The Appalachian Trail is America’s most beloved trek, with millions of hikers setting foot on it every year. Yet few are aware of the fascinating backstory of the dreamers and builders who helped bring it to life over the past century. The conception and building of the Appalachian Trail is a story of unforgettable characters who explored it, defined it, and captured national attention by hiking it. From Grandma Gatewood—a mother of eleven who thru-hiked in canvas sneakers and a drawstring duffle—to Bill Bryson, author of the best-selling A Walk in the Woods, the AT has seized the American imagination like no other hiking path. The 2,000-mile-long hike from Georgia to Maine is not just a trail through the woods...
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (June 8, 2021) Hardcover: 272 pages ISBN-10: 0358171997 ISBN-13: 978-0358171997 Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.96 x 8.25 inches
Environment is the influence upon each inner mind of the thing shared by every inner mind: it is the common layer of air which we all breathe—the filament which binds our separate lives.
Beginning nearly five hundred million years ago, North America and Africa collided. Like two cars meeting head-on, both continents crumpled at the point of contact. Today’s Appalachian highlands—the mountain ranges, foothills, ridges, and valleys stretching from Atlantic Canada to the middle of Alabama—are, in the simplest possible explanation, the result of that collision. The two land masses collided repeatedly, in successive mountain-building events that geologists call orogenies. Before humans, or dinosaurs, or any land animal of any kind existed on Earth, these collisions and others brought together the supercontinent Pangea, connecting what are now North America, South America, Africa, and parts of Europe.
It was not in any way a simple process. Millions of years of mountain building were followed by millions of years of erosion, in successive cycles, as the continents crunched together in repeated orogenic pulses—the Taconic, the Acadian, the Alleghenian—until, one day, the tide reversed. The same roiling liquid innards of Earth that had brought the continents together split them apart again. Beginning about 250 million years ago, a rift opened and widened, creating the basin of the Atlantic Ocean, pushing North America west in a process that continues to this day. No longer on the colliding, mountain-building side of the continent (the younger, western mountains have taken over that role), the Appalachians continue their evolution in slightly less dramatic fashion.
This development of the Appalachians over eons demands of our faculties a timescale we can barely make sense of. “If geologic time could somehow be seen in the perspective of human time,” John McPhee writes,
sea level would be rising and falling hundreds of feet, ice would come pouring over continents and as quickly go away. Yucatans and Floridas would be under the sun one moment and underwater the next, oceans would swing open like doors, mountains would grow like clouds and come down like melting sherbet, continents would crawl like amoebae, rivers would arrive and disappear like rainstreaks down an umbrella, lakes would go away like puddles after rain, and volcanoes would light the earth as if it were a garden full of fireflies.
It’s hard not to sense at some level this vastness of nature’s story, the smallness of our lives in the context of its massive sweep, when we go hiking in the mountains. The feeling can be both inspiring and intimidating, a fact that was clearly brought home to me one late summer day during a hike on the Appalachian Trail in western Massachusetts. My destination was that state’s highest point, Mt. Greylock, which, at just 3,500 feet, does not exactly rate in the pantheon of mountaineering. But then neither do I. More comfortable spending time in a library archive than a backcountry tent, I am a day-hiker only—five or six hours at a stretch, out and back from the comfort of a car.
This particular trip would combine town, country, and mountain, starting from the nearby community of Cheshire, one of the places where the AT jogs down a Main Street before resuming its ridgeline march from Maine to Georgia. Getting underway in the early afternoon, such that running late would mean running out of light to see with, I estimated what time the sun would set, and hoped to reach the peak with at least half my time remaining.
The trail led out of town past the local elementary school, through a cornfield, into the woods, and up a moderately steep ascent. As I walked, a pleasant sense of separation from the world settled in, the subtly altered mental state that is in my mind the main reason to go for a hike. It’s not just the physical change of scenery, or even the literal change in perspective that is sometimes afforded from a lookout. It’s a more figurative change in viewpoint, the hiker reduced to a world with basically two directions, forward and back. It’s the adjustment of our sense of time and distance to walking scale, and the knowledge that only physical effort, rather than a press on the accelerator or a click on the screen, can change the view.
Physical effort, indeed. This trail was accomplishing a fair bit of vertical in the space of not very much horizontal. Only an hour or so into the hike, I was winded, sweating a fair bit, mildly alarmed by the first sensations of queasiness. It occurred to me, with the 20-20 hindsight that not only clarifies but embarrasses, that the total height of a mountain has very little to do with the distance and change in elevation of any particular hike. Sure, Greylock is shorter than other mountains I’d stood on top of. But how high were those starting trailheads? And how gradual was the ascent?
