The Appalachian Trail: A Biography by Philip D’Anieri 2021
Perhaps it’s because I have hiked 82.7 miles of the Appalachian Trail in southern Vermont where it overlaps with the Long Trail from the Massachusetts border to Killington. Or perhaps it’s because D’Anieri has presented interesting mini-biographies of 12 fascinating and unusual individuals who have been instrumental in the development of the AT. Or maybe I’m still intrigued by the concept of a through hike of 2100 miles. But whatever it was, I found this book to be a terrific read. I’m not sure that everyone will enjoy it as I have, but if you like hiking, nature, wilderness, or interesting people, this is a book for you.
Rather than take a traditional approach to the history of the AT by describing the geography from north to south or vice versa, or the geological history, or some other logical temporal or spatial plan, D’Anieri focuses on the men and women who have made the Trail what it is today. Starting with the the Swiss scientist, Arnold Guyot, a student of Humboldt and a colleague of Aggasiz, who devoted his academic life at Princeton to describing the Appalachian Mountains, he finishes with Bill Bryson whose 1998 best seller, ‘A Walk in the Woods’ led to a doubling of through hikers in the early 2000’s. Along the way we meet Horace Kephart who developed the southern end of the Trail with his concept of wilderness as an antidote to the destructive powers of civilization and James P. Taylor whose 1910 founding of the Green Mountain Club and its Long Trail blazed a path for how to construct a path through nature. Benton MacKaye was the philosophical inspiration and Myron Avery was the nuts and bolts builder of the trail when it was finished in 1932 while Earl Shaffer was the first through hiker in 1948 and Emma Gatewood was the first woman through hiker in 1954 hiking 2100 miles with only a cloth duffle bag and regular shoes. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin championed Federal legislation to establish the National Scenic Trails Law which provided funds to acquire property along the AT, and Dave Richie, Pam Underhill and Dave Startzell built a unique partnership between the National Park Service and the Appalachian Trail Conference enabling the trail to be protected and maintained. Each of these individuals is presented by D’Anieri in a readable and relevant chapter, not an easy task.
The AT remains one of the great trails in the world, and its 2100 miles from Springer Moutain, Georgia to Mt Katahdin, Maine remain a worthy challenge to mind and body for anyone brave enough to undertake it. My day hikes in Vermont with friends and family covered about 4% of this distance, and my recent 76th birthday probably means I’ll not finish the Long Trail let alone the AT. Nonetheless, I can vividly recall most of my 80+ mi,les and it gives me pleasure to think of the trail extending into the distance north and south of where I was. Fine job, Professor D’Anieri (who by the way teaches at my med school alma mater, U of Michigan).