Searching for the Origins of the Appalachian Trail

The little trail we are hiking in the North Georgia woods belongs to us and the bears. The hardwoods overhead are as diverse as any in the Eastern United States. The ferns, galax, poison ivy and other native groundcover have almost closed in at our feet.

Split Rock Trail, Tate Mountain

My trail buddy, Colin Calvert, is a cousin, fresh out of Georgia State College with a degree in environmental science and experience with Geographic Information System maps. He is reading the woods for clues of the original Appalachian Trail. It’s impossible to find, because it moved from here 63 years ago to the current southern terminus of Springer Mountain, about 12 miles northeast as the crow flies.

I have two topographic maps in hand, both of them having the same underlay of the U.S. Geological Survey map of this area. Their elevation lines are whorled like a fingerprint – in this case, matching fingerprints. We’re on the maps’ 3,000-foot elevation line, walking up to the next line 20 feet higher.

One map is overlaid with the trails of a private summer vacation-home community. My cousin and I are fourth and fifth generation inheritors of this Brigadoon. It began as an upscale vacation development in 1930, the same year the original Appalachian Trail was first blazed through its woods and Stiles & Van Kleek golf course. The trail we’re on we call Split-Rock Trail; on the map it’s a loop drawn with a dotted line. Maybe the AT went through the split rocks, but we can’t be sure.

The other map is overlaid with the original Appalachian Trail that tracks the crazy pattern of lost pieces of the trail, including the first southern terminus, which holds vivid memories for me. In my childhood summers, this enchanting place in the mountains of Pickens County, near Jasper, was a whippoorwill and timber rattlesnake haunt that seemed most wild on the ridge that was the Appalachian Trail. 

Those childhood memories, combined with the discovery of a road called Old Appalachian Trail near my son’s house in Virginia and the knowledge that 2021 was the trail centennial, sparked my curiosity, setting me on a quest to find the original pieces of a great American creation.

***

The year was 1921. Military veterans had returned from war to American cities they didn’t recognize. More than a half-million Americans had died in a worldwide pandemic. Two summers earlier, many cities, north and south, had been rocked by race riots. That was the climate of the nation when the idea for the trail was born.

In an essay headlined “An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning” published 100 years ago this month in The Journal of the American Institute of Architects, Benton MacKaye first proposed creating the trail.

One of Harvard’s first graduate students in forestry, MacKaye devoted himself to influencing the shape of what he called “the Wild East” through his singular idea of regional planning. His article proposing an Appalachian Trail was both practical and poetic, both socialist and American, the small start of a big idea he called “a retreat from profit” – a kind of sabbath break from America’s frenzied urbanization and mechanization.

The only unbroken wilderness within a day’s drive of America’s industrial East, he wrote, was the great stretch of Appalachian ranges. “The skyline along the top of the main divides and ridges of the Appalachians would overlook a mighty part of the nation’s activities,” according to MacKaye. “The rugged land of this skyline would form a camping base strategic in the country’s work and play.” MacKaye’s proposal was to link this skyline together from Northeast to Southwest, along America’s original colonies.

MacKaye’s vision was joined by two men, a Connecticut judge named Arthur Perkins and Myron Avery, a lawyer in Washington, D.C., and a tireless organizer who headed up the Appalachian Trail Conference for two decades. He shared MacKaye’s idea of volunteer teams blazing and maintaining the trail, but Avery emphasized distance hiking over MacKaye’s idea of educational camps and shared farms. They quarreled and MacKaye shifted his interest, co-founding The Wilderness Society in 1935. From then until Avery’s death in 1952, MacKaye had little to do with the ever-evolving Appalachian Trail.

It’s hard to say exactly when the Appalachian Trail was born. After MacKaye’s article was published, 10 years passed before efforts were made to begin linking the existing trails. Long after the linkage was completed in 1937, many of the early routes were moved for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the development of the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive.

Fancy Gap, Virginia

It was another 31 years before President Lyndon Johnson signed the National Trails System Act on Oct. 2, 1968. The act renamed it the Appalachian National Scenic Trail and gave ownership of the pathway to the National Park Service, although its maintenance continued to be shared with volunteer teams like those under the Conservancy today. From the 1920s until 2005, these volunteers called their organization the Appalachian Trail Conference.

If there’s no agreed-upon birthday for the trail, Benton MacKaye’s article clearly marked its conception. And that’s why the Appalachian Trail Conserancy is celebrating the centennial with a three-year strategic plan aimed at honoring the vision of that essay.

***

The original southern point of the Appalachian Trail was Mt. Oglethorpe, in Pickens County. When early hikers followed the dirt Monument Road some 10 miles north from the marble obelisk that honored Georgia’s founder, they came to the development around my family’s house, which included a rustic lodge, long since burned down, and a sparkling lake 2,700-feet above sea level.

I often wondered about those early hikers passing through this private property. Were they shot at by moonshiners? Our summer neighbor, the writer Harold Martin, who had a cabin close to the old trail, said his kitchen sink – which was fed by a wooden barrel reservoir near the trail – often spewed coffee grounds and bits of scrambled eggs from hikers using that barrel for dish washing.

In 1958, apparently to avoid such public-private tensions, the trail’s southern terminus moved to Springer Mountain. (Later, the Benton MacKaye Trail was also blazed from Springer Mountain, meandering 288 breathtaking miles through Tennessee and North Carolina to rejoin the Appalachian Trail in the Great Smoky s National Park.)

A few years ago, I discovered another remnant of Benton MacKaye’s earlier pathway. Near my son’s farm on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Fancy Gap, Virginia, there’s a gravel service road named Old Appalachian Trail. When snow closes the parkway, it’s the only access to US 52 into Mt. Airy, North Carolina. I was curious: How could the trail have moved more than 100 miles to the west?

