Thank you to travel writer extraordinaire, Everett Potter, for this wonderful article!
Thank you to travel writer extraordinaire, Everett Potter, for this wonderful article!
Thank you to travel writer extraordinaire, Everett Potter, for this wonderful article!
Had so much fun appearing on New Hampshire Public Radio’s 10-Minute Writer’s Workshop to discuss the craft of catalog and online writing.
If you haven’t heard any episodes, I urge you to check out this podcast. Virginia has hosted an incredible range of writers, some household names, others aspiring to be. It’s inspirational, informative and fun!Click here to listen!
I traded in my bucket list for an ever evolving “I’d like to do” list. I found that this approach suits me best. Besides, I can’t carry that many buckets.
It wasn’t always that way. In my 20s and 30s, I had peak bagging lists. I climbed the highest 50 mountains in Maine in a year, traversed the Pine Tree State on a bike/hike/canoe trip and climbed all but one volcano in Washington state (I tried to climb Glacier Peak twice to complete the feat, but got “weathered off” both times).
Chasing lists was motivating, fun and gave me a sense of accomplishment. But as I got older, something happened. I discovered that simply living my life gave me all those things and more. That the best life for me wasn’t a giant “to do” list to get around to when I could get time off. It was a life comprised of things worth doing every day with larger trips mixed in.
One of the things I’ve made more room for has been revisiting places I went to when I was busy checking off lists.
It is said that a section of trail is never the same place twice. Everything changes. The weather, the seasons and almost certainly, your perspective. It’s the same with anyplace you return to. One of the joys of ditching a list that’s forever driving you to visit new destinations is that your mind is open to giving places a second look instead.
In 1978, I was with three other guys driving across the Texas panhandle on the way to Denver. Like two of the others, I’d never been to the Rockies. The excitement to be in the mountains overcame any possible appreciation for the scenery around us. We declared it flat, boring and interminable. Something never worth seeing again. Something that had been crossed off the bucket list.
I carried that vision of the boring ride with me for 38 years. Right up until this past October. But I decided to give it another chance. This time, I discovered a place that was still flat, but indescribably wide open, quiet and beautiful. I was at once shocked and grateful. If the “been there, done that” mentality of a bucket list had been in control, I never would have returned. But here I was, discovering a remarkably unheralded state park and a gorgeous desert hike to boot.
There are a couple of other spots I’d like to visit in 2017. But I won’t put ‘em on a formal list. That would spoil all the fun.
I have a thing about trash. And about keeping places better than how I found them.
I’m not sure when it started, but I distinctly remember a time when I was 11 years old when my mom and I flew to St. Paul to visit my grandparents. I went out out one day to explore the neighborhood and discovered that the banks of the Mississippi River were nearby. It was a beautiful place. It would have been even more so if it wasn’t so full of litter.
I went back to my grandparent’s apartment, grabbed two garbage bags and returned to the river.
When I came back several hours later hauling two overflowing bags of garbage, I expected them to be pleased. After all, I had helped make part of the world a little more beautiful. However, to their mind, I’d just made their part of the world a little more ugly. But soon, along with the realization the garbage truck would come tomorrow, all was forgiven.
I don’t know where my deep seated concern for keeping America beautiful came from, but at least part of it can be attributed to a popular ad of the time. In it, a Native American paddles down what begins as a beautiful stream. As he paddles down river, he encounters more and more litter and air pollution. As a final insult, as he stands by a busy roadway, an indifferent (and brilliantly unidentifiable) passenger in a passing car hurls a bag of trash that lands at the man’s feet. The indignity is palatable.
Five decades later, I wish I could say that the campaign was more successful. Make no mistake. The litter epidemic may have receded from those historic days when our roadsides became linear garbage dumps, but from my perspective, we’ve slipped in recent years. It’s everywhere — from the commuter rail train tracks of the northeast to the wide open spaces of the midwest and beyond.
The thing that baffles me is that in many cases the littering takes place only a few feet from garbage cans.
On a recent morning, I stopped at a rest area in Danbury, Connecticut. On my way back from the rest room, I saw a fast food bag full of trash crumpled up in the center of the parking lot. There was a trash can (the kind with a swinging cover) less than ten feet away. Because of the swinging cover and the 1/3 full status of the can, I knew that the trash hadn’t blown out of it. In a five decade flashback, the perpetrator had simply tossed their trash out the window.
