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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Formidable Footpath

I want to tell you all about the Appalachian Trail from experience, for I have hiked it.

Layers of fog greet A.T. hikers in the Appalachian Mountains.
Well, not all 3,400 kilometers, or 2,100 miles, of it. More like 10 miles, some of it in my street shoes, thereby learning the first lesson of traversing the world’s longest footpath: Do not wear street shoes.

I wasn’t one of those hiking fanatics who set out to conquer the whole trail in a summer, or the gluttons for punishment who try to make it both ways before the snow flies. Carol and I just wanted to get some neat photographs along the mountaintops, ridge lines, valley floors, wildflower meadows, isolated cow pastures, and a few paved roads — my specialty — all remote but within shouting distance (“hello, hellooo, hellooooo”) of 100 million people along the East Coast.

Before I go any farther, I want to explain something about the pronunciation of this challenging path. Those living in southern and south-central portions of the route have always called their mountains the “Apple-ATCH-ins,” and the region, “Apple-ATCHIA.” For some reason, northerners and bureaucrats who assign names to things have preferred “Apple-AY-chins” and “Apple-AY-chia.” The latter stuck with the folks who oversee the trail, so that’s how you’ll hear me pronounce it in the podcast that accompanies this posting. Apple-AY-chia it is, over the protests of at least one of my friends, a former VOA colleague who makes it clear every time I see her that she grew up a stone’s throw from the “Apple-ATCHIAN Trail.”

This is where the trek ends for most thru hikers: lofty Mount Katahdin in Maine. A small percentage start here and work south instead.

What just about everyone who walks it calls it, however, is simply the “A.T.” whose precise route and length keep changing. That’s because officials keep tinkering with the route to get it as far away from civilization as possible. In fact, a different mountain, Oglethorpe, was the southern terminus until 1959 until it was moved to Springer Mountain because there was too much chicken farming, of all things, going on on Oglethorpe's hillsides.

Besides, how does one precisely measure a path that scrambles over rocks, tree roots, big and little bridges, a few fences, and such natural features as “the Lemon Squeezer” — not sure what that is, but it can’t be, uh, a walk in the park — “the Priest,” “Pollywog Stream,” “Eph’s Lookout,” “the Pinnacle,” “Crawfish Valley,” “Hogwallow Spring,” “Dragon’s Tooth,” “Beauty Spot,” “Charlies Bunion” (sounds painful), and, gulp, “the Guillotine”?

The north-and-south trail connects 14 states, but it runs east-westerly in spots, especially in New England in the Northeast, where the A.T. was hacked through forestland to connect existing north-south trails in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. Several sections there follow trails like the Long Trail and “Fishin’ Jimmy Trail” that existed well before the footpath from Maine to Georgia was conceived. The Appalachian Mountain Club, the first known U.S. hiking club, was founded in 1876 to “explore the mountains of New England and adjacent regions for both scientific and artistic purposes.”

You or I would thrill to see such views. And most A.T. hikers do, too — for awhile, until vistas become commonplace. For most, more attention is focused on keeping moving and reaching the next shelter.
The A.T. hugs the crestline of the ancient, wrinkled Appalachian Mountains, named by Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto after the Appalachee Indians who lived in northwest Florida. Trails of the southern Appalachians were cut by bison that roamed the land before European settlement. Early adventurers and botanists were thrilled to discover the bounty of flowering plants and shrubs, notably mountain laurel, flame azalea, and rhododendron. They saw literally billions of chestnut trees that are since gone — victims of a terrible blight. Today another plague, acid rain, appears to be killing or damaging many southern Fraser firs.

The Appalachians are old, worn-out mountains by American standards and were formed by staggering geological compressions and uplifts. A.T. thru hikers must conquer almost all of their most daunting peaks, including Clingmans Dome in North Carolina (2,025 meters/ 6,643 feet) and Mount Washington in New Hampshire (1,917 meters/ 6,288 feet). Middle-of-the summer snowstorms on the latter summit are common.

But much of the trail’s course worms under a dense canopy of trees — a “tunnel through time,” as National Geographic magazine once called the trail. Rivers have sliced several gaps through the mountains, and A.T. hikers tromp through those as well.

The idea of an Appalachian Trail was proposed in an article published in the obscure Journal of the American Institute of Architects in 1921 by Benton MacKaye, a Yankee forester, hiker, dreamer, and believer in the “creative value of wilderness.” It was written at a time when “tramping,” as hiking was known, was becoming a passion among many New England intellectuals. According to the member handbook of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (A.T.C.), the governing body of most trail activities, “the article proposed an extended wilderness along the Appalachian crests as a crucial line of defense against both demoralization of urban laborers (by providing a refuge for contemplation in a natural setting) and ‘the lure of militarism’ (by channeling primal heroic instincts into the care of the countryside).”

The A.T. idea was peddled to supportive newspaper columnists and outdoor enthusiasts, including the national commissioner of the Boy Scouts of America. Hiking clubs joined in the fun of proposing the trail’s exact route, and the first section was cut and christened at the Palisades Interstate Park in New York in 1922. A bridge there had made possible a connection between New England and the New York-New Jersey area — and thence southward.

The Appalachian Trail cuts right next to this old place, possibly a hunting cabin, in central Pennsylvania.
At the trail’s organizing conference in Washington, D.C., in 1925, attendees agreed upon an Appalachian Trail monogram, in which the crossbar of the “A” serves as the top of the “T.” The logo is used to this day. At the conference, MacKaye was careful to distinguish between his “trailway” and a railway. He said a railway opens the countryside to civilization, but “the trailway should ‘open up’ a country as an escape from civilization.” Later, he would write that “the Appalachian Range should be placed in public hands and become the site for a Barbarian Utopia.”

Others like Myron Avery, an early Appalachian Trail Conservancy chairman and a legend in hiking circles, turned MacKaye’s lofty vision into a reality. What would be designated America’s first “National Scenic Trail” was completed from up-north Maine to Georgia, way down South, in 1937. A year later, an unnamed, devastating hurricane that killed hundreds of people and destroyed whole coastal villages in New England nearly obliterated the trail in that region. At the time there were no more than 100 active volunteers on the entire length of the trail, compared with more than 5,000 today, ready to effect repairs.

