Book Review: Thru-Hike the Appalachian Trail

Benton MacKaye pioneered the concept of land preservation for recreation and conservation. Back in the early nineteenth century, he knew that the oxygen of the forests along the trail was a precious natural resource. In 1921, he wrote a paper envisioning the Appalachian Trail, a walking trail link gin multiple states, like those found in Europe, with modest huts along the way for hikers to stay overnight as they travelled. The Appalachian Trail was created in multiple states and became a reality all along the eastern United States in 1937.

The Appalachian Trail (AT) stretches from Georgia to Maine (or vice versa) and is 2,190 miles long. Hiking the entire length of the Appalachian Trail (AT) is called a thru-hike. Every year, thousands of people attempt to do a thru-hike. It’s so difficult that only 1 in 4 complete their planned AT thru-hike. It’s physically, mentally and emotionally challenging. Basically you have to carry all your food, water and camping gear with you and plan daily stops for water refills and food replenishment. You need to purify all of the water before you drink. It’s not easy. People have different reasons for taking on this project. For most, thru-hiking the entire length of the AT is a lifelong aspiration. I read two personal accounts written by people who completed a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.

The first book I read was Walking With Spring, by Earl V. Shaffer. In 1948, he was the first person to complete a thru-hike of the AT. He published his account in 1983, years after his historic hike. He shares that he was a World War II veteran and needed “..to walk the war out of him…” but doesn’t share anything else about his war experiences, which is not unusual for veterans. I can only surmise the horrors he witnessed and suffered from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Today, we know so much more about the after effects of war on our returning soldiers than we did back in the 1940’s. Mr. Shaffer had it right, as nature is a wonderful healer.

The second book I read was In Beauty May She walk, by Leslie Mass, a college professor. She was 60 years old when she thru-hiked the AT in 2001. She shares she wanted to honor her father’s life by walking the AT herself. She grew up hiking and camping with her family, which instilled a love of the outdoors. The mountains of New England were especially meaningful to her. During the hike, she shares much about how walking the AT changed her, how the challenge brought about emotional and spiritual growth, and helped put in perspective what her life is really about.

They both write about getting really soaking wet, trying to shelter in the woods, trying to get to the overnight huts along the AT for shelter. Mr. Shaffer had primitive gear. Ms. Mass had the benefit of technical hiking gear. Both got really wet! The getting-soaking-wet-parts really stuck with me. It sounded dangerous as both authors wrote about shivering in their wet clothes, socks and shoes, finding shelter, then making a fire and trying to dry out around the fire.

View from Charlies Bunion along the Appalachian Trail, Tennessee

Both authors also talked about meeting up with people in the towns along the AT. Back in 1948, there wasn’t a robust industry around the AT. The AT wasn’t well marked at all. It wasn’t maintained, as America and her people were focused on the war. The men had gone to soldier, not volunteer to maintain the AT. Mr. Shaffer stopped into towns along the trail to eat a big meal and stock up on supplies. The people in these AT trail towns knew about the AT and extended hospitality to him. Mr. Shaffer had set up post office stops, whereas he had mailed himself some supplies. So he’d stop in these towns to collect his supplies. Multiple times, while in the mountains, he met people who lived remotely, such as park rangers or mountain farmers. He had many friendly, generous encounters as practically everyone he met invited him into their homes for a hot meal, a warm bath and an overnight stay in a comfy bed. The people who lived remotely usually wanted him to stay for multiple nights, as they didn’t have much outside contact, but he needed to get on his way. He was mindful of the weather as he was, Walking With Spring, starting in Georgia and walking with the coming of spring all the way up to New England. His walk was mostly solitary.

Mr. Shaffer’s book provides a detailed natural history of the entire Appalachian Trail, at a time when it wasn’t well maintained and he need to bushwhack. In great detail, in specific locations all along the trail, he records the plants and animal species, and natural rock formations. He provides numerous contemporaneous photographs. It is an amazing recorded account of the biodiversity at a specific moment in time along the AT.

Ms. Mass’ account provides more personal insight. She shares her fears about gender and age. She is a woman alone on the trail and is taking on a huge physical challenge at the age of 60. She has never pitched a tent, all alone, in all kinds of weather, for months at a time. In meeting these challenges, she experiences personal growth and finds strength she didn’t know she had.

She describes how she trained at a gym to prepare for the hike, exercising with a large pack on her back. Ms. Mass utilized the available AT hiking teaching resources. She attended an AT group specifically aimed at teaching thru-hikers about what to bring and how to plan a thru-hike. Before she set out, she arranged meet ups with friends in different states, who hiked some parts of the trail with her. Her family arranges to hike with her for parts of the trail. These social interludes are refreshing in someways, but sh also finds she enjoys the solitude of hiking alone. Like Mr. Shaffer, Ms. Mass arranges mail stops along the way. And, her husband meets up with her with supplies at some points.

There are many differences in the modern thru-hike from the first thru-hike. It was interesting to note the contrast between 1948 and 2001. One is that Ms. Mass has high tech gear. Another is that Ms. Mass meets many other hikers on the trail and befriends some. This was not the case with Mr. Shaffer. Sometimes she hikes for long distances with the hikers she meets, sometimes they break off with each other, then meet up at a shelter in the evening. There is a safety in knowing and seeing the same AT hikers. The AT hikers don’t give each other their real names, they all have “trail names”. Hers is Gotta Hike!

White Mountains, New Hampshire

Another difference is that, in 2001, the AT is very well developed. It’s well marked and well travelled. There are alot of overnight huts available, though they are sometimes full. The towns along the trail now expect business from, and cater to, AT hikers. The restaurants, hotels, motels and hostels in the AT towns all expect the hikers. Gotta Hike! plans some stops along the way in order to bathe, eat a good hot meal and sleep in a comfy bed. Her husband meets up with her a few times along the way.

The two books are different, written in different times and with each author’s unique voice. The similarity that stays with me the most is both authors express the healing aspects of being in the natural world and both express great love and reverence for the majestic beauty of the natural world. These two knew about the benefits of forest bathing before it was formally named in current research.

Happy reading!

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