A [brief] escape

Lyn Widmyer, an ATC volunteer, stands with her son Nick before he sets out on his hike along the Appalachian Trail in Virginia//Photo and text courtesy of Lyn

In 1996, writer Bill Bryson attempted to hike all 2,200 miles of the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) He failed. But he succeeded big time with his humorous account of the trip. His book, “A Walk in the Woods,” quickly became a best seller and inspired a lot more people to hike the Trail. The upsurge in hikers was called the Bryson Bump.

Another Bryson Bump is expected in September when the movie version of the book, starring Robert Redford, premiers. In 1996, when Bryson attempted his thru-hike, 334 people joined the 2,000 mile club, the official roster of those completing the entire A.T. between Springer Mountain, Georgia and Katahdin, Maine in less than a year. In 2014, the list expanded to 714, an all-time record. The Bryson Bump is expected to inspire even more hikers in 2016.

Some thru-hikers (those who complete the entire Trail in less than a year), are disdainful of Bryson because he “only” hiked 200 or so miles before ending his quest.

Benton MacKaye, founder of the A.T., would not share their disdain. He envisioned the Trail as an escape for “toilers in the bee-hive cities along the Atlantic seaboard.” Harried urban dwellers could escape to the Trail for a day or a week, but McKay never thought people would thru-hike the Trail all at once. In 1948, World War II veteran Earl Shaffer became the first to report a thru-hike. He wanted to “walk the army out of [his] system.”

Only one in four hikers who attempt the entire Trail actually succeed. Most hikers complete different portions of the Trail over a longer time period. My first day volunteering at the A.T. Visitors Center in Harpers Ferry, WV, an elderly woman appeared and announced she had just completed the Trail. We all cheered. How long did it take you? I asked. “Nineteen years,” she replied. For two decades, her husband drove her to different locations on the Trail and then retrieved her days or weeks later.

Clearly, Bryson was a bit naïve thinking he could hike the rigorous Trail with very little preparation or hiking experience. In “A Walk in the Woods,” Bryson realizes his quest is over while sitting in a shelter in Tennessee looking at a map of the A.T. He writes,

“All that we had experienced and done—all the effort and toil, the aches, the damp, the mountains, the horrible stodgy noodles, the blizzards, the dreary evenings, the endless, wearying, doggedly accumulated miles—all that came to two inches on the map. My hair had grown more than that. One thing was obvious. We were never going to walk to Maine.”

For someone like me, who considers a stroll along the C&O Canal towpath a major hiking event, Bryson’s decision to abandon his quest is very understandable. When I see thru-hikers at the Visitors Center loaded down with 45 pound packs, exhausted, hungry and reeking of sweat, I know even section hiking the Trail is not in my future. But my fascination with the A.T. only increases with each hiker I meet.

I agree with Bryson’s description of the Trail:

“There is the good old A.T., still quietly ticking along after six decades, unassuming, splendid, faithful to its founding principles, sweetly unaware that the world has quite moved on. It’s a miracle really.”

Experience the miracle. Park near the A.T. Visitors Center and walk into Harpers Ferry National Historical Park on the Appalachian Trail. The hike is less than a mile.

Now that’s my idea of a walk in the woods.

Celebrating 90 together

Randall Brooks, now and then//Photos courtesy Randall Brooks//Text by Olivia Pridemore, summer events intern

As many of you know, we are currently celebrating 90 years of protecting and managing the Appalachian Trail. But 2015 has ushered in an additional 90th occasion. June 19 marked the 90th birthday of one of our dedicated members, Randall Brooks. In his 90 years, Randall has led an eventful and adventurous life, in which his experiences have fostered a deep passion for protecting the place that has become a sanctuary to him, the Appalachian Trail.

Randall Brooks is the youngest of eight children. Sorrow struck the Brooks family mere months before Randall’s birth with the passing of his father. Therefore, Randall and his siblings bore the brunt of responsibility. Just a year before he graduated high school, Randall’s mother passed as well, leaving the children to fend for themselves. However, Randall’s hardships were far from over.