A simple plaque on a rock on Springer Mountain in Georgia’s Chattahoochee Forest marks what is the beginning point of the long journey for most. Many start. Few reach Maine.
Perhaps 2,000 people depart Springer Mountain in Georgia or Mount Katahdin in Maine — the lion’s share from the former in the Spring, when the weather is nice in Georgia but still snowy in Maine — determined to hike the trail’s entire distance at one time. Most years, rangers won’t even allow thru hikers to depart Mount Katahdin until June 1 or thereafter because of the nasty weather in the Maine highlands. The highest officially estimated number of “starters” intending to hike the entire Appalachian Trail in any one year was 2,900 in 2000. That was four years after humorist Bill Bryson published the wildly successful book A Walk in the Woods, an account of his hike of 1,400 kilometers (800 miles) of the A.T. The year 2000 was also incorrectly observed as the millennial year, in which a lot of hikers reported a desire to complete a life-changing accomplishment.

Starting and completing are two different matters, of course. The most people to attest that they completed the route was 411 northbound last year, and 70 southbound in 2000. The number of long-distance A.T. hikers has been growing, in part because of an increasing number of hostels that give foot-weary travelers both rest and encouragement along the way.

This Appalachian Trail patch shows the distinctive A-atop-the-T logo and recognizes the wearer as both a hiker and “maintainer” — one who volunteers time to keep the trail open and marked.

Awarding of a patch for completing the trail — the only reward beyond one’s immense satisfaction — is strictly on the honor system. No longer does a panel of experienced hikers grill a purported successful thru hiker, as was the case for the first 25 years or so, to be sure he or she did indeed hike the entire way. Earl Shaffer of York, Pennsylvania, faced such an “oral comprehensive” exam, and had to show his series of slides taken all along the route when he became the first documented person to hike the entire trail in 1948. Only well-wishers and photographers greeted him in Maine when he repeated the hike in 1998 at age 79, lugging the same tiny back-pack, to mark the 50th anniversary of the feat.

The Earl Shaffer of 1998 was older than most, but not all, hikers. Don Cogswell, owner of both a diner and a lodge catering to hikers in Millinocket, Maine, told me he once ran into an 82-year-old man who asked for a lift to the start of the trail at Baxter State Park. “I took him out to the mountain,” Don said. “He looked through the windshield and said, ‘Don, I can’t wait to tackle it.’ I said, ‘Papa, I don’t want to be disrespectful, but you’re a freak of nature!’”

“Trail names” like “Trailhead Ted” are a relatively recent phenomenon. A.T.C. officials trace them to the 1970s when clever citizens’-band radio “handles” were in vogue. Many hikers on the Appalachian Trail introduce, and forever know, each other by their trail names alone. Some have even had their names legally changed to their trail personas.

Another badge of individuality among hikers is the walking stick, often carved with care by a loving relative. There is, you see, an element of romance, even fantasy, in the thru-hiking experience.

Hikers Scott Davis — trail name “Flow Easy” — and Deborah “Twilight” Smith are joined by their trusty companion, Linville. All three completed the thru hike, but Linville had to be boarded in two stretches where dogs are not allowed.
I should point out that, from what people tell me, one does not really walk the Appalachian Trail. Nor is it a hike in the image of a happy wanderer, whistling “I love to go a wandering, my knapsack on my back” along a gently sloping path. Neither, however, is conquering the A.T. an extreme sport akin to rappelling. Rather, one could be said to trudge the trail in five million or more strides, purposefully and carefully under a considerable burden. Even frugally stuffed backpacks weigh 30 kilos (44 pounds). Among the packed items considered essential: a bandanna, lip salve, water filters or iodine tablets, a candle, a waterproof pack cover, and “mountain money”: toilet paper. And, of course, some real paper money, a credit card, and at least a dollar’s worth of change in case an emergency call at a pay telephone becomes necessary. I didn’t mention a cellphone because there aren’t a lot of cell towers in or near the deep woods.

Jagged and slippery rocks, exposed roots, and muddy ruts await the hiker’s step. I can attest from my laughably short experience on the trail that all one has to do to turn an ankle is to take one’s eyes off the next rock in the path. Except in meadows, there’s no eyes-ahead, jaunty stride possible, even if you wanted to affect one. And there are a few treacherous (short) jumps across boulders, and grades that can be steep. To many hikers’ surprise, the slog down a mountainside can be far more grueling than the trip up because of the pounding to one’s feet and knees. Surprisingly, too, hikers soon loathe the stretches along hard, smooth roads and bridges, preferring the softer footfall of the earthen trail.

In rain, shine, sleet, or snow, A.T. thru hikers walk farther every 20 minutes than most Americans walk in a week.

Let me repeat that for effect: To make it the entire length of the trail in time, thru hikers on the Appalachian Trail go farther on their feet every 20 minutes than most Americans walk in a week. Thanks to sturdier boots and lots of practice, they find a comfortable gait that enables them to hike 15, 20, even 30 kilometers in a day. One superbly conditioned fellow, Andrew Thompson, set what is thought to be the unofficial speed record for through-hiking in 2005, at 47 days, 13 hours and 31 minutes. Needless to say, he hiked fast, slept little, and traveled light!

And in 1991, Bill “Orient Express” Irwin, previously a bitter alcoholic whose rehabilitation included a commitment to outdoor activity, became the first, and perhaps only, blind hiker to cover the whole trail in eight months, accompanied by his guide dog, “Orient,” and a variety of sighted companions who came and went along the way.

Others have walked the entire trail as surrogates for disabled friends or loved ones. One such man whom we met carried a mini-tape recorder on which to detail the events of each day. When he’d come to a town, he’d mail his progress report to his son, who had contracted multiple sclerosis.

