape technology and enjoy simple living, akin to their time on the trail.
The interview was conducted over Internet video, Regina Grabrovac and Asher at the family’s home in East Machias, and Paul Molyneaux at the family’s second home in Mexico.