A Biography for the 2,190 Miles of the Appalachian Trail

D’Anieri is sensitive to this historical monochrome. Still, excluded from his sketch of Guyot are the geographer’s crackpot Aryanist theo...


D’Anieri is sensitive to this historical monochrome. Still, excluded from his sketch of Guyot are the geographer’s crackpot Aryanist theories about racial geography and his esteem for his own white race as “the most pure, the most perfect type of humanity.” Absent from D’Anieri’s portrait of Myron Avery, as well, is the early trail organizer’s 1940 recommendation for a Virginia segment where the “racial stock was reputed to be perhaps the purest Anglo-Saxon in the eastern Atlantic states.”

One might argue, I suppose, that Guyot’s racist theories aren’t explicitly relevant to his intersection with the history of the Appalachian Mountains, and that Avery, born in 1899, was parroting his era. But one must also contend — and D’Anieri does do this, if fleetingly, in his final first-person chapter — with the fact that, according to surveys by the hiking website The Trek, roughly 95 percent of A.T. thru-hikers identify as white. It’s a correlative spur warranting far more exploration.

“The places we choose, and the way we then develop and manage them,” D’Anieri writes, “tell us a lot about what we are asking from nature, what exactly we think we are traveling toward and escaping from.”

The problem that the Appalachian Trail’s earliest founders were taking a stab at was, in the words of the outdoor writer and A.T. guiding light Horace Kephart, “the nerve-strain and bodily exhaustions that are the penalties of a hurrying, high-tensioned civilization.” The idea stemmed, then, from much the same outdoor-air movement that gave us summer camps, scouting and forested urban parklands: an effort to connect Americans with what Aldous Huxley called the “not-self.” The trail’s founders saw it as a kind of pressure relief valve for stressed urbanites, “refuge not only from noise and smokestacks,” as D’Anieri sharply notes, “but from the less refined and the lower class.” A network of woodlands, they believed, could act as a buffer against the strains — spiritual, physical, social, aesthetic, ecological — of industrial-era life.

But “even in the trail’s earliest days,” as D’Anieri writes, “imagining a pristine alpine realm required not-seeing the native history of the Appalachians.” The trail has always, then, been a noble contrivance. “Isolating the trail from the change all around it meant carving out a narrow strip of exclusion from the actual landscape, an exercise not just in preservation,” D’Anieri writes, “but illusion.”

This is not to depreciate the achievement of the Appalachian Trail, or the magic it daily confers on hikers up and down its vast length. It is only to say — as D’Anieri’s stalwart biography makes clear — that the work of humans, even a mere ribbon of dirt along an ancient ridgeline, will always bear the contradictions and complications of those whose hands — and feet — made it.

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