Randall BrooksIn the midst of World War II, Randall was required to register for the draft as soon as he turned eighteen. Four months later he was sent to infantry training in Alabama, and found himself stationed in Italy within the year. Before his 19th birthday, Randall was serving in combat along with three of his brothers. Times were hard, and some of them incurred injuries. But thankfully, all four of the Brooks Boys made it safely home to the U.S. After returning from the war, Randall attended The College of William and Mary under the GI Bill. He later went on to do graduate work in history at George Washington University and McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

Randall’s hiking experience began when joined the Wanderbirds Hiking Club, an organization established in the 1930s that is still active today. Many of the Wanderbirds were also members of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC). Thanks to the exposure from his friends, Randall became a life member of the PATC in 1986 and a life member of the ATC in 1989.

The spirit of adventure has driven Randall to experience the world. His travels have taken him to all fifty states and more than 40 countries. Yet of all the wonders he has seen, it is the Appalachian Trail that holds a claim on his heart. Despite his persistent back issues, Randall has hiked in 13 of the 14 states represented on the Trail. Randall’s favorite hike involved scaling Mt. Washington, a feat he described as both his greatest challenge and joy.

Over the years, Randall has come to learn the importance of protecting the Trail he holds so dear. He has consistently prioritized volunteering and giving in a way that is truly inspiring. His numerous contributions include hands-on work clearing the trail corridor and years of faithfully manning the Information Desk at the PATC headquarters. In 2001, Randall established a generous Gift Annuity of $100,000, and is proudly a Steward Level member of the Benton MacKaye Society.

Although he has no children, Randall Brooks strives to leave a legacy within the community. He recognizes the importance of engaging today’s youth. In his words, the Appalachian Trail is brimming with “natural beauty and cultural heritage. It is our world, and we must do what we can to ensure [the Appalachian Trail’s extraordinary scenic, spiritual and educational qualities] for centuries to come.” Randall also believes that there should be “more diversity among members and hikers.” Randall’s views are directly in line with our Five Year Strategic Plan, and what better advocate for this lofty goal than a man who has seen the Trail grow and develop across the span of several generations.

When celebrating our 90th anniversary, it is important to remember individuals like Randall Brooks who helped us get here. Without the support of more than 43,000 members, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy would not be where it is today. And consequently, the A.T. would be far different from the lush, natural sanctuary so many have grown to love.

Want to get involved in our 90th anniversary celebrations? Find out more here.

Hey mister

The Pennsylvania portion of the Appalachian Trail is known for its rocks, as evident in this picture of Lehigh Gap//Photo courtesy the ATC Mid-Atlantic Regional Office//Text by Peter Farrell, guest contributor

Editor’s note: It’s probably hard to remember a time when you didn’t know about the Appalachian Trail (A.T.). For many enthusiasts, it’s an integral part of life. But believe it or not, there are people out there who haven’t heard of the Trail, and that makes what we do all the more relevant. We believe everyone should have a chance to have that A.T. experience at least once.

What follows is the winning submission from our May essay contest. Although we asked for a written description of a memorable time ON the Trail, we enjoyed the unique perspective of this inspirational essay written by Peter Farrell. Check it out.

I’m getting ready for my third and perhaps last installment (hope to finish in Summer 2015) of hiking the Appalachian Trail (A.T.). Having finished the southern half and Connecticut, I want to get ready for the rocks of Pennsylvania by walking with my 30-pound pack along railroad tracks.

Last Sunday, I set out to do about 6 miles on tracks here in rural Eastern North Carolina (i.e. flat and sparsely populated). About 3 miles in, I saw three kids, probably 8 to 10 years old, playing near a trailer home, which might have been theirs.

I could see them talking and looking my way and the talk got more and more animated. Next thing I knew they were running towards me and I hear this little voice,  “Hey mister, you lost?”  (emphasis on the you). Just then from around the trailer home came four very large pit bulls who quickly passed the kids, heading with lightning speed towards me. I yelled, “How about the dogs?”  A voice said, “They won’t bite.” Sure enough, the dogs arrived, long before the kids, with butts wagging, seeking pats on the head.

When the two girls and boy arrived, the first order of business was for the boy to introduce each dog to me by name. Then the boy extended his hand and introduced himself as Tyler and his two sisters were Lydia and Lindsey. I told them my name. Lindsey asked me what I was doing so I told her just getting some exercise. Their look said, “Are you nuts?” She asked why I had a pack so I told her I was getting ready to hike parts of the Appalachian Trail. They had never heard of the Trail, but they had heard of the Smoky Mountains, so I told them I had hiked all the way through the Smokies.

