Contemplating Mount Greylock, at 3,500 feet the highest peak in Massachusetts, Philip D’Anieri is very clear that neither he nor it “rate in the pantheon of mountaineering.” Because of his own lack of know-how, and water, he must cut short his ascent and retreat before the sun goes down.

“More comfortable spending time in a library archive than a backcountry tent, I am a day-hiker only,” concludes D’Anieri, who teaches architecture and regional planning at the University of Michigan, in “The Appalachian Trail: A Biography.”

His point of view is a useful corrective to the image that usually springs to mind in conjunction with the Appalachian Trail: the intense thru-hiker, with, among other necessities, his or her toothbrush handle filed off to save weight and space in the pack. The fact is, these hardy souls are a tiny percentage of the (literally) millions happy to hike only part of it.

Another false assumption is that the Appalachian Trail is a wilderness. For the most part, it is not. In the minds of the people whose efforts brought the trail into being, neither thru-hiking nor wilderness was a consideration.

When the Swiss scientist, Arnold Guyot began to survey the Appalachians in the late 1840s, wilderness was not so much a consideration as a fact. D’Anieri points out that Guyot’s work was extremely hazardous, but his results, published in 1861, “literarily put the Appalachians on the map.”

Guyot is the first of a dozen men and women (mostly men) chosen by D’Anieri to tell the story of the Appalachian Trail. All of them, at some point in their lives, made “an important intersection” with its development. They are all interesting, and more than a few are tragic. Placing their connection to the trail in the context of their careers provides a rich chronological tapestry.

Advertisement

Horace Kephart was part of the “Back to Nature” movement that swept the nation at the turn of the 19th century.  His intimate knowledge of the southern Appalachians, combined with his fame as a prolific outdoors columnist, helped develop the Appalachian Trail in the South, even deciding where it should end.

To the north, in Vermont, a teacher “from away,” James P. Taylor, became obsessed by a vision of a Green Mountain trail. It provided both a model for and a length of what would become the Appalachian Trail. Taylor’s “mix of the romantic and the commercial” raised hackles in the elite hiking world.

Guyot, Kephart and Taylor were new to me, but the next two “intersectors” are well-known to everyone familiar with the AT: Benton MacKaye and Myron Avery. MacKaye, says D’Anieri, had “a piercing view of interconnectedness” that was as much about regional planning as recreation. Interestingly, his report, which first identified “An Appalachian Trail,” appeared in the journal of the American Institute of Architects.

MacKaye, the acknowledged founder of the Appalachian Trail, was “oddly ambivalent” about building it, and into that lacuna jumped Myron Avery. His “singular mix of devotion, compulsion and combativeness” is well illustrated by his exchanges with Maine’s Governor Baxter over a Katahdin National Park.

The Appalachian Trail was officially completed in 1937. In 1949, Earl Shaffer was the first thru-hiker. Returned from the horrors of the Pacific War, Schaffer wanted to “walk the army out of (his) system.”

Five years later, the first woman, Emma Gatewood, decided to do it for very different reasons. At 66, having survived a hard life, Gatewood saw an article about the AT in National Geographic and decided it sounded like a nice idea. On their respective walks, both discovered that the trail was in such disarray that in some places it hardly existed anymore.

Advertisement

With Gaylord Nelson, we see the federal government’s efforts to support the trail in the context of the Wilderness Act and Earth Day. Together, Dave Richie, Pam Underhill and Dave Startzell, from the National Park Service and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, turned federal policies into results on the ground. Thanks to their work, the National Park Service protects almost the whole trail.

Finally, Bill Bryson is a sort of joker in the pack. His best-selling “A Walk in the Woods” thrilled the public, but for the AT community, it was like “the uninvited guest who turns the music up to eleven and invites all his friends over.”

“The Appalachian Trail” is well-larded with such delightful turns of phrase, and D’Anieri’s original approach makes a very satisfying “biography.” He might have taken it further, through the Canadian Maritimes, on the International Appalachian Trail. Geologically, the Appalachians exist on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, and, since 1994, the IAT has also planned and completed sections of trail from Norway to Morocco, in ways reminiscent of much of what D’Anieri relates so well about the original AT. Including it would have made an interesting addendum.

Thomas Urquhart is the author of recently published “Up for Grabs, Timber Pirates, Lumber Barons and the Battles Over Maine’s Public Lands.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: