Some leisure pursuits take your mind off business. This one makes Eric Kampmann think about his business better.
Another day, another trailhead.
As he has done many times in recent years, Eric Kampmann shoulders a backpack and heads out on the Appalachian Trail. The 59-year-old cofounder and president of Midpoint Trade Books has hiked every step of this fabled American pathway that crosses New Hampshire (161 miles), Vermont (149 miles), Massachusetts (90 miles), and his home state of Connecticut (52 miles). Today, an overcast Friday in late August, Kampmann is starting out in a new state, New Jersey, home to 73 miles of the famous hiking route. I've joined him to find out what's brought him here -- specifically, to the Appalachian Trail again -- and to learn what he meant when he told me on the phone that backpacking has done more than just improve his health, sense of perspective, and psychic balance.
Over and above that, Kampmann said, it's helped him design his business.
In the parlance of the trail, Kampmann is a section hiker, someone who pursues it in chunks, as opposed to that far-rarer breed of Appalachian Trail backpacker known as a "thru-hiker." Thru-hikers strive to complete all 2,168 miles of the route in a single grueling multimonth journey -- generally starting in early spring atop Springer Mountain in Georgia and pushing to reach the northern terminus, Maine's Mount Katahdin, before the onset of winter.
On this morning in the hilly, heavily forested northwest corner of New Jersey, Kampmann joins the trail heading southwest along the Kittatinny Ridge. Three 20-mile days would leave him still short of the Delaware Water Gap and the bridge into Pennsylvania. He'll hike those 60 miles later, probably in the fall. Today Kampmann wears a day pack. He's mapped out a 6-mile loop; I've got in mind enough questions for him, I think, to keep us busy till we get back.
The trail takes off at a slight incline under the welcome cover of oak and hickory trees, which intercept a gentle mist. The guidebook warns: "If you have not had any experience with this section of the AT, or if your feet are particularly sensitive, be prepared for a rocky path that will test your boots. The first two miles of this hike will be demanding on your feet and on your balance."
Kampmann is six feet tall and "a little over" 200 pounds. "But I'm not pregnant," he's quick to add. That's his euphemism for the paunch so characteristic of many middle-aged, desk-bound executives. Hiking helps keep him physically fit. Earlier in the summer, out west, he climbed Mount Shasta to 13,500 feet, not far from its 14,162-foot summit. A bandage on his left forearm covers a souvenir of that trip. Glissading down a snowfield, sliding on his backside in the chute of earlier descenders, he'd lost his grip on his ice ax -- and then a good bit of skin -- before he finally came to rest.
Eyes a bit ahead of his boots, Kampmann falls into a steady, surefooted stride. The path, as warned, turns rocky. As we walk he backtracks a half century, telling of summertime hikes with his father in the New Hampshire mountains near Squam Lake. In 1967, after graduating from Brown, and before enrolling at Stony Brook to earn a master's degree in English, Kampmann hiked alone for three weeks, completing most of the scenic and arduous New Hampshire stretch of the Appalachian Trail.
Years later, when he returned to the trail, it was like reuniting with an old friend. He was married by then, the father of three boys and a girl. And entrepreneurially wet behind the ears. After his first book-distribution company filed for bankruptcy, he'd regrouped and formed a small sales-and-marketing company and teamed up with National Book Network, another book distributor. In 1992, while attending a summer-camp reunion in New Hampshire, Kampmann took his three sons -- the youngest of whom, Arthur, had yet to turn five -- up nearby 4,802-foot Mount Moosilauke. Assessing his life from on high at a kind of watershed moment, at age 49, Kampmann recovered "something that was lost."
His initial return to hiking focused on the popular Granite State quest of "peak bagging" all 48 New Hampshire mountains of 4,000 feet or more. The next year, in honor of his 50th birthday, he came back to the area with his wife, Anne, and summited three 4,000-footers. Kampmann climbed others with friends and hiked solo to many peaks. "Any time I was anywhere near New Hampshire," he says, "I would find an excuse to do a mountain or two. Or seven."
Not yet trail savvy on those early trips, he packed too much. Meaning, of course, he carried too much. "Backpacking is an art form," he says, describing the need to carefully weigh the benefits of bringing along some article of clothing or bit of gear against the discomfort of lugging it mile after mile. "I don't think you get this by reading books, only by experience, by finding your minimum comfort level."
As it happened, precisely when he was learning the art of packing lighter -- and also braving the harsher challenges of winter hiking -- he began to devise a blueprint for his present business, Midpoint Trade Books. The company provides sales, marketing, and distribution services to some 150 small independent book publishers; last year it had revenues of $11 million. Hiking alone, he pondered how to best design his business, which he founded in 1996 with partners Chris Bell, Ron Freund, and Gail Kump.
"When we started Midpoint, my partners and I had four goals," Kampmann explains. "One: we didn't want to seek outside investors. We wanted to bootstrap the company and self-finance, which we were able to achieve. Two: we didn't want to create debt, which we were also able to do. Three: we wanted to create a high-level service company for our client publishers, to be directly involved with them ourselves rather than handing off responsibilities to hired hands. And four: we didn't want to marry the company. We all felt that we had lives and interests outside of the business that we needed to nurture for us to be good at the previous objective."
In Midpoint's Manhattan office you'll find, at most, Kampmann, Kump, and a single assistant. (Bell works out of a satellite office in Ann Arbor, Mich., and Freund is based in Kansas City, Kans., where the company's distribution center is located.) There's not even a secretary. Kampmann handles his own correspondence, makes his own photocopies, empties the trash. When the phone rings, he reaches for it. Midpoint has been as carefully pared down as the contents of his backpack -- and is better for it, Kampmann insists.
