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Great Hikes And The Surprises Along The Paths


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm John Donvan.

This week marks the 75th anniversary of the completion of the Appalachian Trail, a 2,000-mile path winding through 14 states from Georgia to Maine, a trail that continues to capture the imagination of millions of hikers every year. And each year, about 2,000 try to complete the entire route. People hit the trails for a lot or reasons: to escape the stress of everyday life, to reconnect with nature, sometimes just to think over an important life decision. For many, going out and taking that walk can really be a transformative experience. We want you to tell us what did you find on the trail, hiking anywhere? It doesn't have to be the Appalachian Trail. What did you find out there hiking that you didn't expect?

Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. Hikers, what did you find in the trail that you didn't expect? Well, Peter Potterfield has hiked all across the globe. He has written more than a dozen books about outdoor adventure, the most recent of which is called "Classic Hikes of North America." And Peter Potterfield joins us now from member station KUOW in Seattle. Welcome, Peter, to the program.

PETER POTTERFIELD: Hello, John. I'm happy to be here.

DONVAN: So what is it about the Appalachian Trail that makes it such a draw?

POTTERFIELD: It's the iconic trail in America, I think, hands down. You've got to acknowledge that people who don't know anything about hiking know about the Appalachian Trail. And ironically for me, it was the place where I first started hiking some 40 years ago.

DONVAN: How did that come about?

POTTERFIELD: Well, I went to school in Virginia and so the Appalachian Trail was close by. It certainly is the signature route in the East. And the more I stayed in that area, the more hiking I did on the Appalachian Trail. But for me, it merely whetted my appetite for more, and I soon headed for the Rockies and the Sierra and for points beyond. But the Appalachian Trail is quite an adventure even if you're not one of the 2,000 thru-hikers, as they say, that you mentioned earlier.

DONVAN: I want to settle something. You say Appalachian and I say Appalachian, but the truth is I said Appalachian until this morning just like you did, and I was corrected by someone in our office. So does the world - is this tomato and tomato on pronouncing the name of this trail?

POTTERFIELD: John, I can only hope I haven't committed some egregious error here that will impeach my credentials from here on out.


POTTERFIELD: To me, that's the way we said it. When I went to school in Virginia right in the middle of the Appalachian Mountains, it was the way I said it. Maybe it is tomato or tomato.

DONVAN: When we talk about the trail being completed 75 years ago, what does that actually mean? What does it mean to make a trail?

POTTERFIELD: Well, you know, the Appalachian Trail, the AT - let's call it that. That's what everybody else does - is actually a conglomeration of existing trails. In fact, some of the trails up in my favorite section of the AT, the White Mountains of New Hampshire, are some of the oldest continuously maintained footpaths in the United States. And so what it means when McKay's idea of this trail was completed in 1936, I believe, or '37, it - all the connections had been made, and for the first time, you could walk from Springer Mountain, Georgia up to the 100-mile wilderness in Maine.

DONVAN: You know, hiking is one of those things where people either love it or they don't get it at all. It looks like it's glory or it's just a strenuous walk. We're asking our listeners to share with us, you know, why hiking has mattered to them and what did they discover out there, so I'm going to put that question to you. What do you find out there, you know, on the trail that really gets to you?

POTTERFIELD: John, I found a life. After a couple of years of hiking on the Appalachian Trail, I finally made it out to a place called Crestone in the Colorado Rockies. And high up on a hike, after a strenuous 4,000-foot elevation gain, I saw the most magnificent sunset of my life. It turned the western slope of the Sangre de Cristos a brilliant orange like I've never seen before. And I could only see that sight from where I was standing, which means you had to do the work to get the view. And it was an epiphany for me. I thought that, wow, if I can see this now, I'm going to see as much of this as I can.

And from that point on, I hit the trail. And my reward has been a life of interesting travel. It's been the privilege to see some of the most beautiful sights in the world. And it's given me a fresh perspective on life. When we all stay in town and we work everyday and we do what we have to do to live, Taking a walk, taking a five-day backpacking trip can change your perspective. And not only that, John, but it can also restore your health and it can keep you healthy all your life. There just simply isn't any better exercise for your heart than walking uphill with a pack. So for me, it was a life-changing experience and one that I'm looking forward to another 20 or 30 years of doing.

DONVAN: Let's bring in Michael from Columbia, South Carolina. Hi, Michael, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

MICHAEL: Hey, John. I love the topic. I appreciate you having me on.


MICHAEL: I love long-distance backpacking and I go in the winter a lot. The temperatures down in the teens and it's cold, and I get back to the primitive me and I just love it. And I feel closer to God when I do that.

