While reading “The Appalachian Trail: A Biography,” by Philip D’Anieri, published this year by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, I thought it might inspire local trail builders.
But first, how can a biography of a trail be written? That’s the intrigue that makes you open the book to discover it is actually 12 biographies of people influential in establishing and making popular the multi-state, 2,190-mile AT, which traverses the scenic mountain range.
These people were obsessed with the Appalachian Mountains. D’Anieri attempts to find the explanations. Take Emma Gatewood’s obsession. She was in her 60s, finished raising 11 children and finished with an abusive husband. She made the national and local news in the late 1950s, hiking in sneakers with only a duffel bag slung over her shoulder, frequently a guest of people living near the trail. She helped make popular through-hiking the whole trail from Georgia to Maine in one continuous hike.
Settlement first filled the Appalachian valleys with farms and towns. It wasn’t until the 1850s that Swiss emigrant and geographer Arnold Guyot started hiking the peaks to measure their elevations. Later, a returning World War II soldier, Earl Shaffer, couldn’t stop hiking the remotest heights and began lobbying for a public trail connecting them.
Eventually there were hiking clubs that sponsored sections, and, finally, the Appalachian Trail became a National Scenic Trail in 1968, managed in a partnership with the National Park Service.
Here in southeast Wyoming, on the Pole Mountain unit of the Medicine Bow National Forest, we have a National Recreation Trail, the Headquarters Trail, established in 1979. It is only 3.5 miles long, but it connects to a series of other trails on the forest. Someday soon, it will connect to the new Pilot Hill trails between Laramie and Pole Mountain, Eric Dalton told me. He is the president of the board of Common Outdoor Ground (www.commonoutdoorground.org).
COG works with the U.S. Forest Service to build, improve and maintain the trails at Pole Mountain and elsewhere. Its mission statement is “We are a community organization providing volunteer support for the sustainability of outdoor spaces in southeast Wyoming.”
From Pole Mountain, it is less than a mile to Curt Gowdy State Park and all of its trails. From there, three miles of easements through state and private land could take you south to Cheyenne’s Belvoir Ranch, slated for recreational development around the wind turbines.
The Belvoir sits between Interstate 80 and the state line, adjacent to Colorado’s Red Mountain Open Space and Soapstone Prairie Natural Area and their trail systems.
In this age, it’s more likely there would be through-biking than through-hiking, but I hope these trail connections happen while I still can wear hiking boots.
With interest in outdoor recreation booming during the pandemic, perhaps “The Appalachian Trail: A Biography” can shed light on how to manage a long trail’s inception, development and maintenance for the masses.