In our first episode, we’re checking out our first big thing: the Appalachian Trail! Our expert guest, Mills Kelly, will take us through how big the trail is and why it’s so important.
Mills Kelly is the Director of George Mason’s award-winning Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (RRCHNM). Since 2001, Kelly has been either co-director or principal investigator on three major website projects funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities ($790,000 total funding). Two of these projects, created with his colleague Professor Kelly Schrum, won the James Harvey Robinson Prize in 2007 from the American Historical Association. His current digital public history project centers on the history of the Appalachian Trail, and this project has already generated preliminary funding from the NEH and the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.
MAGGIE: This is a nice trail, isn’t it?
ABBY: It is a really nice trail. Do you want to know my favorite favorite thing about your online schooling for this year?
ABBY: It’s that instead of you sitting in the cafeteria with your friends, I get to hang out with you at lunch, and we get to go for a walk every day.
MAGGIE: Yay. This is our local trail. It’s pretty big.
ABBY: Yeah, it actually is pretty big. We can’t get even close to all of it on our lunch break. But did you know that actually not too far from here is a trail where we could walk for months and months without coming to the end?
ABBY: Yeah. It’s called the Appalachian Trail. And it is our topic for today.
MAGGIE: I’m Maggie,
ABBY: and I’m Abby, and this is
ABBY and MAGGIE: BIG IF TRUE.
MAGGIE: On Big if True, we investigate the truth about big things. Like the Appalachian Trail.
ABBY: The Appalachian Trail runs from Georgia to Maine and is the oldest long-distance hiking trail in the United States.
Test your knowledge!
MAGGIE: So to start us off, here’s our quiz question to test your knowledge about this BIG TRAIL.
Abby: How long is the Appalachian Trail, in miles:
Maggie: A: 1,997. B: 2,192 . C: 2,531. D: 1,456.
ABBY: We’ll tell you the answer at the end of the show.
ABBY: Today we have an expert on hand to tell us about the Appalachian Trail, or the AT for short.
KELLY: My name is Mills Kelly and I am a professor of history at George Mason University. I started hiking on the Appalachian Trail in 1971. I was a kid I was a boy scout and the the leaders of my boy scout troop took us hiking on this trail in Shenandoah National Park. They didn’t tell us that it was a trail that went from Georgia to Maine. They just told us it was a fun trail to hike on. And when I was 15, a man came and spoke to our boy scout troop and told us that he had hiked the entire trail the year before. And he so he had hiked from Georgia to Maine over 2000 miles and I couldn’t believe it. And it just seemed crazy that anybody would walk that far, but also that the trail that I was on, was that long, or the trail that I hiked on was that long. And so over the years, I got really interested in it, and I’m a historian and so I started thinking about the history of the Appalachian Trail. And about five years ago, I started researching it really seriously. And so I’ve spent the last five years going to archives and libraries and talking to people and so I’ve just learned a lot that way.
MAGGIE: What’s so special about the Appalachian Trail?
KELLY: The Appalachian Trail is really special because it is not only the oldest long distance hiking trail in the United States, but it is also the most used. There are some longer ones but almost nobody hikes on those but millions of people hike on the Appalachian Trail every year.
MAGGIE: Where does the AT start and end?
KELLY: The Appalachian Trail starts in Georgia at Springer Mountain, which is about 100 miles or so north of Atlanta, and it goes all the way to Mount Katahdin in Maine, and which is in Central Maine, and Mount Katahdin is the highest point in the state of Maine. And so it either starts in Georgia or goes to Maine or it starts in Maine and goes to Georgia, it all depends on which direction you’re walking in.
ABBY: Now, most people only hike small sections of the trail at one time. But there’s a special term for doing the whole trail at once—or at least in a relatively short amount of time.
KELLY: A thru hike is a hike of the entire trail in one 12-month period of time.
MAGGIE: Mills told us that thru-hikers usually start in Georgia and go north—and he said there are some pretty good reasons to do it that way.
KELLY: if they’re going to hike the whole trail in one year, which thousands of people try to do every year. The weather’s a lot better in Georgia in the spring. Maine it’s still snowing up on top of Mount Katahdin in the spring. The other reason that they hike from south to north is in New England like Maine and New Hampshire and Vermont in the summer, we’re in the spring there. blackflies and blackflies are the worst insects in America.
They, if you’ve ever had a mosquito bite, imagine one mosquito bite times 10. And that’s a black fly bite. So the black flies are all dead by the middle of July. And so at that point, it’s much more fun to hike.
ABBY: Ugh. Flies. I hate flies. I could tell you stories about flies in our house when I was a kid. But I bet there are a lot of other things that are hard about the trail.
MAGGIE: What’s the toughest part of the trail?
KELLY: I think for a lot of people the toughest part of the trail is the first hundred miles because they’re not in shape for that kind of hiking and they’re carrying too much gear. Most hikers though will say that the hardest part is in Maine, and a place called McKusick Notch. And where you have to climb up a cliff face holding on to pieces of iron set in the rock. So it’s not that far. You don’t have to climb that far, but it’s pretty hard.