The situation was made worse by the fact that I had no water to drink. It was August, after all, and the moisture that was soaking through my shirt seemed to come directly from my increasingly dry mouth. This was an inexcusable oversight, an overreaction to my years of suburban fatherhood, in which every activity a kid engaged in seemed to be shadowed by a parent waving a disposable water bottle in the young one’s direction. Sometimes it seemed a wonder that I had survived my own youth without a parental water source at my elbow. Those serious hikers who overnight on the trail, for days or weeks or months, they needed to think seriously about water. Schlubby old me, out for an afternoon excursion? Shrug.
I pressed on up the trail, my discomfort growing and confidence waning. The internal conversation cycled rapidly between “Pull yourself together, this is Massachusetts, not Tibet” and “I’ve made a terrible mistake.” During frequent breaks I would consult the trail map and try to gauge the distance and time remaining. When there were about forty-five minutes to go before the halfway mark, the map indicated there was about that much time left to the summit. I was at the top of a lower, neighboring peak, Saddle Ball, presumably named for its position at the opposite end of a saddle shape from Greylock. Reaching the goal would mean walking the saddle down into the gap between the two summits and up to the top of Greylock. If my calculations were right, I’d barely make it in time, and have to immediately turn around to make it out of the woods before dark. A trip that was already closer to safety limits, in terms of exertion, time of day, and hydration, than was prudently advisable would be pushed even closer.
On the upside, pressing on would mean that I would get to the top, achieve the goal; I would not have to say that I failed to summit a mountain of utterly mediocre stature. Yet the remaining hike would also be just another down-and-up sequence, the kind I’d already enjoyed plenty of, the kind that AT thru-hikers endure thousands of, over and over and over again. This particular one promised to be special only because it would get me to the top of Greylock, a state’s highest peak. Not world famous, but at least regionally known and frequently visited, with a touch more cachet than the chucklingly named Saddle Ball.
In the end, I decided that this was a pretty slim distinction. Only a straight line first drawn on a colonial map, separating Massachusetts from Vermont, distinguished this mountain from its higher neighbors a few miles to the north. In the context of the Taconic Range it is a part of, Greylock was really no different from Saddle Ball, one of many peaks that ascend eventually to an apex at Vermont’s Mt. Equinox about 50 miles away. And the Taconics are only a part of the much larger complex of northern Appalachians, with their highest point at Mt. Washington in New Hampshire . . . which is not as tall as Mt. Mitchell, down in North Carolina. And so on. Treating these mountains like badges to acquire or experiences to own did not, at that point, seem to make a whole lot of sense. Labels, borders, lists—these are a human artifice laid on top of nature, not the thing itself. They have meaning only in the workaday world that a backwoods trail is meant to provide a break from.
I turned around and made a tired, halting descent to the trailhead, the slow, balanced lowering from one foothold to the next murder on the knees. At one point I stood up too quickly from a rest break, and the world swam. But as the trail leveled out at lower elevation, and the late-day sun broke through into hillside meadows, a sense of equanimity slowly emerged from the exhaustion. It was a physical kind of knowledge, as much as mental: the yin-yang sense that any trail or summit is, for all its specialness, at the same time meaningless. The meaning comes from outside—our heads, our society and culture. Mt. Greylock does not know or care whether I made it to its summit. One can read a lot of fiercely intelligent work on nature as a social construct, but nothing brings it home like feeling, in a visceral sense, the actual indifference of the natural world to one’s own existence.
It was Henry David Thoreau who most famously proclaimed this indifference of nature to human affairs. In 1846, interrupting his two-year tenure on Walden Pond, Thoreau undertook an expedition to the top of Maine’s highest peak, Mt. Katahdin. Today, Katahdin’s summit is the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, at the center of a state park, a popular summer destination. Back then, it was deep in the wilderness, several days’ upstream journey by canoe and portage.
On a blustery September morning, Thoreau separated from his small group of expedition companions and made the final ascent of Katahdin on his own. Being alone on the mountaintop, he found, was anything but comforting. Immersed in clouds, knocked around by the wind, stumbling amid rocks he could barely see, Thoreau was overwhelmed. In its purest form, he declared, nature “was vast, Titanic, and such as man never inhabits. Some part of the beholder, even some vital part, seems to escape through the loose grating of his ribs as he ascends. He is more lone than you can imagine. . . . Nature was here something savage and awful, though beautiful . . . not for him to tread on.”
