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.

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Taking a Look at the Big Picture

Text by Laura Belleville, Director of Conservation of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy

Here at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, a day does not go by where we, and our trail management partners, don’t hear about hikers engaged in activities that are not compatible with Trail values. That’s not to say that there aren’t thousands of hikers that are doing the right thing, but more and more it seems to be tipping in the other direction. And as Baxter State Park has called out, it’s time to wrestle this issue to the ground.

We need everyone’s help. When I think about inappropriate behavior on the Trail I recall the widely popular and effective anti-littering campaign in the 1980s. This campaign was effective because it depicted the extent of litter across our lands and asked everyone to take a hard look at what they were doing to contribute to the growing problem.

Let’s face it, we could all benefit from taking a hard look at how we behave on the Trail. Day hikers, thru-hikers, section hikers all have a responsibility to protect the unique experience of hiking a world-renowned National Scenic Trail. It’s a precious resource that should not be tarnished. Frankly, the last thing I want to hear is that a hiker chooses to hike elsewhere because the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) is no longer the outdoor experience we have all come to revere.

So, here’s a message from all trail managers: please, help out the Trail. It would be great if GOOD trail behavior goes viral. Here are some ways you can contribute to the effort:

  • Know before you go. The A.T. is unique in that it crosses 14 state borders, eight different national forests, six national park units and numerous state park, forest and game lands. Those lands are all managed for different purposes, which means the way you enjoy those lands will vary. But that’s just part of the A.T. experience!
  • Remember respect. Respect the Trail and those who choose to walk it. It’s just good Trail Karma.
  • Help others make the right decision. With such a large amount of people choosing to visit the A.T., the chances are great that any one of us may inadvertently damage the natural area around the Trail. Brush up on Leave No Trace here, and remind others when necessary.

We welcome your ideas and suggestions to promote the good while minimizing the bad. Let us know your ideas by commenting below.

View our response to the Baxter State Park Facebook post about this issue here.

The start of a great A.T. tradition? I think yes

Ryan Seltzer in 2009//Photo courtesy of Ryan Seltzer//Text by Maxwell Roeske, public relations intern

The classic line “April showers bring May flowers” is being rewritten by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC). The ATC is welcoming May with the Inaugural Flip Flop Kickoff Weekend at its Harpers Ferry, WV Visitor Center on Saturday and Sunday, May 2 and 3—and from now on, you’ll hear people in the town of Harpers Ferry saying “April showers bring May Flip Floppers.”

A flip flop thru-hike is an alternative to the old school definition of a thru-hike. Today’s Appalachian Trail (A.T.) hikers ought to know that thru-hiking the world’s most famous long-distance footpath doesn’t mean they have to start and end in Georgia or Maine. In fact, more and more thru-hikers are finding out that Harpers Ferry is an ideal location to begin or end their hike. The allure of visiting the town twice then tips the scales toward a flip flop hike.

When flip flop hikers triumphantly return to the area for a special version of a “half-time” celebration, “They have a chance to to explore the C&O Towpath, the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, the Potomac Heritage Trail and Harpers Ferry National Historical Park,” said Laurie Pottieger, the ATC’s information services manager and organizer of what is being dubbed as the FFKO Weekend. “It’s a jumping off point for flip floppers and day hikers alike that offers a wealth of hiking opportunities and more.”

Flip flopping visitors get a chance to take some down time not usually afforded to those thru-hikers who are focused on Katahdin and its October 15 summit deadline. Many take advantage of the leisure time to wait for their southbound (SOBO) compatriots and join them in the A.T.’s southern migration from Baxter State Park towards Springer Mountain.

Joseph "Bellows" and Catherine "Watermelon" summit Katahdin during their 2014 flip flop thru-hike.

Joseph “Bellows” and Catherine “Watermelon” summit Katahdin during their 2014 flip flop thru-hike.

ATC’s Flip Flop Kick Off Weekend is a chance to celebrate and learn more about this new movement. The festival schedule is jam-packed with everything from giveaways and games to live music and hiking workshops to an official bon voyage for this year’s flip flop hikers. ATC’s Trail Information Specialist Tenny Webster, who is leading a workshop during the event, said, “We’ll be demonstrating bear bag hanging techniques including the latest and greatest tricked out variations. We’ll show various bear bag hanging systems and all of their components, from the ideal equipment for a hang (and what you will actually have on the Trail), to knots you need to know, and of course, the importance of troubleshooting as you go. It will be hands-on, so people should bring their throwing arm for some ‘Spring Training’!”

