End-To End On The Appalachian Trail

The Thru-Hiking Experience
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Hikers at sunset

Occasionally an idea takes hold of a people and assumes a powerful life of its own: King Arthur's Camelot, the New World, the American West. Ideas like these become powerful in part because they hold forth the promise of change, of a fresh start. They inspire people to reach for, discover and build upon the better, stronger, more compassionate part of themselves. Today, the Appalachian Trail has graduated to such a stature.

There are other long distance hiking trails in America, to be sure, but none has captured the American imagination, indeed the international imagination, in quite the same way that the Appalachian Trail has. If all people wanted to do was to take a hike, any trail in any state or national park or forest would do. America offers a lot of them. But the Appalachian Trail is much more than a walk in the woods.

Two thousand, one hundred fifty-eight miles long, the Appalachian Trail follows a path from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Mt. Katahdin, Maine. It lies within a day's drive of 67 percent of America's population. It passes through many little towns and communities, the kind with friendly people and family warmth, that seem to be disappearing all too rapidly these days. Maintained mostly by people who don't receive money for their efforts, it serves as touchstone to a community of hikers that is incredibly positive and, at times, wickedly funny.

The Appalachian Trail was first conceived by Benton MacKaye (rhymes with sky) in 1921. Writing in the Journal of the American Institute of Architects, MacKaye noted that"something has been going on these past few strenuous years which in the din of war and general upheaval, has been somewhat lost from the public mind. It is the slow quiet development of the recreational camp. It is something neither urban nor rural. It escapes the hecticness of the one, and the loneliness of the other. And it escapes also the common curse of both-the high-powered tension of the economic scramble." To MacKaye's mind, "playgrounds for the people" along the Appalachian skyline were needed. The mountains would be perfect for recreation, health, fresh air, perspective.

The Appalachian Trail Conference, a private, non-profit organization of clubs and 22,500-plus individual, family, and corporate members who support MacKaye's dream, estimated 15 years ago that between three and four million hikers came to the Trail yearly to hike. This, in the days before corporate downsizing, McJobs, and point and click pace of life. Amazing the foresight MacKaye had! The Appalachian Trail, arguably America's most significant sanity check, does indeed provide a way for people to immerse themselves in the beauty of Nature, meet other like-minded souls, challenge themselves, unjangle their nerves and collect their wits. Someone, somewhere is on the Trail every day of the year.

Each year some hikers come to the Trail to attempt a thru-hike, the endeavor of hiking it in a single, generally uninterrupted season. Maybe 20 percent who start will accomplish their undertaking. The rest either quit because they are not ready for the test, sustain major injury, fall sick or experience family emergencies that force them from the Trail.

Once generally the domain of introverted solitude lovers, thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail today has reached incredible numbers. The growing numbers who come out each year—now pushing into the thousands—attest to this fact. One thru-hiker, Wanderlust, observed that "they should change the name from a National Scenic Trail to a National Social Trail."

If you ask a hiker why he or she would want to attempt a thru-hike, you'll get an understandable answer. For many, hiking the Appalachian Trail promises the opportunity to rethink their lives. Something somewhere is askew and they need a time-out from the merry-go-round they are riding. For others, the Trail promises an extended break from the trappings of modern life—technology, asphalt, concrete, clocks—that aren't very pretty and seem somehow to have gotten the upper hand. (When was the last time anybody you know stood back and said,"Wow! Look at that parking deck! That is so beautiful!")

For still others, there is the promise of warmth and friendliness and openness of the Trail community, not the office politics, not the backbiting, not the garden variety rudeness, and not the twisted behavior that results when people limbo beneath the weight of legislated niceness. While some people may operate under the assumption that the Appalachian Trail is home to an Animal House-like atmosphere, the majority of thru-hikers are serious about their endeavor. For a generation that cut its teeth on Madison Avenue notions that you're likable only when you've bought the right image and smell nice, what thru-hikers learn about themselves and the world around them is spiritually refreshing. You've come a long way, baby, when you realize it ain't what you've bought, it's what you're made of.

What they learn occurs within the context of intense physical and psychological challenges that hiking the Appalachian Trail inevitably presents. As much as the social aspect has dramatically changed the Trail experience, some things have not changed. The elevation gains and losses still wreak havoc on the knees, the packs are still heavy regardless of what a hiker does to lighten the load, it still rains more than every hiker thinks he or she deserves, the bugs still bite mercilessly. And after the first 100 or so miles, the hikers are perpetually and deep-in-their-gut hungry. Do they think about quitting? You bet. Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail is not a hand-out accomplishment.

So why would anybody want to endure such apparent torture?

After listening to hikers, eating with them, bunking with them and watching them, I believe that the thru-hiking experience strikes a uniquely American chord, one that may only exist in the myths we Americans want to believe about ourselves. I saw it and felt it one evening in Massachusetts.

After talking for 30 minutes or so with two thru-hikers, Scout and Seadog, on the benches outside the lodge at Mt. Greylock, we said our good-byes. They had a few more miles they wanted to put in before they called it an evening. I wished them luck and we parted.

A few minutes later I chanced to look out of an open window and saw them, some 30 yards away, walking up the path to cross Mt. Greylock summit. Scout stopped to adjust her ball cap; Seadog took a bounce step on one foot to bump her pack to its riding position. About 10 yards apart, alone but together, they walked up to the summit. Behind them the sun was turning flame coral; before them the evening sky glowed pink.

© Article copyright Menasha Ridge Press. All rights reserved.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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