فصل 09

کتاب: قدم زدن در جنگل / فصل 9

فصل 09

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In the summer of 1948, Earl V. Shaffer, a young man just out of the army, became the first person to hike the Appalachian Trail from end to end in a single summer. With no tent, and often navigating with nothing better than road maps, he walked for 123 days, from April to August, averaging seventeen miles a day. Coincidentally, while he was hiking, the Appalachian Trailway News, the journal of the Appalachian Trail Conference, ran a long article by Myron Avery and the magazine’s editor, Jean Stephenson, explaining why an end-to-end hike was probably not possible.

The trail Shaffer found was nothing like the groomed and orderly corridor that exists today. Though it was only eleven years since the trail’s completion, by 1948 it was already subsiding into oblivion. Shaffer found that large parts of it were overgrown or erased by wholesale logging. Shelters were few, blazes often nonexistent. He spent long periods bushwhacking over tangled mountains or following the wrong path when the trail forked.

Occasionally he stepped onto a highway to find that he was miles from where he ought to be. Often he discovered that local people were not aware of the trail’s existence or, if they knew of it, were amazed to be told that it ran all the way from Georgia to Maine.

Frequently he was greeted with suspicion.

On the other hand, even the dustiest little hamlets nearly always had a store or cafe, unlike now, and generally when Shaffer left the trail he could count on flagging down a country bus for a lift to the nearest town. Although he saw almost no other hikers in the four months, there was other, real life along the trail. He often passed small farms and cabins or found graziers tending herds on sunny balds. All those are long gone now.

Today the AT is a wilderness by design–actually, by fiat, since many of the properties Shaffer passed were later compulsorily purchased and quietly returned to woodland.

There were twice as many songbirds in the eastern United States in 1948 as now. Except for the chestnuts, the forest trees were healthy. Dogwood, elms, hemlocks, balsam firs, and red spruces still thrived. Above all, he had 2,000 miles of trail almost entirely to himself.

When Shaffer completed the walk in early August, four months to the day after setting off, and reported his achievement to conference headquarters, no one there actually believed him. He had to show officials his photographs and trail journal and undergo a “charming but thorough cross examination,” as he put it in his later account of the journey, Walking with Spring, before his story was finally accepted.

When news of Shaffer’s hike leaked out, it attracted a good deal of attention–newspapers came to interview him, the National Geographic ran a long article–and the AT underwent a modest revival. But hiking has always been a marginal pursuit in America, and within a few years the AT was once more largely forgotten except among a few diehards and eccentrics. In the early 1960s a plan was put forward to extend the Blue Ridge Parkway, a scenic highway, south from the Smokies by building over the southern portion of the AT.

That plan failed (on grounds of cost, not because of any particular outcry), but elsewhere the trail was nibbled away or reduced to a rutted, muddy track through zones of commerce. In 1958, as we’ve seen, twenty miles were lopped off the southern end from Mount Oglethorpe to Springer Mountain. By the mid-1960s it looked to any prudent observer as if the AT would survive only as scattered fragments–in the Smokies andShenandoah National Park, from Vermont across to Maine, as forlorn relic strands in the odd state park, but otherwise buried under shopping malls and housing developments.

Much of the trail crossed private lands, and new owners often revoked informal rights-ofway agreements, forcing confused and hasty relocations onto busy highways or other public roads–hardly the tranquil wildnerness experience envisioned by Benton MacKaye.

Once again, the AT looked doomed.

Then, in a timely piece of fortuitousness, America got a secretary of the interior, Stewart Udall, who actually liked hiking. Under his direction, a National Trails System Act was passed in 1968. The law was ambitious and far-reaching–and largely never realized.

It envisioned 25,000 miles of new hiking trails across America, most of which were never built. However, it did produce the Pacific Crest Trail and secured the future of the AT by making it a de facto national park. It also provided funds–$170 million since 1978–for the purchase of private lands to provide a wilderness buffer alongside it. Now nearly all the trail passes through protected wilderness. Just twenty-one miles of it–less than 1 percent of the total–are on public roads, mostly on bridges and where it passes through towns.

In the half century since Shaffer’s hike, about 4,000 others have repeated the feat.

