A Brief History of the Appalachian Trail

A Brief History of the Appalachian Trail

Mark Sanford’s confession to adultery may be roiling South Carolina and traumatizing his family, but it’s bequeathed to the rest of us a handy new euphemism for sneaking in a little romance on the sly: hiking the Appalachian Trail. That was the original reason given by Sanford’s staff for his unexplained six-day absence from the state’s capital — an explanation whose credibility evaporated when the governor resurfaced, not from an extended nature walk but a covert sojourn to Buenos Aires, where his mistress lives. In the meantime, the peculiar tale of Sanford’s disappearance and subsequent confession has showered the beloved “A.T.” with the most attention it’s received in years.

The Appalachian National Scenic Trail is the nation’s longest “marked footpath,” stretching approximately 2,178 miles from the summit of Springer Mountain, Georgia to the top of Mt.
Katahdin in Maine. The trail blazes through 14 states and ranges from deep wilderness to strenuous mountain hiking above the tree line — its elevation dips to 124 feet in New York and climbs to 6,625 feet in Tennessee, at the top of Clingmans Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The trail was the brainchild of Benton MacKaye, a New England regional planner who published the idea in 1921. He originally envisioned wilderness communities along the trail where visitors could stop and renew themselves in a natural setting. Hikers and outdoors enthusiasts embraced the idea for the trail and promptly started building. The first portion was opened in New York in 1923, and the full trail was completed by 1937, constructed and maintained by volunteer groups along the eastern seaboard. The trail fell into disrepair in the 1940s as manpower and resources were drained by World War II, although after the war its supporters banded together to restore it by 1951. The federal government named the A.T. a national scenic trail in 1968, and today the full length — almost all on public land — is maintained by a network of nonprofit groups and protected by the National Park Service.

The Appalachian Trail attracts thousands of hikers each year, most of whom traverse small sections of the trail on short day trips. A heartier band of explorers shoot for the big enchilada: hiking the entire length of the trail, some 5 million footsteps. Each year about 500 “thru-hikers” or “2,000-milers” complete the grueling trek; the A.T. foils about 80% of those who try. The total number of reported “thru-hikes” hit 10,000 in 2008. Traveling the length of the trail takes between five and seven months; most people start at the southern end and head north. Campgrounds and shelters are available along the route, and the trail passes through small towns with a history of welcoming campers. In 1948, legendary hiker Earl Shaffer became the first person to travel the full trail in one season. Fifty years later, at age 79, he repeated the feat — also becoming the oldest thru-hiker to that point . In 2005, Andrew Thompson of New Hampshire made hiking history by completing the Appalachian Trail in just 47 days, 13 hours and 31 minutes — setting an astounding pace of 45 miles a day. The 29-year-old hit the trail at 5:30 a.m. and ended at 9 p.m., losing 30 pounds in the process even as he ate up to 8,000 calories a day.

Safety along the Appalachian Trail has never been a serious concern. Accidents and conflicts with wildlife are generally rare, and crime is uncommon — though what little there is tends to draw headlines. In 2008
two fishermen were shot along the trail in Virginia, allegedly by the same man who had slain two campers near the same spot in 1981. The shooting victims both survived; the alleged gunman, Randall Lee Smith, died days
later, apparently from injuries he suffered in a truck accident while fleeing from police.

The account of Governor Sanford decamping to the Appalachian Trail may have
seemed plausible enough at first — the 49-year-old is an avid outdoorsman
who has enjoyed the trail since he was a teenager. But knowledgeable hikers
may still have raised an eyebrow at the claim, as Sanford’s absence coincided with “Naked Hiking Day,” the annual ritual when courageous trekkers take to the great outdoors in the buff. While the tradition has its fans, not everyone welcomes the combination of hiking boots and birthday
suits. “It’s just rude,” said Brian King, a spokesman for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. “People are out there hiking with their kids and families, and there are Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts.”