"I think a tremendous amount of management time generally gets taken up managing people internally," he says, explaining that he spends that time personally aiding clients -- and heading off potential problems. That frees him up for hiking days like this one. With a family at home and a business to tend, he's never seriously considered spending weeks on the trail.
The mist has changed to a light rain. Kampmann walks a bit farther, monitoring the turn in the weather. Then he stops, removes his pack, and dons a pair of Gore-Tex gaiters, which start at midshin and continue down to a protective boottop skirt.
The trail descends, as stony as a streambed but never smooth, for these rocks are angular, unworn by steadily running water. They're ankle turners under the best of conditions. In the rain they're downright slick. Talk ceases as we give them their due and step carefully.
"Look at this," Kampmann says, breaking the silence a bit later. He bends down and gathers in his cupped hand a tiny lizardlike newt, bright orange with dun-colored spots on its back. Hiking the Appalachian Trail, he's encountered other wildlife: deer, moose, bobcats, and black bear. He's even lost a T-shirt to an inordinately hungry squirrel.
The trail climbs steeply, levels off, and soon delivers an approaching hiker. The man says he retired from the U.S. Army after 45 years and set out on the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina in May. He hopes to make it as far as the New Hampshire border before winter -- and maybe finish the trail next year. He and Kampmann talk weight. Then they introduce themselves, in the way of the eastern woods.
"What's your trail name?" asks Kampmann.
"Mine's Crusty. What's yours?"
Before parting, the hikers exchange previews of what lies ahead. Kampmann shares his Appalachian Trail memories of Vermont: "Vermont is very long, and you're in the woods a lot like this, but it's more beautiful than this and much higher, and there are some real climbs."
Kampmann set his sights on the Appalachian Trail after bagging his last 4,000-foot peak, in 1996. First he finished the 40-mile section of the trail in New Hampshire that a sprained ankle had prevented him from hiking in 1967. Then, sometimes hiking with his children or enlisting friends, he completed Connecticut and Massachusetts and, in June 2001, checked off Vermont. In recent years his longest stay on the trail totaled four days. Maybe on 60% of the treks, he's hiked alone. As the miles piled up he envisioned completing the entire New England portion of the trail.
But Maine, his one remaining New England state, is a bear. Its portion of the trail stretches 281 miles, and section-hiking it in small chunks from Connecticut poses logistical problems. Which explains why Kampmann started pulling out New Jersey Appalachian Trail guides this past summer. Better, he decided, to get out regularly on the trail than to stubbornly try to cross off New England.
"I think we need these kinds of pursuits," he says after we bid Crusty good-bye and continue on. "We live in a time of enormous plenty. That's a great blessing but also a curse, because it's very easy to lose sight of the limited amount of time we have to use our lives well. It's very easy to fall into the rut of allowing one day to slide into the next. Suddenly, you wake up, and you're 50 years old, and you say, 'What have I done with my life?'
"I think what's been valuable about the trail for me is that it provides me with a sense of a goal, to get to the end of it. But that's not what it's really about, because it's not really finishing a section that you remember but the people you've run into and the things you've experienced."
Kampmann has been lost off the trail for as long as four hours. Snowbound and short of his destination on a winter hike, he spent the night in his superinsulated sleeping bag on the side of a mountain atop a makeshift bed of leveled snow. On such occasions especially -- but really each time he heads out on the trail -- he's stepping out of his normal comfort zone. He sees value in that. "Every time you leave home to go on one of these trips, it gets you out of the pattern of your everyday life and reminds you of the element of risk that's in your life. You don't know where the next step is actually taking you, who you will meet, what you'll come up against. I've sat many nights in the woods alone," he says. "I think the greatest inhibitor for most people is fear. It's fear that holds us back from being who we should be. And fear that often afflicts businesses, that keeps them from remaining vital."
Kampmann believes that hiking helps him "come up with clearheaded, appropriate" business strategies. "Somebody who does this is likely to establish some distance between a situation and themselves," he says. "I think being on the trail gives me perspective, which is not the only point of view that you need, of course. You need the up-close, too. But perspective oftentimes leads to wisdom, and wisdom is making the right choices at the right time."
Arriving at an overlook, we notice that the rain has stopped and the sun is starting to poke through. A rocky ledge, we decide, will do fine as a lunch spot. We break bread, literally, and share some cheese, looking out over a lake and a broad valley. Kampmann spots a hawk circling high overhead. Then another. And another. Six in all, each effortlessly riding the thermal updrafts.
I ask if the Appalachian Trail has become like a home in the country, one without mortgage payments and water pipes to drain. Kampmann agrees but puts a finer point on his response. "I think because we don't have a weekend home it allows me to do the trail," he answers. "If you have a second home, you're obligated to go to that home. That's where you'll be. It sounds funny, but in order to appreciate the mountains, you have to drive to them. If you're already there, you're probably going to just look at them."
After lunch, on the return loop, Kampmann offers a broader reason that people hike the Appalachian Trail: "Doing the trail, either in sections or in its entirety, has become a culturally accepted goal. It has elements of the outdoors, elements of perseverance. There's a purity to it. It's a big task. And everybody you talk to understands it. I don't think I've ever met anybody who doesn't know what the Appalachian Trail is. If you've done the Appalachian Trail, you've done something significant, and I think that within us all is an eternal longing to achieve something in life that is significant and positive."
When we return to the trailhead parking lot, we meet a couple fresh off a different trail. They inquire how far we hiked and when we set out. Six miles in ... six hours? They shake their heads a bit dismissively at our pitiful pace. But pace, of course, was the least of it.
John Grossmann, a frequent contributor to Inc, has hiked sections of the Appalachian Trail in three states.
The Inc Life
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