The trail runs right across massive Fontana Dam in North Carolina. Built by the Tennessee Valley Authority in the early 1940s, it tamed the wild Tennessee River and provide hydroelectric power to seven states.
Thru hikers soon discover the trail’s delights, obstacles, and eccentricities, including 112 straight kilometers of crest line in the Great Smoky Mountains; spectacular bridge crossings of great rivers, including the Shenandoah and Potomac; and a long stretch above the timberline in New Hampshire’s Presidential Range. Five or six Yellowstone National Parks could fit inside the uninhabited wilderness that greets northbound hikers at the end of their trek in Maine’s Baxter State Park. Parts of it have still never been surveyed! And at the very end is one last, taxing climb of Mount Katahdin, where late summer-afternoon thunderstorms, pierced by dangerous lightning, are legend.

Almost as daunting as the physical challenge of the Appalachian Trail is the boredom. Brilliant sunsets, grazing deer, arresting fog banks, and spectacular valley views quickly lose their allure as the grind of a 3,400-kilometer ordeal sets in. Homesickness intrudes. Some of the best-conditioned athletes are the first to drop off the trail when they lack the self-sufficiency and inner strength to keep going. As simple an impediment as a foot blister can send a perfect physical specimen packing. The A.T.C. reports that 20 percent of hikers who begin the trail intending to reach the distant terminus drop out within 10 days. Some heading north even give up on the 25-kilometer approach trail in Georgia’s Amicalola State Park up to the A.T.’s starting point atop Springer Mountain!

The A.T.C estimates that one-third of all thru hikers are college-age men and women, often just out of school and awaiting their first jobs. While some of their buddies are off touring Europe, they’re challenging the Appalachian Trail — and themselves. Others of all ages who make the attempt are changing jobs, on sabbatical from work or school, or have a hefty financial “nest egg” — necessary because the reasonably equipped thru hiker will spend $6,000 or more on gear, clothes, and food.

New Englanders call their passes through the mountains “notches.” This is Franconia Notch, through which the A.T. passes in New Hampshire.
Parents of some hikers — and, secretly, some hikers themselves — worry about bears, snakes, criminals, or frightening encounters with drooling backwoodsmen of the sort depicted in the dark movie “Deliverance.” Statistics are faulty because many confrontations go unreported, but authorities calculate that no more than 10 hikers — many who are day hikers and intoxicated — die on the Appalachian Trail each year, often from sunstroke, heart attacks, or falls. There have been close calls due to hypothermia following late-spring blizzards, too. Few if any snakebites are reported, since snakes with any sense about them avoid pathways, but some pet dogs accompanying hikers have been bitten while nosing around in the brush. Reported murders and rapes over time along the trail can be counted on two hands. The shooting of two lesbian hikers — one of whom survived — by a self-proclaimed “mountain man” who professed a hatred of homosexuals sent reporters and filmmakers scrambling to Pennsylvania’s Michaux State Forest in 1988, however. The biggest crime problems associated with the trail are the occasional thefts of backpacks and the vandalism of cars left while their owners are off day hiking.

To reduce confrontations with unsavory locals, A.T. officials keep moving the trail farther off roads and away from picnic areas and other “beer party” locations where hikers are likely to get hassled. Hunting is permitted over many sections of the trail, but no hiker has been reported shot by these men and women in camouflage. In Georgia, Army Rangers practice in the mountains, occasionally scaring the living daylights out of hikers.

Long-distance hikers report developing a keen “woods sense” that allows them to detect potential trouble from humans or animals. Most fellow hikers prove to be eminently honest and trustworthy, and criminals are usually too clumsy or lazy to venture far off the road. Some thru hikers take along dogs for protection, but this is strongly discouraged. Not only do they slow down the hike — some mutts are quite paunchy, and no dog does well on slippery rocks — but, as mentioned, they are far more likely to spook a snake or moose or bear.

One certainly does not want to break a leg or ankle on the trail, although help in the form of the next hiker is always on the way. Such rescuers will sometimes construct a makeshift litter to get the injured person to a road, where real assistance can be summoned. But in rugged back country, rescue parties of 50 or more must sometimes be mounted to evacuate victims by forming human chains. As I said earlier, if you ever attempt to stroll up the A.T., watch where you’re going!

Not only is Harpers Ferry the unofficial midpoint of the Appalachian Trail and its headquarters location, it also offers a lovely walk over a bridge across the Potomac River.
Officially the Appalachian Trail is overseen by the National Park Service, although only a single ranger, operating out of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia — approximately 160 kilometers to the south of the midpoint of the trail — assumes this responsibility. The park service delegates the day-to-day running of the trail, so to speak, to the A.T.C., a caretaker organization also headquartered in Harpers Ferry. Its budget, in the millions of dollars, is raised from membership dues, a federal payment, corporate and foundation support, and income from its maps, guidebooks, and other publications.

Trust me, you’ll want more than a tourist brochure before you go ambling off into the wilds.

The trail, which winds through national parks and forests, state-owned land, and even a few short stretches of towns or private property, would not exist without the direct involvement of 30-some hiking clubs, some of which include members as far away as Michigan in the U.S. Midwest who drive east once or twice a year to help maintain a part of the trail. Hikers don’t need big signs to remind them not to litter or deface trees or private property. Carol and I found it nigh unto pristine every place we went.

Here’s a beautiful fall view of Big Meadow in Virginia, which the A.T. crosses beneath the Shenandoah Mountains. If it’s late fall and you’re there, you’d best be heading south, as the northern terminus will soon be closed.
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy faces a continuing conundrum. Part of its mission is to promote the Appalachian Trail through newsletters and photographs, including the happy shots of hikers who reach Harpers Ferry and the two termini. This, however, only attracts more hikers, including what one might call short-time “joy hikers,” making it harder to protect the trail and keep it wild. At one time or another, even pricey “guide services” have appeared, offering to tag along on the edges of a client’s thru hike, meeting him or her at a road crossing every night, bringing good food and driving the hiker to a motel or comfortable campground. That’s “roughing it” in style!

But it is truly dedicated thru hikers whose stories are the stuff of legend on the Appalachian Trial. Those whom we met assured us that if there was any question about one’s fitness, “the trail gets you in shape” fast. Knees and hips ache. Feet can easily get caught in crevices. Achilles’ tendons get painfully stretched. Tents collapse. Mold grows inside rain jackets. Your only dry clothes are the ones you sleep in; you get up in the morning and have to put your wet clothes back on again. Biting bugs give you no break for the effort you’re putting in; indeed, sweat excites many of them. Hikers soon miss the taste of vegetables and fresh fruit. “You’re not going carry a big head of lettuce, three cucumbers, and six apples with you,” one young woman told us, “because they’re going to weigh so much with all the water in them.”

After awhile, she told us, the world outside the trail “doesn’t exist. You think, ‘This is what I do. I walk.’” Many hikers report a remarkable metamorphosis. Striding through the endless forest, they are no longer students or secretaries or executives. They are hikers. Many report an incredibly difficult transition back into the “real world” of responsibilities and relationships when their thru hikes are completed. Some, disoriented and missing not only the quietude but also the community of hikers, take odd jobs and continue hiking the A.T. or other trails again and again.

This is one of the nicer shelters along the trail, a big improvement over simple lean-tos in most locations, and cheaper (free) than even the cheapest paid hostel.
A hiker with the trail name “Interplanet Janet” told us she expected to see bears and did — in captivity at Bear Mountain Zoo in New York State, through which the trail actually winds. Her parents sent periodic provisions, to be picked up at some of the larger “drop sites” at shelters along the route. “I got sick of oatmeal,” she said. The provisions included clean underwear and T-shirts, a small cooking stove (which she sent back as too cumbersome), and moleskin, intended to cover blisters. “I ended up just popping the blisters with a safety pin,” she recalled. “Not very sanitary, but it worked.”

Another hiker found the trek to be “a meditative experience, living for the moment.” When her mind seemed to deaden, she’d read a book in the shelters.

And she was surprised when she finally reached trail’s end atop Mount Katahdin that “it wasn’t this big, elated moment. It was like, ‘OK, I’m at the end of the trail, and in a few moments I’ll be hiking down the mountain” and going home. “I was glad, but there was so much calmness in me that I didn’t need some big exciting moment.” Nor did she report a ravenous “hiker’s appetite,” a common experience among those who complete the trail.

Many hikers take away what they describe as “a lot of inner peace,” or at least a calmer perspective on life. Physically, some say it takes them months to lose the stoop in their strides from carrying a heavy backpack. As Bill Bryson wrote, "It’s one thing to walk 2,000 miles, quite another to walk 2,000 miles with a wardrobe on your back.” And still another to adjust to the noise of urban life. Some hikers find they have lost interest in television and nightlife and find themselves switching jobs to positions with less pressure. Many who live anywhere close keep hiking and helping local clubs maintain a part of the Appalachian Trail.

One man told me he and his friends became “almost insane about the weight” they were carrying while hiking. “Our whole group cut off toothbrush handles,” he said. “We’d get toilet tissue and knock the core out. You’d do anything to lessen the weight.” No portable cook stoves for these folks!

The hikers use more than maps and trail books to find their way. Volunteer “maintainers,” as they’re called, keep the footpath a couple of meters wide, with at least a three-meter clearance above to accommodate the ever-increasing height of hikers’ backpacks.

And they freshen the little blazes of paint on trees, fences, and bridges that mark the route of the Appalachian Trail. Two blazes atop each other signal an obscure turn and alert hikers to consult their maps before proceeding. Blue blazes mark side trails, viewpoints, campsites, and shelters — if you call the 250 nighttime stopping places shelters. Most are little more than three-sided lean-tos, invariably open to whichever side from which rain, snow, or cold winds are advancing. Because the floor is sure to be wet, hikers sleep on boards in a crude loft and hang their food high in “bear poles.”

Fortunately, there are often inexpensive boarding houses, old hotels, and hostels not far off the trail at several points along the way.

Back to the blazes for a moment: They replaced a system of axe marks, which sometimes killed trees, and metal diamond shapes tacked to trees and posts. The diamonds are now collectors’ items. There is no set distance between blazes. Where the trail is well worn and relatively flat, there may be as much as a ten-minute walk before you see the next one. The blazes are as unobtrusive as possible. After all, this is the backcountry, and man’s handiwork is to be kept to a minimum.

To address a chronic erosion problem along the trail, crews dig pits into which they roll small boulders.

Over the years, almost the entire length of the trail has been relocated to get the path off roads, out of cities and subdivisions, and onto public land in the woods to realize Benton MacKaye’s vision of a “ridgecrest trail” with a view. In some cases, as in the Cumberland Valley of Pennsylvania, previous landowners are allowed to continue to farm or graze cattle — no bulls, though — on a ridge, so hikers can experience walking through pastures and cornfields.

The trail passes beside a fisherman, enjoying the day on Connecticut’s Housatonic River.
To alleviate overcrowding caused by the bunching-up of thru hikers starting from Georgia each spring, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy encourages “section hiking,” in which hikers complete the trail in stages, sometimes over several years. Or “flip-flopping.” Flip-floppers typically hike north to a point at which they realize they will not make Mount Katahdin before it’s closed for the winter. So they catch a ride to Maine and work their way south to the point where they had left the trail. As mentioned earlier, some superhumans “yo-yo” the full trail, hiking one direction (usually north), then immediately heading the entire way back. In the 1980s, a fellow named Phil Good completed three thru hikes, from Georgia to Maine to Georgia to Maine in one calendar year. You go, guy!

Hikers in silhouette do what comes naturally — keep moving, up a short hill.
The A.T. has distinctive social protocols: those inventive trail names, courteous sharing of limited shelter and hostel space, and communication via journals at points along the trail. This “A.T. Internet,” as it’s called, is little more than a series of crude spiral notebooks filled with handwritten, often simplistic, Twitter-like entries such as “Passed Cooter en route to Beagle Gap” and “Another glorious day to be alive!”

The journals are a lifeline. They are the first place authorities check to determine the last movements of missing hikers.

Are trail enthusiasts, in the words of the theme of an A.T.C. gathering in 1997, “loving the trail to death” from overuse? Not just a few hundred thru hikers but also thousands and thousands of day hikers are tramping about the mountain path right about now. Most trail authorities have concluded that there’s no right answer. One person’s view of overuse is another’s delight at the popularity of the trail as an escape from mundane daily life.

