It started with Benton MacKaye, a mild, kindly, infinitely well-meaning visionary who in the summer of 1921 unveiled an ambitious plan for a long-distance hiking trail to his friend Charles Harris Whitaker, editor of a leading architectural journal. To say that MacKaye’s life at this point was not going well would be to engage in careless understatement. In the previous decade he had been let go from jobs at Harvard and the National Forest Service and eventually, for want of a better place to stick him, given a desk at the U.S. Labor Department with a vague assignment to come up with ideas to improve efficiency and morale. There, he dutifully produced ambitious, unworkable proposals that were read with amused tolerance and promptly binned. In April 1921 his wife, a well-known pacifist and suffragette named Jessie Hardy Stubbs, flung herself off a bridge over the East River in New York and drowned.
It was against this background, just ten weeks later, that MacKaye offered Whitaker his idea for an Appalachian Trail, and the proposal was published in the somewhat unlikely forum of Whitaker’s Journal of the American Institute of Architects the following October. A hiking trail was only part of MacKaye’s grand vision. He saw the AT as a thread connecting a network of mountaintop work camps where pale, depleted urban workers in the thousands would come and engage in healthful toil in a selfless spirit and refresh themselves on nature. There were to be hostels and inns and seasonal study centers, and eventually permanent woodland villages—”self-owning” communities whose inhabitants would support themselves with cooperative “non-industrial activity” based on forestry, farming, and crafts. The whole would be, as MacKaye ecstatically described it, “a retreat from profit”—a notion that others saw as “smacking of Bolshevism,” in the words of one biographer.
At the time of MacKaye’s proposal there were already several hiking clubs in the eastern United States—the Green Mountain Club, the Dartmouth Outing Club, the venerable Appalachian Mountain Club, among others—and these mostly patrician organizations owned and maintained hundreds of miles of mountain and woodland trails, mainly in New England. In 1925, representatives of the leading clubs met in Washington and founded the Appalachian Trail Conference with a view to constructing a 1,2OO-mile-long trail connecting the two highest peaks in the east: 6,684-foot Mount Mitchell in North Carolina and the slightly smaller (by 396 feet) Mount Washington in New Hampshire. In fact, however, for the next five years nothing happened, largely because MacKaye occupied himself with refining and expanding his vision until he and it were only tangentially connected to the real world.
Not until 1930, when a young Washington admiralty lawyer and keen hiker named Myron Avery took over the development of the project, did work actually begin, but suddenly it moved on apace. Avery was not evidently a lovable fellow. As one contemporary put it, he left two trails from Maine to Georgia: “One was of hurt feelings and bruised egos. The other was the AT.” He had no patience with MacKaye and his “quasi-mystical epigrams,” and the two never got along. In 1935, they had an acrimonious falling-out over the development of the trail through Shenandoah National Park (Avery was willing to accommodate the building of a scenic highway through the mountains; MacKaye thought it a betrayal of founding principles) and they never spoke again.
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MacKaye always gets the credit for the trail, but this is largely because he lived to be ninety-six and had a good head of white hair; he was always available in his later years to say a few words at ceremonies on sunny hillsides. Avery, on the other hand, died in 1952, a quarter-century before MacKaye and when the trail was still little known. But it was really Avery’s trail. He mapped it out, bullied and cajoled clubs into producing volunteer crews, and personally superintended the construction of hundreds of miles of path. He extended its planned length from 1,200 miles to well over 2,000, and before it was finished he had walked every inch of it. In under seven years, using volunteer labor, he built a 2,000-mile trail through mountain wilderness. Armies have done less.
The Appalachian Trail was formally completed on August 14, 1937, with the clearing of a two-mile stretch of woods in a remote part of Maine. Remarkably, the building of the longest footpath in the world attracted almost no attention. Avery was not one for publicity, and by this time MacKaye had retired in a funk. No newspapers noted the achievement. There was no formal celebration to mark the occasion.
The path they built had no historical basis. It didn’t follow any Indian trails or colonial post roads. It didn’t even seek out the best views, highest hills, or most notable landmarks. In the end, it went nowhere near Mount Mitchell, though it did take in Mount Washington and then carried on another 350 miles to Mount Katahdin in Maine. (Avery, who had grown up in Maine and done his formative hiking there, was most insistent on this.) Essentially, it went where access could be gained, mostly high up on the hills, over lonely ridges and forgotten hollows that no one had ever used or coveted, or sometimes even named. It fell short of the actual southern end of the Appalachian Mountain chain by 150 miles and of the northern end by nearer 700. The work camps and chalets, the schools and study centers, were never built.
