The Appalachian Trail

Appalachian Trail sign

(Photo credit: Appalachian Trail sign, courtesy MTSOfan, Flickr Creative Commons)

I remember the first time I heard about the Appalachian Trail. It was in the fall of 1991. I was an exchange student at Lock Haven University in north-central Pennsylvania. Some friends taking another class were heading out for an extracurricular weekend of hiking and camping along a portion of something called the Appalachian Trail. I had the opportunity to join them but I hesitated. What kind of trail is this? I inquired. It certainly goes up and down mountains, as a decent trail should, but its main defining feature, I gleaned, is its length. The Appalachian Trail is very, very long—much longer than a trail has any right to be, or so I thought. I clearly remember it taking a while to sink in to my dull brain that this trail wasn’t just limited to one hill or one part of one state; it ran along most of the length of the east coast of the United States, from Maine to Georgia—some 2,200 miles. I was used to thinking of footpaths as being a few miles long, preferably with loops so you could return to the starting point with the minimum of fuss and drive home in the comfort of a heated car. I knew about the West Highland Way, back in Scotland, and that was a long trail, I knew—about 100 miles long (96 miles, to be exact). I’d hiked a short section of that, from Glasgow up to Loch Lomond, and thought I was doing well with that. But this thing was like 22 West Highland Ways end to end. That seemed an inconceivable distance to go on foot. Yet apparently lots of people apparently hiked the whole thing! Were they mad? How long would that take, anyway? Maybe I was a bit intimidated by the sheer scale of the thing; maybe I wasn’t sure if I felt there was any point to hiking a tiny portion of a vast, endless trail (after all, the group covered 30-35 miles during the trip, equivalent to less than 1.5 percent of the total length); maybe I was just feeling lazy that weekend. Anyway, much to my later dismay, I didn’t go. It’s a shame, because it was a good hike, by all accounts. I didn’t think much about continental-sized trails again for a long time after that. I did get more familiar with the AT after I read Bill Bryson’s book about hiking the trail, A Walk in the Woods. But it would take me another 19 years before I’d actually set foot on a section of the AT.

That is what went through my mind as I noted this morning that today is a special anniversary for the Appalachian Trail, or Appalachian National Scenic Trail to give it its official designation, or AT as it’s commonly known. October 2, 1968 saw President Lyndon Johnson sign into law what is know as the National Trails System Act. Now this Act didn’t create the AT—its origins go back to the early 1920s, and it became a functioning, continuous footpath in the late 1930s. But the early trail, a private endeavor without any government backing, was threatened by rapid postwar urban expansion. It took the 1968 act to give protected status to the trail. The act created a new park service designation: National Scenic Trails, of which the AT was the first. (It was later followed by the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail.) The National Park Service was given overall administrative responsibility, and the trail secured public lands or rights-of-way for its entire length—controlled either by the park service or the U.S. Forest Service, or acquired by states along the route.

My old brain is still poor and dull, but it has finally allowed me to grow an appreciation for national scenic trails of absurd lengths. Millions of ordinary people have hiked at least some part of the trail, and about 12,000 have done the whole thing since it was completed in 1937. Even when you’re just hiking a few short miles of the trail, as I have in Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains national parks, there’s something very moving about advancing on ground where these millions have gone before over the past 70+ years. (It is worth pointing out that the trail’s length alters by a few miles every year, due to trail maintenance and upgrades, so you’re not following every single step trod on by those that went before. But you are following pretty much the same route that’s been there the whole time.)

Hiking the Appalachian Trail seems to me to be a quintessentially American thing to do, one that helps ordinary Americans experience the scale and grandeur of their country. It’s also completely nuts, I’m aware. What does it say about me that I really would like to do it some day, before I die. Supposedly most through-hikers (those who do the whole thing in one go) tend to be either in their 20s or their 60s. I’ll surely have to wait till I’m in the latter group. But as a new(-ish) American I think it’s the sort of thing I could and should try to do to help me connect better with my adopted country. I’m under no illusions that it would be easy. The Appalachian Mountain Club reckons that most people take between five and seven months to hike the entire length (that works out an average of about 12 miles a day). Only a fifth of hikers who set out actually make it to the end. Pretty sobering statistics. The trick for most successful hikers is to start in Georgia in the early spring, where it’s milder, and make their way north, hoping to get to Katahdin Mountain in Maine before it’s closed for the winter.

So if you are of a mind to hike the entire AT, and you are able to see it through, here are the states which you’ll traverse (from South to North): Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.


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