Putnam teacher shares lessons from the Appalachian Trail

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Putnam - posted Mon., Nov. 19, 2012
Brian Germain standing at the top of Mt. Katadin along the Appalachian Trail. Courtesy photo. - Contributed Photo

When Putnam High School history and psychology teacher Brian Germain set out to hike the Appalachian Trail this past summer, escape was one of his motivations. “I love my job,” he said. But after 187 days of non-stop immersion in all things Clipper, he decided to use his break to get away from it all. Literally. With a 45-pound backpack, he set off to cover 700 miles of the 2,184-mile long trail.  It took him 36 days, with one day to rest his knees, to hike from the Connecticut/Massachusetts border to the peak of Maine's Mt. Katadin, the AT's northernmost point.

In removing himself from civilization, he found the connections to topics he covers in his classes. He understood the impact the industrial revolution had on the world that first night on the trail. When the sun went down at 9 p.m., he was in his sleeping bag. When the sun rose at 5 a.m., he rose with it. “It was a huge shift in how life operated,” he said.

He had an epiphany about how horrible the dust storms were during the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s. “When you're hiking at 4,000 feet everything is fine,” he said. “Above that, above the tree line, the power of the wind is incredible. It hit me like a ton of bricks.” Drought, poor farming practices, and displacement of naturally occurring vegetation helped create the massive dust storms that wiped out millions of acres of farmlands in the American heartland, he said. The storms led to the largest population migration in U.S. history and that exacerbated the impact of the Great Depression.

The Civilian Conservation Corps, a public work relief program of that time, employed men to work on certain portions of the trail. Germain saw the plaque installed in Vermont where the trail was finished by a CCC crew. He's taken students on a field trip to Sleeping Giant State Park in Hamden, Conn., where CCC crews also worked.

Germain also wanted to set out on a journey of self-reliance. He wanted to experience what American authors and philosophers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau wrote about individualism, nature, the goodness of man and the corruption of society. “So many things are named after Thoreau on the trail,” Germain said. “There are falls and springs and mountains and rivers. Thoreau wrote about his experiences formed in nature. I wanted to relive that and tie it into my classes.”

When Germain teaches psychology, he talks to his students about American psychologist Abraham Maslow and his “hierarchy of needs” theory. Maslow believed that an individual could only reach self-actualization after meeting the most basic physical needs. Water is one of them. On the trail, water became a focal point of his journey. “I took water for granted,” he admitted. But when he needed between three to seven liters a day, and he had to find and sterilize the water before drinking it, water became his first priority.

“You're tired. You don't want to carry it. But when you're thirsty all you care about is water. You don't care about eating, sleeping, talking or writing in your journal,” he said. It was at night when he had set camp that he allowed himself the luxury of chugging as much as he wanted.

From finding and filtering his water to protecting himself from bears, Germain lived a summer that most of us only read about. He paid a price in sore knees and black fly bites, but it was worth it. “History is all around us,” he said. “The AT helped me recognize that.” Now he's trying to help his students recognize it as well. “It's a huge world. It's important that students get out and see it," he said.

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