The Appalachian Trail
A Transcendentalist Tour
It is North America’s answer to Mount Everest. Stretching almost 2,200 miles from Maine to Georgia, the Appalachian Trail beckons the spiritual and the adventurous alike. Follow the trail from its transcendentalist roots through its modern-day traditions as you meet forest planner Benton MacKaye, humorist Bill Bryson and the majestic Mount Greylock. Even Moby-Dick may peek his head out from the mountainous landscape.
“I’m going to end it all.” This, according to a newspaper report, was suffragette Betty MacKaye’s last statement, on April 18, 1921. Just months later her husband, Benton, conceived of the Appalachian Trail while staying at a friend’s farm in New Jersey, where he had gone to grieve. His vision, inspired by his wife’s suicide, was of a continuous hiking trail stretching from the East Coast’s highest northern point, Mount Washington (in New Hampshire), to its highest southern one, Mount Mitchell (in North Carolina). At intervals, hikers would volunteer on farms, sleep in community camps and together create a peaceful hiking environment—and a very narrow one, measuring more than 2,000 miles long but only about two feet wide.
The Appalachian Trail’s first stage opened in 1923, and today it extends beyond Mount Washington to Maine’s Mount Katahdin, and past Mount Mitchell to Georgia’s Springer Mountain. MacKaye’s plan for lodging and work-exchange networks never materialized. But his idea of the trail as a “retreat from profit”—a manifestation of his and his wife’s socialist beliefs—survives: The colossal trail is inspected and groomed every year, inch by inch, by volunteer trail clubs in association with the nonprofit Appalachian Trail Conservancy.
Henry David Thoreau was the most solitary of the transcendentalists, mid-19th-century American philosophers who encouraged an appreciation of nature for the spiritual health of mankind. Thoreau was passionate about long, contemplative walks in the Massachusetts countryside, sometimes 20 miles at a time. In his 1862 essay “Walking,” Thoreau interprets the word saunter to convey the mystical transcendence he experienced while strolling. He notes that vagabonds roamed medieval Europe, begging for charity on the pretense of going to the Holy Land—à la sainte terre. They became known as sainte-terrers (“holy-landers”)—or saunterers. To Thoreau, those who go to the Holy Land in their walks, even metaphorically speaking, are successful saunterers.
Benton MacKaye, a self-described “amphibian…between urban and rural life” and the visionary behind the Appalachian Trail, was immersed in transcendentalist attitudes. He grew up in a New England family of abolitionists, suffragists and philosophers, and his abolitionist grandfather, James, counted transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson as an acquaintance. But MacKaye channeled the philosophy less through social reform than through solitary hikes in the New England woods. When asked why one would undertake to hike the Appalachian Trail, MacKaye said, in poetic simplicity, “To walk. To see. To see what you see.”
Moses is in good company when it comes to mountaintop epiphanies. Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau had two—both well documented in his writings and both occurring on what is now the Appalachian Trail. His first came while summiting Mount Greylock (a.k.a. Saddleback Mountain) in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, in 1844. After spending a bitter, blanketless night at its peak, Thoreau woke to a carpet of clouds undulating beneath him. He called it the “new terra-firma perchance of my future life,” proclaiming, “It was a favor for which to be forever silent to be shown this vision.”
His second epiphany came atop Maine’s Mount Katahdin—the finish line for today’s northbound trail hikers—during his stay at Walden Pond. If Thoreau thought living in the woods had prepared him for Katahdin, he certainly changed his mind after climbing it. At the peak, he found not the gentle landscape of ponds and cozy cabins but harsh, primeval nature, “grim and wild,” befitting only “men nearer of kin to the rocks and wild animals than we.” Appalachian Trail hikers today, some after half a year in wooded seclusion, finish their journey in Thoreau’s footsteps—many with his back-to-nature manifesto Walden in hand.
Herman Melville named his Pittsfield, Massachusetts, home Arrowhead after the arrowheads he dug up on the property. (The name it often goes by today, the Herman Melville House, apparently didn’t occur to him.) Here, he spent his 13 most productive writing years (1850–1863), two of them down the road from fellow novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne. From the window of his study, Melville stared up at Mount Greylock, the highest point in the state.
One legend claims the mountain’s snowcapped peak reminded Melville, a former whale hunter, of a white whale thrashing against the ocean surface. (This is likely a misinterpretation of Hawthorne’s account, which suggests that the overwhelming sublimity of the mountain had evoked the thought of an equally sublime leviathan.) The image became the seed of a story: With the shadow of the great whale looming over him, Melville sat in his Arrowhead study, writing Moby-Dick.
