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Willem Lange: The Perfect Place to ‘Walk Off the War’

East Montpelier

A group of friends finished hiking the Appalachian Trail just three days ago by reaching the summit of Mount Katahdin in northern Maine. The following day they starred at the annual Trails End Festival in Millinocket, and I presume they’re all on their way home by now. The story behind their hike is connected to war combat. Then again, so is story behind the Appalachian Trail.

The story begins just after the First World War. The Industrial Revolution and urbanization had by then pretty much separated most Americans from what remained of their forests and wild lands. The Weeks Act of 1911, complementing the efforts of President Theodore Roosevelt to preserve the nation’s natural treasures, as well as the creation of the Adirondack Forest Preserve and the White Mountain National Forest, had done much to preserve or reclaim precious wilderness lands. And the idea of a foot trail connecting Mount Mitchell in the Smoky Mountains with the geologically related peak of Mount Washington in the White Mountains was a gleam in the eye of a few avid “trampers,” as they called them then.

In 1921, Benton MacKaye, a sometime editor, forester and government employee, articulated the idea in an article titled “An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning,” which appeared in the Journal of the American Institute of Architects. Apparently, he wasn’t so much a hiker as a visionary. He proposed it as a series of work camps scattered along the main Appalachian ridge, in which city-weary young people could get away from the factories and urban blight. The camps would be connected by the trail that they would build. Boring.

MacKaye’s idea caught on, but hardly in the way he intended; he was trampled by a stampede of hiking boots as people signed on. First, the plan for the trail was extended from Georgia to Maine. A group of volunteers dug in and built a section near where the trail would cross the Hudson River in New York. In 1925 the first Appalachian Trail Conference was held. But the actual building languished for another three years, until the pressure to connect the finished sections brought the hikers out in force, and new, energetic leaders emerged. By 1937 the trail was laid out and mostly marked, though much of it was at the sufferance of private landowners. Nobody, as far as anybody knows, had yet conceived of hiking the entire trail; it was used mostly by day-hikers.

We’re skipping a lot of history here in order to get to Earl Shaffer, a veteran of World War II in the Pacific, who in 1948 took to the trail in Georgia, telling friends he needed to “walk off the war.” Four months later, he informed the incredulous leaders of the AT Conference that he had completed it. Eventually he proved it, and the tradition of “thru-hiking” had begun. Today thousands take to the trail each year, and hundreds manage to finish it.

Which brings us to the group that just celebrated their successful thru-hike in Millinocket. They’re veterans of recent wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia. The so-called “Warrior Hike” is the brainchild of retired Marine Capt. Sean Gobin, who hiked the trail in 2012 and rounded up 14 veterans to try it this year. The four who made it last Friday are the trail-tough survivors of what must have at times felt like a cavalry charge.

The New Hampshire Public Television crew and I met them the morning of Aug. 15 at the foot of Smarts Mountain, near Lyme Center, and climbed a little over halfway up the mountain with them, talking and filming as we went. There were five of them then –— Tom, Steve and Rob from the Army and Marines; Stephanie, a “hull maintenance technician” from the Navy; and Sharon “Mama Goose,” an Air Force field medic.

I lived either on or very near the Appalachian Trail for 40 years and have met hundreds of hikers. These were different: They were peppier, better clothed and they smelled a lot better than the average thru-hiker.

I figured out why when I saw on their Facebook page the list of eager American Legion chapters that had hosted them along the way. But they were adapted to the trail.

When we stopped for lunch on a ledge with a view of the pyramid of the mountain, Stephanie whipped out a tiny stove and within a couple of minutes had boiled up a hot lunch of pasta and tomato sauce. They cooked separately, hiked together much of the time and congregated for appointments like the one with us, or for potluck suppers along the way. “You have to hike your own hike,” Tom pronounced, but they anticipated camping together that night, a few miles farther up the trail on the other side of the mountain looming above us.

After a bit, they slipped on their hefty packs and headed up the first of the significant White Mountain foothills. They were just beginning the hardest miles of the 2000-mile trek; but they’d already had lots of hard miles behind them before they even started. There was no question they’d make it. And now they have.

Willem Lange’s column appears here on Wednesdays. He can be reached at will.lange@comcast.net.