Happy Independence Day: An Appalachian Trail History Lesson

The Appalachian Trail literally binds Old America together, passing through ten of the original thirteen states. Tennessee, Vermont, Maine and West Virginia were states formed as a result of westward expansion, political compromise, or civil war. As much as a hiker treks into the mountains to escape public life, there it is waiting for the hiker when they get there: the sites and artifacts of American Civilization, with its gems and warts, historical narratives and social significations. Perhaps a subordinate concern to conservation and ecology, but no doubt important and probably a byproduct of the good vibes generated by outdoor recreation, hiking the Appalachian Trail fosters the American democratic instinct.

The Appalachian mountains are many millions of years old– older than most mountains on earth. The American nation which spawned in the watersheds of those mountains will be merely two hundred and thirty nine years old on July 4, 2015. If you live in the United States east of the Mississippi, the very moisture in your blood was drawn from the figurative milk of those mountains. The mountains were, in early American history, the first great physical barrier to westward expansion, but also the proving ground for the likes of young George Washington, and in the next generation, men like Daniel Boone. The Appalachian Trail closely follows the British Proclamation Line of 1763, which forbid white settlement west of the mountains and was one of the major grievances of the American Revolution. The United States was conceived in conscious relation to the Appalachian Mountains.

In Georgia and North Carolina, the descendants of Cherokee people who avoided forced removal by the Andrew Jackson Administration remain, as do native place names. Native names mix with European names from Springer to Katahdin, from the Kennebec to the French Broad. The graves of the Shelton brothers, Union Loyalists from North Carolina shot by Confederates when they visited their kin back home, keep solemn vigil in a tree lined clearing on the Blue Ridge. Last I was in the area,  a Shelton descendant was running for election to a local office. In Virginia, a hiker can stand on the James River Foote Bridge and ponder the birth of the Old Dominion, down river in 1607. All through the southern part of the trail, the remnants of settlements mark themselves with little graves.

From Harper’s Ferry, across Maryland and into southern Pennsylvania, hardly a stretch of trail fails to remind the hiker of the American Civil War. Harper’s Ferry itself is a museum to the tribulations of mid nineteenth century America, being the site of John Brown’s bloody 1859 raid and having been exchanged by Federal and Rebel forces eight times. Near the trail are both the Antietam and Gettysburg battlefields, the former being the site of the bloodiest single day in American history (23,000 casualties) and the latter being the bloodiest battle in American history (54,000 casualties in three days of fighting). The general path of the Appalachian Trail in this region was a probable route of some of Robert E. Lee’s forces during his 1862 invasion of Maryland. Lee’s 1863 offensive used the mountains to shield the Confederate Army as it crept up the Shenandoah Valley toward the north.

The AT in Maryland was also one probable route of escaped slaves following the underground railroad. In July of 1863, when Confederates reached the Pennsylvania iron works owned by the abolitionist and radical Republican, Thaddeus Stevens, they destroyed the furnace as a personal attack directed at the Congressman. Stevens, who may have carried on a twenty year relationship with his widowed African American housekeeper, was in fact an active link in the Underground Railroad, his home equipped with secret rooms and tunnels to harbor escapees. I hiked the Maryland and Pennsylvania sections of the AT in June of 2011, and the weather was scorching. I can not imagine what it was like for a Civil War soldier dressed in wool, or a malnourished enslaved person, to traverse that terrain in summer.

The northern states on the AT feature their own regional history. The trail in New York features many stone walls that date back to Revolutionary times. These marked cleared agricultural properties which have in recent decades been left to return back to forest lands. Mount Greylock, in the northwest corner of Massachusetts near the New York and Vermont borders, features a lighthouse on its summit, a testament to the Atlantic orientation of the Bay State. I remember several New England towns having prominent monuments to their “Union Dead,” a familiar public landmark in small towns all over the north. Portraits of Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, commander of the 20th Maine, Union heroes at the Battle of Gettysburg, appear on library walls in both Pennsylvania and Maine. The historically notable influence and significance of the timber industry and the logging culture is felt keenly as a hiker moves into the north country.

North and South, from reminders of the Revolution and the Civil War, to the many public works of the 1930s New Deal (of which the Appalachian Trail itself is perhaps only the grandest) the AT is marked by human history, human industry, human aspiration and human folly. The hiker may go to the mountains to escape people, but he or she has taken at least one person along for the trip. Just as much as the hiker measures herself or himself against Nature, she or he must make a comparison of individual experience to the social and historical experience of the collective. No, I don’t think I could hike very far wearing a wool uniform– or iron shackles. As a white person raised in New York, I feel a little uneasy when I see a Confederate flag in a trail town, but maybe not as much as an African American. As a large male, I don’t ever slip inside my sleeping bag and worry about being raped. That I have legs and feet to walk upon makes me see the mile of wheelchair accessible trail south of the Virginia line as some quaint gesture to the “politically correct.” But if someday all I could do was propel myself upon wheels, I would travel that mile again and look upon the mountains.

The Appalachian Trail is about Nature, but it’s also about people. It’s about Cherokee and Penobscot people; English and Scots Irish pioneers, descendents of Africans, southerners and northerners, the rich and the poor, the male and the female, and every other sort and variety of humanity. Thru hiking in 2011, I met a transwoman hiking the trail. She reminded me of John Lithgow’s character in the film version of John Irving’s The World According to Garp, a tight end converted into a giant princess. The thru hiker population is overwhelmingly heterosexual white males, and a few (rather virginal) young men felt entitled to mock her, loudly and publicly, behind her back. The icy ostracism she endured probably accounted for some of her less-than-congenial personality.

