Three Hundred Zeros: Lessons of the Heart on the Appalachian Trail
By Dennis R. Blanchard
This is a self-published book.
That’s a bad sign.
This book made me laugh out loud.
That’s a good sign.
Maybe Dennis Blanchard likes to control things, so he self-published. But if he did it because some publishers turned him down, then the publishers made a big mistake.
This is a good read. It is not the definitive Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike book, but it is mostly fun, often funny, usually interesting and easy going, kind of a lazy-afternoon-in-a-hammock book, with a caveat.
There are a few quibbles. For example, Blanchard has the bad habit of repeating a word in a sentence. “The cables are thick steel cables suspended between two trees, about fifteen feet high. Another cable runs up to a pulley on the suspended cable...” Perhaps this is a problem only for someone like me, a journalist who had “do not do that” pounded into me by various editors when I was young. Whatever, I find it annoying, which is a shame, because Blanchard is a writer rather skilled at keeping things moving. This is a deceptively light and easy read; that’s the caveat. Nestled in among his neat descriptions and delightful humor, there are scenes of serious danger, pathos and poignancy.
At one point he comes to the Churchill Scott Shelter which seems to have become home to a young family with small children, including some in diapers. Blanchard was hiking in 2007, just before the recent recession was called a recession, and writing soon after. Over and over he describes entering small towns that are in obvious decline. At the shelter, one child screams horribly all night, and Blanchard wonders if the little one suffers night terrors. This makes a pathetic juxtaposition between a successful American engineer retired early to Florida on one hand and a young American family that appears homeless on the other.
An incident at the Wilbur Clearing Lean-to is bizarre and disturbing. Blanchard has been struggling through a furious storm with vicious wind, freezing rain and too-close lightening strikes. The trail has become a rushing river. He arrives at the lean-to nearing hypothermia. He is exhausted, drenched and trembling violently. The lean-to has been commandeered by a group of kids and some adult leaders, against the AT rules. And, against AT ethics, they make no room for Blanchard despite the weather and his obviously bad condition. He shoves some of their gear off of the shelter’s picnic table and fires up his stove. Behind him each kid in the group is saying what they would do to improve the world and they start talking about helping others in need.
There are other sad and disturbing incidents. But they are the exceptions. AT thru-hiking presents a sort of mirror image of what is often called “the real world,” the world hikers leave behind. In “the real world” acts of generosity are so rare they make news. Selfishness, narcissism and the ethics caricatured in the image of the used car salesman are considered normal, so normal absolutely no one is seriously shocked at what Wall Street’s professional gamblers have done.
On the trail life is the reverse. The community of hikers, joined by the community of trail angels, joined by the towns and villages that value hikers, form a world where generosity is the norm and treating others badly is news. The vast majority of human inter-actions Blanchard writes of are not of “the real world.”
And there is Blanchard’s brother, Tom, with whom he’d planned on hiking the AT, a Marine killed in Vietnam. Blanchard carried his Purple Heart on his hike and credits his brother’s spirit with helping him reach Katahdin, struggling up the mountain in seriously bad weather, exhausted, emaciated, determined.
This is not a book for gear heads. He bought most of his stuff at L.L. Bean, and his jokes about that experience are superb. Otherwise, he barely mentions any of his gear, except for lamenting both the deficiencies of his rain poncho and his lack of rain pants which eventually turn serious. But Blanchard is a HAM enthusiast and he carried a HAM enthusiast’s piece of gear. He built himself a tiny – by HAM standards – radio he carried with him on most of his thru. The thing weighs just under three pounds, an outrageous amount by light weight, not to mention ultra-light weight, hikers. But he enjoyed it immensely. He set the goal of making at least one HAM contact in each state he hiked through and was able to do it.
Many people thru-hike the AT and never see a bear or other possibly dangerous animals. Some have done multiple thrus and never seen one. Blanchard reports 38 bear encounters and several encounters with rattle snakes and copperheads. He also noted experiencing seriously severe weather several times, most especially in New England’s White Mountains. He is careful to emphasize that Mount Washington is not the only dangerous and fickle peak there.
Blanchard did his hike in two sections 300 days apart. He had to take a break for heart surgery. Six heart arteries had to be replaced because of a genetic condition. He was already in great shape before the operation, so his recovery was rapid. And he writes about going back out at 61 to finish his thru-hike like it is the most natural thing in the world.
Well, maybe it is. Maybe sedentary is unnatural and that’s why it kills us. Or maybe this guy just had the heart – the courage, willingness, stubbornness, dedication – to do what he set out to do.
The book’s pictures are in black and white, and they suffer for it. But you can see them and more in color at Blanchard’s website, http://threehundredzeroes.com/photos.html.
Three Hundred Zeros: Lessons of the Heart on the Appalachian Trail, By Dennis R. Blanchard, © 2010 by Dennis Blanchard, PO Box 18364, Sarasota, FL 34276 No price on copy. $20 signed copy from author’s website http://threehundredzeroes.com.