Still, quite a lot of the original impulse behind MacKaye’s vision survives. All 2,100 miles of the trail, as well as side trails, footbridges, signs, blazes, and shelters, are maintained by volunteers—indeed, the AT is said to be the largest volunteer-run undertaking on the planet. It remains gloriously free of commercialism. The Appalachian Trail Conference didn’t hire its first paid employee until 1968, and it retains the air of a friendly, accessible, dedicated outfit. The AT is no longer the longest hiking trail—the Pacific Crest and Continental Divide trails, both out West, are slightly longer—but it will always be the first and greatest. It has a lot of friends. It deserves them.
Almost from the day of its opening, the trail has had to be moved around. First, 118 miles in Virginia were rerouted to accommodate the construction of Skyline Drive through Shenandoah National Park. Then, in 1958, overdevelopment on and around Mount Oglethorpe in Georgia necessitated lopping twenty miles off the trail’s southern end and moving the start to Springer Mountain, in the protected wilderness of the Chattahoochee National Forest. Ten years later, the Maine Appalachian Trail Club rerouted 263 miles of trail—half its total length across the state—removing the trail from logging roads and putting it back in the wilds. Even now the trail is never quite the same from one year to the next.
Perhaps the hardest part about hiking the Appalachian Trail is getting on to it, nowhere more than at its ends. Springer Mountain, the launching-off point in the south, is seven miles from the nearest highway, at a place called Amicalola Falls State Park, which in turn is a good way from anywhere. From Atlanta, the nearest outlet to the wider world, you have a choice of one train or two buses a day to Gainesville, and then you’re still forty miles short of being seven miles short of the start of the trail, as it were. (To and from Katahdin in Maine is even more problematic.)
Fortunately, there are people who will pick you up in Atlanta and take you to Amicalola for a fee. Thus it was that Katz and I delivered ourselves into the hands of a large, friendly guy in a baseball cap named Wes Wisson, who had agreed to take us from the airport in Atlanta to Amicalola Falls Lodge, our setting-off point for Springer, for $60.
Every year between early March and late April, about 2,000 hikers set off from Springer, most of them intending to go all the way to Katahdin. No more than 10 percent actually make it. Half don’t make it past central Virginia, less than a third of the way. A quarter get no farther than North Carolina, the next state. As many as 20 percent drop out the first week. Wisson has seen it all.
“Last year, I dropped a guy off at the trailhead,” he told us as we tooled north through darkening pine forests towards the rugged hills of north Georgia. “Three days later he calls me from the pay phone at Woody Gap—that’s the first pay phone you come to. Says he wants to go home, that the trail wasn’t what he expected it to be. So I drive him back to the airport. Two days after that he’s back in Atlanta. Says his wife made him come back because he’d spent all this money on equipment and she wasn’t going to let him quit so easy. So I drop him off at the trailhead. Three days later he phones from Woody Gap again. He wants to go to the airport. ‘Well, what about your wife?’ I says. And he says, ‘This time I’m not going home.'”
“How far is it to Woody Gap?” I asked.
“Twenty-one miles from Springer. Doesn’t seem much, does it? I mean, he’d come all the way from Ohio.”
“So why did he quit so soon?”
“He said it wasn’t what he expected it to be. They all say that. Just last week I had three ladies from California—middle-aged gals, real nice, kind of giggly but, you know, nice—I dropped them off and they were in real high spirits. About four hours later they called and said they wanted to go home. They’d come all the way from California, you understand, spent God knows how much on airfares and equipment—I mean, they had the nicest stuff you ever saw, all brand new and top of the range—and they’d walked maybe a mile and a half before quitting. Said it wasn’t what they expected.”
“What do they expect?”
“Who knows? Escalators maybe. It’s hills and rocks and woods and a trail. You don’t got to do a whole lot of scientific research to work that out. But you’d be amazed how many people quit. Then again, I had a guy, oh about six weeks ago, who shoulda quit and didn’t. He was coming off the trail. He’d walked from Maine on his own. It took him eight months, longer than it takes most people, and I don’t think he’d seen anybody for the last several weeks. When he came off he was just a trembling wreck. I had his wife with me. She’d come to meet him, and he just fell into her arms and started weeping. Couldn’t talk at all. He was like that all the way to the airport. I’ve never seen anybody so relieved to have anything done with, and I kept thinking, ‘Well, you know, sir, hiking the Appalachian Trail is a voluntary endeavor,’ but of course I didn’t say anything.”