Little Wolf Creek footbridge near Bastian, Virginia, was carefully built by hand.
In his book, Bill Bryson pointed out that the Appalachian Trail had already outlasted the historic Oregon and Santa Fe trails, the coast-to-coast Lincoln Highway, and old U.S. Route 66, about which I’ll be writing in detail one of these days.

In the 1990s, the Appalachian Trail was informally extended from the official northern terminus in Maine into New Brunswick and Quebec provinces in Canada, creating a long dreamed-about “International Appalachian Trail.” Not very many hikers are thought to have made it all the way from Springer Mountain,

The end, beautiful Mount Katahdin, is in sight. But there’s a whole lot of wilderness hiking left before one can raise a fist in triumph at the top.
Georgia, to Cape Gaspé in Quebec.

Still under construction is even more of the International A.T. in Newfoundland. But there’s a little problem. Newfoundland is an island, and there’s no bridge from Quebec. That would necessitate either forgiving a gap in the trail or the far more unlikely feat of walking on water.

Because nature bedevils the Appalachian Trail in the wintertime, and administrators keep tweaking the route, it is the attitude of most officials, volunteers and hikers alike that the Appalachian National Scenic Trail will never be finished.


(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)

Bandanna. A large and brightly colored handkerchief, often used as a scarf or headband.

Conundrum. A difficult problem or riddle.

Rappelling. The controlled descent of a cliff, using a rope.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Plain People

Carol and I recently visited the land of the Plain People in Holmes County, Ohio, just down the road from the ordinary, middle-sized cities of Akron and Canton.

These neatly tied shocks of barley epitomize the look of the countryside in Ohio’s Amish country
This is “Amish country,” the largest, if not richest, concentration of Old Order Amish in the world. It is a serene place, full of rolling meadows, vibrant fields of corn and grain, and the Amish people’s tidy farmsteads. Serene, that is, until you’re stuck behind lines of tourists’ cars, funneling into quaint villages with even quainter names: Charm, Birds Run, Nellie, Seventeen, and Blissfield, to name five. There’s a Berlin, a Schoenbrunn, and a Gnadenhutten, too, giving a clue as to the German heritage of many folks thereabout.

Gnadenhutten. Gesundheit!

You can ride in Amish buggies, gorge yourself at smorgasbord restaurants and Amish bakeries — just try eating a couple of whoopee pies and then tell me the Amish aren’t sinful! — and watch Amishmen make cheese and furniture. You can walk through an authentic Amish home, too, run by non-Amish but with the Plain People’s blessing. It’s a way that the Amish can satisfy the curious while keeping outsiders from prying too deeply into their lives and affairs.
This town-limits sign says it all about one little Holmes County community.

Like the more famous, and much more touristy, Amish country of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania – replete with its own odd place names (Bird-in-Hand, Intercourse, Blue Ball) – Holmes County is an unusual juxtaposition of cultures. The Old Order Amish’s distinctive 19th-century lifestyle endures alongside, and within, the 21st-century world. These people cheerfully acknowledge that they are living in a time warp as they drive horse-drawn buggies, open carts, and mule- or horse-pulled farm machinery. Their farms, located in the rural parts of 22 mostly eastern and midwestern U.S. states and eastern Canada, are often the largest, best-kept, and most prosperous in their counties. Their homesteads are characterized by well-manicured gardens, windmills, and long rows of hanging wash on clotheslines, as well as one, two, or more additions to their farmhouses to accommodate large, extended families.

And what makes these places especially easy to spot are the plain window shades – that “plain” word again – and the absence of electric wires, frilly curtains, or any other kind of adornments.

Three especially memorable stops marked our visit, not counting dozens of screeches to a halt so that Carol could photograph the alluring countryside:

These are just a few of the lamps on display at Lehman’s General Store. Kerosene lamps are the principal form of illumination in Amish homes.
Lehman’s General Store in Kidron, Ohio. It was founded by a former Mennonite missionary in 1955 to serve the Amish but has evolved into room after room of old-timey and non-electric products that my mother knew well growing up “back in the country” of rural Pennsylvania. This is the place, in a series of refurbished old barns that Jay Lehman moved to one location and joined, to find butter churns, sauerkraut crocks and pickle kegs, oil lamps and cookie cutters by the hundreds, farm bells, noodle makers, potato mashers and other “hand-powered kitchen appliances,” jump-ropes and jack-in-the-boxes, washboards, straight-edge razors, cider presses, hand-cranked radios and ice-cream makers, and something called “granny-ware.” That’s a “water-bath canner” – a metal tub with handles to heat jars of fruits and vegetables like those that my mother “put up” for the winter, even in our suburban basement. Lehman’s carries books like Living With Chickens and Basic Butchering of Livestock and Game. Walking through the place, I felt like I was inside a living Sears & Roebuck mail-order catalog from 1905.

This is the Homestead Furniture “floor lamp” of which I speak. It’s more like a ceiling lamp, though.
Homestead Furniture in Mount Hope, where I was perplexed by floor lamps that rose – and rose and rose – all the way to a very high ceiling. That’s because the owner, Ernie Hershberger, is Old Order Amish, and these lamps, powered by batteries secluded in drawers at their base, take the place of overhead fluorescent electric lights.

And the Gutisberg Cheese Factory in the town of Charm. Now in its 60th year of making cheeses, it invented the “baby Swiss” variety, milder and creamier than typical Swiss cheese, and with far smaller “air” holes. Amishman Abe Mast walked me through the cheese-making routine
The baby Swiss rounds will soon rise to fill the molds at the Gutisberg Cheese plant.
– at least the part that begins once horse-drawn Amish wagons have dropped off tanks of fresh milk. The process is full of vats and enzymes, brine racks and cultures, curds and (of course) whey. Something called “renet,” too. Are you sure you want to know what that is? If not, skip to the next paragraph. Renet, as the Gutisbergs spell it, or rennet, is the extract of the fourth stomach of young ruminants like cows and goats. It helps them digest their mother’s milk, and it causes milk in the vats to coagulate into the beginnings of cheese.

