We need the Appalachian Trail and its wilderness more than it needs us
By Charles W. Maynard | The Appalachian Trail Conservancy
The more I walk on the magnificent Appalachian Trail, the more I understand the idea of needing the wilderness.
The first time I stepped on the Appalachian Trail, trees blazed with the conflagration of autumn. I had read and heard of the famed trail, but on that fall afternoon, the Appalachian Trail became my trail, my walk.
Now don’t get me wrong. I have never aspired to thru-hike or even section-hike the entire 2,184-mile length from Mt. Katahdin in Maine to Springer Mountain in Georgia.
But on that fall afternoon, with those first steps at Elk Garden in the Mount Rogers National Recreation area, I began a love affair with the AT that has spanned nearly 40 years.
The Appalachian Trail is not really my trail. The trail belongs to thousands upon thousands -- hikers, volunteers, Park Service and National Forest Service employees, Appalachian Trail Conservancy personnel -- and many others.
All could speak of the scenic wonders of the Appalachians: misty moments with foggy veils parting to reveal breathtaking views. A blue, blue sky dazzling above spruce-fir forests.
A peregrine falcon diving at more than 200 mph in pursuit of prey. Wild horses wandering the broad grassy meadows of Grayson Highlands.
Rhododendron and flame azalea blooming in prodigious profusion on the Roan Highlands. Hoarfrost trimming October trees with icy filigree. Snow-covered peaks glistening up and down the Appalachians.
The Appalachian Trail is more than a scenic wonder. In 1921, the community planner and father of the AT, Benton MacKaye, published an article in The Journal of the American Institute of Architects, in which he proposed a foot path that would link communities through the Appalachians.
Only 16 short years later, the last stretch of the 2,100-plus-mile trail was completed. MacKaye was a preservationist of the highest order.
MacKaye once worked in Knoxville for TVA. In addition to his proposal for the idea of the AT, he was one of the original founders of the Wilderness Society. He wrote that this foot trail would be “a battle line, a sanctuary, a refuge.”
Often his preservationist efforts are misunderstood. In reading his original 1921 article, MacKaye’s intent is very clear. The species that he was most interested in preserving was Homo sapiens. He feared for the survival of the human race without sufficient wilderness ... and paths through it.
MacKaye penned a note to the Smoky Mountain Hiking Club in the 1930s in which he said we need the wilderness more than it needs us.
The more I walk on the magnificent Appalachian Trail, the more I understand the idea of needing the wilderness. MacKaye’s “battle line” was to fight the ills of crowding, of cities, of civilization for the health of humans. His tonic was to take a walk in the mountains.
On the fly leaf of my hike journal is inscribed this Thomas Jefferson quote: “The object of walking is to relax the mind. You should therefore not permit yourself even to think while you walk; but divert yourself by objects surrounding you. Walk is the best possible exercise.”
Diversions on the AT abound. This past week while on the AT near Clingmans Dome, I was diverted by two young peregrine falcons, crimson bee balm, yarrow, Christmas fern and Carolina lily, to name only a few.
To enjoy these “diversions” on the AT does not necessarily require great physical strength. I know one fellow who brags, tongue-in-cheek, that he has hiked the entire width of the Appalachian Trail! The distance is not as important as getting away and walking on the trail. Our Smokies encompass 900 miles of trail, 72 miles of which are the Appalachian Trail.
Our children have walked on the AT, and now we are taking the next generation out.
Years ago, when our daughter Caroline was 7, the two of us hiked on the AT to the Jump Off. What began as a partly cloudy day deteriorated as we walked up Mount Kephart into the clouds. I had told Caroline all about the great view we would have from the Jump Off.
To my dismay, when we arrived at our destination, the “view” was of gray mist. We stood on the edge of the mountain with nothing but fog before us. No view, no mountains, no valley -- simply gray.
I was so disappointed I could not think of anything to say.
Caroline, on the other hand, said: “Wow! Look at this! It’s what Columbus’ men were afraid of -- the edge of the world.”
Wow. Just another day on the AT.
MacKaye’s idea was not to conquer the trail, not to race from one end to the other. MacKaye wanted people to have a sanctuary, a refuge that would help them live more complete lives.
I do think a well-lived life includes more than walking on the AT. But it’s a good place to start.
Charles W. Maynard is on the board of directors for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and was the founding executive director of the Friends of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He also serves on the Southeast Regional Advisory Council of the National Parks Conservation Association. He is the author of 30 books, the most recent of which is “Blue Ridge -- Ancient and Majestic.” Maynard is an ordained United Methodist minister who serves as the district superintendent of the Maryville District of the Holston Conference.