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One Day at a Time on the Five-Million-Step Program
Yielding to the urge to just walk away—from overdue bills, a difficult boss, modern life—is the whole idea behind the neurosis-busting Appalachian Trail. And there's no better stretch than the Roan Highlands, where you can encounter broad vistas, phantom livestock, oversize rhododendrons—and, just maybe, your own better self. By Charles Graeber

Photo: the view from North Carolina's Hump Mountain
THE APPALACHIAN CURE: The view from North Carolina's Hump Mountain is enough to drive a man sane.

A trail is not the shortest distance between two points, but it is, perhaps, the best: a road built only for the traffic of boots and thoughts, an essentially human highway. America, once a land of wilderness, is now a land of trails. Most have long since gone the way of progress, becoming boulevards or Broadways or city blocks. But others have defied such improvement. They remain as escape routes, allowing a modern person to literally walk away from modern life—off the road and back into the wilderness. While the backwoods abound with a million regional footpaths, there are, at present, only three national tracks. The Pacific Crest Trail skips from park to park along the West Coast. The Continental Divide Trail follows the Rockies. For our hike, my two companions and I had chosen the oldest and best-loved of these American walking trails, the one that traces the East Coast, north to south, along the Appalachian Mountains.

On the map they're irresistible: a brow of some of the oldest mountains on Earth, raised by North America's fender-benders with foreign tectonic plates. The ridgeline that arches from the upper reaches of Newfoundland to the northeast corner of Alabama is one of our planet's most compelling wrinkles, drawing a hiker's hungry eye as an old scar attracts a tracing finger. The Appalachian Trail shadows these mountains across 2,174 marked and maintained miles (3,499 kilometers) from Maine to Georgia. Between the northern white pines and southern oaks are marshes and meadows and highs and lows of altitude. The lows include New York, where the trail crosses the Hudson River. We started in one of the highs—in the Great Smoky Mountains of northeastern Tennessee, in a parking lot atop Roan High Knob.

The knob is a dome of bald rock and florid rhododendrons crowning Roan Mountain that thrusts into the blue Tennessee sky like a giant granite egg. At 6,285 feet (1,916 meters), this is the fourth highest point east of the Mississippi River. Spread out below, our four-day hiking trip was reduced by distance to a lush scale model. These 37 miles (60 kilometers) of ridgeline and meadows along the Tennessee–North Carolina border—some of the most rugged and beautiful terrain along the whole Appalachian Trail—traverse five bald summits, a jagged ridgeline, and several steaming bottomlands before ending at one of the trail's legendary refuges, the Kincora Hiking Hostel.

My companions (photographer Steven McBride and his assistant, Daniel Taylor) and I had given our untrained legs a generous four days to walk these miles. It was a schedule made not by a careful study of the maps, or a calculated assessment of the needs of a novice hiker on rough terrain, but by the cool calculus of the modern grind: Sometimes, four days is all the time off three working guys can afford.

Ours would be a far cry from the half-year or more often set aside to hike the whole thing, but enough, we hoped, to get a true taste of America's most famous hiking route: a crash course, AT 101.

School started on a dirt track carved between mountainous Catawba rhododendrons and stands of Scotch heather. There's something odd, almost presumptuous, about the notion of stepping directly from an automobile into the wilderness. It appeared to Steve, Daniel, and me that this wouldn't be much more than weekending on a sort of median strip, and that the weight on our shoulders and the new leather on our feet were akin to play gear; by the standards of this epic path, we were enacting a weekend-warrior dress-up. But the trail didn't care, and soon we didn't either. After all, the woods were real, the path through them was uneven and rocky, and, in case our minds doubted it, the weight on our backs and the slope underfoot provided a steady reminder to our quads and knees that our hike was authentic, if abbreviated. Within minutes, what had started on a modern American road had somehow veered off into primitive, off-road Appalachia. Our first lesson, it seems, was in time travel.

Which was, incidentally, exactly the idea behind the trail in the first place. Like many notions, this one started on paper when, in 1921, a 42-year-old regional planner from Shirley Center, Massachusetts, named Benton MacKaye (pronounced mac-EYE) submitted an article to the Journal of the American Institute of Architects, outlining what he saw as the problem of modern living. The problem was modernity itself: The heat and smoke of cities, the constant noise of news and ads and employers, the pressures of work and money or the lack of both. MacKaye looked around the East Coast and saw America transforming itself from a pristine wilderness into an industrial superpower; at the same time, he noticed, it was molding its citizens into a herd of frazzled, overworked neurotics.

In his paper, MacKaye pronounced the cure: regular doses of raw nature. To administer it, MacKaye proposed natural sanitariums where toilers from "bee-hive cities" like New York or Charlotte—or even Shirley Center—could romp and camp and heal. "They need acres not medicine," he wrote. "Thousands of acres . . . should be devoted to them, with whole communities planned and equipped for their cure." What he later dubbed a "barbarian utopia" would be a new, sane American state, in the form of a wilderness park. The only requirement: It would have to be located in the East.

To get the rest of the story and the last word on the thousands of miles, hundreds of summits, and dozens of wacky characters found along the AT, the Pacific Crest, and the Continental Divide—including three mega-maps—pick up the June/July issue of Adventure.

From the print edition, June/July 2004

Grail Trails: The Appalachian, The Pacific Crest, and The Continental Divide
- Four Days on the AT
Off the Face of the Earth: Holocaust survival in the underground labyrinths of western Ukraine
Southbound on the Mekong: The pristine mountain jungle, ancient Khmer ruins, and sacred Buddhist caves of tiny Laos
Health: A World of Hurt: What's ailing the next generation of outdoor athletes

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June/July 2004

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