I love the outdoors. I love history. I love cooking and food.
Sometimes I can combine these loves in various ways. Gourmet meals in the Colorado backcountry during winter? Exploring the ancient paths while camped out? All wonderful memories.
And when I read about the outdoors (reading being another avid past time since I was 7 or 8), I am rarely interested in someone’s Epic Journey of Self.
I want to read about the beauty of the Great Plains...along with how an author may deal with the isolation and the unique culture of the area.
Reading about how Ramen Wanderer did 20 miles days to reach the AYCE buffet in a trail town? Meh.
The excellent outdoor authors interspersed their personal journeys with nuggets of wisdom, observations and reflections about the outdoors. The outdoors are not just a backdrop to an Epic Journey of Self. The outdoors are the focus. The journey takes place in this milieu. An engaging tale is told.
Which brings me to Hiking the Appalachian Trail edited by James R. Hare. A classic two-volume set of two-thousand pages (!) With forty-six accounts of some of the first people to hike the length of the Appalachian Trail. Published in 1975, the book is an interesting read. I’ve had the two volumes for about fifteen years now and I’ve read it on-and-off over the years. For many years it was the de facto guidebook for the Appalachian Trail.
Why is the book interesting? Because arguably around 1975 is when longer treks were *just* starting to gain momentum. Ed Garvey published his seminal books, Eric Ryback was a minor celebrity , Walk Across America started as series of popular articles and later became a best-selling book and NatGeo published some well known issues and books on the longer trails. All seemingly at once during a few short years in the 1970s.
Reading the pre-1975 accounts of hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT) is a peek into a much different world. Arguable, with the exception of parts of northern New England and some pockets in the southern Appalachians, if the AT was ever a wilderness experience. After all then, as now, a good portion of the US population was within a short drive.
It was undeniably a much more rural , less communal and less defined experience, however. And I have no doubt if it was not wilderness at all times, it was wildness.
Glimpsing into the past by reading these accounts, the journey was a bit lonelier. People welcomed the very occasional AT hiker as a person on a journey and the information out there was not for a more well-defined experience.
But what I find interesting is not so much the differences, but the similarities between then and now.
The trail experience may be more social and defined, but the joy of being outside and enjoying the journey itself is still found among many backcountry travelers. The tales of being cold and wet at times will still be told as long as people travel in the backcountry. Spending much time outside with vigorous exercise will always make food a wonderful item to day dream about. And, at least I hope, backcountry travelers can always be found to be in awe of the first blossom of spring and or in state of wonder when walking above treeline on Franconia Ridge.
There is talk about gear, flora and fauna, resupplies, history, preparations and so on that may differ in details but not in the overall arc versus today.
Though some details sound very modern. Consider James Leiztzell describing backpacking food supplies in 1971:
Hikers’ diets tend to err on the side of too much carbohydrate and too little fat and protein….The lightweight freeze-dried backpacking foods are very expensive for the amount of nutrition they furnish. Further, I find them extraordinarily unappetizing…I planned to rely primarily on dehydrated foods that are readily available. For variety they would be supplemented with produce and meats when I found a grocery or restaurant near the trail.
And when I read Andrew J. Giger’s account of his 1969 hike I chuckle. Giger was a rocket engineer and his attention to detail was phenomenal. What we would call a spreadsheet for resupplies, gear weight , costs and so on are documented. Andrew would have fit right in with Backpackinglight.com !
I’ve always said, the key to going light is not the gear you take…it is the gear you DON’T take. True in 2016. True in 1969.
Andrew Giger’s account also happens to be one of the most entertaining and well written of the accounts. He may have taken his gear seriously; he did not take himself seriously!
But, then as now, the gear and supplies are perhaps the least important part of the journey.
Dorothy Laker, a three-time AT hiker by 1972, said that her journeys on the AT:
…made me appreciate the remote and wild areas more, and made me more concerned to see them preserved for the enjoyment of others.
But I think James Rutter has the quintessential line that will always be true for most outdoor journeys:
Sometimes Easy, Sometimes Difficult, but Always Good.
Hiking the Appalachian Trail is a set well worth the $20 used for both volumes. A wonderful addition to any outdoor library for anyone interested in what hiking the long trails may have been like forty or more years ago. Or just wants a good read. The equipment and clothing may change. And the communities on and around the trail may be more important now versus then. But the joy of the journey is ever-present.
I started writing this article a week or so ago. In that time, well-known multi-time AT thru-hiker “Baltimore Jack” passed away. Jack was passionate, always giving to the community and was definitely a character (!). But, above all else, he loved the trail and the experiences on it.
Watch this video. Jack encapsulated the spirit of the long journey and the joys of being outside. Be it now, 1998 or 1968.