Marty Dominy, who lives on a farm with his 94-year-old mother near Toomsboro in middle Georgia, has been diligently seeking answers to such questions for more than 30 years. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy put me in touch with Dominy, and he supplied me with his topographic maps and micro-histories of the original trail. The color-coded lines he had drawn and the details he gleaned from tattered old guidebooks seemed to spring from an eccentric obsession. The Appalachian Trial has that effect on many people.

Dominy’s obsession originated with a 1985 article in a Conservancy newsletter seeking volunteers to help gather old guidebooks and conduct oral histories on the original trail. Dominy responded and was informed that the article had elicited “virtually no response” to the article. So Dominy, in effect, took on the entire challenge himself.

“I sort of tried to formalize it by putting together an outline of what it should look like,” Dominy said.

Dominy has developed an orderly system of documentation that combines a topographic map and a narrative on sections of abandoned pathways that span 10 to 20 miles long. Dominy has created more than 100 maps and written more than 1,000 digital pages of narrative, tracking various locations of the trail as it shed earlier versions like so many snake skins.

Aficionados may disagree about how much of today’s trail is original (as they disagree about the current length), but Dominy’s calculation is surely the most authoritative: Original trail segments constitute somewhere between 25% and 30% of the existing trail, he said.

***

On a bright, windy Saturday, my wife, Libby, and I headed up the Blue Ridge Parkway from Fancy Gap, Virginia, in search of the original Appalachian Trail around the Pinnacles of Dan. Dominy’s topographic map had a few stretches of a 1931 footpath marked in blue between the Parkway and the upper Dan River. We followed one of these, driving along state route 638 to Bell Spur Cemetery and soon merging with Squirrel Spur Road before veering north into a field of private property.

The blue lines of the oldest trail look like the track of a lost child, splitting into two to zigzag along crests and down to the river. A 1934-39 alternative, in red, leaves the split and heads south for a shortcut to where the blue trail wanders on.

We returned to the Parkway to look for the path further north and east. Back on the original 1931 path, Va. 610 took us to a high meadow that beckoned. It was the first place we found without a sign or fence to stop us from parking and hiking in. We tromped with our two dogs down a lovely slope of unkempt grasses and wildflowers, strawberries and goldenrod. By the spring woods, we spread a cover and had our picnic. It was a magical stolen moment on an Appalachian Trail long gone. We saw no one.

A recent email sent by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy soliciting donations states that, “While the A.T. became a continuous footpath from Georgia to Maine in 1937, the years that followed highlighted how fragile the trail’s existence truly was. The economy rapidly expanded after World War II, and the resulting urban sprawl and development led to significant trail relocations — some measuring 75 to 150 miles in length — in order to maintain the integrity of the A.T. experience.”

My wife and I didn’t see urban sprawl. But we did see private property and “No Trespassing” signs. Back in the late ‘30s, there was a three-way skirmish between the mountaineer property owners, the builders of the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Appalachian Trail Conference that forced the relocation of the trail in remote areas like this. Very few sections of the original trail are on today’s parkway, but the idea was to keep the trail from being even within eyesight of it.

On another hike, we left I-81 north and took state route 56 through the deserted-looking railroad village of Vesuvius. (Long gone is the fire-belching factory that gave it the name of the classical Italian volcano.) Through a lifting fog, with bars of morning sunlight changing angles with the road’s steep winding climb, we drew breath in awe realizing we were entering the Blue Ridge Mountains at the perfect peak of fall. The road runs under one of those beautiful parkway bridges, its stones laid by crews of New Deal agencies like the CCC and WPA. On the east down slant, about a half mile on, we stopped at a large gated field with a pond, our guess for where the ancient trail went west toward the parkway.

Dominy’s map had a blue trail line that seemed to begin here, somewhere between Montebello and Tye River Gap on Crabtree Falls Highway. We drove further south, turning right on Va. 603 and right again on Va. 813. This ended at the parkway, milepost 29, near a shipshape National Park Service facility for easy parking.

We began hiking north, parallel to the parkway, until the trail curved left to what seemed to be our goal: Whetstone Ridge. It’s an 11.3-mile trail that was the original trail for 4.5 miles. At that point, the old trail turned left along Big Branch, then south along Irish Creek, then back to what later became the parkway. We weren’t prepared to do that full loop; it would have meant ending the hike 11 miles from our car, but we were delighted to have discovered Whetstone Ridge Trail.

The trail had a few stone steps we imagined had been set for the original trail. To the east, from the rocky ridge, we could see eastern ranges of the Blue Ridge. To the west, Wilkie Ridge.

Bright red leaves of sourwood decorated a trail of fallen gold and brown leaves. Mountain laurel, hemlock and white pine gave green to all the bright sun-struck gold around us. The quiet was sacred, with only an occasional laugh from a woodpecker.

We had finally arrived at MacKaye’s elusive wilderness.

***

It goes without saying, the original Appalachian Trail is hard to find. Its memory is paved over by secondary state roads or lost in meadows posted as private property. The pursuit of happiness in America is tightly bound to the right to private property. Benton MacKaye was seeking to renew a relationship between human-scale community and nature’s wilderness outside of private property and the profit motive.

He saw an unbroken ridgeway from Maine to Georgia as a chance for ordinary, hard-working Easterners “to catch a breath, to study the dynamic forces of nature and the possibilities of shifting to them the burdens now carried on the backs of men.”

The meaning of the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail today – especially to thru-hikers and “Fastest-Known-Time” runners – has evolved from MacKaye’s original vision of rustic, free camp communities in the mountains. But it is no less spiritual and powerful.

###

This ran in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Living & Arts section, Oct. 11, 2021

About Doug Cumming

journalism professor at W&L
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