Hiking Through History
No one really keeps track of how many hikers have completed the entire length of the Appalachian Trail (A.T.), although the Appalachian Trail Conservancy says about 9,000 people have formally notified the organization they’ve accomplished the feat. Prof. Sarah Mittlefehldt (pictured below) is one of them.
She walked the 2,175-mile trail with her husband John Gillette in the summer of 2007. It was the couple’s honeymoon. It was also an intellectual journey that no one else had undertaken—compiling a comprehensive history of how the A.T. came into being. Mittlefehldt’s resulting research on the subject will soon appear as a book published by the University of Washington Press as part of the Weyerhaeuser Environmental Book series.
“There are tons of ‘my great hiking experience’ books on the A.T.,” said Mittlefehldt of her inspiration for the project, “but there is very little written on the social, political and environmental history of the trail.”
Mittlefehldt has always been interested in the relationship between civic engagement and environmental stewardship, examining what motivates private citizens to get involved in conservation efforts. The more she dug into the subject, the more she realized the story of the A.T. involves recurring themes in American social history—grassroots volunteerism, an instinct for wilderness preservation, personal property rights, and the role of government.
How the trail developed from a dream to a national treasure seemed like a meaty subject for someone with Mittlefehldt’s intellectual interests. Besides, she admitted, “I really like to hike.”
Two of her mentors at the University of Madison-Wisconsin, where she completed her Ph.D. studies in forestry and environmental studies, were environmental historians and encouraged her project. When she submitted her research proposal to the dissertation committee, no one asked her point blank if she was going to be actually hiking the trail.
“I was waiting for that question because I had a list of all the archives I was going to need access to, and all the different people I had set up interviews with. It was clearly a progression from Georgia to Maine,” she said.
It took two years for her to complete her research and she came back to the committee with a 400-page manuscript—the reviewers told her that her experience hiking the trail added depth and dimension to her narrative.
New Englander Benton MacKaye proposed the A.T. in a 1921 article “An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning.” Legend has it that MacKaye was inspired by the idea of a trail spanning the Appalachian Range while enjoying the view from the summit of Stratton Mountain in Vermont. MacKaye was particularly concerned about the effects of urbanization along the East Coast, and he envisioned the A.T. as a way for people to reconnect with nature in an increasingly industrialized society.
“In chronicling the evolution of environmental thought, I think MacKaye gets overshadowed by John Muir and Gifford Pinchot—but he was right up there with them,” says Mittlefehldt. “MacKaye was trained by Pinchot in the U.S. Forest Service and he is remembered as one of the founders of regional planning in the country.”
According to Mittlefehldt, MacKaye’s vision was not just a recreational trail but a series of connected communities devoted to small-scale forms of forestry and farming. “It’s very much in tune with conversations we’re having today about relocalizing rural economies. He was into improving working conditions for rural people as well as providing a respite for the growing urban population,” she said.
MacKaye’s idea sparked the imagination of hikers and conservationists during the Progressive Era. It would be left to others to complete the trail—another New Englander, Myron Avery, is given much of the credit for organizing volunteers and blazing large new sections of the A.T. By 1937, when the trail was completed, philosophical differences had led to a breach between MacKaye and Avery that was never reconciled. But MacKaye’s vision provided inspiration for the A.T. and Mittlefehldt’s book tells the story of how volunteerism and public-private partnerships made it happen.
“MacKaye was somewhat vague on the specific political mechanisms of how the trail would be built, but he thought it should definitely involve a strong local component,” she said.
Many small trail clubs, like Vermont’s Green Mountain Club, had formed throughout the Appalachian region and worked on the trail in specific areas. In 1925 the Appalachian Trail Conference was founded to coordinate the local volunteer efforts. In the early days, trails were maintained through informal handshake agreements. “Not many people used the trail before WWII so farmers were fine with having a couple hikers walk along the side of their property,” Mittlefehldt said.
In 1968 Congress passed the National Trails System Act, which authorized acquisition of right-of-way by easement or purchase. This change marked a power shift in how the A.T. would be administered in the future. “What had been largely driven by a volunteer grassroots movement shifted to Congress saying ‘Now this is a Federal trail,”’ Mittlefehldt said. “It was up to government to figure out how to develop and protect the A.T. and, perhaps most controversially, how to acquire land for it.”
Resentment at government involvement caused some local landowners to refer to the A.T. as the “government trail.” Some saw legislation as a Federal land grab that infringed on their right to develop or otherwise use land. Mittlefehldt notes that over the last decade, communities initially resistant to having the trail going through parts of their town now view the A.T. as economic asset. “We see tourism as a bigger part of rural economy in America today,” she said. “There are a couple areas like Cumberland Valley in Pennsylvania where the trail dips out of the mountains and runs across 13 miles of some of the most fertile farmland in the eastern U.S. That became a really contentious spot in the 1970s when farmers contested the taking of farmland for a recreation trail. Now there is a Cumberland Valley Gateway Initiative and some of the same farmers who were active in leading protests against the trail are now major advocates of it.”
During her own A.T. journey, Mittlefehldt made stops at ten archive centers along the way to conduct her research including the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Center at Harper’s Ferry, W.V. Some of the materials, like those stored at Dartmouth College, were professionally catalogued. Other archives were kept in files or shoeboxes in the basements of volunteers’ homes. “In Cumberland County (Pennsylvania), records are stored in the old county jail. We spent many hours there ‘behind bars’ looking through documents,” she said.
Mittlefehldt has “walked the walk” and now she is working with her editors to put the finishing touches on the manuscript. It’s not a simple process because the story of the A.T., like the story of America, is complex and full of contradictions. The A.T. is a wilderness trail, though two-thirds of the U.S. population live within 550 miles of it. It winds its way though 14 states and eight national forests.
“True to Mackaye’s vision, I found the A.T. was a way to explore the local cultures of communities along the way. It’s one trail but it’s also many trails. That’s a big part of the hiking experience and I hope that will come across in the book as well.”