BLAZING AHEAD: BENTON MACKAYE, MYRON AVERY, AND THE RIVALRY THAT BUILT THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL

For many people, hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT) is the ultimate hiker’s challenge: 2,190 miles through 14 states, from Georgia’s Springer Mountain to Maine’s Mount Katahdin, traversing rugged wilderness terrain.

Day hikers, section hikers, through hikers and even round-trip hikers (called “yo-yos”) enjoy the trail’s beauty, solitude and physical demands. But few probably know anything about the two men whose vision and hard work made the AT a reality.

“Blazing Ahead” is Portland author Jeff Ryan’s excellent dual biography and early history of the AT, as he tells the fascinating story of the dreamer and the doer who made it happen. The two men were Benton MacKaye (the dreamer, “a man of systems and ideas”) and Myron Avery (the doer, “a man of plans and action”) and how they and other visionaries saw in 1921 a “footpath extending the full length of the Appalachian skyline.”

As Ryan relates, MacKaye (1879-1975) and Avery (1899-1952) were opposite personalities — one man calm, thoughtful, insightful and forward-thinking, the other bold, brash, stubborn, persistent and impatient. Their relationship was contentious but fruitful as they organized the funding and construction of such an ambitious project — especially difficult during the years of the Great Depression.

Ryan tells how they handled problems of money, conflicts with politicians, urbanization and the automobile, landowner disputes, marketing, objections and obstacles, while Avery feuded with everyone who didn’t agree with him.

This is also a history of organizations like the Appalachian Mountain Club (“the oldest and best-known outdoor organization in the country” at that time); the Wilderness Club, founded in 1934; as well as the early development of the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service. The story ends in 1938, but the AT today is a national treasure and a monument to MacKaye, Avery and outdoor adventure.

IN SOLO TIME: AN ELDER DARROW MYSTERY

Elder Darrow is a disappointment to his wealthy, estranged father. The 45-year-old, single, Harvard dropout who burned through his trust fund is now hoping to turn a South Boston drinker’s bar into a trendy jazz nightclub. And he’s a practicing alcoholic; a pro juicer. Gee, what could go wrong with this pedigree? Plenty.

“In Solo Time” is Cape Elizabeth author Richard Cass’ ambitious and loosely wrapped second mystery featuring Elder Darrow. This is the prequel to the first book, “Solo Act.”

Darrow has borrowed big to buy Esposito, a dive bar, with big dreams of turning the dump into a classy joint. This place is still a dump, he’s still in the red, but his shaky plans are nearly derailed when he finds the band’s blind jazz-guitar player stabbed to death on the bar’s stage. And the cops think Darrow did it.

The victim was a hot-tempered loudmouth, and a lousy guitar player. Everybody is glad he’s dead except for Darrow, who now has to find a replacement guitar player. He also discovers that drinking and bar-owning can be a bad combination.

Add a smarmy candidate for governor, his two very creepy sons, an Irish “fixer,” a savvy promoter and musician, a short-order cook on the run, a young, beautiful African-American jazz singer with a plan, and countless bottles of single-malt scotch, and Darrow finds himself with a hangover, mugged, threatened and thoroughly puzzled in a story that’s less a suspenseful mystery, and more an alcoholic nightclub soap opera.

Bill Bushnell lives and writes in Harpswell.

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