By Steve Grant
It was 1926 and the completion of the Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia was far from a reality. Hundreds of miles of the hiking trail remained to be cut in Maine and the Mid-Atlantic and Southern states.
There was solid progress in parts of New England, but the visionary planner who proposed the trail in 1921 – Stamford-born Benton MacKaye – was a thinker not an organizer. Trail work by volunteers languished as the years wore on.
But, in what proved to be a breakthrough, another Connecticut figure, G. Arthur Perkins, a retired Hartford police court judge and hiker, heard of the Appalachian Trail project and embraced it with gusto.
“I really think he was essential,” said Brian B. King, author of the just-published book “The Appalachian Trail: Celebrating America’s Hiking Trail.” “He got people moving, and that is what was needed.”
It took another decade, but in 1937 the 2,184-mile-long Appalachian Trail was completed. Perhaps the most famous hiking trail in the U. S., the AT, as it often is called, is 75 years old this year. It now attracts something approaching 3 million hikers a year.
They can thank Perkins, who in no time had volunteers enthusiastically carving miles of trail through the Appalachian range, the mountain spine of the East Coast. Perkins even poured his own money into the project, sometimes helping with expenses so that MacKaye could attend regional meetings.
Perkins also had a significant role in the evolution of the original metal AT symbol, once used to mark the trail through the woods. By the late 1920s, Perkins found a shop in Hartford to produce by the thousands the four-inch, diamond-shaped markers with the message “Appalachian Trail – Maine to Georgia.”
“It was important as a way to keep things going – get that sign up there on the trees so people knew there was a trail and this is where it is going,” King said.
The trail is now marked with white painted blazes, but the old diamond-shaped design remains the official symbol of the trail.
MacKaye, a Harvard educated forester and planner, proposed the trail in a 1921 article in the Journal of the American Institute of Architects. What he proposed was far more than a hiking trail, however.
Troubled by ever more crowded cities and the rapid increase of cars and roadways, MacKaye envisioned the trail as a respite from stressful urban life. But he also envisioned adjacent small communities where urban families could stay to temporarily study or farm in a natural setting, refreshing themselves.
The trail is dotted with more than 250 shelters for overnight stays, as MacKaye envisioned, and it surely serves as a respite from the stresses of modern life, but the ancillary features that MacKaye proposed never happened. What evolved was a hiking trail on a grand scale.
Officially called the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, it is managed through a unique cooperative system involving the National Park Service, other federal and state agencies, the non-profit Appalachian Trail Conservancy and 31 hiking clubs that maintain the trail. The park service says more than 6,000 volunteers spend more than 195,000 hours each year tending and promoting the trail.
In Connecticut, the trail is overseen by the Connecticut Chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club. Last year, 102 people spent 5,313 hours caring for the 52.3 miles of AT in Connecticut, said David Boone, the Connecticut chapter trails committee chairman.
When people think of national parks, they tend to think of the big western parks like Yosemite or Yellowstone, of course. “I think a lot of people don’t recognize this is part of the national park system, and we should be proud of that,” Boone said. He estimates at least 10,000 people a year hike on the section of trail through Connecticut.
Over the years, many thousands of hikers have attempted to hike the entire trail, either in one long hike or in sections over a period of years. So far, 13,205 people are known to have hiked the entire trail.
The one-year record for thru-hikers – those trekking the whole trail in one grand outing – is 540 completions, set in 2000. That record is likely to be broken this year, the anniversary year. King said it appears that more than 600 hikers have completed the trail already this year or are about to.
After all these years, King said, the trail remains vital, remains an oasis of serenity in the mountains that shadow the eastern megalopolis.
“It still helps people,” he said. “They can get away. It makes a difference in their lives and how they feel about themselves.”
EndNote: “The Appalachian Trail: Celebrating America’s Hiking Trail,” is available through bookstores, Amazon.com and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, www.appalachiantrail.org. The conservancy site also has extensive information on the trail, as does the National Park Service page http://www.nps.gov/appa/index.htm.
This article was first published in The Hartford Courant in 2012.