America's Triple Crown

Appalachian Trail: Something Unique
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I am standing on top of Springer Mountain in northern Georgia on a cold day in late January. Or rather, I am trying to stand. The difficulty is the ice: it covers the trail in a sheet some three inches thick, and each time I transfer weight from one foot to the other, I jerk and flail like a mishandled marionette. A few feet off the trail, a metal plaque displays a hiker facing north. To take a picture of it, I have to half slide and half scramble down a shelf of rocks. My husband, Dan, watches dubiously, and then reminds me that I can hardly expect to start a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail--let alone finish it--with a broken leg.

The word"thru-hike" stops me mid-scramble. No matter how much hiking you've done in the past, Maine is a long way from Georgia: 2,158 mountain miles, to be precise. That's 5,000,000 steps, not to mention some 470,000 feet of vertical elevation gain, or the equivalent of 400 trips up and down the Empire State Building. My long-finished previous hikes seem irrelevant in the face of this new and immediate challenge.

The funny thing is that I had never intended to hike the Appalachian Trail. Not the whole thing, anyway, and certainly not all at once. First of all, I live close enough to bite off bits and pieces a hundred miles at a time. Second, with more than six months set aside for this trip, I could have gone anywhere in the world: the Himalayas, or Patagonia, or Europe. I could have chosen a more dramatic trail, with higher mountains and bigger views. But in the last couple of years, I've spent a fair amount of time on "the Trail" (that's what thru-hikers call it, as if there is no other), and the truth is that I've been seduced by this strip of land a few feet wide and more than two thousand miles long. In the end I am a backpacker, and if I want to be part of something grand, epic, and bigger than myself, I can hike the Appalachian Trail. I think.

But there is something else unique about the AT. This becomes clear to me one night many miles later, in central Maine, as I watch a moose emerge from the forest and pick his ungainly way into a northcountry pond. I watch as the moose dunks his Jurassically-proportioned head under water and then jerks it up, flinging diamond-colored droplets into the slanted evening light. Scientists tell us that places where two environments intersect support the richest variety of life: the plants and animals of the original environments, as well as a whole new community of organisms unique to these so-called ecotones. It occurs to me that, like the intersection of forest and the lake, the Appalachian Trail, too, is an ecotone, a place where two separate, mutually exclusive precepts--wilderness and community--have coalesced into something found nowhere else.

Like any other hiking trail, the AT is defined, at least in part, by its wildness. But wildness is to some extent an illusion. While for most of the year, the thick Appalachian foliage creates an illusion of separateness, in winter, the truth emerges between the stark brown branches of deciduous forest. On a clear night, civilization twinkles far below the ridges, clearly visible: blue fluorescent street lights, house glimmers glowing a tallow yellow, and the tiny white headlamps of cars winding along a valley road. As beautiful, dramatic, grand and, yes, even wild as the Appalachian Trail may be, it is never far from a road, or a town, or, for that matter, from help. It is never truly a wilderness.

Instead, it is a hiking trail that is within a one-day drive of more than two-thirds of the population of the United States. Three hours from Pittsburgh. Two hours from Boston. An hour from New York. A little more from Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Washington D.C. On the Appalachian Trail, the idea of wilderness collides with the reality of populated urban America, and the result is a new and unique environment, much richer than the sum of its parts. The Appalachian Trail is not so much a footpath through the wilderness as it is a community in the wilderness. Ironically, that was the original idea.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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