DONVAN: So is it - Michael, is it the primitive you that your finding out there? Is that what draws you out?

MICHAEL: Absolutely. And just like your guest just said, it's a time to get away from all the cares of the world. I don't go - I'm quoting someone here that - but I don't go to the woods to rough it. I go to the woods and snooze it. I get it rough in the city.

DONVAN: Oh, interesting way to put it. How does that strike you, Peter? Do you - does that resonate with you, what Michael is talking about?

POTTERFIELD: It absolutely does. Michael has mentioned what backpacking is all about. And we've got to make a distinction here, John, between hiking and going on a multiple-day trip or doing what Michael does, which is doing the long-distance trail. What it does is it makes your life come down to eating, sleeping and hiking, and you just can't get much more simple than that. And that restores the spirit, in my humble opinion.

DONVAN: It's work, though - or is that the word for it? It is work? Michael...

POTTERFIELD: (Unintelligible)

DONVAN: Let me ask you, Michael. Is it - do you consider it work?

MICHAEL: I don't consider it work. I consider it life. Its life at it's most basic. How do I make my water fit to drink? How do I prepare my food? How do I care for my basic - my most basic human needs as a human being? It's not work, its life.

DONVAN: All right. And what about you, Peter, is it - is work the word that applies?

POTTERFIELD: No, I don't think so. I concur with Michael. I think that it does require some physical effort, but that's not the same as work. It - it'll keep you healthy. It'll make you healthy, and it feels good when you do it. Put on a pack and walk up that mountain. It's a great experience.

DONVAN: Michael, thanks for your call. Let's go to Janet in Logan, Ohio. Hi, Janet. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

JANET: Hi. When my husband and I decided to hike the Appalachian Trail, we set out a six-day trip and we got in way over our heads. We were over-packed. We couldn't walk as far every day as we thought, and we really wanted to go home and we couldn't. We had to stick it out. And so we learned that we could go far beyond what we ever thought, emotionally, we could survive. And we had survived a lot up to that point.

DONVAN: So it's a good memory?

JANET: It's a wonderful memory. And a hiker who passed us was, sort of, I don't know, poking fun at us, and he left a message because it was a very rocky part of the trail. And on one of the notebook he wrote, I eat rocks for breakfast.


JANET: And so that has become our battle cry. Whenever we think we can't face whatever it is, well, we know that we, too, eat rocks for breakfast.

DONVAN: Janet, did you go on to continue hiking? I don't mean on that trip, but did you become a full-time hiker?

JANET: Well, I was a full-time hiker before then. And the other thing I found out when I was on the trail, I was over 30 years old and I was pregnant. And so I've only done short hikes since then, but I still do a lot of hiking, day trips.

DONVAN: Janet, thanks very much for your call. I want to take your experience joyfully to Peter Potterfield. What about people who do kind of get in over their heads? And did you ever do it? Did you ever get - did you ever overestimate your ability to complete or take on a hike?

POTTERFIELD: No, I don't think I did because I sort of work up to it gradually. But it's interesting hearing Janet's story because it's the learning curve that all of us who venture into the wild take on. We all start out going too heavy. And the more you do it, the less heavy one goes. And for me, I built up my skills sets slowly and gradually in the East, actually. And then by time I ventured to the Sierra, the Rockies, the Himalaya, I was well-prepared.

DONVAN: Let's go to Ken in Kansas City, Missouri. Hi, Ken. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

KEN: Hey. I just - I was a survival hiker earlier in my life, and that got me...

DONVAN: Tell me - tell us - just tell us in a sentence what that is, Ken, for people who don't know.

KEN: Well, that's not - well, that was less than my point. It's you walk out the door or you hit the trail with a knife and a string and the clothes on your back...


KEN: ...and you come back two weeks later. But through that, you have to find local fruits and local indigenous fruits. And one of the neatest things I ever did to my life was pointing out to my kids, finding papaws on the trail because papaws have never been domesticated. The only way you can find them is if you go hiking deep in the woods. And the only people that ever get them are people like us, people like - that are hikers, and showing my kids papaws was just absolutely one of the most funnest things I've ever done in my life.

DONVAN: What is a papaw?

KEN: It's a fruit indigenous to America. It grows generally deep in the forest. It's never ever been domesticated. It's kind of oval shaped. Right now, they're big and they're green. They'll come on - in Kansas City, they'll come on in September, and they have kind of a yogurt-y banana-y taste. I mean, there's no - that's what they're close to, but they're their own unique taste. You cannot find them in grocery stores.

