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Mountaintop experience

The Appalachian Trail is both under- and overrated

Issue: "Larry Woiwode: By the book," July 4, 1998

Take it from a brand-new veteran: The Appalachian Trail is vastly overrated. If all the publicity you've heard about the Appalachian Trail-including a recent major promo from National Public Radio-leaves you thinking this is some kind of wide mountaintop walkway up and down the eastern United States, think again. The AT may be very long; they tell me it stretches for 2,159 miles from Georgia at its southern tip all the way up to Maine. I believe that, even though I've personally now checked out only 21.4 miles-a grand total of 1 percent-of that total.

But for all its reputation, the AT is not very wide. Here and there you'll find a short stretch where for 10 paces two people may walk side by side. But for most of its winding miles, the AT averages just 12 or 14 inches in width-and even that narrow path is typically obscured by vegetation leaning over the walkway and threatening to gobble it up. Here and there, the trail is on its edge, with the width measured vertically on the slope of the mountain. At such places, you simply hang on to a nearby branch or root and sidle by.

Nor did I find the Appalachian Trail, for all its fame, to be a very busy place. We walked for three days and, including those folks who hurried by our campsites at dusk and dawn, we encountered no more than a dozen other hikers going both directions.

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But take it also from the same brand-new veteran: The wonders of the Appalachian Trail are vastly understated. If three days on the AT have the capacity for reaching deep into your soul-as they did with me-I can only imagine the impact on the "thru-hikers" who spend four to seven months going the whole distance.

Certainly, wherever you walk it, the AT takes you through the biggest botanical garden you'll ever encounter in this lifetime. While the bears, the snakes, and the ticks get the media attention (and are admittedly the focus of scary campfire stories), the fauna here take a distinct second place to the flora God has lavished up and down these mountain ranges. At some elevations, it's the fiery orange flame azalea that grabs your attention. You might have to get up closer to examine the tiny blossoms of the buttercups or columbine.

Indeed, here's a tip of the hat and a heart-felt thank you-from a fellow who has been and will continue to be skeptical of the radical environmentalists-to those who have helped set aside big stretches of God's creation to preserve it in something like its original form.

Trudging step by step through this AT experience, I found myself and the 13 others in our family group reflecting, reacting, and responding in two very different and distinct ways.

It was easy, on the one hand, to wax metaphorical. The one child, the teenagers, and the adults in our group all found it easy to spot imagery in everything we saw-and the conversation was full (sometimes cornily so) of the symbolism we concocted. The trail, with all its ups and downs and twists and turns, was life itself. The commitment to stick with the whole 21.4 miles was like the marriage of my sister and her husband, whose anniversary we were celebrating with the hike; no dropouts allowed, even if the going got tough here and there. The heavy backpacks we carried were like Pilgrim's burden of sin in The Pilgrim's Progress; how we longed for someone to come along and roll that burden away. From one perspective, everything on this path of most resistance was a symbol or a sign.

The other way to reflect, react, and respond was much more direct. It was simply to gaze and then to marvel out loud: "The mountains are so big! They're so beautiful!" It was to lug your backpack up one more hundred-yard grade, turn another switchback, lean on a log, and huff and puff: "I didn't know how out of shape I was. Gotta do better with my cardiovascular this coming year." It was to be soaked to the skin by a two-hour thunderstorm, knowing no tree on the whole mountaintop was immune to the cracking lightning, and to realize this didn't symbolize anything at all; we were miserable for a while and wanted the sun to shine again-preferably, Lord, by 3 p.m. That's exactly what he did, and we were thankful for his kindness.

For WORLD readers who may be looking for a physically challenging, emotionally cleansing, and spiritually uplifting two or three days, here's a suggestion: I can recommend an outstanding 7.9 mile section of the AT you can do yourself in 24 hours, with several unforgettable views and a terrific campsite along the way. At the end of that hike, you'll hit the Nantahala River, where I'll put you in touch with WORLD subscriber John Griffin. For a reasonable fee, John will help you raft eight miles down that beautiful stream. Then you can spend your last day here in Asheville, taking an hour or two to visit the offices where WORLD is published. If I don't use it all up myself in the next few days, I'll even have a bottle of liniment for your aching legs.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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