In his seminal autobiographical novel A Walk in the Woods, author Bill Bryson wrote, “Distance changes utterly when you take the world on foot,” and that the experience of long distance hiking teaches you that “The world — is enormous in a way that only you and a small community of fellow hikers know.” When the film adaptation of Bryson’s book was released this past September, Robert Redford and Nick Nolte introduced many American’s to one of our nation’s best kept secrets, the Appalachian Trail, (AT).
The brainchild of renowned conservationist Benton MacKaye, the AT was originally conceived as a hiking trail that would connect parks and other natural spaces together to create a green corridor along the eastern seaboard. Stretching to a length of almost 2,200 miles, the trail is the only officially developed “hiking only” footpath in the entire world. Maintained entirely by volunteer effort, the trail runs through fourteen states from Georgia to Maine. Each section of the trail is the responsibility of a club, like Vermont’s Green Mountain Club, which is responsible for maintaining the trail and its associated structures such as campsites and lean-to’s.
The thought of going for a lengthy hiking trip may seem bizarre to most Americans, who tend to indulge in a more indoor sort of recreational activities these days. Even amongst those people who still enjoy a day hike or long weekend in the woods, the thought of traveling almost the entire the length of the east coast on foot seems alien, impossible, or even bizarre. The trip, however, can have a storage effect on those who complete it - many of whom turn around once they reach the end to hike back in the other direction. There is something deeply satisfying about having such a unique experience isolated in nature, so unlike our modern world, that draws people back to the woods time and again.
Spending even four weeks outside of modern society can shift your perspective in a deep and meaningful way. In his book Bryson reminds us “for 93 percent of all trips outside the home, for whatever distance or whatever purpose, Americans now get in a car.” These days nature can be limited to what we see on the side of the highway, but hidden in the Appalachian Mountains is a world of stunning beauty.
Even hearing the name of the trail can induce a sort of wistful reverie in former through hikers, whose experiences on the trail are often described as transformative. In Nature, Emerson wrote, “In the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows.” Just over a decade ago I hiked a small section of the trail from northern Massachusetts to southern New Hampshire by way of Vermont, and even that short trip had a profound impact on my life. I still look back on those weeks through a veil of intense nostalgic longing, for the simplicity, intensity, and directness of my experiences in the woods.