September 12, 2022
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The Republic of Trail

by Jonathan Wallace

I spent some time on the Appalachian Trial this summer. In July, I performed a recent ritual, which I have sometimes observed the last eight years, of walking into the woods in Cornwall Bridge, Connecticut, the day before my July birthday, so I could wake up in the Stewart's Brook lean-to on the day itself, walk out and drive back to celebrate with my wife. In late August, I went back for three nights, crossing off a minor bucket list item: Starting in the 1980's, I used to walk once a year or so from Cornwall to Kent (or vice versa). I hadn't done the portion from Stewart's to Kent, about seven miles over steep St. John's Ledges, a favorite entry-level rappelling site, in more than a quarter-century. I parked at the trailhead in Cornwall again, walked to Stewart's Brook, spent the night, then kept going. The second night, I slept in another lean-to just South of Route 341 into Kent. I am 68 years old, and St. John's (which I climbed, walking South, rather than decending) was a much huger effort than I anticipated (since I frequently forget I am not 35). I suppose it is wonderful I can do it at all.

I had Stewart's all to myself the first night, which I welcomed. The second campsite was inhabited, when I got there, by a Yale orientation group, whose leader, a sophomore, was very respectful, approaching me immediately to inform me who they were and to determine if their noise might bother me, which I assured him it would not (though a later arrival, a through-hiker in his twenties, felt impelled to educate the Yalies that "hiker midnight" is 9 pm). The students and several other groups utilized campsites. That night, I shared the lean-to with only one other person, a man my age, through-hiking slowly, who had teamed up with the "hiker midnight" guy (who put up a tent nearby). In the morning, in classic AT fashion, this man, whose trail name was Tin Man (mine is Brooklyn Guy) and I exchanged life stories in about half an hour. Like so many older hikers I meet, he was retired career military (Air Force). A huge part of the experience is the people you meet, from diverse backgrounds but sharing not only a love of the AT, but an anarchist ethic who many of them (Tin Man included) would probably be quite shocked to hear called that.

Hiking for me has always involved little flashes of political and philosophical insight. In 1980, when I walked the 300 mile Long Trail from Vermont's Massachusetts border to the Canadian one, I noticed that lean-tos a quarter mile from a road were all heavily trashed, vandalized, graffitied and packed with garbage, whereas the ones five miles or more in were immaculate. There were, I realized, two kinds of people (there are always two kinds of everything), those who could easily get to a shelter and exploit it as a party venue, and who did not care whether anyone else could ever use it again, and those, like me, who had worked so hard, and walked so far, to get there, that we were humbly grateful to find it in excellent condition, and were impelled to leave it in the same condition for the next hiker. This is, of course, the Golden Rule and the Kantian Imperative: doing unto others; and acting as you would want everyone else to.

I had a related insight these last trips to Connecticut. When you enter the woods at the Cornwall Bridge trailhead, after climbing and descending a steep but small hill, you descend more gently through a couple miles of woods. The trail is less than two feet wide. Intermittent signs note how narrow the path is, and ask you to stay on it. The Reveal or Takeaway is that in the seven years or so I have been going back, the trail has stayed two feet wide. By contrast, in my neighborhood in Amagansett, there are two trails, one for pedestrians and one for beach vehicles, across the primary dune which saved all our houses during hurricane Sandy. Over the years, these trails are eating the dune like a cancer, constantly getting wider until they join each other. You can particularly see the footprints everywhere, and occasionally during the summer we see entire groups who have climbed the dune and are racing or rolling down.

There are two differences from the AT. No one takes responsbility for maintaining these two trails, and the users seem to be more like the people trashing Long Trail shelters than the ones preserving them. It is very easy to drive over the dune, and not that much harder to walk over it.

The AT has always had a knowledgeable and dedicated support infrastructure which most hikers barely notice. This last eight years, I have twice been sitting alone at Stewart's when a volunteer maintenace person came in, and stayed to chat with me a while. They clean up garbage, sweep the shelter and the privy, check the bear box to see if anyone has left food. These people maintain the entire 1800 mile length of the trail-- and behind them are the people who build and repair the shelters, paint the blazes and are responsible for unique features like the clearly cut two foot trail. Every mile of the AT, you will observe stones piled as steps, improvised culverts to divert rain water away, logs blocking deceptive pathways which are not the trail. This is a tremendous amount of work.

The AT is a fascinating human phenomenon. It came into existence and continues to be, not because a government or a billionaire decided on it, but because enough people so badly wanted it that they brought it into being. There is nothing innately eternal, or even long-lived, about a hiking trail. Somewhere, decades ago, I saw vestiges of a horse trail which had vanished with urbanization. Trails, especially one as long as the AT, are inherently fragile. Every year, some sections must be rerouted. And yet I first walked the AT in 1980 and I am still hiking it in 2022.

The mass of people who build and maintain it, and those who hike it very carefully, are a successful, invisible Kropotkin-style anarchist community who carry on, decade after decade, in the interstices, keeping a low profile. Their community which shares such pronounced values, and a very complex code of ethics, does not identify in the "real", tawdry, political world, with any one leaning; I sensed that one of my conversation partners, who was upset about "wokeness", might have voted for Trump. On the trail, despite anecdotes spread mainly by nonhikers, about danger and violence, you feel as a default trust for everyone you meet. I asked people for help three times this trip: once, the first day, walking South, when I reached a place where I couldn't see any blazes and there were two choices of path: it was very unclear whether the trail went straight, but on a car-traveled road, or took a hard right. A young hiker stopped and helped me (and himself) sort it out. On the second day, my destination shelter not manifesting (that last quarter mile always seems to stretch three miles), two through hikers walking the other way, who had not noticed it in passing, stopped and looked at maps with me to confirm it was there. The last day, when the trail switchbacked a lot, I got confused as to whether I had gotten turned around, and another hiker stopped to confirm I was still going the right way. Last summer, when I fell into a campsite almost ill with exhaustion after an unexpectedly steep descent, anther older hiker (and military retiree) even brought me water, an act of Biblical proportions on the AT even in nondrought times. This last trip, when most of the brooks marked on maps had gone dry, exchanging knowledge about viable water sources was a very large part of hiker communication.

I walked twenty-two miles, from Cornwall to Kent and back again to my car. On the return northwards trip, I avoided St. John's (though I would have been decending this time) roadwalking East to the River Road along the Housatonic which would become the trail again in two miles. I stayed at Stewart's a second time (I had it to myself again) and walked out the next morning. This modest, not very demanding section of the AT has a reputation as one of the most diverse: entering at Cornwall, you walk over a hill, through woods, on the river banks, then through farm fields, in a mere five miles. I have experienced profound beauties there, and mysteries, had transcendent moments, and met wonderful people. I will keep going as long as I can. In a time when I believe Our World is Ending, I am heartened and sustained by the fact that our world quietly contains a working anarchy, the Republic of Trail.