DONVAN: I'm sorry. I'm from the Bronx, and you cannot find them in the Bronx. So probably half the audience is laughing because everybody knows what a papaw is except for myself.


DONVAN: But I wanted to ask for the other half. Ken, thanks very much for your call. We really appreciate it.

Let's go to Jack in Columbia, South Carolina. Hi, Jack. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

JACK: Thanks for taking my call.


JACK: I've never backpacked on a trail, but I did a lot of plant collecting up in the Shenandoah National Park. And it was peaceful getting there and hiking, but it was also exciting on a number of occasions. I - one time, I flushed a quail or a pheasant or something that scared me to death. Another time, I came about nose to nose with a deer, and the deer really didn't move, and that was pretty cool. I came on a loaded bear trap - a barrel trap, and I was about a quarter mile down a fire road and backed very carefully back up the road and didn't frequent that part of the park again. But, you know, it's peaceful, but exciting.

DONVAN: Yes. Sounds like these are good memories. Sounds - it sounds, Peter, a little bit like those things for Jack are what the sunset was for you, is that the unexpected and the thing you're never going to see, unless you actually go to the spot, as you put it before.

POTTERFIELD: Yeah. So I would concur, John, there are just so many surprises that one's going to encounter in any wilderness excursion, and a lot of them present a problem. A lot of them present something you're not going to forget for the rest of your life. It's always a rich trove that you find out there.

DONVAN: We have an email from Katherine in Charlotte, North Carolina, and she writes this: I went through some horrible things as an adolescent spanning through my college years. It wasn't until I began hiking that I really felt like I could put tangible goals in front of me. A peak on the trail felt as glorious as when I finally landed my first real job. None of the changes in my life would've been possible without these goals and accomplishments. The hike, like life, is often not easy, but very much so worthwhile.

That rings, exactly, the bell, Peter, that you've been talking about, I think.

POTTERFIELD: Yes. It's exactly right. I think that all people who hike have that feeling that the effort you put into it is paid back a hundredfold, and it makes your life a more rich experience.

DONVAN: So you have the book coming out, "Classic Hikes of North America." So how do people use a book about hikes? If we flip it open, are we seeing maps and tips or photographs? How do you use a hiking book?

POTTERFIELD: In my books, John, I try to give everybody everything. I try to inspire them with beautiful images, with stories of my own hikes on those trails. I try to make it easy for them to go. My whole deal is to get people off the couch and into the wilderness, so I tell them where to go, how to go, where to start from, if you've got to fly. And I encourage people to do these hikes because I think that giving yourself the tantalizing appeal of an extraordinary hike is going to make it more fun to go hiking.

So I try to encourage people, go to the Grand Canyon. Take that cheap flight to Las Vegas, drive to the trailhead an experience you'll never forget. The other side of that is if you can't do that, if you can't get out to one of these extraordinary hikes, do a hike in your local park. Just get out, and if possible, get out overnight, cycle through a sunrise and a sunset, remind yourself what the night sky looks like. A lot of people have forgotten.

DONVAN: We have another email from John, who writes: For hiking, you said, Peter, that it was simple: eat and hike. But he writes: The difficult part is that you have to observe constantly, which is something that you don't have to do in town, where, he says, the police will watch out for things for you and your neighbors too.

Does he have a point there? Is there a watchfulness that's necessary and an alertness when you're hiking?

POTTERFIELD: Yes. I think he's right. You have to be aware of your surroundings. You have to pay attention. But there are different kinds of hikes. There are tranquil forest strolls, where you can just kind of crank along in a Zen state of mind and enjoy the woods. There are trying sections of trail, long, steep uphill switchback where you've got to watch where you put your foot on every step. And you've got to be aware of your surroundings. Is there a bear behind that rock? Is that slope going to slide? What other threats do I face, because I'm out here a long way from help. So he's right. You've got to pay attention, but not to the extent that it deprives you of the tranquility that a lot of us seek out there in the wilderness.

DONVAN: And I want to share with you finally, Peter, one last email from Tony in Silicon Valley, California. He says: My biggest surprise backpacking was a 12-mile hike into a wilderness. I was greeted by a series of natural hot springs and naked bodies. No, he says, I won't tell you where it is.


DONVAN: We're going to have to look for that in your next book. Peter Potterfield, thanks very much for joining us. You are the author of "Classic Hikes of North America" and the editor of greatoudoors.com. Peter joined us from member station KUOW in Seattle. Peter Potterfield, thanks very much for joining us.

POTTERFIELD: Thank you, John.

DONVAN: And tomorrow, a story of moving far from home and eventually becoming American. We will talk with the author of "American Gypsy." This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm John Donvan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.