Hikers drawn to the Appalachian Trail as it marks 75th year
By Darren Dunlap | Daily Times Correspondent
Every year, thousands of hikers take to the Appalachian Trail.
They hike “The AT” to get closer to nature, seek new direction in life or follow a spiritual path, a calling. Others thirst for adventure and hunger to see America on foot.
Traversing 14 states from Georgia to Maine, the roughly 2,180-mile trail offers ample opportunity for that. Tuesday, Aug. 14, The AT celebrates its 75th anniversary, and The Daily Times marks the occasion with insights about the trail from Blount Countians who have been there.
‘Wood, water, wheels’
Ben Pinnell had a plan, an adventurous one. It was the kind of thing you do once in a lifetime.
Pinnell, who grew up in Maryville, imagined hiking The AT, floating the Mississippi River and riding down the West Coast on a bike, from Canada to Mexico. He wanted to do all three in succession after college.
“I had in mind this three-part series: woods, water and wheels,” said Pinnell, now 33, married and father of a 1-year-old boy.
The AT was first in the order, but Pinnell’s journey didn’t begin until 2004, three years after he graduated Hampden-Sydney College in Sydney, Va. The tipping point came at a job in Charlotte, N.C., where he worked, briefly, in the import business. What hastened the end of his employment was a book by Elizabeth Gilbert called “The Last American Man.”
Gilbert chronicles the story of Eustace Conway, who hiked The AT and rode across country on horseback. The book came from his employer, who knew he might be fueling Pinnell’s urge to see more of the country.
“He said, ‘I shouldn’t give you this book but you need to read it,’” Pinnell recalled.
Three months later, he started his hike at the southernmost point of The AT, Springer Mountain, Ga.
Fifteen miles into his hike he got sick. Pinnell had a throat infection. He was dehydrated, could barely talk, and left the trail for the nearest road.
“I hitched a ride into town. Fortunately the guy who picked me up — there were five kids and two adults in this Suburban — the guy who picked me was an anesthesiologist at the hospital,” said Pinnell.
He had to have his tonsils removed. While he recovered, he bonded with this family that opened their doors to him. He took kids to soccer and baseball practices. He went to church with them. Pinnell spent three weeks there and then resumed his journey. He finished six months later, on Oct. 13, 2004, at The AT’s northernmost terminus, Mount Katahdin, Maine.
“I’d love to hike that thing again,” said Pinnell, who lives in Maryville and works as a superintendent for Hickory Construction Co. “I’d do it with my son. That would be wonderful.
“To be able to take the time to go outside and listen to the birds, enjoy nature with your kids, that’s what I look forward to.”
A new path
Sometimes you turn to The AT so you can step away from your daily life.
That was what Benton McKaye had in mind when he conceived The AT in a 1921 article for The Journal of American Institute of Architects called “An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning.”
And that’s exactly what Wendy Lesmerises did in 1995. She was 23 at the time and wanted to take a year off of college to do the hike. She needed time to figure some things out.
“I felt like my life wasn’t going in the direction that I wanted it to go,” she said. “I felt lost SEmD like I didn’t have a connection to God anymore.”
Her name was Wendi Stinnett then, and she came from a family that liked to hike. Her parents introduced her to hiking, but she got away from it in her teens. When grandparents became avid hikers, they started taking her to the Smokies on occasion. Her interest was renewed. After graduating Maryville High School in 1991, she continued day hiking and started backpacking as soon as she accumulated enough gear.
Once she made the decision to hike The AT, she started putting in as many hours as she could at Winn-Dixie where she stocked shelves and worked the register. She was preparing the 26 boxes of food and other supplies her parents would have to mail during her 6½-month trek.
The first few months were euphoric. She began the northward hike from Georgia in March 1995. The middle months were the toughest, but as she hiked she grew stronger. She wrote in her journal and sent the notebooks home for her parents and grandparents to read. As a trail name, she took her grandparents last name: Rainwater.
“I didn’t write every day, because some days I was just too exhausted. But whenever I was inspired on a lunch break or at night, I would put down some thoughts,” Lesmerises said.
In Vermont, she called home and learned that her mother was making a quilt for her. There was a square with an image for each year of her life. On Oct. 15, 1995, she reached Mount Katahdin, Maine. Before the ascent, her mother met her on the trail. She had the quilt.
Lesmerises has since returned to The AT, hiking sections in the Smokies and North Carolina.
And if the time comes for her own son to step back and take time to hike The AT, she’ll get behind that. Her own experience helped her reconnect with God.
“Yes, I will support him if he makes that decision, but he may not choose to hike the Trail,” said Lesmerises, now a Knox County Schools teacher and librarian. “He may want to drive out West, join the Peace Corps, or go abroad.”
Section by section
Ask Jim Callaway about his first day on The AT. His recall is so clear, you might think he just returned a year ago.
But Callaway embarked on his hike in June 6, 1948, a decade after the trail had been completed and still somewhat unknown to Americans. According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, only five people had reached the 2,000-mile mark on the trail in the 1930s.
He and hiking partner Paul Yambert started at Mount Katahdin. Callaway had just graduated Maryville High School. He was 17 years old. His father drove the two young men north for the start of their trip.
“I remember parts of what the mountains looked like and the countryside,” said Callaway, a retired surgeon who lives in Maryville.
It was cold that day, sunny and beautiful. From the top of Mount Katahdin, which at 5,268 feet is the highest point in Maine, they could see forever, he said.
He and Yambert met through Boy Scouts. They planned carefully and used Army surplus gear for the hike. They were intrigued by the idea of hiking The AT, but the notion did not sit well with Callaway’s father.
“My dad was hard to convince,” he recalled. “Mother was more open to the idea and helped talk him into letting us go.”
His father gave his approval, but Jim Callaway had to return by fall to enroll at Maryville College.
“They were worried, the first two weeks,” he said.
The first 100 miles of the trip, there were no telephones and nowhere to mail letters.
“No way to communicate in or out,” Callaway said.
They were hardly alone, though. They passed through isolated fishing camps and met day-hikers along the way. They saw someone virtually every day, he said.
They did not see many distance hikers, though. In fact, Callaway can only recall one: Earl Shaffer, who was headed north to Maine and on his way to becoming the first thru-hiker on The AT.
Callaway had accepted that he would be a section-hiker, as his father had planned to pick them up in Virginia on Aug. 29. He returned to The AT in 1949, 1950 and 1991 to finish it.
“My family helped me finish that last 600 miles,” he said.
But in the summer of 1948, the hike was going well for Callaway and Yambert. So well, in fact, that his father sent a telegram to Mount Royal, Va., telling his son that he could continue the hike. Jim Callaway didn’t get that message, though, and his father arrived ready to pick the boys up, after all.
Had he continued, he would have gone down in AT history as one of the first thru-hikers.
“Coulda, shoulda, woulda,” said Callaway.