The Appalachian Trail became a series of switchbacks down Temple Ridge into Nolichucky Gorge, the river growing louder and nearer. I’d gotten used to utter silence and the sound of wind in the trees, and had forgotten how noisy whitewater can be. As the trail headed into a hollow, the moan of a coal train on its way to Erwin, Tennessee, joined the river’s voice. I smelled wood smoke. A dog barked. Things that were once a familiar part of my day-to-day life suddenly caught me unaware. The trail was my world now.
For the first six weeks my thru-hike followed a familiar routine: Hike hard for a week, walk into a small town to resupply, repeat as necessary for 1,800 more miles. Then something changed. One day I realized I was measuring my days by how far I could walk between dawn and dusk. Each step meant something. It was about the going as much as the getting there. My rhythm was tied to the sun’s rise and fall, my calendar to the changing seasons. I felt comfortable, at peace in the woodlands and ridgelines and hillsides.
At the bottom of the hill that rhythm became irrelevant and the comfort faded. Distance in the nontrail world is measured in a different way. Time is space between items on a to-do list. Sure, I needed to go into town to pick up supplies and mail, to savor a pizza, to shower. But did I welcome leaving the trail behind, even if for just a short while? No. This was no longer familiar territory.
I tended to my business, then headed back out of town to where the trail poured out of the woods and crossed the road. I spotted the next blaze and followed it up the other side, back to where the wind played along a ridgeline, back where I belonged. Back home.
Contact: Appalachian Trail Conference, P.O. Box 807, Harpers Ferry, WV 25425; (304) 535-6331; http://www.atconf.org.
Where Else To Get Your Fix
The 2,158-mile Appalachian Trail is the most famous long path, but others will take you farther, higher, or even east to west.
Pacific Crest Trail: Stretching 2,665 miles from Mexico to Canada, the PCT is longer, drier, and higher than the AT, requires permits for much of the way, and you may need an ice axe early in the year. Contact: PCT Association, 5325 Elkhorn Blvd., Box 256, Sacramento, CA 95842; (888) 728-7245; http://www.gorp.com/pcta.
Continental Divide Trail: You might encounter grizzlies in Yellowstone, and some remote parts aren’t marked, but talk about an adventure! Some thru-hikers take two years to finish the CDT’s nearly 3,000 Mexico-to-Canada miles. Contact: CDT Society, 3704 N. Charles St., Suite 601, Baltimore, MD 21218-2300; (410) 235-9610; http://www.gorp.com/cdts/. Or the CDT Alliance, P.O. Box 628, Pine, CO 80470; (303) 838-3760; http://www.CDTrail.org.
Pacific Northwest Trail: It’s not federally recognized, there are about 100 miles of roadwalking, and it runs east-to-west. But the PNT’s 1,100 miles from Glacier National Park, Montana, to Cape Alava in Washington’s Olympic National Park can be done in a summer. Only a few dozen people have thru-hiked it. Contact: PNT Association, 1361 Avon Allen Rd., Mt. Vernon, WA 98273; (360) 424-0407; http://pnt.org.
Robert Rubin’s trail name was “Rhymin’ Worm,” because of the verses he left in AT shelter registers during his 1997 thru-hike. The complete collection is available on the World Wide Web at http://www.editorialservice.com/path/ballad.html.
A bald eagle soared overhead, swooped down toward me, then cocked a wing and rode an updraft into the heavens. It was a fitting graduation ceremony after two weeks of hiking through one of the country’s premier slices of backcountry. The Buffalo National River lay before me, and Arkansas’ 165-mile Ozark Highlands Trail lay behind.
It was one of those hikes that I just had to do. I’ve lived in the Ozarks all my life, but never thought I really knew them. I wanted to find out what was beyond the view from the highway. I discovered a thousand sights and experiences accessible only to those willing to wear a pack. I stood atop towering sandstone bluffs at White Rock Mountain and looked across rolling hills stretching to the horizon. I passed countless waterfalls that plunged into deep, emerald skinny-dipping pools. I rested alongside giant moss-covered boulders surrounded by fields of ferns, wildflowers, and mayapples. I felt like I belonged, that I’d returned to a primeval place where I might have lived hundreds of years before.
Hiking a mountain range from one end to the other made me feel like I can now reach out and wrap my arms around each hill and valley. It’s a feeling I could get only by immersion in this wild cross-section of Arkansas’ Ozarks.
Contact: Ozark Highlands Trail Association, 411 Patricia Ln., Fayetteville, AR 72703; (501) 442-2799; Guidebooks (800) 838-4453; http://Wilderness.ArkansasUSA.com/OHTA.html.
Where Else To Get Your Fix
Hiking a regional trail gives you an intimate, microcosmic look at a slice of the United States that you won’t see any other way. You can find regional trails in just about every part of the country. Here are three fine ones:
Superior Hiking Trail: The SHT follows Lake Superior for 211 miles, offering amazing views of the largest body of fresh water in the world. Contact: SHT Association, P.O. Box 4, Two Harbors, MN 55616; (218) 834-2700; http://www.shta.org.
Vermont Long Trail: The 270-mile Long Trail is the oldest long-distance hiking route in the United States, spanning the state along the Green Mountains. Blinding fall color anyone? Contact: Green Mountain Club, RR 1, Box 650, Waterbury Center, VT 05677; (802) 244-7037; http://www.greenmountainclub.org.
Colorado Trail: One of the longest, most challenging and rewarding regional trails, this one runs 500 miles from Denver to Durango through spectacular alpine scenery. Contact: Colorado Trail Foundation, P.O. Box 260876, Lakewood, CO 80226; (303) 526-0809; http://www.coloradotrail.org.
Tim Ernst has thru-hiked the Ozark Highlands Trail more than 20 times and has spent more than 13,000 hours helping build it. In his spare time he works on other trails, writes guidebooks, and produces coffee table photo books.
Great heaping mounds of flaming-red soapberry scat, some of it still steaming. Crater-like paw prints along every tributary and game trail. Tufts of fur waving from the tips of alder branches. All around were signs that big bears owned this fertile slice of Alaskan tundra. A close encounter seemed inevitable. When it finally happened-a large female grizzly materialized around a brushy bend in the river-the landscape changed forever.
The encounter lasted only moments, but in my recurring daydream it stretches out in slow-motion, every blink, every ripple of muscle a reminder of the bear’s looming, graceful presence. I had traveled before through remote, undeveloped lands and seen wildlife, but this encounter was different, a visceral, electric, to-the-marrow link with everything primal and untamed. Few other scenes-my daughter’s birth, the first time I saw my father cry-have left as powerful an imprint.
Whether it’s the sight of a grizzly in Denali National Park, the spine-tingling howls of wolves in the North Woods night, or the hair-raising screech of a mountain lion in the Southwest high country, a wildlife encounter brings you face-to-face with nature in all its frighteningly awesome power and glory. It’s the closest we mortals come to understanding the true essence of wilderness. And yes, the claws and teeth will curdle your blood and loosen your bladder, but that’s part of the fun.
Contact: Denali National Park and Preserve, Box 9, Denali Park, AK 99755; (907) 683-2294; http://www.nps.gov/dena.