Naturally we also saw what we came for: Amishmen and women and their children, the men and boys in straw hats and the women in bonnets. Their homes and buggies and horses, too.

An Amish farmer heads home with his team after a hard day in the fields. Every day is hard there.
Amish, you see, unlike odd societies that keep their distance from the rest of us, are not separatists. They do not live in communes. Their handsome farms are spread alongside those of their non-Amish neighbors. The most noticeable difference is that their neighbors will plow their fields with motorized tractors, while the Amishman – or just as often, the Amish boy – will plow his with a team of draft horses or mules. (Some of the strictest, Old Order Amish will not allow the use of mules, though, because they were created by human cross-breeding of a donkey and a horse, and not by God.)

Tobacco and cattle were once the Amish’s chief cash crop. The manure from cattle fertilized the tobacco fields, and stockyards and gigantic tobacco warehouses stood on the outskirts of towns near Amish farms. Today dairy cattle, corn, and soybeans are the most prevalent cash crops.

This day’s crop is certainly bountiful, as are most in Amish country.
The demand for land, certainly in Pennsylvania and to a growing degree in Holmes County and surrounding east-central Ohio, is so great that Amish farmers as well as non-Amish developers routinely bid against each other for available parcels. Since the Amish live simply and frugally, the wealthy among them do not spend their money on baubles, cruises, or fancy homes; they buy more land! And they put their money in the bank to save for future generations. The Amishmen are also always in search of more land to meet their obligation to provide farms for their male offspring.

The current U.S. recession has not entirely bypassed the Amish, however. Many of their young people, working in stores and factories in town, have been laid off. And sales of Amish people’s goods have dropped commensurately with a decline in consumer spending. But there’s no such thing as a homeless Amishman. There’s always a large and welcoming place to go home to.

Communities of Amish can be found as far west as Montana and as far south as Texas, and many Amish keep track of other clans’ doings through a chatty newspaper called The Budget, published in nearby Sugarcreek, Ohio. For more than a century, it has printed letters that are the antithesis of racy tabloid fodder. An example from Hillsboro, Wisconsin:

The spring peppers are really enjoying this fine weather, their first outing, and during the day the chirping sparrows’ song fills the air.

There’s plenty of work for man and beast at this Amish sawmill, whose blades and belts are driven by steam engines.
The U.S. Amish population is estimated to be near or above 165,000. This number includes groups of “New Order,” or “Beachy,” Amish – named for Amishman Moses Beachy from Somerset County, Pennsylvania, who led a walkout from an Amish community over the issue of shunning. (More about that in a bit.) Beachy Amish have incorporated some vestiges of modern technology, sometimes even driving cars – albeit black ones with plain black bumpers.

To further confuse visitors to Amish country, members of strict Mennonite orders also drive buggies and eschew electric appliances in their homes. And many Mennonite men wear beards and plain clothing. And there’s a fourth group of Plain People in the mix, too. They are “Dunkards”: German Baptists or “Brethren,” whose baptismal ceremonies include immersion – dunking – in water.

This “Amishman” didn’t mind having his photo taken. In fact, that’s the whole idea.
The Amish call their neighbors who live with 21st-century conveniences the “English,” or Englischers in German. They, and many Mennonites, refer to themselves as “Dutch.” Together, the Plain People (even in Ohio) are often called “Pennsylvania Dutch,” which English Quaker settlers corrupted from the word Deutsch – the German language spoken by many immigrants. Old Order Amish are in fact trilingual: They speak High German at worship; English at school and in dealing with the Englischers; and, at home, a German dialect peppered with words borrowed from English and softened by French influences from their people’s time in Alsace.

Both the Mennonites and the Amish are part of the Anabaptist movement, which began in Switzerland in the early 1500s at the time of the Protestant Reformation. The name means “twice baptized,” as their members – already baptized into the Roman Catholic Church as infants – were baptized a second time as adults. Later, Anabaptists rejected infant baptism, believing that the individual should make a free choice to accept a life with God. At that time, adult baptism was considered a criminal offense that was punishable by death, and many Anabaptists were imprisoned and tortured for their beliefs. Amish songs and books keep stories of their persecution alive and contribute to ongoing Amish distrust of society at large. A favorite Amish story tells the fate of Dutch Anabaptist Dirk Willems, who pulled to safety a pursuing sheriff who had fallen through the ice on a pond. For his kindness, Willems was arrested and burned at the stake.

One of the reasons Amishmen wear no moustaches dates to this period, for the soldiers who tormented them often wore long, florid ones.

Simplicity — and piety — are the watchwords of Amish life. There are a few Amish trades that you won’t find much in the “English” world.
To avoid detection, Anabaptists fled to the mountains or distant rural regions, where many became farmers. In 1693, Anabaptists in the Alsace region, now part of France, broke away from the larger church. Jakob Ammann, their leader, believed the Anabaptists had become too liberal in their lifestyles, straying from strict biblical teachings. Thereafter, Ammann’s followers became known as the Amish, and Swiss Anabaptists as the Mennonites, a name derived from their leader, Menno Simons.

In the early 1700s, the Amish accepted the invitation of William Penn, Pennsylvania’s founder, to Europeans of all religions to come to “Penn’s Woods” and enjoy a life of freedom and religious tolerance. The Amish from Germany and Switzerland arrived in Philadelphia, and true to their history, promptly headed far into what was then the wilderness, where the “world” could not follow. Such a notion seems preposterous today, as the “world” has built a jumble of outlet centers, strip shopping malls, and quasi-“Amish” attractions, right next to Amish farms. There are some, but nowhere near as many, such startling contrasts in Ohio Amish country as well.

No Amish congregations remain in Europe.

There are no Amish church buildings and no religious icons other than the Bible – an edition originally translated into German by Protestant reform leader Martin Luther. There’s no special Amish creed aside from following Christ’s example by living simply and humbly and helping others. Even personal Bible study is discouraged because it might lead to individual interpretations outside the accepted understanding of God’s word.

