It’s time for my almost annual “What I Did on Summer Vacation” essay. This year, I went on a walk, a long walk along the Appalachian Trail through a stretch of Shenandoah National Park in beautiful Virginia.
The “AT,” as us “experienced” backpackers call it (since I’ve now walked about 1.8% of the Trail), has captivated me since I was a teenager and first heard about the 2,180 mile trail that follows the ridge of the Appalachian Mountains through 14 states. The idea that a person could hike on a non-stop trail starting on Springer Mountain, Georgia and continuing to the top of Mount Katahdin in Maine intrigued me and held my interest for over 40 years before I finally joined with a friend to make it happen.
With planning for our local MYPath Trail project moving ahead, a walk on this famous trail also provided a good opportunity for some research into hiking and maintaining trails.
Your Owen County Community Foundation has partnered with our local YMCA and Soil and Water Conservation District to connect the YMCA on the west side of Spencer with McCormick’s Creek State Park to the east. Our little trail and sidewalk network will be only five miles long when it is completed in the next five to ten years, but we can learn a lot from the Appalachian Trail, the granddaddy of trails.
While MYPath will consist of updated and repaired sidewalks in town for the most part, the system will also include a natural Riverfront Trail along the White River from the south end of the Veterans Memorial Bridge east toward McCormick’s Creek. Only the first .8 mile stretch of the trail along the river has been determined and is scheduled to open in 2016. But the plan is to eventually include as much as two miles of riverfront trail. So, I thought about the Riverfront Trail quite a bit as I trudged along the AT.
What struck me about the AT was how little it interfered with nature. At most points along the 40 miles we hiked, the trail was only eight to eighteen inches wide. It was only a narrow slit in the forest floor so all the skittering, slithering, and crawling denizens of the woods could easily move from one side of the trail to the other. The theme for AT hikers is to “leave no trace,” so visitors are careful to stay right on the marked trail.
I hope we can achieve the same along the Riverfront Trail. We want to create a natural path along our beautiful river so that folks can enjoy the many treats a hike along a natural trail can provide.
The fact that the AT has been maintained since its completion in 1937 by groups of volunteers who take responsibility for a designated stretch of trail is very encouraging. We will need the same volunteer commitment to maintain MYPath. There are 31 different AT clubs along the entire length that coordinate the maintenance work. We can take care of two miles of trail.
After a little exposure to the AT, I began to see more clearly the ways that a good walking trail can benefit the people who live in and visit Owen County.
A good hike provides rewards in many areas of our lives – a physical challenge that can improve our health, a mental exercise that works our minds and tests our will, a rich experience of the natural world, and that special category of our personal journey through life that involves our spiritual life.
When my hiking partner and I set out to walk a long distance carrying everything we’d need for four days on our backs, we knew we would be tested physically. We had no idea how big a test it would be. In our forty miles, we ascended a total of 7,450 feet of various peaks in the Blue Ridge Mountains. With my starting pack weight at 37 pounds including water, I stressed every muscle, ligament, and joint in my body. One helpful tidbit I learned after just the first day was that my right hip will probably be the one that gets a replacement first. So I got that going for me.
AT backpackers burn from 5,000 to 6,000 calories a day making it difficult to consume enough food and water to keep up energy and hydration levels. Since the water along the trail is in creeks and springs and needs to be filtered before drinking, just hiking down to a spring to refill bottles can be difficult.
The physical test blends right into the mental challenge. At the end of the first day, I was tired, dehydrated, and little puny from the heat. That first night I spent more than a few minutes thinking about how I could drag my aching body back to civilization. But a good night’s sleep in my comfy hammock renewed me enough to get into the second day and beyond.
The opportunity to experience nature was the real reward. Facing a big black bear in the middle of the trail (he wandered off most likely because of the special odor repellent my physical exertion was producing), watching a huge buck pass by us a few feet from the trail, waking to a couple of barred owls having an argument just above our campsite, and taking in the scene of a deep forest in the middle of a strong downpour were all new and thrilling experiences to me.
I also enjoyed primitive camping on any open spot we could find by the trail. We usually stopped in the afternoon because we were beat. We’d rest to build up our energy so we could eat, pitch tent or hammock, find water, and still be able to hoist the food bags over a high branch before bed to make sure we didn’t donate our provisions to the bears.
All of those other categories of our experience combined to create the personal journey that we chose to take along the AT. Learning about the capabilities of our minds and bodies through the experience and communing with nature in a more intimate way than we do in our normal daily lives created an experience that transcended a normal walk in the woods.
The Appalachian Trail had loomed in my imagination for more than forty years. I had a chance to worship in the giant cathedral that exists in every natural place on earth. But I just had a little taste of it. Now I’m planning my next trip. And I’m back home working with my friends and neighbors to plan a trail journey on MYPath right here in Owen County. I’m looking forward to both trail journeys.
Your Owen County Community Foundation is committed to helping our Owen County communities to become better places to live, grow, and work. We value the beauty of Owen County home.
If you would like to know more about the MYPath Trail project, please follow the OCCF on Facebook or go the MYPath site at www.owencountyswcd.org/mypath. A video overview of the project is available at either location.
If you would like to know more about how you can get involved in contributing your wealth, your work, or your wisdom to the project, give me a call at 812-829-1725, email me at email@example.com, visit us online at www.owencountycf.org, or stop by and visit us in person at our office at our new office location on the southeast side of the square (60 E. Market Street, Suite 101, Spencer, IN, 47460).
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