At some point in Thoreau’s journey, he had crossed a threshold, from nature as a refreshing alternative to society, to nature as a dangerous and heartless master. For all his desire to separate from the world—first in a shack on Walden Pond, then farther away, in the remote Maine wilderness—Thoreau found there was something he did not want to leave behind: his sense of self, the realms of thought and feeling that established his humanity, which required safe surroundings and some community, however small, to share them with. Even the author of the phrase “in wildness is the preservation of the world” desired not only a pathway into nature, but a connection back to civilization as well.
It turns out this contradiction, and the search for a place that resolves it, is about as old as Western civilization. The scholar Leo Marx traced it all the way back to the first century BCE and Virgil’s account of a shepherd, disenfranchised by the political powers that be, longing for a better home.
It is a place where [the shepherd] is spared the deprivations and anxieties associated with both the city and the wilderness. Although he is free of the repressions entailed by a complex civilization, he is not prey to the violent uncertainties of nature. His mind is cultivated and his instincts are gratified. . . . He enjoys the best of both worlds—the sophisticated order of art and the simple spontaneity of nature.
Every year, the Appalachian Trail hosts hundreds of thousands of people seeking some kind of connection to nature, without abandoning their civilized selves. The vast majority of these visitors are, as I was on Greylock, out for an hour or a half-day, with a parking lot as the start and end point. For a much smaller group, multiday backpacking trips might cover the trail’s extent in one national park, or one state. And a tiny percentage of Appalachian Trail users hike the entire thing in one trip, a months-long rite of passage. But even the hardest-core thru-hikers maintain ties to the wider world: they use lightweight, durable gear made of materials Thoreau could not have imagined, maintain precise locational awareness with sophisticated GPS, and take advantage of infrastructure, in town and on the trail, provided by the society around them.
To be perfectly clear: the person who nearly passed out trekking up Mt. Greylock, of all places, is not questioning the fortitude of those rare few who navigate months of mental and physical hardship to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. The point is that even a journey of that scale and ambition is not a total separation from the modern world. It is one instance of something more universal in our retreats into nature: a productive tension between shelter and escape, freedom and abandonment.
Any place that aspires to provide such a retreat—a park, a recreational area, a 2,100-mile-long trail over the Appalachian Mountains—will reflect this tension. The places we choose, and the way we then develop and manage them, tell us a lot about what we are asking from nature, what exactly we think we are traveling toward and escaping from, where we want to strike the balance between maddening civilization on the one hand, and heartless nature on the other.
Telling the story of the Appalachian Trail, then, means telling a story of people. In each of the chapters that follow, I have tried to capture an important piece of the trail’s history by profiling an individual (or two or three) whose own life made an important intersection with the development of the AT. My hope is that to the extent we can understand these individuals in the context of their own lives—their personalities, their successes and failures, the cultures they were a part of—we can gain some insight into the very human process of crafting a natural environment around ourselves.
It should be clear, therefore, what this book is not. It is not a comprehensive history of every aspect of the Appalachian Trail’s development, and it is even less about the details of hiking on the trail. It is a biography: an attempt to render something essential about the life of this place by looking at how it developed over time.
Like any approach to telling an interesting story, this one has its limitations. Focusing on a handful of individuals could easily be misread as an oversimplification of the trail’s history, which involves more people, events, and outside influences than this narrative tries to account for. And just as the trail’s story is refracted through the separate lives of the individuals profiled, so is the accounting of their lives skewed to capture their interaction with the AT. But together, the individuals’ stories and the trail’s should form a useful symbiosis, and provide a unique perspective on a one-of-a-kind place. The chapter notes and bibliography will point the reader toward fuller treatment of many topics, including book-length biographies of five of the subjects profiled.
Ten out of the twelve people named in the chapter titles are men, and they are all white, which roughly captures the makeup of the broader cast of characters in the trail’s development over the years. As the body of the text makes clear, the invention, construction, and protection of the AT was a project firmly grounded in America’s white middle class, responsive to its needs and reflective of its worldview. In this respect, unfortunately, the AT is an accurate representative of much of American environmental history, full of the presumption that one privileged slice of society could make its own needs the nation’s, and that its own version of nature was the only authentic one. My goal here is to describe the world of ideas that built the AT over the twentieth century, and in fact that was a very monochromatic world.
A final caveat: I am an outsider to the AT community, a proud and increasingly diverse collection of people who over a hundred years have made the trail into what it is. They are trail builders, donors, citizen scientists, and organizers who volunteer the thousands of hours each year to make this project work. And they are the serious hikers whose identity with the AT has been won through their dogged use of the trail on hikes of all manner and description. They would tell (and have told) their own stories in their own way. But I hope that bringing an outsider’s perspective to the trail’s history can make a welcome contribution to that body of understanding, and capture for a wider audience the special window onto American nature that the Appalachian Trail provides.