Melville lived his Arrowhead years in respectful awe of Greylock. He dedicated his novel Pierre to “Greylock’s Most Excellent Majesty” and even hiked the daunting summit himself. Today the Appalachian Trail crosses Greylock’s peak. Hikers foolhardy enough to climb it in freezing temperatures can walk right over the gargantuan white head of Moby-Dick.
Herman Melville lived and worked on the periphery of the New England–based transcendentalist movement—its members frequented his hometown of Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Melville entered this circle only occasionally, and only to satirize it, according to some scholars. His short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” about a copyist who suddenly refuses to do any work, is commonly read as a criticism of transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau’s refusal to pay taxes and subsequent withdrawal from society to Walden Pond, two of his famous acts of “civil disobedience.” Melville also satirized Thoreau in “Cock-A-Doodle-Doo!” and Thoreau and transcendentalist poet Ralph Waldo Emerson in The Confidence-Man.
However, few nonfictional sources support such interpretations. Melville’s take on the transcendentalists in his letters actually suggests an opposing theory: He may have revered them. Melville heard Emerson lecture in Boston in 1849 and was so impressed that he likened him to, well, a whale. (No one but Melville could get away with this kind of compliment.) A “thought-diving” whale, to be specific, for Emerson’s thoughts were so profound he seemed to dive down to the bottom of the ocean to get them.
In the opening pages of A Walk in the Woods, humorist Bill Bryson lists his reasons for wanting to hike the Appalachian Trail: to get his body in shape “after years of waddlesome sloth,” to reacquaint himself with his native country after years abroad, to learn the primitive art of wilderness survival. But no reason was more compelling than this: The “forest is in trouble.” Global warming, he explains, could destroy the Appalachian range, making it a scorched savanna in half a century—so why not see it while it’s still there?
As he and his overweight pal, Stephen Katz, stagger along the trail like two lost Boy Scouts, Bryson gets his fill of more than the Appalachian wilderness. He discovers the unique, often very amusing culture of “thru-hikers,” those who hike the whole trail in one season, generally a five- to seven-month endeavor. They are a motley, foggy-headed bunch of all ages who like to talk equipment and mileage and who live and breathe the Appalachian Trail. Splitting with Katz in Virginia for a book tour, Bryson later returns alone to hike some northeast sections, racking up a measly 870 miles total—less than half the trail’s majestic stretch.
If on your next trip to Pennsylvania you stumble upon a bedraggled hiker clutching a large brick of ice cream, you’ve just discovered an Appalachian Trail tradition: gorging on a 2,400-calorie half gallon of ice cream to mark the halfway point of a thru-hiking journey. Ask the hiker’s name and you may get the reply “Hot Sauce.” This is not a condiment request; it too is a tradition. Appalachian Trail hikers, as part of the trail’s mystique, take on new identities under assumed trail names.
Offer Hot Sauce a napkin and you’re participating in another trail tradition: trail magic—a spontaneous act of kindness or hospitality, usually from locals residing along the trail. Then, of course, there is National Hike Naked Day, a countrywide hiking tradition marking the summer solstice. Incidentally, on this day in 2009, South Carolina governor Mark Sanford infamously abandoned his duties to “hike the Appalachian Trail.” A naked politician hiking in the woods? Appalachia was instantly abuzz with gubernatorial gossip. As it turned out, Sanford only used the Appalachian Trail as a cover-up. He had actually taken his naked celebration elsewhere—to his mistress in Argentina.
Towns located along the Appalachian Trail become accustomed to the sight of dirty, disheveled hikers standing in grocery store lines holding boxes of instant grits, ramen noodles and granola bars. Trail towns consequently acquire a communally maternal instinct to pamper and protect the vagabonds passing through. One generous resident (or a trail angel, as they’re known) may pay for a hiker’s groceries; another may offer a home-cooked meal and place to spend the night. Trail initiates call this trail magic.
Bill Bryson’s definition perhaps digs deeper into what makes the experience so enchanting: “There is a phenomenon called Trail Magic, known and spoken of with reverence by everyone who hikes the trail, which holds that often when things look darkest some little piece of serendipity comes along to put you back on a heavenly plane.”
Despite the reverence he holds for this trail tradition, another one stands out to Bryson as truly special: “One of the noblest traditions of the Appalachian Trail is that every inch of it is free.”