“I’ve always wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail.”
That’s a not an uncommon response when I tell people that I’m walking from Pennsylvania to New Hampshire. I smile politely, but have to explain that my intention on this journey is comfort: to sleep every night in a warm bed in a friend’s home, to couch-surf, to stop at an old inn, to splurge $39.99 at a Motel 6, or–only as a last resort–to camp out.
I do plan to hike a portion of the Appalachian Trail, but only in a state better know for its New Jersey Turnpike than its through-hikes. Historically, both the Trail (proposed in 1921, completed 1938) and the Turnpike (1938) were pure products of America at mid-century. America built big in Thirties, with a self-conscious sense of utilitarian purpose that seems uniquely modernist. Like the Civilian Conservation Corps (1933), the Tennessee Valley Authority (1933), or the 1939 World’s Fair, these were creations of nation that expressed a particularly technological and communitarian faith in the future.
It’s also true that when Herbert Welsh was walking to New Hampshire a hundred years ago, there was no such trail. The words of Benton MacKaye, who first proposed “An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning” in 1921, are worth reading today. MacKaye had in mind a “Whole New Approach to the Problem of Living,” a larger goal than a footpath. The “outdoor community life” he advocated would harness an “enormous undeveloped power-the spare time of our population.”
MacKaye doesn’t propose a trail just to extol the health benefits of walking. No, he opens with a paean to the camp, which is almost unsettling now, after Auschwitz and Guantánamo.
Something has been going on these past few strenuous years which, in the din of war and general upheaval, has been somewhat lost from the public mind. It is the slow quiet development of the recreational camp. It is something neither urban nor rural. It escapes the hecticness of the one, and the loneliness of the other. And it escapes also the common curse of both – the high powered tension of the economic scramble. All communities face an “economic” problem, but in different ways. The camp faces it through cooperation and mutual helpfulness, the others through competition and mutual fleecing.
Like Herbert Welsh, MacKaye believed that “Forestry must replace timber devastation'” and that in the service of protection of the American woods, the camps could not only provide recreation, education, and recuperation, but also, with the connecting Trail, “should put new zest in the labor movement”
To connect the city and the country seemed important to MacKaye, not to escape one for the other. This was the utopian of all modernist architecture. MacKaye wrote, “We want the strength of progress without its puniness. We want its conveniences without its fopperies.”
The first person to go all the way from Georgia to Maine on the Trail walked in 1948, having come marching home from action in the Pacific in the Second World War. Earl Shaffer, not much given to reflection, offered a sole reason why he did it: “Why not walk the army out of my system, mentally and physically?” The de-mobbed soldier seems prosaic in his sentiments, yet poetic in their expression. His charming account of Walking With Spring (1981) features a few lines of verse at the head of each chapter.
Out on the blue horizon
Under an an ariel sky,
With aspect always sylvan
The days go strolling by.
He also noted, in passing, that the Trail in the state of Connecticut still followed many public roads, through farms, lawns and villages, “a sort of backyard wilderness.”
“Backyard wilderness” is an apt description of the Wallkill River Valley where I will be hiking. I will follow the New York-New Jersey border for a dozen leagues, mainly through swamps and rolling hills. The Trail is here only because many of its founders–city folks from New Jersey– wanted their state included in the wilderness. (Not every map of the Appalachian Mountains even includes the Garden State.) But it’s also a fitting place to meditate on wildness and civilization. The landscape is dotted with old mills and oil refineries among the Native relics and restored Colonial farmhouses. Today the Wallkill Valley is a bedroom community–it’s that close to New York City. I assume nobody walks to work.