The word “pilgrimage” is often defined as a long journey to a special place. Throughout the history of the world, millions of people have participated in some sort of spiritual pilgrimage. Muslim people have the Hajj; an annual march involving tens of thousands of people traveling to Mecca. Europeans have journeyed to Stonehenge for hundreds of years, and Japanese people have been flocking to the summit of Mount Fuji for centuries. There is an annual pilgrimage here in the United States as well. The destination may be a little less famous than some of these other examples, but equally as awe-inspiring and beautiful. The ultimate destination for these thousands of pilgrims is Mount Katahdin in Maine.
For those who may not know, the pilgrimage to Mount Katahdin is truly an adventurous one. For some, it may take around 6 months to complete. For others, just as few as 50 days. And for even others, many, many years. The journey itself is 2,175 miles and crosses rough and uneven terrain, through all kinds of weather conditions. This pilgrimage, taken on by many thousands each year, is the annual Thru-Hike of the entire Appalachian Trail. Just like those other pilgrimages around the world, old and young, healthy and those seeking health, experienced and those having none, have all taken on this major challenge. This special journey offers a unique combination of physical challenge and spiritual enlightenment, where getting to the destination may only be a small part of the total reward one receives for taking those million steps to that glorious end-point.
The reason why people seek out this pilgrimage is as varied as the faces of those who travel it. For me, back in 1988 as a young kid just out of college, I needed some direction in life. I also wanted to prove to myself that I, in fact, could do something of this magnitude, time, commitment and difficulty. The only way for me to truly know this was to strap on some boots and give it a try! It was a hard-earned, life-changing experience, but the strength and confidence I learned still drives me today some 30 years later.
The Appalachian Trail is the world’s first designated National Scenic Trail as part of the U.S. National Park system. Unlike other national parks, the bulk of the maintenance and management of this trail falls onto groups of volunteers through a nationally organized network of regional volunteer groups. The Trail in our region is managed by a number of organizations, including the Carolina Mountain Club and the Eastman Hiking Club. Working under this national umbrella, each local organization gathers groups of volunteers and directs them to certain sections of the trail where the painstaking work of keeping this heavily-walked pathway stable, clear and enhanced in a manner that will handle the tens of thousands of footsteps that will pass by each and every year.
The “Thru-Hike” season can start as early as January, but for the bulk of pilgrims, they will start their journey in March, making mid-March and early April a very busy time on this amazing footpath. This mountain pathway begins about 163 miles from Asheville at Springer Mountain just outside of Amicalola Falls State Park in Georgia, travels all the way to Baxter State Park in Maine, and crosses 14 state borders along the way.
You don’t have to travel all the way to Springer Mountain, though. Living in Asheville, we are fortunate to have the Appalachian Trail practically at our backdoor. There are a few good places located less than an hour from Asheville where one can get a sense of what this journey is about, and possibly an understanding of the people who undertake it. On any mid to late-March day, drive west on I-40 for less than an hour to the state line, and take the first exit into Tennessee. There is a good chance that hikers will be passing that spot on their way north towards Snowbird Mountain, and eventually Hot Springs, North Carolina where there are a ton of great local watering holes to catch a bite. The trail goes north or south from there, and each direction offers a slightly different experience. I would suggest parking the car and stepping out for a spell. In a short amount of time, the sound of the interstate will disappear and perhaps at that point, one can get a really good sense of what one mile of over 2,175 may feel like. Packing some snacks and treats (enough to share!) will surely help generate some new friends, and perhaps allow you to hear some crazy stories.
I wonder if when Benton MacKaye sat upon Stratton Mountain in Maine and looked south towards the peaks of the Appalachia, and proposed this inner-connected pathway of trails whether he realized that his dream would be shared and embraced by tens of thousands every year. I wonder if he knew of the partnerships that would need to form in order to maintain the great distance it covered; and if he knew that the creation of this system would create an annual pilgrimage for so many every spring. Having personally experienced the impact of successfully completing the entire Appalachian Trail, I can feel pretty assured that Mr. MacKaye had a strong understanding of how such a great trail system could have such a powerful impact on each and every individual who has the opportunity to step foot on it. Taking all of the factors described could confirm that this journey, this pilgrimage, is as great as any on earth.