What is the A.T. Experience?
The concept of the A.T., from its rugged overlay atop historic trails in the north to hundreds of miles of ridge walks in the south, finds expression in a discrete set of conditions, activities, and opportunities we collectively call the A.T. experience. While everyone’s hike is unique, there are common elements running through each visit to the Trail: nature, challenge, self-reliance, and connectivity. These qualities and others form the concept that unifies the management efforts of the Trail partnership that protects and manages the A.T. In other words, the A.T. experience is the purpose for managing the A.T.; and that purpose is distinct to the Appalachian National Scenic Trail.
The History of the A.T. Experience
The concept of the A.T. experience begins with Benton MacKaye and his 1921 article. However, MacKaye’s thinking on the Trail would change dramatically between the time he wrote “An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning” and sixteen years later, when the A.T. became a continuous footpath from Georgia to Maine. MacKaye’s initial concept for a system of labor camps, contemplative retreats, and mountaintop agricultural communities transformed until “the whole point was to preserve the primeval environment.” Many attempted to define the A.T. experience since, but few were as effective as a group in the late ’70s including Dave Richie, director of the A.T. Project Office for the National Park Service, Chris Brown, one of the primary authors of the A.T. Comprehensive Plan and 1960s visionary volunteer Stan Murray — who documented the concept in a way that spoke to its philosophical nature, but was useful to land management agencies. In 1977, they wrote in a document titled “A.T. Management Principles”: was appropriately captured in the Comprehensive Plan for A.T. management (1981) and the National Park Service’s “Nature and Purpose” statement for the Trail (2015). This statement, along with the ATC policy on the A.T. experience, are the best descriptions of the Trail experience to date. Documentation by the Trail’s administering agency (the National Park Service) helps ensure that anyone’s experience, anywhere on the A.T., can involve the simplicity, self-reliance, reflection, challenge, and natural and cultural elements that form the A.T. experience.
Why is preserving the A.T. experience important today? Why not allow the Trail’s purpose to change over time as society changes? The answer to that question is based on two assumptions. First, with equitable access and opportunity, anyone can enjoy and benefit from the A.T. experience. Second, the A.T. experience provides a feeling of being connected to something larger — a feeling that cannot be replicated in the eastern U.S. These assumptions drive much of our work. Providing equitable access is critical to the long-term viability of the Trail and to a just, free, and healthy society. This work manifests in multiple ways — from outreach to Trailside communities and beyond, to programs and educational workshops for younger and more diverse audiences, to education focusing on the individual and institutional racism which has made the A.T. less safe and less accessible to people of color. This work harkens back to the original intent of the A.T., as envisioned by Benton MacKaye: to be a solution to some of the societal problems we face as a country. In 1921, MacKaye’s concern was that our society was becoming too urbanized and disconnected from the outdoors. Today, these challenges remain but are further complicated by decades (even centuries) of inequity and disproportionate privilege.
This slow experiential erosion is difficult to detect, and even harder to address. Complicating the matter is that a decision might set a negative precedent for the Trail but might also be of significant benefit when considered in a more isolated context, such as the addition of a shelter, or even a picnic table. What guides us through these decisions is not only the language of our founders, pioneers and forerunners, which has been thoughtfully crafted into a rich collection of policies, but also the voice of new people and new partnerships. These policies, developed since the beginning of the Trail, have operationalized the philosophical roots of the A.T. experience into something that volunteers, staff, partners, and agencies can apply to the challenges, threats, and decisions in their day-to-day work of preserving and protecting the A.T. Case in point, the 1995 policy on Managing the Trail for a Primitive Experience directs land managers to ask themselves, when considering the construction of a shelter or bridge: “does this action unnecessarily sacrifice aspects of the Trail that provide solitude or that challenge hikers’ skill or stamina?” Given that direction, managers might opt for a campsite instead of a shelter, or a wet crossing instead of a bridge.
Our society needs access to a broad spectrum of outdoor opportunities, varying in size, scale, location, and activity. Activities on the A.T. exist across that spectrum, but the A.T. experience supports a specific combination of characteristics including scale, connectivity, immersion nature, simplicity, self-reliance, and physical beauty that is available in only a precious few places. Protecting that experience for all to enjoy is the work of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.