As I walked toward the bag to pick it up, a man got out of his car and beat me to it. He reached down, picked up the bag and deposited it in the trash container. I could barely contain my glee.
“I need to shake your hand.”, I said. “I thought I was the only person that ever did that.”
The man was a bit nonplussed. He half smiled and said, “We all need to do our part.” as he walked away.
I thought about that incident when I was walking through Ohio’s East Fork State Park the other day picking up candy wrappers, styrofoam plates and plastic bags on the way back to my campsite.
I once read that if people see one piece of trash on the ground, the likelihood of them adding more went up precipitously. That’s one of the reasons I do what I do. But I really wish that I didn’t have to do it at all.
I can guarantee that I’m not alone.
I first heard the name when I was painting a house for an elderly couple in Maine a few decades ago. It’s not unusual for people to escape Maine winters. What stuck in my mind was their destination of choice and the effect it had on them. As soon as they would say the word “Sedona”, they would acquire a look of deep contentment. It was as if they had found something in the hills of Arizona that didn’t stay in the southwest, but forever became a part of them.
Now I understand.
When I was signing books in Freeport, Maine this September, a guy approached my table. He was in a hurry, but not so much that he couldn’t talk hiking for a few minutes. He introduced himself as “Dennis from Sedona”. An avid hiker and writer of guidebooks, he bought my book and parted saying, “You should include Sedona on your book tour. If you come into town, you can stay at my place.”
After leaving Freeport, I drove literally all over the country — Albany, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago, Door County and the Apostle Islands in Wisconsin, St. Paul, St. Louis, Kansas City, Denver and back to St. Louis. I had 10 days to explore before my next signing in Cincinnati. Where to go?
A saner person who had driven so much since July (before leaving Freeport, I had also driven from Maine to Atlanta and back) might have yearned to stay put somewhere. But I felt compelled to explore some more. I turned my van toward Albuquerque.
When I got to Amarillo, my van started pushing back at me. A 1985 Westfalia is a quirky vehicle. That’s part of its appeal. You can expect little things to act up on a road trip. So far, there were only two things that needed repair — a relay switch on my auxiliary battery (the one I use to keep my phone and laptop charged) at Murray Auto Electric outside Pittsburgh and a CV joint replacement at Walt’s VW Repair in Columbia, MO.
Now my van (a.k.a. Morrison) started stalling after long stints without a rest. I pulled over for coffee in Amarillo and it stalled in the parking lot. I went in and got my coffee and by the time I got back, it started right up. It ran just fine until an hour later when I pulled into Palo Duro State Park for the night. It was Sunday and the locals came from miles around to tour the park. I was queued up in line waiting to get to the entrance gate when I stalled again. This time it wouldn’t start. I waved people around me, unpacked all my gear from the back and pulled the engine cover off. I didn’t see any obvious problem.
Back to the driver’s seat. Lo and behold, the van started. I moved my way up to the gate. Just as I arrived there, I stalled again. This time, it wouldn’t start. The kindly ranger at the gate offered to call a few rangers so we could push the van into the park.
“It’s two miles down to the bottom of the canyon”, she said. “If you don’t think your van can make it out, it will be an expensive tow.”
After another rest, Morrison started right up. I decided to head for the campsite in the valley. I reasoned that whatever was causing the stalling had to do with the engine running hard and long on a daily basis and that more frequent stops were required.
As soon as I set up camp, I started trying to reevaluate the problem. With the help of a mechanically minded former VW owner in an adjacent site, we pinpointed a faulty carburetor spring as the problem. A 24-mile round trip to a Napa shop in Canyon, Texas the following day to buy a new spring appeared to be the solution.
But, instead of installing the spring, I held it in reserve. I decided to see if taking the frequent stop approach would work instead.
In eastern New Mexico, Morrison really started struggling. Every time I climbed a steep hill, the speedometer would drop — 70, 60, 50 even down to 40 mph in places. The third time it happened, I pulled off at an exit and installed the new spring. That seemed to be the answer until I had driven a while and the power loss began anew. Now frequent stops were imperative.
The good news is that I made Albuquerque without further incidents. I had dinner with an old friend, then drove deep into the New Mexico night.
