Growing up in Massachusetts, I learned about the Appalachian Trail during many family trips to Vermont and New Hampshire. I was fascinated by the idea of a path stretching over 2,000 miles and I dreamed of hiking it one day. Years later, after I started to compose music, my dream to hike became intermingled with the idea of composing a piece inspired by that hike. Armed with my hiking gear plus a small digital audio recorder and notebook of staff paper, I set off in the summer of 2016 with the Trail name “Mozart.” My plan was to hike the New England portion of the Trail and then compose an “Appalachian Trail Symphony.”
The symphony is divided into five movements — one for each state I hiked through — and each is roughly proportional to the length of Trail in each state: Connecticut’s 51 miles turns into two minutes of music while Maine’s 282 miles becomes about ten minutes. The symphony essentially compresses my two-month hike into a half hour of music. My hope is to transport listeners to the sites, sounds, and terrain as they move along with me on my journey.
The piece begins with the sound of my footsteps followed by a clarinet playing a theme based on my first name (using a system I created to assign a musical pitch for each letter of the alphabet), which represents how excited, nervous, tentative, and independent I felt beginning the hike. Then a tapestry of birds and other forest sounds gradually build up as I become aware of nature and leave the din of civilization. The music builds more as the elevation also increases until we reach Bear Mountain, the highest peak in Connecticut.
I was barely in Massachusetts when the mosquitoes and flies started to make their irritating presence known, but they soon fade away after passing over the noisy Massachusetts Turnpike before we hear an extended birdsong and then ascend Mount Greylock where we are treated to a fantastic vista overlooking five states.
Entering Vermont, we hear the “Vermont theme” (using my pitch-letter system) in the bell-like tones of glockenspiel and vibraphone. While I composed it on the Trail, months later I realized how similar this melody is to the opening phrase of the gospel hymn “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” The words of the hymn also fit perfectly with my experience, so I decided to weave it throughout this movement too. The Trail passes through the mountain town of Shrewsbury, which happens to be where my grandfather was born in 1921. My grandfather is who I get my musical abilities from, so in this movement I decided to use a hymn-like chorale exercise that he once wrote to reflect how much I was thinking of him on the Trail. We soon come to Killington Peak where these three melodies are all combined in a majestic culmination of the Green Mountains. After a long descent, we reach the end of Vermont where, after 27 straight days of hiking, I took a much-needed 10-day break.
Back on the Trail, New Hampshire and the White Mountains were the steepest and most challenging section of the hike, so this movement is the most dissonant and is filled with ups, downs, and sharp contrasts. After scaling several peaks and traversing the breathtaking Franconia Ridge, we come to Mount Washington, the highest point on my entire hike. While Mount Washington can be noisy from tourists and a little dangerous, I experienced some blissful solitary moments gazing over all of New England. The music reflects this by suddenly changing from loud and almost violent to soft and tranquil and back again.
The southern part of Maine was difficult and slow, but beautiful with so many remote ponds. About halfway through the state, we finally come to easier terrain and the tempo picks up considerably. During the 100-Mile Wilderness, I was filled with pride to be able to see Katahdin gradually grow larger on the horizon. My day on Katahdin was overcast and I hiked through clouds, but it didn’t subtract from my elation of having completed the journey and my gratitude for the beautiful experience I’d had. The final movement ends with the most majestic music of the entire symphony, including the theme based on my name from the beginning of the symphony which, like me, has been transformed.
While the richness of my experience on the Trail cannot be completely conveyed in a half-hour-long piece of music and a page of words, I hope that this symphony reflects the beauty of the Trail and our country’s wilderness along with some of the immense significance this journey has had on me personally. My hope is that this piece inspires people to enjoy and protect our natural environment, including and especially the Appalachian Trail.