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Review: What we ask from nature — a new biography of the Appalachian Trail tells us

Appalachian Trail

THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL: A Biography. By Philip D’Anieri. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 272 pages. $22.95.

Those who have hiked a portion of the Appalachian Trail, or any mountain path of the eastern U.S., can attest that the experience is more immersive than scenic. With notable exceptions, it is a rather monotonous up-and-down trek in the woods with comparatively few clearings that afford sweeping vistas.

Though botanically incomparable, at this stage of their ancient lives the Appalachians lack the sheer drama of the Rockies, the Alps, the Andes, much less the Himalayas — callow chains all.

That doesn’t stop an estimated 3 million people from traversing a stretch of the trail every year — enjoying the solitude, taking the measure of their physical limitations, getting out of themselves and into nature. Though only a few hike the entire 2,100-mile route between Georgia’s Springer Mountain and Mount Katahdin in Maine, even a few miles along the trail are restorative.

But what of the AT’s human story?

In the aptly titled “The Appalachian Trail: A Biography,” confirmed day hiker Philip D’Anieri presents fascinating accounts of the 11 men and one woman who have been instrumental in conceiving, building, popularizing and sustaining this storied hiking destination, widely considered America’s favorite (for good or ill).

D’Anieri is a lecturer in architecture and regional planning at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, and a former journalist and legislative policy analyst.

After he provides a brief geological history of the 480 million-year-old Appalachian chain, the author’s journalistic background takes center stage in chronicling the continuing evolution of the AT’s identity and conveying how dedicated, obsessive, prescient and eccentric were the people who worked so tirelessly to realize their vision — sometime at odds — of what it should be.

“The Appalachian Mountains are, in a sense, less than two hundred years old,” D’Anieri writes. “Geologically, of course, their age is measured in millennia. But as a place that registers in the American consciousness as a singular feature, with one name encompassing its full extent, the Appalachians are largely a product of the nineteenth century.”

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In each chapter, D’Anieri attempts to capture an important piece of the trail’s history by profiling an individual. More than any other person, he says, it was immigrant Swiss scientist Arnold Guyot who put the Appalachians on the map. Literally.

“The key to his accomplishment was a new worldview, just emerging in the rarefied air of Europe’s intellectual elites, that imagined the whole of Creation as a vast, interwoven tapestry. With this new perspective, and the ambition of a tireless Guyot, a scattered collection of unexplored mountain wastelands coalesced into the defining natural feature of the eastern half of the United States.”

No less intriguing are such seminal figures as Horace Kephart; Myron Avery; through-hikers Earl Shaffer and Emma Gatewood; and Benton MacKaye, who conceived of and founded the Appalachian Trail in 1921 and whose “piercing view of interconnectedness ... helped launch not only the AT, but the regional planning movement, the Wilderness Society, and the environmental activism of the 1960s and ’70s.”

Inevitably, there is a chapter on the impact on the AT of popular author Bill Bryson, whose delightful (if occasionally implausible) “A Walk in the Woods” brought awareness of the trail to a vastly wider audience.

D’Anieri also asks some pertinent questions: Just how “natural” is the AT, really? Whom is the trail for? What patterns emerge? Does its human history truly matter?

One may wonder at the injection of race and class issues into the narrative, though they serve a purpose in any comprehensive historical treatment. Yet the author hardly needed to apologize that his subjects were largely middle-class white males, as this focus was inescapable.

For those enamored of deep excursions into nature, D’Anieri points out that even a full-length journey of the trail is not a total separation from the modern world, but rather an “instance of something more universal in our retreats into nature: a productive tension between shelter and escape, freedom and abandonment.”

And any place that aspires to offer such a retreat will reveal this tension.

“The places we choose, and the way we then develop and manage them, tell us a lot about what we are asking from nature, what exactly we think we are traveling toward and escaping from, where we want to strike the balance between maddening civilization on the one hand, and heartless nature on the other. Telling the story of the Appalachian Trail, then, means telling a story of people.”

In the process, D’Anieri reminds us that among the most thrilling of all human stories is that of science, and the exceptional, sometimes extraordinary people who perform it.

Reviewer Bill Thompson is the author of “Why Travel?”

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