Reading reflection: Philip D’Anieri’s The Appalachian Trail: A Biography

What does it take to craft a new book about an old trail? Philip D’Anieri chose to focus on the people who shaped the Appalachian Trail, shining a spotlight on one or two from each era of the trail. His book, The Appalachian Trail: A Biography, consists of a series of biographies that trace the evolution of the Appalachian Trail (AT) from a dream to a reality. The choice to craft a biography-centric view of the AT was both unique and appropriate–each chapter captures the unique skills and approaches of each individual, reflecting the balance between solitude and individualism with importance of community on the AT. As a collection, the book demonstrates how each person’s vision, matched with their unique talents and foibles, helped mold the AT into what it is today. Rather than focusing primarily on the role of technology in understanding trail use on the trail perspective,

Philip D’Anieri is a lecturer in architecture and regional planning at the University of Michigan. He admits that he’s not much of a hiker, and an outsider to the AT community, so it seems like an odd choice for him to focus on a hiking trail that stretches over 2000 miles through the Appalachian mountains. His introductory chapter includes a description of his own section hike of a small portion of the trail, on which he “failed to summit a mountain of utterly mediocre stature”. It became increasingly clear to him that he hadn’t prepared well–he didn’t understand how challenging the climb would be, he started late in the day with the possibility of ending in the dark, and, perhaps most egregiously, he failed to bring any water. He redefined victory, embracing his “up and down” experience to that moment and eschewing the dangers of extending it, as he cut short his hike and returned to his car.

So it might be comforting to know that D’Anieri doesn’t approach his storytelling from the perspective of an expert hiker, but as an expert in urban and regional planning. His teaching and research has explored how urban areas evolve through intentional decisions and uncontrolled events, and he turns that lens to seek to understand the AT. He chooses to focus on select individuals who were instrumental in the evolution of the AT, acknowledging that, in so doing, he walks the line between oversimplifying the evolution of the AT and understating the rich lives of the people who are profiled in an effort to highlight the symbiosis between the evolution of the AT and the lives of the people who were part of the evolution. His exploration includes the original mapping of what would become the AT by Arnold Guyot, the vision for a trail from Benton MacKay contrasted with the reality organized and executed by Myron Avery, the early thru-hiker tales spun by Earl Shaffer and Emma “Grandma” Gatewood, and the telling of the trail by gifted storyteller Bill Bryson. He provides pointers to additional readings about the AT and about many of the featured individuals for the interested reader.

D’Anieri also summarizes the ways that technology has influenced the AT experience. He details three changes that have come about because of technology: (1) “how quickly and easily trail knowledge moves around” including through maps, progress updates, and pre-trip research; (2) social media and the “public performance” aspects of a hike, in which you endeavor to develop and promote a personal brand (which should include the many blogs that emerge each year); and (3) the “blurring of dividing line between civilization and nature” which leads to everything from doing business to contacting Mom becoming an obligation that is difficult to escape–people know you are in contact and expect prompt responses to their queries and entreats!

If you want to read more about the book, check out the official book site, an interview in Discover magazine, or a University of Michigan article. Or, if you haven’t already, go read the book!

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