Eighty percent of hikers who set out to complete the entire A.T. in 12 months or less start in Georgia and end in Maine. Talk about a crowd! Flip flopping offers a relief from the large groups of Northbound (NOBO) hikers not only to the flip flopper, but to the Trail itself. The ATC is encouraging this conservation-minded thru-hike.

Ryan “Castanada” Seltzer, the ATC Corridor Stewardship Coordinator, is also a FFKO workshop presenter, and after successfully completing a flip flop in 2009, he’s been a flip flop advocate from the start.

“The A.T. is here to stay,” he said. “As the Trail’s popularity continues to grow, users must consider the impacts they cause and spread them out so that nature has the opportunity to heal itself. And to not just follow the crowd, spread out, take as much time as they can.”

Who wouldn’t want to soak up as much of the Trail’s beauty as they could? Flip flopping lets you slow down and enjoy more of the little things.

“That’s really why people should consider a flip flop hike,” concluded Seltzer.

The Flip Flop Kick Off is about more than the awesome temporary tattoos you can get during the festival (whice are seriously cool). It’s about celebrating the men and women, young and old alike, adopting this new version of a thru-hike. We’re gathering to celebrate the traditions of our beloved Trail melding seamlessly with new alternatives that are only going strengthen the A.T. for generations to come. That’s why there’s no doubt in my mind, that the answer to the question, “Is this the start of a new A.T. tradition?” is a resounding YES!

For more information about the Flip Flop Kick Off, visit www.appalachiantrail.org/flipflop.

A new (voluntary) step for thru-hikers

2013 thru-hikers Ninja, Bluetick, Ado and Smooth celebrate their arrival at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy//Harpers Ferry, West Virginia//Photo courtesy Chris “Smooth” Cage//Text by Anne Baker, marketing assistant 

Thru-hiker fever has officially set in. And with the general preparations like gear shakedowns, meal planning, mail drop logistics and (in some cases) quitting your job to hike thousands of miles, there’s another way the class of 2015 is getting ready for a thru-hike: voluntary registration.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) launched its Thru-Hiker Voluntary Registration system this year with the goal of not only better managing the Appalachian Trail (A.T.), but also enhancing the thru-hiker experience. With movies like “Wild” and “A Walk in the Woods” drawing attention to two of America’s national scenic trails, something had to be done to spread out the volume of thru-hikers who hit the A.T. at peak times. This voluntary registration system is one way the ATC hopes to address potential overcrowding, especially at the southern end of the A.T. in March and April

Currently, more than 800 people have registered their thru-hikes through this system, allowing hikers to see how many have plan to start their thru-hike on a particular day and giving them a chance to see when crowded conditions will exist. Prospective thru-hikers can see on what days thru-hikers have registered not only for northbound  and southbound thru-hikes, but also for thru-hikes starting in Harpers Ferry or other locations.

This planning feature is especially appealing to hikers like Barbara “Firefly,” who will set out on a thru-hike this year with her 26-year-old son:

“When we started planning, we intentionally looked into the traditionally crowded start days and tried to avoid those as well as avoiding a weekend start. I really think for many people, being able to look and visually see days that are already packed will help future thru-hikers spread themselves out.”

Hiking the A.T. is practically a lifelong dream for Firefly, who began planning her hike when she was 12. Back then, she was using the library and snail mail to gather information while also getting firsthand experience by working on trail crews. Yet it wasn’t until now that she felt like she could to take the amount of time off that’s required for a thru-hike, and when she began planning again, she realized that the A.T.—and the process of planning—had changed.

“I was a bit sad at a lot of the negatives I’ve heard concerning problems resulting from overcrowding, especially at the both ends of the Trail. As a lifelong dream I couldn’t let go of the idea of a traditional thru-hike, even though the cool breeze option looks awesome. The reality is we are approaching our hike with a degree of flexibility, evaluating our progress along the way and if needed changing to an alternative itinerary.”

Firefly’s willingness to embrace an alternative plan if necessary is a sentiment that is growing among potential thru-hikers. It’s good timing, too—as the popularity of long-distance hiking trails increases, the A.T. will benefit from those who recognize that a thru-hike doesn’t have to start at Springer Mountain, or even Katahdin. After all, the journey isn’t so much about the destination, but the process of getting there.

To everyone who has registered their thru-hike, and especially those who made an effort to avoid popular start dates or even selected an alternative starting location, thanks for making the A.T. an incredible hiking and camping experience—and for helping it stay that way.

Have a comment about our voluntary registration system? Email AT-ThruStartDate@appalachiantrail.org