My drive into Sedona was, to coin a phrase, “epic”. The road down through Oak Canyon is one of the most spectacular drives in the country, every hairpin turn yields incredible cinematic views — towering rock formations make you want to leap out of the car and climb them — as you descend, you pass numerous trailheads that offer the chance to at least explore them first hand, all the while being accompanied by Oak Canyon Stream itself. It’s a fitting introduction to an area where every turn fills you with exhilaration, whether you’re traveling by car or on foot.
I was 1.3 miles from Dennis’s house when Morrison went into his final stall. I rolled into a roadside parking space in from to a hotel. This time, it seemed like there was no way he wanted to cooperate. After a dozen tries, I decided to let the engine cool down a bit. As I sat, a guy in a Toyota pick-up pulled alongside. He introduced himself as Danny, said he also owned a Westy and that when I got the van started, I should head over to his place, where he was also working on his van.
I couldn’t believe my good fortune. I had been in town less than ten minutes and along came a kindly soul offering exactly what I needed. I really shouldn’t have been too surprised by now. This 35,000 mile road trip has assured me that there are good people everywhere and that as a civilization (hopefully with added emphasis on the “civil” part), we are going to be just fine.
Right after Danny left, he called me, so I’d have his number on my phone. The good karma continued with Morrison reluctantly heeding another call, my exhortations from the driver’s seat.
Over at Danny’s, I hauled all of my gear out of the back so we could access the engine.
“Here’s the culprit”, he announced. “You’ve got a loose vacuum hose. I say, we figure out how to get that rigged up again and you’ll be good to go. But just for good measure, let’s take a few photos and send them to my friend Miguel. He’s a VW mechanic in Durango, Colorado.”
We got Miguel on the phone and he confirmed Danny’s diagnosis. After a trip to the auto parts store and some first class jerry rigging, my problem was solved.
By the time I arrived at Dennis’s (he was out of town and graciously offered me use of his digs), I was ready for solid sleep. His apartment had expansive mountain views and was just the place for me to sit and veg out after the long drive to get there. But that was the only complete decompression I allowed myself. I was in a hiker’s paradise and the trails were calling.
One of the reasons Sedona is such a popular destination is because it is believed to be one of the few destinations on earth where you can experience what is known as a vortex. There are many explanations of what a vortex is, but simply put, it is a place where you can feel the earth’s energy on a metaphysical level. More than one person describes a vortex of an amplifier that will enhance the energy you bring to a place.
My experience in Sedona was that although I didn’t visit one of the famed vortex sites in the area, I certainly felt the energy, both physically and spiritually. The beauty is indescribable. Sedona is a place of sublime beauty painted in terra-cotta, sage and cerulean blues. When you hike here, you see and feel the power of nature present and past all around you.
On day one, I did a short hike up Fay Canyon, past the “trail not maintained beyond this point” sign and up onto the ridge until I found an incredible view and complete solitude.
I had been there about ten minutes when I saw a guy standing back where I had come from.
“Come on up.”, I yelled. “It’s worth it.”
He worked his way over to me and we stood on the shelf of centuries old rock looking out at the canyon walls that surrounded us and beyond.
It turns out that the guy was from Vancouver Island and had spent some time in Maine as a college student. That was pretty neat, I thought later. But what was neater was that there was a time I would have said nothing, wanting to keep my discovery to myself. And if the guy had seen me and started working his way up, I would have rolled my eyes and painted him as an invader of my privacy. Instead I could myself extending a metaphorical hand and inviting him to discover what I had.
I spent another two days exploring trails around Sedona, including a spectacular 9-mile hike that included the Hangover Trail — so named because of the impressive formations that loom over you from above.
I didn’t want to leave Sedona. I woke up on Halloween morning knowing that. But I felt obligated to make headway back east. “If I leave today,” I reasoned, “I’ll have five days to make it to Cincinnati.”
I packed my stuff, cleaned Dennis’s house and made my way into town. I stopped at the Sedona Library, where (of course) the Research Librarian, who was responsible for arranging lectures and signings, had a strong Maine connection.
By the time I was driving up and out of town via Oak Creek Canyon (the same way I had come into town days ago), it was mid afternoon. This was one important indication of how I didn’t want to leave. The walls of the canyon fittingly blocked out phone reception. It was just me, my van and my thoughts. I reminisced about how much my impromptu trip to Sedona meant to me. And I thought of the elderly couple that spoke of the place with so much reverence. “This place and its people are truly magical.”, I mused.
