Appalachian National Scenic Trail

Tales from the Appalachian Trail

August 2, 2010, 8:16 am

Why do hikers set foot on this 2,179-mile path? A new museum near the midpoint helps tell their stories.

Karen Howser's braids give her the look of a mature Heidi. But instead of the fictional heroine's Swiss Alps, Howser is taking on the Appalachians and their famed 2,179-mile trail as her personal mission.

After starting in Georgia on May 15, Howser reached the trail's halfway point in Pine Grove Furnace State Park, just north of Gettysburg, in 43 days. She gets choked up as she recalls her battle to quit smoking after suffering a heart attack three years ago.

"It was the fight of my life," she says. "I thought - if could do that, then I can do this."

Everyone on the trail has a story.

A few days earlier, Howser, 51, of Sparta, Tenn., met Thomas Graham of Robbinsville, N.J., and Gary Christensen of Jacksonville, Fla., on the trail. Graham was laid off from his job as a heavy-equipment operator in September and saw it as a chance to hike the trail. Christensen took the challenge to celebrate his 50th birthday.

Graham began his hike by climbing the 425 stairs to the top of Amicalola Falls in Georgia, eight miles south of the trail's traditional starting point at Springer Mountain.

"They were tough, but they're behind us now, so they seem easy," he says. "And it's been a blast ever since."

The country's longest marked footpath touches 14 states and runs through eight national forests, plus state and local forests and parks. It takes about 5 million footsteps to walk the entire trail, and hikers can come across more than 2,000 plant and animal species, according to the volunteer-based Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

Designated as a national scenic trail in 1968, it was proposed in 1921 by Benton MacKaye, who was grieving after his wife drowned in New York's East River.

And now the stories of MacKaye, four other trail pioneers, and the trail itself are being told at the Appalachian Trail Museum, which opened June 5 in Pine Grove Furnace State Park.

The museum occupies a 200-year-old grist mill about two miles from the trail's midpoint - 1,069 miles from both Springer Mountain and Mount Katahdin, Maine. Most of the small exhibition space is devoted to Earl Shaffer, widely considered the trail's first thru-hiker - those who cover the full trail in one season - and the first to document it.