Theoretically, the Appalachian Trail is for everybody, but in fact, it falls short of its democratic aspirations. In 2015, any female hiking the trail must prepare to hike the trail while female. Women have, in rare instances, been abducted along the trail. Many females have experienced being followed, harmlessly though not without annoyance, by numbers of well meaning suitors. The stalking and execution of a Lesbian couple camped along the trail in Virginia back in 1996 remains an unsolved hate crime. GLBTQ hikers must make a conscientious decision whether to hike as themselves or as closeted persons as a safety precaution. On the other hand, I take my wedding ring off to hike so I won’t lose it, but many a hiker has heard an earful about my married life with my wife. Being my genuine self on public land is something I mostly take for granted. Not every hiker is afforded the privilege of authenticity, a truly unjust circumstance when one considers how self realization and the cultivation of an authentic self is one of the reasons people come to the trail.

I am a white guy born in 1974 in New York City, and that means I consider myself socially progressive to some extent. Yet, I notice socially constructed differences like anyone. The handsome and erudite Washingtonian I met in New England, a recent college grad, a black male hiking (in a kilt!) with his white girlfriend, raised my eyebrow. After all, somehow in this American life I was encoded to notice such a spectacle, however biased the noticing. The AT community is so white (how white is it?) that “did you see the black hiker?” has served as an internet message board topic in the hiking community. Though many white hikers notice and lament a lack of social diversity in the trail community, few of us are conscientious of the history of racial segregation on public lands. Camping, hiking and other outdoor activities require access to public land, a right whites have enjoyed for a century, but such resources have only in recent times been accessible to minorities.

Recently, current events that speak to the subject of American identities have been in the public mind. Of course, I refer to the ongoing controversy surrounding the casual and official display of the Confederate battle flag, and also, the recent Supreme Court ruling upholding equal protection for same sex couples in regards to marital rights in all fifty states. As much as the hiking community would probably prefer to be focused on mountains rather than politics, these issues do follow all of us into the back country. Women hike the trail– in record numbers these days. Minorities, including African Americans, hike the trail. Interracial couples hike the trail. GLBTQ people hike the trail. Jews and Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus, Pagans and Atheists hike the trail too. Diversity, or the lack of it, in my estimation, should be as great a concern to the trail community as a lack of biodiversity and mass extinction. The Appalachian Trail can test and transform the individual, but also, it should test and positively transform our democracy.

I do love the many white heteronormative Evangelical Protestant Christian people I meet along the trail. I admire their love of their region; their identification with the mountains. Mostly, I appreciate  their general skepticism in regards to academic verbosity, a disease by which I myself have been partially stricken. I also recognize a longstanding bias against the rural person, a numerical minority in a predominantly urban America. The negative stereotype of the “hillbilly” or “redneck” is a particularly damaging image to mountain people, especially in southern Appalachia. For the most part, I have found white native Appalachians along the trail to exceed their urban cousins in hospitality, charity and general kindness. I have also argued politics with some of them, sometimes politely, and on a few occasions, not so politely.

When last year, I (a NYC born liberal) beat Joe, proprietor and host of Four Pines Hostel in Virginia at corn hole for a load of free laundry, I felt like the hound dog had kicked the mule. Joe and I do not see the world the same way– I’ll put it that way. Yet in kosher corners of Brooklyn, I have no doubt Joe would finish first place in a mensch contest. Taking a zero at the hostel, I helped Joe split and load firewood. I think Joe approved of my aptitude for cornhole and farm work, and so he seemed to trust me enough to ask me a political question: “Don’t you think this global warming stuff– climate change or whatever you call it– is a hoax?” I told him I did not. I told him I was married to a scientist, socialized with my wife’s scientist friends, and that every single one of them recognized the validity of mainstream climate science. Joe did not argue with me. He just took in what I had to say. Then he offered me a beer, and when I declined that, a soda pop. Then he whooped my ass three straight games at cornhole.

4 Pines Cornhole  I have no illusions that I changed Joe’s mind about anything other than my ability to toss bean bags and unload a truckload of split wood. Yet, I think our conversation was important. All of us get our sense of the larger society from our immediate surroundings and the media. To be human is to be biased by individual experience and environment. However, I’ll argue here that to the extent an individual challenges one’s own views by interacting with people who have different views, to the same extent will any new consensus emerge. Everybody in the Appalachian Trail community loves the mountains. That is enough to tie together the trail community. I would add that the demographics of that community ought to reflect the demographics of the world outside the trail, in all its dimensions.

Have a happy Independence Day!

Doyle Ladies EntranceShelton GraveTriton Mason Dixon

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Comments 3

  • Nichole : Aug 4th

    Very thoughtful and well written. Thank you!

  • Puffin : Oct 2nd

    As one part of a double-minority interracial, atheist-Buddhist interfaith couple planning to thru hike this spring, this post scares me a little. I don’t care if people say bad things, I just don’t want any physical altercations or anything like that. We’re probably the “worst” two races people can be when it comes to dealing with racists in the back country. I was hoping there would be a lot of minority hikers…

  • Christana Morgan : Jul 4th

    Do you happen to know the story behind the painted American flag in PA?


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