ABBY: Once hikers have gone about halfway, they come to a place where the trail’s history is recorded and presented: the Appalachian Trail Museum.
MAGGIE: What do hikers do to mark the halfway point?
KELLY: They have a really disgusting thing that they do. They get to Pine Grove Furnace State Park in Pennsylvania, which is also where the Appalachian Trail Museum is. And there’s a store at the State Park. And in that store, they sell food and things and in particular, they sell ice cream. And so there’s something called the half gallon challenge and makers, many of them not all but many of them will sit down and try to eat an entire half gallon of ice cream all at once. Which doesn’t sound that hard because you know you like ice cream and you could eat a big bowl of ice cream but a half gallon is a lot.
KELLY: I think probably all of them feel sick, and some of them get sick. I was there two summers ago and I was sitting at a table outside that little store and I watched two hikers sit down and eat They’re half gallon of ice cream, do their half gallon challenge. And one of them looked pretty bad. And she got up and went around behind the store. And you could hear some noises from buying the store. And then she came back and she said, Oh, I feel so much better. So she clearly gone and barked up all that ice cream.
ABBY: That sounds like a waste of good ice cream.
MAGGIE: Mills also told us about some other kinds of food that hikers travel with, both now and in the past. And some of them maybe don’t taste so nice.
KELLY: These days, people eat lots of freeze dried foods or to make them really light so they’re easy to carry. Or they they also eat a lot of oatmeal. They eat a lot of granola bars, they eat a lot of ramen soup, they they eat a lot of smoked sausage that you can buy in the grocery store, summer sausage, things like that, or, you know, dried mashed potatoes. And so that’s really common for people to eat today. In the 1930s, when the trail was first getting started, that wasn’t so easy to get, that kind of dried food, and so they, for instance, would carry in their backpack, like a big slab of bacon, would then slice pieces off of and fry in a pan, which meant they had to carry a frying pan, which was heavy. And my favorite was something, which you can’t buy anymore, called herbswurst. And it was a split pea and pork sausage that was made by a German company. And it was the key ingredient in dynamite soup. And what’s really cool about this is why it’s called dynamite soup. Not because the flavor was dynamite. But because after you ate it, your digestive tract had some explosive characteristics. And if you were sharing a tent with someone, they weren’t very happy about that. If you know what I mean.
ABBY: Hiking on the AT sounds really adventurous and exciting, don’t you think?
ABBY: But is it really? According to Mills, some days it’s not so much.
KELLY: Hikers who hike it like to call it the green tunnel. And that’s because from one day to the next, as they hike, whether they’re hiking north or south, they feel like they’re walking through a tunnel of green. And it looks pretty much the same every day. And in fact, many hikers report that the hardest part about hiking the trail is that they get really bored. That after doing the same thing every day for months at a time they start getting really bored. And they think why am I doing this? This is stupid. This is ridiculous. I’ve already hiked 1200 miles, I don’t need to hike 2192 miles, and it always looks the same.
MAGGIE: Did you catch that?? It’s the answer to our quiz question—how long is the Appalachian Trail? It’s…
ABBY and MAGGIE: Two thousand one hundred ninety-two miles long.
ABBY: Now, only a small number of the people who hike on the AT try a thru-hike. Millions of people every year hike on small parts of the AT—like us. We’ve been on the AT this year. Do you remember?
MAGGIE: Yeah, that was fun.
KELLY: Having hiked two miles makes you very typical. That’s what most people do, they go out and they hike a couple of miles on the trail and then they get in their car and they go home. And, and so that’s a couple of million people and a few thousand people try a thru-hike. So while thru-hiking is really kind of cool and challenging, and something that gets a lot of attention. Really the Appalachian Trail is a recreational resource for millions of people who just want to spend a little time in the woods.
MAGGIE: Have you ever hiked on any part of the AT? Tell us on our website about your experiences with hiking on the Appalachian Trail, and if you’re on the East Coast of the United States, maybe even go out and explore a little bit of it. Our web address is bigiftrue.abbymullen.org.
ABBY: And whether you get outside to hike or not, we hope you’ve learned a little bit more about one of the big things in our world, the Appalachian Trail. See you next time when we find out more about things that are
MAGGIE and ABBY: BIG IF TRUE.
Big If True is produced by Abby Mullen. Special thanks to our guest today, Dr. Mills Kelly. We’ve put a lot of links in our show notes to other info about the Appalachian Trail. We hope you go check it out and report back on the cool things you’ve learned. You can do that on our website, or you can do it on our Instagram account. However you do it, we’d really love to hear from you. And would you just take a few seconds and go leave us a review on your favorite podcast app? That would help us out so much. Thanks again for listening.
More ideas for you to explore
- The Appalachian Trail Conservancy
- The Appalachian Trail Museum
- Read thru-hikers’ journals from their hikes
Cover photo by Ben Townsend from Flickr.