When walking on a public trail through the woods, have you ever stopped to wonder about how that trail got there in the first place? Who mapped out the trail? Who built it? Who keeps it clear of brush and fallen trees?
Jeffrey Ryan, a hiking enthusiast and author from Portland, asks himself these questions all the time, and it’s that unrelenting curiosity that led him to write “Blazing Ahead: Benton MacKaye, Myron Avery, and the Rivalry That Built the Appalachian Trail,” published in September by the Appalachian Mountain Club.
“I’ve always had a very keen appreciation, as I walk, for the people who make the trail possibile, who make it better, who build water bars and shore up the lean-to roofs,” Ryan said in a recent phone interview.
Through in-depth research, Ryan learned that the famous Appalachian Trail, a 2,190-mile footpath stretching from Georgia to Maine, would never have come into existence if it hadn’t been for two men: “The Dreamer,” Benton MacKaye, who had the vision and purpose to conceive of the trail, and “The Doer,” Myron Avery, whose persistence and enthusiasm got it built. The 261-page book, sprinkled with black-and-white photographs, is the story of these two men.
“It’s a lovely combination of somebody with the vision and somebody with the chutzpah to roll up their sleeves and do it,” said Ryan, who has recently been traveling the country in his 1985 van, giving presentations about the new book.
He thought that once he drove west, leaving “the shadow of the Appalachians,” people’s interest in the book would taper off, but that hasn’t been the case.
“What I’ve actually found is everyone has some connection with the AT — either they’ve always wanted to do it, or they know someone who’s done it,” Ryan said.
For December, Ryan has returned to Maine and will be speaking at the Thomas Memorial Library from 6:30 to 8 p.m. on Dec. 14 in Cape Elizabeth.
This is Ryan’s second published book. His first, “Appalachian Odyssey: A 28-year-hike on America’s Trail,” (Down East Books, July of 2016) is a travelogue of his experience on the Appalachian Trail while hiking it with a friend in sections over the course of nearly three decades. It was that journey that fueled his particular interest in the history of the AT.
Combing through letters, journals and past publications, Ryan dug up all he could about Benton MacKaye and Myron Avery, including details about their childhoods, school experiences, family life, friendships, feuds and career moves, painting a picture of two very different people. But they had a few things in common. They both loved the outdoors, hiking and the Appalachian Mountain Range.
In 1921, MacKaye published his concept of the long-distance footpath in the article “An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning,” which appeared in the Journal of American Institute of Architects. At the time, his vision was for the trail to span from Georgia to New Hampshire, ending atop Mount Washington. But MacKaye was more of a thinker than a doer. He came up with many grand plans in his life, many revolving around community planning, that never came to fruition.
“If left to his own devices, he would have probably sat in Shirley (Massachusetts) and pumped out these great ideas and nothing ever would have gotten done,” Ryan said. “It was all the people who stepped in, Arthur Comey, Judge Perkins, everybody nudged the thing along until Myron (Avery) got his paws on it.”
Born in the coastal Maine town of Lubec, Avery has his own fascinating story, which includes graduating from Bowdoin College and Harvard Law School, and developing an obsession with the research and exploration of Maine mountains, especially Katahdin. But he could be tough to deal with, especially when pushing to have his research published. In letters to various publishers, including the Appalachian Mountain Club, his often abrasive personality shines through, especially when he’s being told “no.” Yet without his determination, the AT may have not been completed, and even if it had, it very likely would not have extended into Maine.
“I, like a lot of people who read what he wrote, was actually kind of put off by it, but I came to realize that without his hard drive and personality, the thing may never have gotten built. It may have just been lost to the ages,” Ryan said.
Avery lobbied hard for the AT to end atop Katahdin, Maine’s tallest mountain, rather than Mount Washington. Then, quite simply, he built it.
“[Avery] just pushed forward and got it done with Walter Green,” Ryan said. “He sidestepped protocol and realized this is never going to happen if we wait for enough people to catch up with the trail idea.”
As Ryan continued to dig into the lives of the two men, he realized their paths rarely crossed. Though they shared the same dream, MacKaye and Avery didn’t actually communicate very often, and when they did, they didn’t necessarily get along.
“I’m really interested in that dynamic,” Ryan said. “And I think it’s just as applicable today in any project as it was back then. In a startup company, it’s the dreamer that comes up with the start up idea, but there certainly needs to be somebody to execute the plan.”
In the end, despite their differences in opinions and philosophies, MacKaye and Avery — along with many other conservationists and hiking enthusiasts working with them — created a legacy, the Appalachian Trail.
The signed and dedicated copies of the book are available for $18.95 at jeffryanauthor.com.
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