“We’re putting a human on top of a missile and shooting him into space and it’s never been done before. I need a mathematician that can look beyond the numbers, at math that doesn’t exist.” — Al Harrison (played by Kevin Costner) from the movie Hidden Figures
How do we set out to do what’s never been done before? It seems to me that we need two things—a visionary who is prescient and/or bold enough to propose the idea in the first place and a person or team that has the wherewithal to get it done, even when it requires throwing convention aside.
In the case of America’s race to the moon, JFK set the bar and Harrison’s team at NASA broke cultural and procedural barriers to ensure we could land a team of astronauts on the moon, then get them safely home.
Almost fifty years earlier, an earthy vision that seemed like a great reach was also proposed. It was a multi-state hiking trail over the Appalachian mountains. It may be hard for us to appreciate what a bold proposal the Appalachian Trail was in 1921 when Benton MacKaye proposed it to the world. Even those most excited about the idea didn’t make any meaningful progress for eight years. There was no federal mandate and there were precious few funds. It was an idea in need of a savior.
In 1929, Myron Avery became just that. In just nine years, he almost singlehandedly transformed a free-floating idea into a walkable footpath from Georgia to Maine. The only way Avery could have succeeded was by doing things unconventionally. He raised money during the depths of the Great Depression. He secured easements by promising owners of hunting and fishing cottages that hikers would pay them for meals and overnight accommodations when they were passing through. He dished out criticism when he felt it was warranted and almost never held back. And he built a small, intensely loyal team to help him get it done. But he also led the team that accomplished what had never been done before. As I wrote in Blazing Ahead:
Myron Avery seized control of Benton MacKaye’s idea and built a fiefdom—and a legacy—around it. But if Avery took advantage, MacKaye was complicit in the outcome. MacKaye was not given a meaningful leadership position in the ATC from the outset. His many years of semi-nomadic work and long periods of relative isolation in Shirley kept him detached from the day-to-day operation of the ATC and essentially all trail-building activities. If the AT was ever going to get built, it needed a Myron Avery. One may find fault with Avery’s approach and outbursts, but it’s hard to find fault with the outcome.
Excerpt From: Jeffrey H. Ryan. Blazing Ahead: Benton MacKaye, Myron Avery, and the Rivalry that Built the Appalachian Trail.