In the early 1920s, a forester named Benton MacKaye envisioned a "Great Trail From Maine to Georgia," which would wind its way through 14 states and connect a vast expanse of forests and farmland.
This August, the Appalachian Trail—known to many as the "AT"—celebrated its 75th anniversary, marking a major milestone for one of the longest "hikers-only" trails in the world. Spanning roughly 2,180 miles from Georgia to Maine, this incredible footpath took over 15 years to build back in the 1920s and 30s, and continues to serve as a getaway for an estimated 2 to 3 million visitors each year.
The AT offers a truly unique experience for people with all degrees of interests. Some folks simply wish to escape their hectic, technology-ridden lifestyles for a day or so, while others seek something deeper. About 2,000 "thru-hikers" attempt this journey each year, devoting up to seven months of their lives in the attempt. To place this in perspective, one would need to average about 12 miles a day to complete the full journey from the South to New England. However, depending on the number of "zero days", or rest days generally spent in nearby towns to recuperate, the average hiker would need to reach closer to 16 to 18 miles per day. Consequently, the majority of the AT's yearly visitors come for brief stays, made easier by hundreds of access points along its route.
And yet, there are still these seemingly "wacked-out" individuals who endeavor its entirety, knowing the chances of making it are about 1 in 4. Why do they do it? Knoxville's Jim Myers tried to shed some light on the subject, explaining that for him it was something he'd wanted to do for a long time. After a trip to Maine's "Hundred-Mile Wilderness Trail," which is part of the AT, Jim explained how deeply moved he was in meeting these "thru-hikers" who were in Maine reaching the end of their improbable journeys.
He vowed to try it for himself, and later did in 2009, referring to his experience as incredibly spiritual. When asked to recount his favorite memory, Jim responded without hesitation that having his wife and kids present for the summit of Maine's Mount Katahdin, at the end of his journey, was very special and hard to put into words. Jim Myers works at Mast General Store downtown, and is always happy to help aspiring thru-hikers prepare to meet their goals. To be safe, he also suggests budgeting $2 to $4 per mile.
Daniel Gallagher, co-owner of Bluff Mountain Outfitters in Hot Springs, N.C., sees thru-hikers streaming by all summer. With the AT running through the heart of town and past his shop's doorstep, he's seen some odd sights with a ringside vantage point. "Well, I guess seeing a guy wielding a samurai sword was one of the most bizarre things I've seen."
He emphasized that people travel from around the world to attempt the thru-hike, and that sharing a campfire with such diversity away from the often—absurd realities of daily life—can lead to amazing experiences. He also stressed the need for planning ahead financially, as well as the importance of filtering water. Like Myers at Mast General, Daniel and the folks at Bluff Mountain are always more than happy to help visitors re-stock and continue on the path.
With such a high volume of yearly traffic, the AT requires considerable amounts of coordination regarding maintenance and cleanup efforts. Many groups and organizations play a part in this, including more than 30 localized clubs, the National Park Service, the Forest Service and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC). Within the ATC, the Rocky Top Trail Crew provides service to the 70 mile stretch of AT that runs through the Smoky Mountain National Park. For those interested in making an impact, the Rocky Top Trail Crew is holding trail maintenance sessions this fall in weeklong increments. This weekend and next weekend, the crew will be working near Snake Den Ridge along the AT.
"We welcome students to come by and observe what we're doing out here," said Andrew Downs of the Rocky Top crew. Students wanting to help out in the upcoming weekends could pack extra fruit or snacks, as well as reading materials such as newspapers or books for the workers. "When you're out there for extended periods of time away from everyday life, those little things are huge."
Andrew Downs can be contacted at (828) 254-3708 for details on helping this important cause. To get involved next summer, look into volunteering for the ATC's SWEAT crews. Information regarding the ATC can also be found on their website, www.appalachiantrail.org/what-we-do.
Jennifer Pharr Davis, who recently shattered the AT speed record from Georgia to Maine in a staggering 46 days, 11 hours and 20 minutes, summed it up nicely: "I found things in the woods that I didn't know I was looking for ... and now I'll never be the same."