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Appalachian Trail: Different breed treads America's foot path


Nearly 280 people will complete a through-hike of the Appalachian Trail this year.  

October 26, 1999
Web posted at: 12:58 p.m. EDT (1658 GMT)

The Appalachian Trail extends 2,160 miles from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Mount Katahdin in Maine. By now, most through-hikers with enough determination to complete the entire 2,160 miles of the Appalachian Trail have kicked off their hiking boots and headed for home. Since its completion in 1937, people from all over the world have hiked the A.T., as it is commonly called.

An estimated 4 million people a year use the A.T., which extends from Georgia to Maine, in some way. The amount of through-hikers -- those who hike from one end of the trail to the other -- has grown from 10 people in 1970 to an estimated 280 in 1999. Not only has the number increased, but also the type of person hiking through is changing - they are traveling in large groups and carrying laptops and cell phones.

"People coming to the trail don't have the foggiest idea of how to relate to the land. They have nothing to connect to when they come into the woods," said Dan "Wingfoot" Bruce, founder and organizer of the Center for Appalachian Trail Studies, who has completed seven through-hikes. "People are never alone anymore, they're always connected through the Internet and television. They come out to the woods and think, 'Wow, there's nothing to entertain me'."

The Appalachian Trail extends 2,160 miles from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Mount Katahdin in Maine.
The Appalachian Trail extends 2,160 miles from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Mount Katahdin in Maine.  

The through-hikers, a society of sorts, give each other nicknames. That is how Bruce became "Wingfoot."

So why do people who don't have a passion for nature want to spend five to seven months hiking in the wilderness carrying everything they need to survive on their back? "Even though they live in basically totally man-made surroundings, by and large, these people sense on some level that's not what life is about," said Bruce. "They sense the woods offer a place to find themselves without the clutter of everyday life."

"It used to be you had to be wilderness oriented. But now people have more time and money," said Bruce.

The trail has become more of a social gathering, according to Bruce and Brian King, director of public affairs for the Appalachian Trail Conference. "Through-hiking has become more of a social thing, but there's still the traditional image of the through-hiker. There're a lot more people now going out to hike with other people," said King.

Cell phones and laptop computers are not uncommon on the A.T. these days. Neither are groups of six to 10 people hiking together. Often through-hikers hook up at shelters early in their hike and travel together. Traditionally, one or two people hiked the A.T. to have a unique wilderness experience. This year, 40 percent more people have attempted to through-hike the A.T., but not all of them complete the rigorous journey, according to King.

In 1921, Benton MacKaye envisioned the A.T. as a recreation trail linking wilderness areas for all users along the eastern seaboard. It took 12 years to clear the path from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Mount Katahdin, Maine. The trail was designated a National Scenic Trail in 1968 giving the National Park Service administrative responsibility for the trail.

The A.T closely follows the ridgeline of the Appalachian Mountains through 14 states. The entire route is marked by white blazes (two-inch wide by six-inch high rectangles painted on trees, rocks, etc.) and a series of three-sided shelters are available to hikers on a first-come basis.

MacKaye and a small group of private citizens and public agency leaders formed the Appalachian Trail Conference, a private nonprofit educational organization of individuals, volunteer maintainers and clubs, in 1925. The conference was granted authority by the NPS to manage the trail.

The increase in trail users and the changes in through-hikers have had an impact on the A.T.

"The impacts are more a matter of logic. Do you need to be part of a group to be comfortable at a shelter? And is that hurting the solitary experience?" said King.

"Through-hikers live out there for five to seven months and so individually they have a higher impact in a years' time but they also are more likely to at least become more conscious of having less impact," said King.

"Casual hikers with no experience of Leave No Trace (environmentally conscious outdoor ethics) are more likely to have an impact on one single place. That's the main reason for the ridge runners," said King.

The conference and 31 clubs that maintain the A.T., that all work together to preserve and maintain the trail, have hired people called ridge runners who monitor the trail. They answer hikers' questions, point lost hikers in the right direction, break up ill-placed fire rings and investigate damage to shelters, among other things. And they carry either a cell phone or a radio.

"The message we are trying to get out is to be conscious of different points of view and people's different experience. Our overall position is we don't want anybody abusing a resource - that we would object to," said King.

The conference has no position on the use of cell phones along the A.T. "We try to keep the regulations down. That's an A.T. tradition as much as anything else," said King.

Copyright 1999, Environmental News Network, All Rights Reserved

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Appalachian Regional Commission
Christian Appalachian Project
Center for Appalachian Studies
National Alliance to End Homelessness: Best Practices and Profiles
Appalachian Trail Conference
Appalachian Trail Home Page
National Park Service
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