America's Triple Crown
The idea for the trail took shape in an article published in the Journal of the American Institute of Architects. "An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning" set forth planner Benton MacKaye's vision of a long-distance hiking trail ? a place where people from the cities could rejuvenate from lives that had become urban, mechanized, out of touch with nature and its power to heal the spirit. From the start, Benton MacKaye's vision was to provide a wilderness experience within commuting distance of America's biggest cities, for the benefit of America's urban workers and dwellers.
Today, the Appalachian Trail has met that goal: 4,000,000 people a year hike on it, including casual daytrippers, weekend backpackers, and hikers out for longer journeys of a hundred miles or more. There are of course also the people who spend more time on it than most, including volunteers who collectively donate more than 100,000 hours a year to cutting brush and building shelters, and the thru-hikers, that scraggly band of 1200 or so scruffy, unkempt, hard-bodied, boisterous pilgrims who each year declare their intention to walk the entire distance. Only about 200 complete the journey. The Trail, in spite of the modest mountains through which it runs, is fiendishly difficult.
In mid May, Dan and I ? like virtually all of the current crop of thru-hikers, as well as hundreds of other trail aficionados and outdoorspeople ? interrupt our hike to head to a town festival in Damascus in southwestern Virginia. You know the kind: cotton candy, rubber duck races, and a talent show; a big community party in honor of corn or apple blossoms or potatoes. However, in Damascus, where the AT goes right through the middle of town, it's"Appalachian Trail Days", complete with a "Miss Appalachian Trail" from the local high school, who rides in sequined splendor in the half-mile long parade down Main Street. Hikers get to march, too ? if march is the right word for the cacophonous display of high spirits, kazoos, and flying water balloons. Along the river and behind the church, hundreds of tents turn the area into something that looks half like a Woodstock revival and half a high-tech refugee camp. On the town green, local craftspeople hawk dolls and quilts and baskets, the US Post Office sells a special commemorative T-shirt and cancellation stamp, and women in neat floral print dresses stand in line for home-style barbecue alongside hikers who look about as presentable as your average prison chain gang. The scene reminds me of Godzilla meeting Bambi ? except that everyone is smiling.
Hikers call this kind of good will"trail magic," and they find plenty of it in the interaction between their itinerant, freewheeling community and the deeply rooted small-town folks who live along the trail. There is the lady in Massachusetts who bakes chocolate chip cookies and leaves them on her porch for AT hikers. And a retired teacher in New Hampshire who opens his elegant Federal-era home to hikers. And the volunteers who make sure a jerrycan is always full of water so hikers won't go thirsty on a dry stretch of trail.
Up north, at the Presbyterian Church of the Mountain in Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania, Pastor Karen Nickels comes as close as anyone to describing what is special about the trail.
"I don't know if it's the wilderness experience or the physical challenge or the spiritual aspect or the way people are good to each other," she says as her parishioners begin setting up the weekly pot-luck all-you-can-eat dinner for long-distance hikers, "but this trail changes lives."
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication