March 23, 2008
More Than Just a Long Walk in the Woods
Plaque Installed at Last Weeks Trail Dedication
Photo provided by Alabama Hiking Trail Society
The year 1925 was a historic time for hikers and outdoor enthusiasts in this country. An article written by a U.S. Forest Service employee, "An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning," was put into action. Benton MacKaye's vision was for a footpath that would travel the ridgelines of the Appalachian Mountains from Georgia to Maine, with an eventual extension into Alabama where the mighty mountains end.
Last Sunday, that dream was completed. More than 200 volunteers and elected officials gathered on a mountaintop in the Talladega National Forest to dedicate a bronze marker that commemorates the connection of Alabama and its Pinhoti Trail to the world-famous Appalachian Trail.
I was honored to be asked to present awards of recognition to those gathered who made the event possible; it was a humbling experience. As a kid growing up in New Jersey, the Appalachian Trail was just a stone's throw from my house. I was in awe of the many people who had made that world-famous trail possible. And here I was, standing with others who had just accomplished another part of this dream.
As the celebration continued, the media approached me with questions that made me pause: Will veteran hikers scoff at the extension and see it as a route not viable? Will the Pinhoti Trail lose its identity and eventually be sucked into the Appalachian Trail? How can you say the link to the Appalachian Trail is complete when there are road walks in the Georgia section? What can a footpath in the woods do for Alabama? And the one that took me aback — What's the big deal?
Just like any hobby or sport, there are purists. The Appalachian Trail runs from Springer Mountain, Ga., to Mount Katahdin, Maine, and that's that. And honestly, that's what it will always be. No matter how many trails connect to the Appalachian Trail, that 2,000-mile long footpath will always be the Appalachian Trail.
Benton MacKaye's vision was for an "extension" into Alabama. This connection of the Pinhoti Trail to the Appalachian Trail facilitates MacKaye's plan. If through-hikers want to hike the complete length of the Appalachian range, they need to come to Alabama to do it. If they want the traditional Appalachian Trail experience, then they can start at Springer Mountain. The only thing that has changed is the option of where the hiker can start the trip.
I have heard the argument for years about the Pinhoti losing its identity. It usually comes from dedicated and well-meaning volunteers who sweat and toil to maintain the trail for all to enjoy. They believe that once the Pinhoti was connected to the Appalachian Trail, the Pinhoti would disappear forever; it would become the Appalachian Trail; it would lose its name. There could be nothing further from the truth.
Many trails connect to the Appalachian Trail — the Benton MacKaye, the Victoria, the Grafton Loop, to name only a few. These trails were all built for one reason or another; each is special in its own right. Perhaps there were spectacular views or maybe towering waterfalls. Whatever the reason for building those trails, they will always be there. Those trails maintain their name and what makes them special. That will never be taken away.
Road walks are another issue of which I've heard about, not only during the celebration this past weekend but also as I traveled the state promoting hiking and backpacking for the Alabama Hiking Trail Society. Some say that if a trail heads out of the woods and takes to the road for a distance, then it isn't complete and isn't a real trail. Again, these comments are from well-meaning people, but they are slightly misinformed.
The most famous long paths in the country include some road walks. The Appalachian Trail has some road walks. The Florida Trail from Key West to Pensacola has road walks. Unfortunately, with massive urban sprawl this is just a fact of life for long paths. We'd all love to see these trails be a complete walk in the woods, but that can never happen.
Yes, the Georgia section of the Pinhoti has road walks, but does that mean it's not a real trail and not really connected to the Appalachian Trail? If that's the case, then the Appalachian Trail doesn't really exist, either. I don't think the millions of people who have hiked the Appalachian Trail would agree.
There also is the question of what impact the trail and this connection will have on the state and the region. Dr. Doug Phillips, the host of Alabama Public Television's "Discovering Alabama", says that Alabama is the most biologically diverse area in the country. By far, the best way to see the wonders the state has to offer is on foot along one of its many footpaths, including the Pinhoti.
Tourism already is the second-largest industry in the state . This connection, combined with other ecotourism attractions such as the Bartram Canoe Trail in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta and the statewide birding trail, means that Alabama is poised to take advantage of the booming ecotourism industry. In Florida, for example, ecotourism dollars rose from $1.5 billion in 2001 to $3 billion in 2006. By being ecologically responsible, Alabama can enjoy these tourism dollars and still maintain its ecological richness.
All of those questions were easy, but that last one threw me back. What's the big deal? It's a huge deal.
Yes, there will be an economic impact on the state, but it goes way beyond money. The connection provides not only an extension of the Appalachian Trail for long-distance hikers, but also the continuation of an Eastern seaboard greenway where wildlife is free to roam as it did not so long ago. Most important, the connection provides a myriad of opportunities for families to take to the woods for short day hikes and loop trips, where they can explore and create memories that will last a lifetime.
To the many elected officials who put the pieces together to create the Pinhoti Trail and the hundreds of volunteers who have built and maintained the Pinhoti Trail — starting with the Youth Conservation Corps to today's trail clubs — you have truly made history and have given Alabama a remarkable gift. Thank you.
Joe Cuhaj, vice president of publicity for the Alabama Hiking Trail Society, is the author of Hiking Alabama, Paddling Alabama, and Baseball in Mobile.
Hiking in the News | By Jeffrey Hunter | 8:29 AM