Tales From the Appalachian Trail

The stories of ten hikers who have traveled the 2,000-mile-path through the eastern United States tell the history of the trail

The Appalachian Trail crosses 14 states, six national parks and eight national forests. (Marc Muench / Corbis)

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The Appalachian Trail has its dangers: poisonous snakes, bears, lightning storms, diseases like giardia and Lyme’s, even murder. But the trail certainly celebrates life. In 1978, thru hikers Richard and Donna Satterlie found out while hiking through Hot Springs, North Carolina, that Donna was carrying a child. She was seven and a half months pregnant by the time she hiked Mount Katahdin. In honor of their accomplishment, they named their baby girl Georgia Maine. And it was in Cathedral Pines, a stand of white pines in Cornwall, Connecticut, once part of the Appalachian Trail, that avid hikers Mike Jacubouis and Cara Perkins got married. About 60 guests were in attendance, wearing “comfortable hiking clothes,” as the invitation suggested, and the bride and bridegroom wore denim and hiking boots. The Rev. Bill Kittredge of Lewiston, Maine, read an excerpt of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, including his words, “We can never have enough nature.”

6. Hikers, Young and Old

Believe it or not, there have been older 2,000-milers than Grandma Gatewood. Ernie Morris started section hiking the A.T. when he was 82 years old and finished in 1975 at age 86, becoming the oldest man to have hiked the trail. The oldest thru hiker is Lee Barry, who completed his fifth hike (three were section and two were thru hikes) in 2004 at the age of 81. Nancy Gowler, the oldest female thru-hiker, completed her second in 2007, at age 71. As for the youngest, 6-year-old Michael Cogswell hiked the entire trail with his parents in 1980. Another 6-year old boy tied his age record in 2002. And an 8-year-old girl became the youngest female A.T. hiker in 2002.

7. The Good Samaritan

In her lifetime, Genevieve Hutchinson only walked a bit of the Appalachian Trail, picking wild flowers one day on Bald Mountain in Massachusetts. Nevertheless, she was a legend on the trail, and her house in the A.T. town of Washington, Massachusetts, a welcoming watering hole. Guidebooks often directed hikers to Hutchinson’s home from a lean-to about a half-mile away. She’d have visitors sign a register, marking thru hikers with a red star, and she kept a scrapbook of photographs, postcards and letters from hikers she met. She cherished her relationships with them and even wrote a memoir called “Home on the Trail,” not for publication, but, as she put it, “for my family, so they’ll know what it has meant to me to live here on the Trail.” Hutchinson lived to be 90 years old, passing away in 1974.

8. The Record Breakers

It might go against the spirit of Benton Mackaye’s “stop and smell the roses” philosophy, but for some, just walking the trail isn’t enough. They need to be the fastest one to thru-hike it. The trend really took off when two hikers, David Horton and Scott Grierson, hiked the trail neck and neck, vying for a speed record in 1991. Grierson, a hiker from Bar Harbor, Maine, had a two-day head start on Horton, an ultramarathoner. But the two had different strategies, and Horton, who walk-ran 10-11 hours per day eventually gained on Grierson, who walked 16-17 hours per day. Ultimately, Horton finished in 52 days 9 hours and Grierson in 55 days 20 hours 34 minutes. Horton held the record until 1999, when ultrarunner Pete Palmer smashed it, hiking the trail in 48 days 20 hours and 11 minutes. Palmer held it for six years, but speed hiker Andrew Thompson broke it in 2005, completing his thru hike in 47 days 13 hours 31 minutes. In 2008, 25-year-old Jennifer Pharr Davis set the female record: 57 days 8 hours 35 minutes.

9. The First Blind Thru-Hiker

“For most hikers, the rewards of the Appalachian Trail were primarily visual,” writes Bill Irwin in his book Blind Courage. But Irwin had an entirely different experience. He lost his sight in his mid-30s from a degenerative disease, and in 1990, at age 49, became the first blind person to hike the entire Appalachian Trail. With the help of his Seeing Eye dog, Orient, Irwin hiked it over the course of eight and a half months, falling an estimated 5,000 times along the way. “I never enjoyed the hiking part,” writes Irwin. “It was something I felt compelled to do. It wasn’t my choice.” He had struggled with troubled relationships and alcoholism, and with blindness came a loss of independence and deep depression. But for Irwin, the miraculous feat of doing it was a life-changing event.

10. A Writer in the Woods


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