Cars Versus Hikers
The Appalachian Trail passes through some gloriously beautiful areas – remote peaks, ancient forests, mountain streams, scenic farmland – but the trail also passes through numerous small towns. These trail communities are an essential component of the Appalachian Trail experience. There are old mining towns in Pennsylvania, rural villages in Virginia, and ski towns in Vermont.
In addition to the towns that the trail actually passes through, there are many more towns that serve as resupply points for AT hikers. These towns that lie close to the path of the Appalachian Trail are also a part of the thru-hiking experience. Spending time in these communities provides a sense of the local culture that colors every hiker’s experience.
This is why it is such a shame that almost all of these towns share one common trait – horrible pedestrian infrastructure.
The conflict over prioritizing cars over pedestrians is as old as the Appalachian Trail itself. It was in fact one of the central conflicts surrounding the creation of the AT itself. Early in the trail’s history, when the construction of Skyline Drive was proposed as a part of establishing and developing Shenandoah National Park, the Appalachian Trail Conference was split over this issue. While Myron Avery, leader of the Conference, supported the park, Benton MacKaye, the visionary behind the concept of the Appalachian Trail, was adamantly opposed to the construction of Skyline Drive.
MacKaye believed that the creation of a road through the Shenandoah would destroy the foundational idea behind the Appalachian Trail. MacKaye was anti-automobile, and bemoaned the growing impact that this growing form of transportation was having on the American landscape. When the growing mania over cars began to impact his beloved trail, MacKaye got grumpy. This was the conflict that ended MacKaye’s relationship with Myron Avery, and with the Appalachian Trail Conference as well for many years. As most people are surely aware, MacKaye lost this battle.
These days, thru-hikers fully accept, and even embrace, the fact that the route of the AT closely follows that of Skyline Drive through Shenandoah. The proximity to developed sections of the park means access to good food, as well as an alternative route option. But imagine for a moment what the Shenandoah would mean to hikers if it was a more remote trail experience. Even better – imagine how you would feel about the Great Smoky Mountains if the entire route of the AT through the park closely followed a busy road.
Shenandoah’s fate came very close to being replicated in Vermont’s Green Mountains. Soon after Shenandoah was established a group of folks started lobbying for a similar park (including a park road), in the mountains of Vermont. Interestingly, the founder of the Green Mountain Club (established to build and maintain the Long Trail), James P. Taylor, fought against the organization that he founded in favor of this new National Park. It’s hard to imagine how different the experience of hiking in Vermont would be now if that park proposal had been fulfilled. You’d be hard pressed to find a hiker of any kind these days that would support such an idea.
But the fact that the AT must cross many, many roads is inevitable, and these roads provide hikers access to necessary services. Visits to town during a long hike can be relaxing and fun, but they can also be jarring and overwhelming. After spending 4-5 days out in the woods, it can feel stressful to once again be surrounded by the bustle of society. Often, hikers land at a motel or hostel where access to restaurants, grocery stores and other accommodations is difficult without access to a vehicle.
One of the first trail towns that I spent time in was Hiawasee, GA. My mom and I were dropped off by a shuttle driver at a cheap motel that was full of hikers. We quickly assessed our surroundings, and found out that the closest grocery store was about half a mile away. This is an easy distance for a hiker to cover, especially on flat ground, but we soon realized that there were few sections of sidewalk in Hiawasee, forcing us to walk either along the shoulder of the highway, or on the uneven grass in front of the houses and businesses that bordered the street. Luckily, there were crosswalks nearby the grocery store, something many trail towns lack.
Downtown Hiawasee is set up to accommodate car travel, just like most other towns in America. The infrastructure is built to incentivize traveling in your car – even across very short distances. It may be far more efficient to walk 0.2 miles than to drive the same distance, but if there are no sidewalks and a busy road crossing, chances are that you’re going to jump in your car.
This confluence of towns built to prioritize and incentivize car travel with large numbers of hikers who don’t have access to cars creates a potentially dangerous and definitely unpleasant situation. A seemingly simple trip to eat dinner or resupply at the grocery store can become a frustrating challenge.