There’s nothing religious, or even Amish, about the “hex” signs that one finds in Amish country. They appear on some barns to inspire hearty crops and ward off evil, but they’re more of a tourist trinket than an everyday part of Amish life.
The Amish believe that working the soil brings them close to God. Their worship is organized into districts of about 25 households, led by a bishop. Services are held every other Sunday in each other’s homes. Thus Old Order Amish are sometimes called “House Amish.” In rooms cleared of household furniture, men and boys sit on one side, and women and girls on the other, both facing a central area where leaders are seated. Home worship harks back to the days in Europe when persecuted Anabaptists were forced to worship secretly. It reinforces the Amish belief that worship and daily life are inseparable.

The 3½-hour service begins with about 35 minutes of singing from the Ausbund, an 812-page German-language hymnal written by Anabaptists while they were imprisoned in the 1530s. There are no musical notes for the 140 songs within it, and no instruments accompany the singing, which is delivered slowly in a chant with no harmony. (Thus I, a shower tenor and choir lover, could never be an Amishman. Not that I’m big on plowing, either.) Some hymns have as many as – are you ready for this? – 60 verses!

These buggies are lined up outside an Amish house in which a church service, or at least hymn-singing, are probably going on.
Then comes a series of New Testament scriptures read from a booklet that lists 26 texts appropriate to the time of year. A second speaker, chosen by the congregation’s leaders only moments before he begins speaking, then preaches the main sermon that lasts an hour or more without notes of any kind. Talk about pressure! More scriptures and comments from the assembled, called “witnessing,” follow, then a prayer from a German prayer book and a benediction. And they’re not done yet! Announcements from the deacon and a final hymn bring the service to a close.

Then the women, who take no leadership role in any religious service, prepare a light, cold meal. Offerings are collected only twice a year – at Eastertime and at a fall communion service that can last seven hours or more. (The Amish are certainly a patient, unhurried lot.) That service is followed by ritual foot-washing and the sharing of bread and wine, the latter made from grapes by the bishop’s wife.

Religious holidays are solemn occasions. The Amish exchange small, practical gifts at Christmas, but there are no Christmas trees, lights, or Santa Claus figures, stories or songs. Nor does Peter Cottontail hop down the bunny trail around Easter in Amish country. Bunnies are sometimes served at mealtime, however.

This could be a “courting buggy,” although it looks like it’s had a lot of other uses. Note the rear reflector, required by law but a slim slice of protection for driver, passengers, and horse.
Sunday afternoons are a time for play and socializing. Baseball and softball are passions among Amish youth, even though they do not listen to games on radio or watch them on television. Young singles, who, together, are called “gangs” by the Amish, travel to other homes on Sunday evenings for more hymn-singing. A “date” will often consist of singing hymns (you may be detecting a trend here) or perhaps a spirited game of volleyball. It is to and from these events that a young Amishman will often drive a single Amishwoman in an open “courting buggy.”

An enclosed family buggy, sometimes laughingly called a “cheese box” by the Amish themselves, costs about $7,000, its single horse about $2,000, and harnesses $1,000 or more. In communities with large Amish populations, buggies, which must have lights and triangular rear reflectors, are sold at dealerships, just like cars. I can’t say whether they take test drives and haggle over the price there.

A common Amish country scene. Heavy traffic on both sides of the road, but one side crawling behind a slow-moving buggy that has nowhere else to go on the narrow roads.
Those reflectors are meager protection against onrushing automobiles, although the Amish keep to the side of the road whenever possible. Nevertheless, there are many gruesome accidents in which the Amish and their horses almost always get the worst of it.

Amish elders often “look the other way” as many of their young people “sow their wild oats” and taste worldly pleasures for a period. In this time of modest rebellion, it is not uncommon for Amish teenagers and young adults to obtain driver’s licenses and drive cars, change from their simple clothes into Englischer garb, and go dancing and bar-hopping in big cities like Philadelphia or Cleveland. Young Amish have occasionally been arrested for drunken driving of buggies as well as automobiles. Such rascally behavior is tolerated because the young people have not yet joined the church. But once a person accepts baptism – often at the time of marriage – all such worldly dalliances are banned forever. At baptism, the young Amishman or woman accepts the Christian faith and the authority of the group, and the penalty for deviation is lifetime shunning by the community, parents and siblings included.
Young Amish people are adept at making whoopee . . . pies out of oatmeal, chocolate, butter, and the creamiest filling in the land. They also are free, briefly, to make the other kind of whoopee: exuberant fun.
The excommunicated person may remain with his or her Amish spouse, but sexual relations are forbidden until and unless he or she renounces wicked behavior and returns to the fold.

Elizabethtown College professor Donald Kraybill, who has written several long backgrounders on the Amish, estimates that four of five young Amish people accept baptism and remain in the fold. After all, temptations to stay are surprisingly strong. Within the community there is love, support, security, and what I would call a degree of certainty that the harsh “real world,” with its unexpected twists, cannot guarantee.

Marriage is encouraged by the Amish but by no means expected. Unmarried Amishmen work farms or get jobs as carpenters, buggy makers, or mill employees. Amishmen are enthusiastic participants in volunteer fire departments, whose efforts obviously benefit Amish homes and barns. But the Amish do not participate in other community or professional organizations, organized sports, or political parties. They do vote in local elections, but usually not in state or national contests. Amishmen will not serve in military services; in wartime, they have traditionally been exempted from service as conscientious objectors and given noncombat roles. Some Amish do, though, keep rifles for hunting and even share hunting cabins in the mountains.

You know this is an Amish farm. You see no electric wires, but a clothesline getting lots of use.
The Amish buy goods that they cannot make or grow – especially raw materials, fertilizer, and farm machinery – from Englischer merchants, they bank at town financial institutions, and they hold public auctions. Unmarried Amish women often leave home to run quilt, bake, or craft shops, or to work in Amish butcher shops or health-food stores. Married Amish women also sometimes work outside the home, and two-income Amish households are becoming almost as common as in the community at large.

The Amish are never ostentatious, but the Plain People do express themselves exuberantly in their exquisite quilts.
Obedience – children to parents and teachers, wives to husbands, and all to God’s word – is central to the Amish way of life. So is the glorification of God and the community, not the individual. Arrogance, pride, publicity, and adornments that call attention to oneself are forbidden. You won’t see Amish people with nose rings or tattoos.