There are two kinds of end-to-end hikers–those who do it in a single season, known as “thru-hikers,” and those who do it in chunks, known as “section hikers.” The record for the longest section hike is forty-six years. The Appalachian Trail Conference doesn’t recognize speed records, on the grounds that that isn’t in the spirit of the enterprise, but that doesn’t stop people from trying. In the 1980s a man named Ward Leonard, carrying a full pack and with no support crew, hiked the trail in sixty days–an incredible feat when you consider that it would take you about five days to drive an equivalent distance. In May 1991, an “ultra-runner” named David Horton and an endurance hiker named Scott Grierson set off within two days of each other. Horton had a network of support crews waiting at road crossings and other strategic points and so needed to carry nothing but a bottle of water. Each evening he was taken by car to a motel or private home. He averaged 38.3 miles a day, with ten or eleven hours of running. Grierson, meanwhile, merely walked, but he did so for as much as eighteen hours a day. Horton finally overtook Grierson in New Hampshire on the thirty-ninth day, reaching his goal in fifty-two days, nine hours. Grierson came in a couple of days later.

All kinds of people have completed thru-hikes. One man hiked it in his eighties. Another did it on crutches. A blind man named Bill Irwin hiked the trail with a seeing-eye dog, falling down an estimated 5,000 times in the process. Probably the most famous, certainly the most written about, of all thru-hikers was Emma “Grandma” Gatewood, who

successfully hiked the trail twice in her late sixties despite being eccentric, poorly equipped, and a danger to herself. (She was forever getting lost.) My own favorite, however, is a guy named Woodrow Murphy from Pepperell, Massachusetts, who did a thru-hike in the summer of 1995. I would have liked him anyway, just for being called Woodrow, but I especially admired him when I read that he weighed 350 pounds and was doing the hike to lose weight. In his first week on the trail, he managed just five miles a day, but he persevered, and by August, when he reached his home state, he was up to a dozen miles a day. He had lost fifty-three pounds (a trifle, all things considered) and at last report was considering doing it all over again the following year.A significant fraction of thru-hikers reach Katahdin, then turn around and start back to Georgia. They just can’t stop walking, which kind of makes you wonder. In fact, the more you read about thru-hikers the more you end up being filled with a kind of wonder. Take Bill Irwin, the blind man. After his hike he said: “I never enjoyed the hiking part. It was something I felt compelled to do. It wasn’t my choice.” Or David Horton, the ultra-runner who set the speed record in 1991. By his own account, he became “a mental and emotional wreck” and spent most of the period crossing Maine weeping copiously. (Well, then why do it?) Even good old Earl Shaffer ended up as a recluse in the backwoods of Pennsylvania. I don’t mean to suggest that hiking the AT drives you potty, just that it takes a certain kind of person to do it.

And how did I feel about giving up the quest when a granny in sneakers, a human beachball named Woodrow, and over 3,990 others had made it to Katahdin? Well, pretty good, as a matter of fact. I was still going to hike the Appalachian Trail; I just wasn’t going to hike all of it. Katz and I had already walked half a million steps, if you can believe it. It didn’t seem altogether essential to do the other 4.5 million to get the idea of the thing.

So we rode to Knoxville with our comical cabdriver, acquired a rental car at the airport, and found ourselves, shortly after midday, heading north out of Knoxville through a halfremembered world of busy roads, dangling traffic signals, vast intersections, huge signs, and acre upon acre of shopping malls, gas stations, discount stores, muffler clinics, car lots, and all the rest. Even after a day in Gatlinburg, the transition was dazzling. I remember reading once how some Stone Age Indians from the Brazilian rain forest with no knowledge or expectation of a world beyond the jungle were taken to Sao Paulo or Rio, and when they saw what it contained– the buildings, the cars, the passing airplanesand how thoroughly at variance it was with their own simple lives, they wet themselves, lavishly and in unison. I believe I had some idea how they felt.

It is such a strange contrast. When you’re on the AT, the forest is your universe, infinite and entire. It is all you experience day after day. Eventually it is about all you can imagine. You are aware, of course, that somewhere over the horizon there are mighty cities, busy factories, crowded freeways, but here in this part of the country, where woods drape the landscape for as far as the eye can see, the forest rules. Even the little towns like Franklin and Hiawassee and even Gatlinburg are just way stations scattered helpfully through the great cosmos of woods.

But come off the trail, properly off, and drive somewhere, as we did now, and you realize how magnificently deluded you have been. Here, the mountains and woods were just backdrop–familiar, known, nearby, but no more consequential or noticed than the clouds that scudded across their ridgelines. Here the real business was up close and on top of you: gas stations, WallMarts, Kmarts, Dunkin Donuts, Blockbuster Videos, a ceaseless unfolding pageant of commercial hideousness.

Even Katz was unnerved by it. “Jeez, it’s ugly,” he breathed in wonder, as if he had never witnessed such a thing before. I looked past him, along the line of his shoulder, to a vast shopping mall with a prairie-sized parking lot, and agreed. It was horrible. And then, lavishly and in unison, we wet ourselves.

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