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In the year 2000 I set foot on the AT for the first time. We were driving along a small road on a family trip with our four children, aged 3-9, and saw a sign denoting a crossing of the Appalachian Trail. I already knew that I wanted to hike the whole thing someday and was very excited to see “the” trail IN PERSON! To my husband’s great surprise (he knew nothing of my AT dreams at this point), stopping for a short hike suddenly became top priority and we marched the kids out and back a quarter mile or so to satisfy me. My husband took a picture of me next to a white blaze and the smile on my face matches the feeling of excitement I felt being there. I am truly astonished to realize that almost 20 years has passed since that time. Equally surprising to me is where this initial encounter took place, but more about that later…
So where did the desire to hike the trail come from? How did I know, even prior to that day, that a trail I knew very little about was something that I just had to do? I’m not sure, but I think I need to blame it on the influence of stories, both fiction and nonfiction.
The true stories are from my upbringing as a native of Utah. Pioneer stories are bound up with everything there. The narrative of my own ancestors coming across the plains in the early 1860s from their native Sweden to establish a life for themselves was a captivating tale to me, and I would read any pioneer story I could. Tales like Seven Alone and other stories of Oregon and California pioneers would keep me up way past my bedtime, reading about and imagining the hardships, trials, and beauty of life on the trail. Undaunted Courage, about the Lewis and Clark expedition, and the stories of John Wesley Powell’s exploration of the Green and Colorado Rivers through the Grand Canyon, played themselves out in my mind.
Fictional stories fueled this desire too. I loved the Black Stallion books by Walter Farley, many of which included long journeys. For school, I had to read Pilgrim’s Progress, and ended up reading it again and again. C.S Lewis’ Narnia books, particularly The Horse and His Boy, Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and The Silver Chair, are “journey” stories. Of course, Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings added to the mythical status of epic adventures.
Stories alone, of course, were not enough. My family life provided a few experiences that fleshed out the tales spinning in my mind. My maternal grandparents lived in Southern California, and we would often drive the 12 hours from Salt Lake City to visit them; I occupied otherwise dull road trip time poring over maps and staring out the window, imagining what it would be like to walk through that terrain rather than to speed through in a car, on a highway, in relative comfort.
Additionally, thanks to my father, I got to go backpacking at a relatively early age. We would often head down to southern Utah for spring break and hike and camp in the backcountry at Arches National Park. I experienced the sun and wind of the desert, learned the vital importance of water, and important lessons like “always check for snakes before sitting on a rock” and “never camp in a dry wash”. The chill of the red rocks in the morning, the blue, blue skies, and the smell of sage in the air still leap to mind when I think of those excursions. These travels and hikes, as well as time spent in the Wasatch Mountains, family trips that almost always included camping and hiking, and even my paternal grandparents’ farm in Utah county, cultivated in me a love of wild spaces.
I’m not sure when I first learned of the Appalachian Trail and the idea of hiking the whole thing. Though I was born and raised in the west, where my extended family remains, I’ve spent almost my entire adult life in the Midwest/Southern states of Ohio, Michigan, and Kentucky. I did not know anyone personally who had hiked the trail and had never had cause to travel east to any of the states that actually host the trail (with the exception of non-AT parts of West Virginia and New York), until that family trip to Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia in 2000. Maybe it was a book, magazine, or newspaper article that first captured my attention. Though I don’t know when this idea began to germinate, I know two things for certain. First: my imagination and experiences provided fertile soil for the idea to fall on, and it had taken root and was growing strong by the time I first encountered the trail in 2000. Second: clearly, reading is dangerous.
I have often thought of that first AT encounter. Though I now know more about the trail and have hiked parts of it many times, I could not remember where my first “hike” took place. Fortunately, I was a diligent scrapbooker when my kids were little, and I liked to include maps and details of our travels. Just recently, I looked through the photo albums to see if I could find where this was. It turns out that that random AT road crossing was in Hampton, Tennessee which we drove through on our way to Banner Elk. This tiny town ended up playing an important role in my subsequent AT experiences, in surprising ways. Stay tuned for more!