It is therefore apt that Amish appearance and dress are plain and utilitarian. Amish girls and women wear their hair parted in the middle and pulled back in a bin; the hair is never cut! They wear prayer coverings at all times in public due to a biblical dictate from 1st Corinthians. When they travel, Amish women and girls also wear bulky black bonnets that are almost as big as hoods.

Unmarried men are clean-shaven, and boys often are given bobbed “Dutch cut” haircuts. Married men grow beards, which, for the rest of their lives, they never trim. They wear straw hats to keep the sun off their necks in warm weather but switch to black felt hats for worship and on cold days. From the moment they are potty-trained, boys wear the same clothes as men, including suspenders.

If you’d ever shake hands with an Amishman, you’d remember it, for work on an Amish farm is hard, and an Amishman’s hands are tough, callused, and extremely strong.

There’s a place for everything, and everything in its place, in an Amish home.
Amish homes are generally devoid of decoration, although the Plain People will hang calendars, dried flowers, colorful quilts, and photographs . . . of scenery – never themselves or others. They believe that only the vain pose for photographs, and they do not take kindly to close-up photos snapped by others. Distant shots don’t seem to disturb them, though, and anyway, the most you’ll get for popping one is a shaken fist, since the Amish don’t believe in lawsuits!

This is an Amish “washing machine.” Actually, some homes have mechanical ones, powered by oil or gas.
Often the kitchen is the only heated room in an Amish house, and the sick are sometimes tended to there. Most kitchens do have modern-looking appliances such as refrigerators and washing machines – run by kerosene or propane gas. But you won’t find dishwashers (except the women and girls), toasters, microwave ovens, or, indeed, any electric outlets in which such contraptions could be plugged. Few Amish have deep freezers, but they get around the problem by bartering produce in exchange for freezer space at a non-Amish neighbor’s farm.

The aversion to electricity, by the way, has nothing to do with the modernity of it all, and certainly the Bible was silent on the practical use of electrons. Rather, the objection is that wires from the street into the house or barn are a tangible tie to the outside world that the Amish wish to avoid. Modern plumbing is readily accepted, and many bishops allowed telephones in Amish homes for a time until people were found to be gossiping; pay phones can now be found at the end of country lanes on some Amish farms.

A horse and “cheese box” buggy fittingly pass in front of the Gutisberg Cheese Co. factory and Swiss-inspired showroom. The founder was hired from Switzerland by local Amish looking for a cheese-making master.
You won’t find Amish people going door to door looking for converts. They believe that their good works and piety speak for themselves. They welcome converts, but
find it difficult to renounce modern conveniences (“No I-Pod? You’ve got to be kidding me.”). One Amish woman told me that potential converts find it especially wrenching to give up their automobiles. Who would trade tooling along at 100 kpm in a luxurious sedan for clip-clop, clip-clopping behind a moseying horse?

The Amish do not practice birth control, and families of seven, eight, or, for that matter, fifteen children are not unusual. Several siblings of the same sex often share bedrooms. Offspring are needed, of course, to support large Amish farms, though prosperous farmers will also employ non-Amish labor, especially during the harvest season.

To give you an idea of the size of Amish steam engines, that’s good-sized me standing in front of one of them.
You’ll find mechanized equipment on the farm and in mills, but it’s powered by steam, not internal-combustion engines, and is pulled by draft animals just like a farm wagon. And Amish farm equipment may have only steel or wooden wheels for the same reason that Amish allow tricycles, roller skates, and push scooters but not bicycles: rubber wheels on vehicles would make travel away from the community and into the temptations of the world too easy. The Amish do, however, accept rides, and “English” taxi services do a lively business. The Amish will also hire non-Amish drivers to move products and take them to visit far-off relatives. Train and intercity bus travel is allowed, but air travel is rarely permitted.

A young Amishwoman and her even younger siblings sell baskets by the side of the road in Charm, Ohio.
The Amish may be modest in most realms, but they are ambitious in business. Common at the end of an Amish family’s driveway are tiny, hand-printed signs announcing “bunnies for sale” or “quilts – no Sunday sales.” No other signs will be found. No beer or cigarette advertisements on billboards, for sure. Like Englischers, the Amish take advantage of tourism, as we saw in Holmes County. They want strangers to come, see, and buy – but not pry. “Yes, we’re different,” they’ll tell you. “But you’re different, too. We could certainly ask why you dress the way you do.”

Amish children may attend public school, but more common in heavily Amish areas are one-room, English-language parochial schools where, once again, girls sit on one side of a central aisle, boys on the other. It was such a school in Bart Township, Pennsylvania, that brought worldwide attention to the reclusive Amish in 2006, when a deranged non-Amish gunman shot and killed six girls after lining them up against a chalkboard. What staggered the outside world even more than the heinous act was the Amish response to this tragedy. The grandfather of one of the girls told his fellow Amish, “We must not think evil of this man.” An Amish neighbor comforted the killer’s wife and children, and the Amish set up a charitable fund for them, and offered them the community’s forgiveness.

Amish furniture is prized for its quality and craftsmanship.
Amish life is quaint but by no means idyllic. They are plain, not perfect, people, and very much a people apart while still in our midst. They cling stubbornly to old ways, resist new ones, and keep to themselves. There are jealousies and feuds as in any community. Births out of wedlock, mental illness, family violence, and suicide are not unknown among them. But the Amish by all accounts are also loving and supportive, though strict, parents. Their homes are “safe houses” for old and young. The “information age” may be passing the Amish by, but so are many of the stresses and dangers that grip the outside world. The Amish can and do fairly ask of their worldly neighbors, “Where is all your ‘progress’ taking you? Are you happier? More loved? More fulfilled?”

Seen in this light, the wholesome life of North America’s Plain People does not seem backward at all.


(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)

Dalliance. A frivolous use of time. “Goofing around” rather than working.

Mosey along. To dawdle or take one’s sweet old time about getting somewhere.

Perplexing. Confusing, lacking clarity.