The AT Calling
Hiking the Appalachian Trail in the Berkshires
I’d wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail since going on vacation to the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee when I was ten. One day while trekking with my family, we merged onto the trail and soon passed a hiker with a huge pack on his back. I was impressed that anyone could carry a load that big and asked him where he was headed.
“All the way to Maine,” he told me.
“Wow,” I said. “That sounds like fun.”
Twenty-one years later, working as a journalist and teacher in California, I knew there was something missing in my life. The wanderlust that resulted was calling me to catch the wind. So I left the West Coast in the spring of 1993 to begin my own journey of the Appalachian Trail, starting at its southern end, Springer Mountain in Georgia. My plan was to hike until I reached the northern terminus at Mount Katahdin in Maine. I told myself that if I hadn’t found what I was looking for by the time I’d walked through the 14 states and 2,185 miles between those two ends, I would keep going until I did.
Benton MacKaye, an early environmentalist from Massachusetts and a co-founder of the Wilderness Society, is credited with the idea of creating a long, continuous footpath traversing the Appalachian Mountains. It was his vision and commitment to conservation in the 1920s, along with the hard work of many professionals and volunteers in the following years, that created the Appalachian Trail. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy oversees operations and maintains usability of the trail. It does this
by partnering with the National Park Service and local volunteer organizations along the way. These enthusiastic volunteer groups who invest their sweat equity are the lifeblood of a trail that has become a marvel of environmental preservation and usability.
In Massachusetts, the Appalachian Trail (AT) wends for 90 miles over the Berkshire Hills, from Mount Everett in the south to the state’s highest point, Mount Greylock, in the north. In between, it meanders along the ridges and valleys of the Housatonic and Hoosic river basins. At many places on the back roads and byways of the Berkshires, one can see the iconic AT marker identifying trailheads and road crossings.
The local volunteer group that maintains the trail in this region is the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) Berkshire Chapter. It manages the footpath, campsites, and public lands, and it monitors rare, threatened, and endangered plants on AT lands as well as any invasive plants. “We have an amazing group of about 75 individual volunteers who conduct most of this work,” says Cosmo Catalano, the group’s coordinator. “We’re assisted by teen crews from the AMC and also by Greenagers [a Berkshire-based youth environmental organization] from Great Barrington. Last season this combined group of people put in over 9,000 hours on the Massachusetts AT.”
Along with being a great example of grassroots environmental activism, the Appalachian Trail is also the temporary home of about 2,000 thru-hikers each year. About one-quarter of those who start out to walk the entire trail end to end in one shot—a thru-hike—end up finishing at the other end.
Andy Myers from Chester decided at age 70 that he had arrived at a good time in his life to do a thru-hike. With two successful business startups behind him, Myers was looking for another challenge. “Hiking the AT, I knew, would be like starting a business,” he says. “You have to go all in and give it 100 percent. ”
He did go all in, starting in March 2013, and completing his hike (one of only about 25 people over 70 ever to do so) six months later in August. “It was the hardest physical thing I’ve ever done,” Myers confesses. One of the most dramatic moments of his hike, he says, was getting caught on top of a Tennessee mountain in a blizzard that dumped two feet of snow. In nearly whiteout conditions, he was lost. He bumped into another hiker, also searching for the trail, and together they found it and made their way to the nearest shelter.
“There were ten people in that shelter,” Myers says. “We all realized the gravity of the situation, but nobody panicked. We worked together, and made it work for us.” Reflecting on his hike a month after finishing, Myers says he was struck most by the physical toll—he lost 30 pounds; by the friends he met and hiked with, and by the kindness of strangers. “I met so many good people out there,” he says of the people who provided trail magic—the unexpected acts of kindness by locals to thru-hikers—usually in the form of delicious snacks but also including rides into town for supplies, home-cooked meals, and even overnight stays in their houses. “There are a lot of good youth out there, too,” he says, speaking about the younger breed of thru-hikers. “They are healthy, engaging, and a joy to hike with.” Myers expresses an overall sense of adventure about his trip. “You have to reach down deep to do it. And when you do, it’s exciting. You realize that life’s about taking on big challenges.”
What are his favorite spots in Massachusetts? He first mentions Tyringham Cobble, where his family met him mid-hike for a big reunion. He also likes Upper Goose Pond, a sparkling gem of a wild mountain pond in Lee, about two miles from where the trail crosses Route 20. The site hosts a recently refurbished cabin and a caretaker known far and wide along the trail for making the best pancakes in Massachusetts. In season, those pancakes are topped with blueberries that have been carried by thru-hikers from the Cookie Lady’s house.
Who is the Cookie Lady? She is Marilyn Wiley, who lives with her husband Roy on a blueberry farm about 100 yards from where the trail crosses Washington Mountain Road atop Mount Washington. Marilyn started baking cookies for hikers soon after the Wileys moved to the farm in 1984. “I read an article in the Berkshire Eagle about a woman who baked cookies for hikers in the ’50s,” she says. “So I started doing the same thing.” The cookies are free, and they’re all the same recipe—chocolate chip with oatmeal. The Wileys also provide water to hikers, and they sell farrm-fresh eggs and blueberries. There’s a quota of three cookies per person. “I soon realized that hungry hikers could eat an entire batch,” Marilyn explains, “and then eat more.”
Of course, not everyone has the time or inclination to test himself on a pilgrimage of endurance. A thru-hike is not only a long walk in the national park. It can also bring one face-to-face with inner demons which, if successfully subdued, can release wonderful feelings of well-being. Otherwise, those demons can sabotage one’s focus and coax the hiker off the trail. There are many who are not interested in this form of trial by trail, but the AT is the people’s trail, and its getaway opportunities are available to all. Many use it only for day hikes and short overnight excursions.
Beyond the continuous AT, a network of many other smaller trails is disjointed and fragmented. In an exciting new development, the Berkshire Natural Resources Council (BNRC) hopes to create an uninterrupted network in Berkshire County called “The High Road.” The vision is for the various trails not only to connect, but also for some to go through villages and towns so people can overnight at a bed and breakfast, go grab something to eat, go to a museum, or just go through some civilization. The BNRC has started working on this with conservation groups to make it happen, says president Tad Ames, who hopes the plans will be well underway by the time the BNRC turns 50 in 2017.
The Great Barrington Trails and Greenways alliance—established in 2007 to encourage the active exploration of the outdoors with an emphasis on caring for the health of both the area’s natural resources and the people in the community— is hosting the second annual Appalachian Trail Hike and Community Picnic on July 26, a peak time for thru-hikers. It will be at Benedict Pond in Monterey, and activities include a hike on the trail to “The Ledges” and a community potluck at 5 p.m.
In the fall of 1993, I reached the pinnacle of Katahdin, after five and a half months of hiking and living in the great outdoors. I felt as healthy as a mountain man, but the wilderness of my mind was still calling for more exploring. At that point in my journey, the Appalachian Trail merged back onto the trail of my life’s quest for truth and happiness. I’ve been hiking it ever since.