By Judge B. Wilson II
The Appalachian Trail is America’s first long-distance trail, stretching 2,190 miles – from Springer Mountain, Ga. to Mount Katahdin in the wilderness of Maine’s Baxter State Park. Like Christian Appalachian Project, the trail began as the dream of one person and became a reality through the tireless efforts of thousands of dedicated supporters and volunteers. From a regional planning proposal by Benton MacKaye in 1921, the idea for the Appalachian Trail eventually gained momentum and was completed in 1937.
In 1938, a hurricane ravaged the trail, particularly in New England. Many of the original volunteers who had blazed the trail were called into active duty during World War II and the rationing of transportation and other scarce resources made it increasingly difficult to maintain the trail. It gradually fell into disuse and disrepair. In spite of these setbacks and false starts, the first continuous “thru-hike” was completed by a young veteran, Earl Shafer, in 1948. Prior to this, most assumed that a thru-hike in a single year was impossible.
Shafer’s hike led to increased public awareness of the Appalachian Trail (referred to by hikers as the “AT”) and boosted efforts to restore the trail. This restoration was accomplished by 1951 and a series of volunteer clubs, coordinated through the Appalachian Trail Conference, assumed responsibility for maintaining the trail and promoting its use. By the 1960s and 1970s, there were growing numbers of hikers and campers enjoying the trail. In 1968, Congress passed the National Trails System Act and the AT became one of America’s first National Scenic Trails.
Wilson on the AT with his brothers, 1975.
I was raised in East Tennessee, about 20 miles from the AT. My first trail hike was as a Boy Scout in 1969. We walked from Devil’s Fork Gap to Sam’s Gap on the North Carolina border. It was a great experience and I was hooked for life. In 1972, I met my first AT thru-hiker near the Nolichucky River and pushed a bicycle up a mountain just to talk to this interesting person, an English professor from the University of South Carolina. I became overextended and this hiker aided my safe return to town. This was my first experience with a “trail angel.”
Over the years, I have encountered many trail angels (persons volunteering their time and resources to help hikers with rides, food, directions, medical assistance, and just about any sort of assistance that a sojourner would need to continue their journey). Like these angels, CAP supporters and volunteers provide help to people in need when help is most needed. The parallels between the two are extraordinary.
Along the way to becoming an Eagle Scout, I completed many AT walks in the southern Appalachians. During and after college, I trekk ed across the Smoky Mountains National Park multiple times, once with my good friend and fellow Berea College alum, CAP President Guy Adams. Later on, I explored the Grayson Highlands of southwest Virginia, the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and numerous sections in the southern Appalachians.
Almost every AT hiker can name at least one favorite spot on the trail. Mine is on the “balds” of the Roan Highlands along the Tennessee/North Carolina border. These open ridges, at elevations of 5500’ to 6300’, are blessed with diverse flora and fauna, as well as seemingly endless vistas in every season.
Over my 45 years of hiking (apart from the annual Roan hikes), there were many years when I was working too hard and our children were so young that I didn’t get on the AT. I hiked the trail in 20 of those 45 years. Yet, by 2003, I had accumulated 800+ miles and made the decision to stop repeating my favorite hikes in the south and to complete the entire trail.
I’ve encountered all sorts of weather – downpours, thunderstorms, mists, ice, snowstorms, gales, heat, and muggy days without a breeze in sight. Just as often, there have been “blue bird” days with clear skies, puffy white clouds, and cool, crisp air.
I’ve run into almost all of the trail critters one can imagine – bears, moose, deer, rattlesnakes, copperheads, shelter rats, goats, wild boar, eagles, owls, ticks, and newts. I’ve ridden a train to the AT in New York State, accessed it by car, bike, and on foot. I’ve been lucky enough to fly into remote areas to start hikes and twice flown in and out from the AT by pontoon plane. I’ve walked mostly solo but also have enjoyed the company of my father, family, and friends, new and old.
While the natural challenges and experiences of the AT have been great, the trail is also a social experience. It is populated with all sorts of people – the young and the old, the fit and the not so fit, locals and travelers, thru-hikers and casual walkers. I’ve been helped by trail angels and have been a trail angel myself countless times.
Judge Wilson in the Gulf Hagas, 100 Mile Wilderness, 2014.
I “finished” my walk from Georgia to Maine in August 2014, a mere 45 years after first setting foot on the trail. Summit day on Katahdin was a beautiful, breezy day and the mountaintop was filled with a score of thru-hikers finishing their journeys. It was a joyful, uplifting experience.
One never really completes the AT journey. I return again and again, as time permits, to enjoy favorite spots on the trail and maybe, someday, I’ll start again in Georgia and “hike north with spring” in another thru-hike to Maine, as so many have done in the past.
It has been a blessing to walk the AT and being a trail angel continues to be a part of my life. Becoming a CAP supporter and director has also been a blessing and getting to know CAP’s generous donors and volunteers has been an inspiration. These angels continue to make a big difference in the lives of many folks in Appalachia at times of crisis or natural disaster. I am grateful for them all.
Judge B. Wilson II, general counsel at Berea College and long-time CAP board member, is an avid hiker whose love for the Appalachian Trail is almost as big as his love for CAP and the people it serves.