This Thursday, I had a fun encounter. I met author Jeffery Ryan at a coffee house in North Conway and talked about his new book published by Appalachian Mountain Club Books, “Blazing Ahead: Benton Mackay, Myron Avery and the Rivalry that Built the Appalachian Trail.”
A lifelong Mainer, Ryan had come to town in his 1985 Volkswagen bus, which had faithfully carried him on a months-long book tour out west.
We settled in for a chat. I had recently finished his book, and felt that sometimes you learn things about history that you didn’t know you needed to know. For example, what were wilderness values in the early 1920s, before the automobile changed everything? How did those values effect Benton Mackay’s idea of an Appalachian Trail?
The idea of this book slowly germinated as Ryan was working on a section hike of the Appalachian Trail with a friend that took many years. This adventure was the subject of his first book: “Appalachian Odyssey: A 28-Year Hike on America’s Trail.” An editor of National Geographic said in a review of this book, "It is destined to be a classic of nature and travel writing."
Ryan found ample material to start his new book project in the Maine State Archive in the Maine State Library in Augusta. There he found volumes of letter correspondence to and from Myron Avery.
“Blazing Ahead” is about people of influence and drive. The Harvard educated Mackay was a visionary who had an idea of how to increase the quality of life of working people by giving them the opportunity to get out on the high ridges of the Appalachian chain, at the least for a few days or weeks a year. But it also included utopian self-sufficient communities below the ridges to counteract the migration to the cities which was occurring. Little did he know at the time of his idea that the automobile would do that later, yet not in a utopian fashion.
Avery was a maritime lawyer from Lubec, Maine. Things were done his way or the highway. Although he made many enemies, he carried the idea of an Appalachian Trail from an idea to a physical reality. It was a herculean task, including getting permission for land, finding individuals and creating trail clubs to do trail work, creating guidebooks as it progressed, marking the course of the trail, cutting and blazing it. He traversed the whole trail himself in this effort.
His primary falling out with Mackay occurred well along in the process, when the proposed Skyline Drive was to go along the ridge of the Great Smokies.
Of course, the story includes many other people from the beginning. The book starts with a section entitled Cast of Characters, including early proponents of Mackay’s idea, people who worked with and sparred with Myron Avery, faithful trail builders, journalist, AMC committee members, wardens, and many more. This is not a story of only two men, but of their influence over a movement of individuals who worked for open space.
One quote by Benton Mackay struck some depth for me, when I was a short way into the book. “High and dry above the stupendous detail of our job, we should hold the reason for it all. This not to cut a path and then say ‘Aint’ it beautiful.’ Our job is to open a realm.”
If you are interested in the history of the people who had the inspiration and drive to complete the Appalachian Trail, of their many human qualities, and how their accomplishments fit into the wider scope of modern day conservation, you should go see Jeffery Ryan at White Birch Books Saturday, Nov. 18, at 2 p.m., listen to him and perhaps be inspired to buy his book. His previous book “Appalachian Odyssey" will also be available.
Finally, I’m going to give you a suggestion for a short hike on the Appalachian Trail out of Pinkham Notch.
To me, the short 1-mile walk to Lost Pond is quintessential White Mountains. Park at the AMC Pinkham Notch Camp on Route 16. Walk across the highway to the trail sign for Lost Pond. A board walk to a bridge with bring you to a rolling trail south, which soon reaches the Cutler River. The trail follows it for a way then rises to Lost Pond. Be sure to walk along the pond half way to a flat rock for natural viewing. Across the pond rises Mount Washington. Huntington Ravine is squarely facing you. A beaver lodge is on the other shore.