“How far is that, like 10 miles?” asked Lydia. When I told them I had hiked more than 1,200 miles, the look in their faces told me that was incomprehensible. So I asked if they had travelled very far in a car, and they responded they had been to the ocean about 100 miles east. I told them the Trail is 22 times longer than that.

Next, they just had to see what was in my pack. Their entire concept of a tent, multi-tool, cooking gear, water purification, sleeping bag, camp shoes, etc. changed as I emptied my pack and explained the contents. My Trail guidebook fascinated them when I pointed out the climb from Fontana Dam to Mollies Ridge Shelter and told them it took me 6 hours to make that climb. The kids had lived in flat Eastern North Carolina their whole lives, so the idea of climbing a mountain was not easily grasped.

I had my phone with me, and we spent a good 5 minutes looking at various pictures of me in the rain, at a shelter, on McAfee Knob (they asked how close I got to the edge), and at Harpers Ferry. Pictures of snakes seemed the most exciting, but one picture of a female hiker got Tyler’s attention (the hiker was cute). Tyler could not believe that girls actually hiked the Trail, but I told him they easily out-hiked me. Lydia and Lindsey showed their discontent with Tyler’s gender bias with a swift punch in the shoulder.

The kids helped me re-pack, and as an exclamation point to the gender issue, Lydia challenged Tyler to try and pick up the reloaded backpack. He did so with great effort while Lydia made it look easy. Tyler extended his hand to say goodbye, and as they walked back to the trailer, I heard at least three “thank you’s” for my stopping and talking to them.

Nice kids and a nice encounter.

Want to try your hand at one of our contests? We’re hosting a new one each month in honor of our 90th anniversary. See what’s coming up here.

Have you seen my solar charger?

The White Mountains//New Hampshire//Photo by Micah “ManCub” Goldberg//Text by Anne Baker, marketing assistant

There’s a debate out there that might generate more heat than the age-old question of “App-uh-ley-chun” versus “App-uh-lach-uhn,” and that’s the issue of technology and the Appalachian Trail. As hikers, how do we use things like mobile devices without diminishing the A.T. experience for ourselves and others?

Benton MacKaye, the A.T.’s visionary, originally proposed that the Trail would be a series of work, study and farming camps along the Appalachian Mountains. He wanted those camps to be a refuge from city life, which he felt was quickly encroaching on society. His dream didn’t quite work out that way, but the idea is still present: get away from it all, and learn something.

We can be apprehensive of combining technology and outdoor experiences, and with good reason. Maybe we are afraid it will make us lazy. Less prepared. More reliant on a glowing screen than our intuition. Able to occupy a comment box on Facebook but not a seat around a campfire. And, perhaps we’re also afraid it will make us care more about the photo we post to Instagram than what it means to look at the view itself (“What did the sky look like that day? Let me consult #ISummitedKatahdinAndItWasAwesome because I was too caught up in sharing my experience instead of observing it.”)

There’s not an app out there that will prepare us for everything we will encounter while we’re out on the A.T. But technology is here, and it’s silly to pretend it doesn’t exist. The dilemma, then, lies in its use: how can technology enhance the A.T. experience and not detract from it?

Let us know your thoughts in a comment below.

Stop for a drink—on the rocks

Blackrock Summit//Shenandoah National Park//Photo by Brent McGuirt//Text by Anne Baker, marketing assistant

Sometimes the best discoveries are made while you’re sitting down. Like that time when you were out on the Trail, enjoying your ramen or peanut butter while perched on a rock. You may have watched an ant crawl by, carrying a crumb to its colony; you might have noticed a particular kind of bird for the very first time. The point is observation.

The Appalachian Trail is about you learning how to enjoy and appreciate what’s around you, whether it’s the scenery, the people, the towns, the weather, or even those dang shelter mice. Sometimes that means you’ll have to sit down and reflect (on and off the Trail), and we hope this blog will help you on that journey.

So—take a seat, grab a drink, and check back with us regularly. And don’t forget to leave us some love below.