Parting Thought
Parting Thought
Wildflowers – A.T.  Vermont
Wildflowers – A.T. Vermont – Photo by Aaron Ibey

I fell in love with the Appalachian Trail back in the 90s, when a young woman of Asian descent sent me her story about thru-hiking the Trail for publication in our environmental travel newsletter, Pickup & GO!

My feelings grew deeper when I first set foot on the Trail at its beginning in Georgia near the turn of the century, on a hike with the Atlanta-based “Keeping It Wild” group my husband Frank spearheaded. It was the first time I actually saw a tree fall in the woods, and we heard the crack well before we saw the shudder in the forest where it landed.

A few years later, while preparing to speak at an Appalachian Trail Conservancy event, I learned about Benton MacKaye, and how in the 1920s he envisioned the Trail as a means of helping working class Americans in rapidly urbanizing areas make more efficient use of our spare time, instead of just our working time. What a visionary! I felt closer to the Trail than ever.

While getting ready to speak at the Florida Trail conference recently, I learned that James Kern, who founded that trail in the 1960s, came up with the idea while hiking the Appalachian Trail. But my growing passion for the people who created the A.T. and the wonders it has unleashed in the world went completely off the charts when I learned the story of a recent A.T. thru-hiker named Daniel White.

Daniel — whose Trail name is “Blackalachian” — reached out to me and our organization (the Diverse Environmental Leaders Speakers Bureau) during his 2017 hike. Upon hearing him tell his story, it was clear to us that he could be a pivot on which the entire urban conservation movement turns. I learned about his misspent youth, including a stint in prison, and the 180-degree turn that hiking the A.T. made in his life. Hiking and completing the Trail made him feel at home in the world in a way he never had before; and since then he has completed the 2,000-mile Underground Railroad Trail, and finished the Scottish Outdoors Challenge, hiking backcountry across the Scottish Highlands, over mountains and through bogs, coast to coast. Next, he’s planning to hike the 500-mile Camino del Norte trail in Spain as pilgrims have done since the 9th Century.

As a lover of our great American outdoors and an advocate for engaging more Americans of color with the enjoyment and protection of these treasured places, I am over the moon thinking of all the young people that Daniel’s story will inspire. In this era when people are conditioned to interact with the world mainly via their devices, how invigorating will it be to see that a person of very limited means, with almost no exposure to wild nature and the impediment of a prison background, can yet rise to be an adventurer, a world traveling explorer — and one who helps chart a path forward for a nation of nascent stewards.

I know it’s possible to keep falling more and more in love — I’m still falling in love with my husband after 27 years of marriage — but I can’t see how I can possibly fall any deeper in love with our precious Appalachian Trail. Still, I am open to being surprised.

by Audrey Peterman