Benton MacKaye + Appalachian National Scenic Trail

Contributed by Anthony Myers

“Life for two weeks on the mountain top would show up many things about life during the other fifty weeks down below. The latter could be viewed as a whole – away from its heat, and sweat, and irritations. There would be a chance to catch a breath, to study the dynamic forces of nature and the possibilities of shifting to them the burdens now carried on the backs of men. The reposeful study of these forces should provide a broad gauged enlightened approach to the problems of industry. Industry would come to be seen in its true perspective – as a means in life and not as an end in itself.”

Wise words spoken by a true revolutionary in his groundbreaking proposal for a trail to stretch the length of the Eastern Seaboard.  Benton MacKaye was a great visionary and problem solver of the early 1900s.  He helped co-found the Wilderness Society and today is known as the father of the Appalachian Trail.

MacKaye was high school dropout, never really liking school. He once wrote that school “might be defined as a place that boys like to run away from.”  Regardless, young Benton had a thirst and curiosity for knowledge.  He sought his own education from then on and had ambitions for university.  At 17 he was accepted to Harvard through his own personal study and endeavors.  While at Harvard he embarked on his first trek into the mountains of New England.  Two aspects impacted him, true wilderness and the rapid destruction of advancing logging companies.

Influenced by other conservation stalwarts like John Muir and Gifford Pinchot, MacKaye was concerned for the shrinking forests of the East Coast.  He sought to preserve in the East what was plentiful in the West.  He stated:

It is the love of country, the love of primal nature and of human nature, the lure of crestline and comradeship, which we like to think of as being indigenous to our own homeland. In short, the object of the Appalachian Trail is to develop the indigenous America.

Part of Benton MacKaye’s passion for the Appalachian Trail was stimulated by the dramatic passing of his wife in 1921.  MacKaye never married again, however his attention toward the Appalachian Trail rendered him a new “marriage” and purpose for life.  Following his proposal in 1921 much attention and activity was brought to the Appalachian Trail.  A few years prior to the trail’s completion, MacKaye continued to captivate and empower people to connect with his vision of trail, not only connecting communities, but people to the wilderness.  At the Appalachian Trail Conference in 1935 he proclaimed:

The physical path is no end in itself; it is a means of sojourning in the primeval or wilderness environment whose preservation and nurture is your particular care.  The Appalachian Trail, as originally conceived, is not merely a footpath through the wilderness, but a foot of the wilderness.

By 1937 the trail was complete, though a hurricane the following year disrupted some of the path.  It wasn’t until 1951 that the trail was deemed complete once more through the cooperation of local, state, and federal governments.  In 1968, the trail became part of a larger protected National Trails System which has now grown to protect over 40,000 miles of historic and recreation trails across the U.S.  Though our national trails may appear to be second tiered compared to our country’s national parks and forests; they remain significant and important nonetheless.  They serve as unpaved veins that give light to the America’s dynamic history and diverse wilderness ecosystems.  Since its original completion in 1937, it is estimated that roughly 17,500 individuals have completed the Appalachian Trail either in sections or a thru-hike.  The creation of the Appalachian Trail has sparked young and old alike to catch the vision that Benton MacKaye set aflame nearly 100 years ago: the ability “to walk; to see and to see what you see.”

Photo courtesy of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy

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