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The Appalachian Trail: From Keds to Keens



There's something unique and special to every hike and this one was no different. Shortly after summiting Sugarloaf Mountain, we came across this sign, attached to a boulder on the side of the trail. It stopped me dead in my tracks and gave me head to toe chills. This was the spot where the final link of the entire Appalachian Trail was completed. The extreme ingenuity and resolve to build a 2,180+ mile long continuous footpath from Georgia to Maine was seen to completion right here. It was such a surprise, this plaque of greatness, tucked into the woods, visible only to those who chose to walk this trail.


For the remainder of our hike, I was in a state of wonder - filled with questions about the origins of the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) and the people who brought this brainchild to fruition. I decided to do some research and found some fascinating history. If you've been reading this blog for a while, you know I like to provide you with the short and sweet. Here is the summary of what I discovered.


According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, The A.T. has a total length of 2,194.3 miles and traverses 14 states from Georgia to Maine. There are 464,500 miles of gain/loss in elevation and 3+ million visitors hike some portion of the trail each year.


A "thru-hiker" is defined as someone who completed the entire A.T. in 12 months or less. Every year, thousands of hikers attempt to do this, but only one in four succeeds. A typical thru-hiker takes 5-7 months to hike the A.T. According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, more than 20,000 hike completions have been reported to the ATC. If you're considering a thru-hike, here's a great Q + A at appalachiantrail.org.


Now for the juicy stuff - the history behind this mammoth undertaking. I found a timeline of the creation of the A.T. on the ATC website. I'll break it down for you:


1921 - Benton MacKaye starts writing "An Appalachian Trail: A project in Regional Planning". His idea came during a time when he was grieving the death of his wife Jessie. Jesse Belle Hardy Stubbs MacKaye was a social activist working in women's suffrage (the right to vote). According to Wikipedia, Jessie died by suicide in 1921 by drowning herself in the East River of New York. She apparently loved long distance walking and hiking, which, during Benton's time of grieving, provided the inspiration behind his desire to create a long (very long) hiking trail. Tragedy leading to a road of discovery for thousands. Loss igniting the flame of creation. Ah the duality of life.


1923 - The first A.T. specific sections were completed by Raymond Torrey in New York.


1925 - The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) was formed.


1931 - Myron H. Avery, born in Lubec (shout out to Maine!), takes over leadership of the ATP. According to the episode "The Appalachian Trail: A Heckuva Hike" on the "Stuff You Should Know" podcast, it sounds like our friend Myron was a bit of a hard-*ss. Still, he did not take no for an answer and managed to get 'er done. If you haven't climbed to the Myron Avery peak in the Bigelows, I highly suggest doing it. Here are the details on that glorious hike: Avery West Peaks via Safford Brook Trail


1937 - the A.T. is fully connected from Maine to Georgia


1948 - Earl Schaffer, WWII Veteran, reports the first A.T. thru-hike. According to Appalachian Trail Histories, "Shaffer hiked most of the way without a tent, using his Army Surplus poncho for shelter, or staying in lean-tos built by various trail clubs. His meals consisted largely of oatmeal, pan baked bread, jam, honey, raisins, Betty Crocker dried soups, and canned foods he was able to purchase from stores along the way. His pack was a Mountain Troop Rucksack--the type used my U.S. Army mountain divisions during the war--and his boots were 9" moccasin style lace ups popular at the time."


1952 - Mildred Norman Ryder becomes the first woman to thru-hike the A.T. - and she hiked it in Keds. She was known as "Peace Pilgrim" and she walked across the U.S. for 28 years, speaking about peace. More on Mildred here.


1998 - Bill Bryson publishes "A Walk in the Woods", which triggered an explosion of interest in hiking the A.T. I remember how inspired I was after reading this book. Just a regular Joe with no real hiking experience, thru-hiking the A.T. It was one of the many seeds planted through my earlier years, guiding me towards a life of outdoor adventures - a dream that I am actually now living. This is an entertaining read, and for those non-readers out there, it's also been made into a movie starring Robert Redford, Emma Thompson and Nick Nolte.


2021 - The Appalachian Trail celebrated 100 years of Benton MadKaye's vision. 100 years of tears and triumph experienced by countless hikers.


I don't know if I'll ever attempt a thru-hike of the A.T. I'm generally a person of moderation, and don't feel the pull for such an ambitious endeavor. Still, section hiking could be a fun and rewarding approach. I'd love to experience the different sections of trail and meet all the interesting folks along the way. Maybe in this life, maybe in the next.


Maybe you feel the pull. If so, go for it! They say that at the end of life, we regret the things we didn't do, not the things we did. Whatever type of hiking adventure you choose, let's be grateful we don't have to do it in Keds.



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