OUTDOORS: Appalachian Trail birthday worth celebrating

Every time I hike the AT, three things strike me: 1. the idea that I could look one way toward Georgia and the other toward Maine; 2. the sheer scope and magnitude of the effort it was to create it; 3. that people actually hike the whole thing.

In April 1948, Earl Shaffer stood at the base of Mount Oglethorpe in Georgia, weary in spirit and body. A forward-area radioman in the South Pacific, Shaffer saw much suffering and death during World War II, and thought maybe a very long hike would help assuage his personal anguish.

Shaffer wanted, he later wrote, "to hike the Army out of my system, both mentally and physically." One hundred twenty-four days later — carrying his Army rucksack but no tent or stove — Shaffer reached Mount Katahdin in Maine, becoming the first through-hiker of the Appalachian Trail.

The AT was completed on August 14, 1937 — 75 years ago this week — but by the time Shaffer finished his now-legendary, 2,050-mile hike nine years later, it was a very different place. A hurricane in 1938 damaged huge swaths of the path in the Northeast; maintenance came to a virtual halt during WWII, causing much of the trail to fall into disrepair; and the decision to connect Skyline Drive with the Blue Ridge Parkway displaced about 120 miles of the trail.

So-called experts at the time considered a through-hike physically impossible, and Shaffer had to convince people he had actually done what he said. But once he did, his hike, and the others that immediately followed, helped raise public awareness of the trail.

Hardcore hikers and AT enthusiasts know the story of Earl Shaffer, but many more associate the name Benton MacKaye with America's most famous footpath.

Writing in the October 1921 issue of the Journal of the American Institute of Architects, MacKaye proposed a pathway along the crest of the Appalachians, "from the highest peak in the North to the highest peak in the South. From Mount Washington to Mount Mitchell."

Two years later, the first miles of trail built specifically for the AT were hacked out of the New York woods by volunteers. In 1925, MacKaye and others formed the Appalachian Trail Conference to help organize volunteers working on the trail.

It's amazing, in retrospect, to imagine the effort required at the time — across 14 states and, at first, 2,025 miles — to make MacKaye's dream a reality. But his dream wasn't to create what we know today as the AT: a recreational footpath that offers opportunities for exercise and communion with the natural world.

MacKaye saw the AT as a way to establish communities of workers along its route that would include food and farm camps. The title of his journal piece proposing the trail was, "An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning." He saw the idea as offering more than recreation in a natural setting. He wanted those communities to serve as examples for all Americans of the alternatives to the increasing mechanization of modern labor and the commercialization of human endeavors, generally.

In that regard, MacKaye differed from the other man most associated with the creation of the Appalachian Trail. Myron Avery served as Potomac Appalachian Trail Club president from 1927 to 1940 and Appalachian Trail Conference chairman from 1931 to 1952, both volunteer positions, both crucial, especially in the early years, in coordinating and aiding volunteer efforts to complete the trail.

Avery spent so much time in the field flagging routes that, while he didn't through-hike it like Shaffer, he's considered the first person to walk every AT mile, a year before it was completed.

MacKaye and Avery eventually split over their difference in vision for the trail.

In 1935, MacKaye and others formed The Wilderness Society. His association with the trail was essentially over.

Two years later, a Civilian Conservation Corps crew finished the final two miles on Maine's Sugarloaf Mountain.

Every time I hike a section of the AT, three things strike me: 1. the idea that, figuratively, I could look one way toward Georgia and the other toward Maine; 2. the sheer scope and magnitude of the effort it was to create it; 3. that people actually hike the whole thing.

Those three ideas are embodied in the men most associated with the trail's creation and perpetuation. And it bears remembering, 75 years after the trail was first completed, that this simple path, whose existence we take for granted today, was once seen as a wild notion unlikely to be completed and never to be hiked.