“It’s a dangerous business,” said Bilbo about going out one’s door! “You step into the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
And so it was with six intrepid young men who set their feet upon the historic Appalachian Trail this summer, walking 75 New Hampshire miles from Dartmouth College, Hanover to Franconia Notch. While only a rough 3.4% of the entire trail which traverses 14 states, their route did encompass 46% of the New Hampshire portion and carried them over some pretty formidable peaks. But I would fall short of ever calling it a dangerous business in any modern understanding, and move my thinking a bit closer to what Tolkien himself resonated to, which was the hero’s mythic adventure, as perceived throughout time, in being a true rite-of-passage experience for youth. Hazardous without a doubt for the gift (freedom) to undergo inner transformation is only won through awareness and careful attention to where one places their next footstep in the journey, inner as well as outwardly.
What signs were there for me to observe, indicating some transformative experience was happening for these adventurous youth? I would say, the growing determination, as the days rolled by, to persist for the attainment of a goal! Not only physical endurance but mental courage as well were being called out repeatedly over the duration of our week-long pedestrian journey. Which is, remarkably, the story of the Appalachian Trail itself.
Conceived by Benton MacKaye during one of his New England “expeditions” to the lofty peaks of Vermont in 1900 after his graduation from Harvard College; the formal idea for a continuous trail spanning the Appalachian mountain chain, was presented 21 years later (1921) in an article titled “An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning” in the Journal of the American Institute of Architects, and finally physically realized (with further modifications) in 1937. It was an outcome accomplished by a dreamer and a doer; Benton MacKaye being the dreamer who conceived an original idea, while the doer and actually doing, was achieved by a younger man from Maine called Myron Avery. It was this combination of dreaming and doing that willed the Appalachian Trail into reality and was in itself a story of a cultural right-of-passage for a youthful America.
This 36-year history parallels an exciting time when America itself was transitioning, and transforming, from a rural cultural identity into a global industrial one. It was a time when we witnessed the emergence of the Scouting movement, led in America by E.T. Seaton and Dan Beard, as well as the growth and development of American Schools of Forestry, and the National Park System. The philosophical divides over land use management as witnessed between Gifford Pinchot and John Muir, regarding concepts of “wise use” and “wilderness preservation,” were born at this time, and still echo their calls today. It was a right-of-passage within the heart and soul of American culture coming into full-blown awareness of the consequential rifts born out, inwardly as well as outwardly, by an emerging industrial paradigm, and perhaps growing deeper today as we awaken to the post-modern virtual one. Maybe we have been swept off our feet?
It was the dreamer and the doer within these young lads that I observed playing out upon the trail’s stage during this week together. The part of them that had dreamed of the adventure for some time, and were now calling upon the doer to get them through! The Appalachian Trail emerged in a time when America struggled to maintain it’s deeper ecological ties to the Earth and the wellspring from which life draws its mythical blueprint of value and meaning within the unfolding drama of evolution. As a rite-of-passage experience, it served a culture collectively, and it still calls those today who look for, and set out upon, a walk of discovery.