Maine native’s book documents surprises, challenges of hiking Appalachian Trail
By RJ Heller, BDN Down East contributor
Many of us like to hear a good story, and if you’re lucky enough to live in Maine, there are many stories to be found along the footpaths of forests and coastline.
Jim Haskell, a Maine native, found more than a few stories. It all started on a hike taken when he was 12, successfully making it to the summit of Katahdin. A rite of passage for many who live in Maine, this mile-high mountain is the northern end of a 2,200-mile path known as the Appalachian Trail. It was then that Haskell realized, upon reaching the summit, that this is something he wanted to do — hike the entire trail.
In this, his first book, “Two Tents, Twenty-one Years of Discovery on the Appalachian Trail,” published in 2015, Haskell aptly places the reader on the trail by way of his stories and experiences. He also sprinkles in relevant history about its founding and development and the changes that would occur over time along the trail and in his own life. As the title points out, Jim Haskell spent over 20 years hiking the AT, starting in 1990 and completing the last section in 2010. It is a story not only of a man and a trail, but a story of the process of maturing and of self-discovery of both.
There are two interesting elements of this book. The first is the duration of time spent planning and then hiking to its completion a trip of this magnitude. His approach was to section hike the trail, essentially picking his spots and time of year when he would traverse the contours of the trail and his life.
The thru-hiker approach is picking a time of year and starting from one end, traveling 14 states through some pretty rough topography, and finishing at the other end in a single period of time. Given the commitment of a hike like this and considering the schedules and challenging nuances of family life, it seemed that the section hike approach would make more sense. In the end, having taken over 20 years to finally succeed, the result was not only the end of the journey, but also the telling of that journey in a highly readable and enjoyable book for hikers and non-hikers.
The second striking element would be his approach to telling his story. Haskell creates a fictional character, Rex, whom he accompanies on the trail. Based on a real person he did meet, this approach allows a fictional flow through this otherwise non-fiction, informational book. Haskell has been previously quoted as saying, “By adding [Rex] it allowed the story to flow and work. And then it’s just this ongoing conversation between two people. That conversation can meander from topic to topic without feeling forced.” And there were plenty of topics covered, from bear scares to lost love, endurance and some close calls with death.
One of those stories is about a simple mistake made early on, which resulted in the name “Two Tents,” a trail name Haskell still carries to this day. While hiking with his niece Erin in western Virginia in October of 2007, Haskell struggled with the extreme elevation, which was unusual for him. Upon reaching camp for the night they unpacked, and that is when Haskell realized that buried in the bottom of his pack was another tent. All day he carried two tents in his pack. For hikers, what is in a pack is important, but what the pack weighs is even more important. He and his niece both had a good chuckle and a trail name was born.
Now living in Danvers, Massachusetts, Haskell has been a community development consultant for more than 30 years and because of his love for hiking recently started Trail Connections. The website offers a complete guide and resource directory, plus a list of services spanning the entire AT trail.
Today, Haskell has his sights on completing a series of mountain summits in the Northeast. “In New England and New York there are 116 mountains that are 4,000 feet or more, collectively known as the Northeast 4,000-footers,” says Haskell. “ I want to climb them all. I have summited 70 of them, so far. I am not sure when the rest of it will be completed, life and COVID have taken a toll on this goal, but I’ll get it done.” Perhaps these climbs have the making of another book? I sure hope so.
“Two Tents” is available as an e-read on Amazon and in a softcover copy through the Trail Connections website.
Heller is a journalist, essayist, photographer, author, an avid reader and an award-winning book critic who enjoys sailing, hiking and many other outdoor pursuits. He lives in Starboard Cove.