|Layers of fog greet A.T. hikers in the Appalachian Mountains.|
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.|
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 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.|
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.|
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.|
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.|
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.|
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.|
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.|
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.|
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.|
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.|
|Hikers in silhouette do what comes naturally — keep moving, up a short hill.|
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 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.|
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.
TODAY'S WILD WORDS
(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.