As soon as I emerged from the canyon onto the desert plateau, my phone “blew up” with messages. The first was from a couple who had seen my van at a trailhead and ordered my book as a direct result. “We are psyched that it will be waiting in our mailbox when we get back to New York.” it said.
The second message was from a guy named Stan. “I saw your van at the library. I also own a Westy. You should join me and my friend for Mexican food at 5:00.”
I sat on the edge of the road debating things. It was 3:30. If I left now, I’d be back down at the restaurant by 4:30.
I pulled a U-ee and off I went. The Sedona vortex was pulling me back, a lot sooner than I imagined.
Meeting the guys for dinner was absolutely the right decision. They were both vagabond spirits — owning a Westy certainly indicates you love a good road trip and all it brings, including camaraderie with the like minded. We laughed and talked in good measure before we went our separate ways.
The next morning, I had two more errands to run. The first was to hike up Doe Mesa to give Sedona a proper good bye. It was another stunning morning. To paraphrase Thoreau, I wish I could have stayed in the rarified air forever, but I really had to head back down. As I was working my way down off the mesa, I caught up with a couple happily chatting up their past trail experiences including a trek across Scotland.
As we stood on the trail discussing how splendid a day it was to be outside, I mentioned that I had actually driven to the top of the canyon the day before, then turned around to come back.
“That was certainly the right decision to make”, she said. “Sounds like you have your priorities straight.”
“I’d like to think so.”, I replied.
On the way out of town, this time for real, I stopped at the Hike House, where they graciously offered to carry my book and offered to have me to come back and give a talk about my adventures. Even my parting stop held good tidings for my present and future. As I drove higher and higher through the canyon, I felt completely rejuvenated. Was it the vortex? The people? Perhaps a little of both.
Yes, making that U-turn had been the right decision. Everything I experienced after it was an a continuation of the same incredible experience I had from the moment I arrived in this desert paradise. And now my own feelings of joy, contentment and possibility will be stirred whenever I hear someone mention this enchanted place by name.
In just one month, Appalachian Odyssey has achieved second printing status! I am so happy that my story has resonated with such a wide audience. I have been out meeting people in national parks, in bookstores, in barber shops, you name it, and the response has been genuine and incredibly uplifting. It seems everyone has a connection with the Appalachian Trail or simply the idea of being true to our dreams. Simply fantastic!
If you haven’t ordered your copy yet, there are a few first printing copies left, but they are going fast.
Had a really enjoyable and wide-ranging chat with John McDonald of WGAN this morning about Appalachian Odyssey and other trail related exploits.
PORTLAND, Maine – Jeffrey Ryan, author, speaker, photographer, avid hiker and former catalog writer at L.L. Bean, will be embarking on a five-month book tour in his 1985 VW Vanagon. Ryan is the author of a new book about the Appalachian Trail that highlights a 28-year trip, hiked one section at a time. APPALACHIAN ODYSSEY encourages readers to set goals, chase dreams and achieve them one step at a time.
To kick off his book tour adventure, Ryan held a book launch luncheon on June 29 at the Press Hotel in Portland. Friends, family and local media attended the event for book signings and Ryan gave a brief presentation. From Portland, Ryan will travel to Washington, D.C., where he will be having a book signing event at the Thos. Moser showroom on July 12, as well as signing books at the National Museum of American History (Smithsonian), July 13 and 14. From there, Ryan will be traveling along the Appalachian Trail, speaking and signing books at several venues.
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Author Jeffrey Ryan was interviewed by Maine NBC affiliate WCSH’s Rob Caldwell to discuss Ryan’s Beyond Ramen cookbook, featuring tips and recipes for eating well on the trail.
Ryan notes that early on in his hiking career he declared, “the fall of the ramen empire” when he was burned out on old standby trail foods. He reasoned there was no need to suffer poor food on the trail, when nutrition and taste should be at a premium, so he worked on developing a set of new trail staples.
“As my readers well know, I’ll still detour for a great cheeseburger, but we still eat pretty well in between, which keeps the side trips at a minimum”, says Ryan.
Beyond Ramen is available as a free download.