“So can you tell when you drop people off whether they’re gonna make it'”
“And do you think we’ll make it?” said Katz.
He looked at us each in turn. “Oh, you’ll make it all right,” he replied, but his expression said otherwise.
Amicalola Falls Lodge was an aerie high on a mountainside, reached up a long, winding road through the woods. The man at the airport in Manchester had certainly seen the right weather forecast. It was piercingly, shockingly cold when we stepped from the car. A treacherous, icy wind seemed to dart around from every angle and then zip up sleeves and pant legs. “Jee-zuss!” Katz cried in astonishment, as if somebody had just thrown a bucket of ice water over him, and scooted inside. I paid up and followed.
The lodge was modern and very warm, with an open lobby dominated by a stone fireplace, and the sort of anonymously comfortable rooms you would find in a Holiday Inn. We parted for our rooms and agreed to rendezvous at seven. I got a Coke from a machine in the corridor, had a lavishly steamy shower involving many towels, inserted myself between crisp sheets (how long would it be till I enjoyed this kind of comfort again?) watched discouraging reports by happy, mindless people on the Weather Channel, and slept hardly at all.
I was up before daybreak and sat by the window watching as a pale dawn grudgingly exposed the surrounding landscape—a stark and seemingly boundless expanse of thick, rolling hills covered in ranks of bare trees and the meagerest dusting of snow. It didn’t look terribly forbidding—these weren’t the Himalayas—but it didn’t look like anything you would particularly want to walk out into.
On my way to breakfast, the sun popped out, filling the world with encouraging brightness, and I stepped outside to check out the air. The cold was startling, like a slap to the face, and the wind was still bitter. Dry little pellets of snow, like tiny spheres of polystyrene, chased around in swirls. A big wall thermometer by the entrance read 11°F.
“Coldest ever for this date in Georgia,” a hotel employee said with a big pleased smile as she hurried in from the parking lot, then stopped and said: “You hiking?”
“Well, better you’n me. Good luck to ya. Brrrrrrr!” And she dodged inside.
To my surprise, I felt a certain springy keenness. I was ready to hike. I had waited months for this day, after all, even if it had been mostly with foreboding. I wanted to see what was out there. All over America today people would be dragging themselves to work, stuck in traffic jams, wreathed in exhaust smoke. I was going for a walk in the woods. I was more than ready for this.
I found Katz in the dining room and he was looking laudably perky, too. This was because he had made a friend—a waitress named Rayette, who was attending to his dining requirements in a distinctly coquettish way. Rayette was six feet tall and had a face that would frighten a baby, but she seemed good-natured and was diligent with the coffee. She could not have signaled her availability to Katz more clearly if she had thrown her skirt over her head and lain across his Hungry Man Breakfast Platter. Katz in consequence was pumping testosterone.
“Ooh, I like a man who appreciates pancakes,” Rayette cooed.
“Well, honey, I sure appreciate these pancakes,” Katz responded, face agleam with syrup and early-morning happiness. It wasn’t exactly Hepburn and Tracy, but it was strangely touching nonetheless.
She went off to deal with a distant customer, and Katz watched her go with something like paternal pride. “She’s pretty ugly, isn’t she?” he said with a big, incongruous beam.
I sought for tact. “Well, only compared with other women.”
Katz nodded thoughtfully, then fixed me with a sudden fearful look. “You know what I look for in a female these days? A heartbeat and a full set of limbs.”
“And that’s just my starting point, you realize. I’m prepared to compromise on the limbs. You think she’s available?”
“I believe you might have to take a number.”
He nodded soberly. “Probably be an idea if we ate up and got out of here.”
I was very happy with that. I drained a cup of coffee and we went off to get our things. But when we met up outside ten minutes later, togged up and ready to go, Katz was looking miserable. “Let’s stay here another night,” he said.
“What? Are you kidding?” I was completely taken aback by this. “Why?”
“Because it’s warm in there and it’s cold out here.”
“We’ve gotta do it.”
He looked to the woods. “We’ll freeze out there.”
I looked to the woods, too. “Yeah, probably. We’ve still gotta do it.”
I hoisted my pack and took a backward stagger under the weight (it would be days before I could do this with anything approaching aplomb), jerked tight the belt, and trudged off. At the edge of the woods, I glanced back to make sure Katz was following. Ahead of me spread a vast, stark world of winter-dead trees. I stepped portentously on to the path, a fragment of the original Appalachian Trail from the days when it passed here en route from Mount Oglethorpe to Springer.
The date was March 9, 1996. We were on our way.