Day 26/ Mar 24th – Wytheville, VA to Atkins, VA: The Appalachian Trail

On April 18th, 1921, Jessie Stubbs, a New York suffragette with a history of mental illness, committed suicide by drowning herself in the East River.  Her grief-stricken husband, a forestry official called Benton MacKaye, moved out to a friend’s farm in New Jersey to mourn her and recover, taking solace in nature, as he had when his father and eldest brother had died during his childhood.  While there, he developed an idea that he been kicking around for years – a walking trail running the length of the Appalachian mountains.

MacKaye was a Harvard graduate and had influential connections; his idea was publicised in the press in 1922, and the first section of trail, in New York, opened in 1923.  MacKaye was joined by a group of fellow enthusiasts who helped to identify likely routes and blazing trails – a farmer called Ned Anderson mapped and blazed the Connecticut leg more or less single-handedly – and by 1929, the trail ran for 650 miles.  During the 1930s, MacKaye was to some extent pushed aside by a retired judge called Arthur Perkins and his protégé, Myron Avery, who rallied interest and involvement after the Depression and secured the completion of the Appalachian Trail in substantially its current form in 1937.

Appalachian Trail sign

The Appalachian Trail: Turn right for Georgia

 Like so many things in America, there is nothing else like it in the world.  It runs from Georgia to Maine and through 12 other states for more than 2,000 miles, a continuous trail passing largely through wilderness, and maintained almost entirely by local volunteers in each state (John Doyle, who we stayed with in Lynchburg, is one of these volunteers for the Trail in Virginia, and in fact on the day we set off from his house was going out to cut back branches from it).  Although most people simply hike sections of the Trail near to where they live, there is a small sub-culture of ‘thru-hikers’ who attempt to walk its entire length in a single season, a feat that typically takes six months to accomplish (people who choose to spend their time endeavouring to walk such distances are, of course, quite mad).

I mention all of this because my 21-mile route today crossed over the Trail near the small town of Groseclose, an anonymous little junction town of motels and garages on I-81.  I knew something was up when the sign on the Exxon station announced ‘Trucks Hikers Welcome’, because nowhere else in America have we seen signs specifically welcoming people on foot.  I caught sight of the Trail’s green logo on a tiny sign by the roadside, and it followed Lee Highway, the road I was walking along, for a few hundred yards before turning off abruptly down a grassy path into a small patch of woods.  It didn’t look like much, but I was so delighted to have crossed it that I marked the milestone by spearing my own toe with my hiking pole.

Appalachian Trail southbound

The Appalachian Trail: Longer than it looks

 It was the highlight of a long and hot day, spent mostly well away from I-81 in rolling farmland.  There were red heptagonal barns like Monopoly hotels and the hillsides were speckled with the tiny herds of six or seven cows that seem to be enough for Virginia farmers to get by with.  I passed the Hiland drive-in movie theatre – I hadn’t realised any still existed – with its manager’s office in a tiny portakabin at the base of the enormous white screen.  About five miles outside Atkins, a blimp flew over.  I’d always imagined blimps as floating dreamily to their destinations, but this one zipped by with speed and purpose.  And thanks to the Appalachian Trail, it was only the second most exciting thing I’d seen all day.

Farm in south-west Virginia

The massed herds of the Virginia hills

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