I found Daleville, VA to be one of the worst trail towns in terms of pedestrian infrastructure. The trail crosses a highway with a small shoulder and no crosswalks. A trip to the grocery store required a quarter mile hike along the weedy grass alongside the highway, with vehicles large and small constantly whizzing by. The restaurant where my mom and I chose to eat dinner was just a bit further away – maybe about half a mile – and the walk forced us to cross underneath an interstate highway with no sidewalks or pedestrian infrastructure whatsoever. We ran across the interstate ramps to reach the tunnel where the smaller road passed underneath the larger highway, then had to climb up onto the angled concrete to safely pass through the tunnel. On the other side we walked through high, weedy grass covered in garbage, then across a gas station parking lot to reach our destination.
This short journey was so difficult as a pedestrian that it was laughable. I recorded a video of my mom and I passing underneath the interstate tunnel just to document the absurdity. How could it be this difficult to walk half a mile through a human city? It’s easy to ignore these questions when you have immediate access to a car, but when all you have is your legs, your perspective shifts. As hikers, we are given the opportunity to view these towns through the lens of someone who has no access to a vehicle. This is not a rare or unusual perspective – lots of people can’t afford a car or are unable to drive a car for various reasons – and yet the infrastructure remains car-centric in the extreme.
Hiking on the Appalachian Trail is becoming ever more popular, following an upward trend that has been continuing unabated for decades. More and more people seek a different kind of travel experience – an escape from their normal routine and yes, an escape from our society’s car-dominated lifestyle and culture. Trail communities should embrace their role as a part of AT culture and adopt projects that prioritize pedestrians. Don’t just do it for the hikers – do it for the positive impact that it will have on the local community. By incentivizing walking, communities can improve both the physical and mental health of the people who live there, while also creating opportunities for hikers to interact with local people.
Although pedestrian infrastructure is bad in most trail towns, as well as most towns in America generally, there are a few noteworthy exceptions that I should mention. Although none of these trail towns are perfect, there are aspects of each that could serve as examples for the many towns that lack even the most basic accommodations for pedestrians.
Harper’s Ferry, WV – A short, beautiful section of the AT passes through the historic town of Harper’s Ferry – entering a National Historic Park with numerous Civil War era displays and historic buildings. The route that the trail takes through town is fantastic – first passing over a ridgeline just above the town with some fine views, then passing alongside a historic church and down into the heart of the old town, before crossing an old railroad bridge that’s been converted into a pedestrian bridge. The narrow streets of this tourist town prevent large numbers of fast moving vehicles from entering, and many visitors use a large parking lot outside of town then either walk or take a bus into Harper’s Ferry. The town itself has a small outfitter, a hostel, and numerous restaurants. If only there was a grocery store within walking distance…
Damascus, VA – This town earns it’s nickname of “Trail Town USA”. As the host of the annual Trail Days festival, this town probably more than any other caters to the wants and needs of long distance hikers. The trail passes through town on easy to navigate sidewalks, and is home to several outfitters and restaurants. Although the grocery store is a bit far to walk, a Dollar General provides a decent resupply.
Hot Springs, NC – A tiny little town that definitely caters to AT hikers. The trail passes through town on sidewalks, and the roads through town are not very busy, giving this town a very laid back feel. A great outfitter, several restaurants, and decent resupply options make this one of the best trail towns.
Hanover, NH – The trail passes through the center of town on sidewalks and has the robust pedestrian infrastructure that one would expect to find in an Ivy League college town. There are restaurants galore, and a good, but expensive, grocery store, but very limited options for places to stay. Hotels within walking distance to downtown are extremely expensive, and the only hostel is a few miles away. Many hikers end up camping along the outskirts of town – in the woods alongside the Dartmouth Athletic Fields. This provides walking access to town without paying for a hotel, but obviously means that a shower and laundry aren’t possible (unless you make friends with a local college student). For this reason, Hanover ranks lower in terms of ideal trail towns, despite its impressive pedestrian infrastructure.
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