A Recommendation: The Appalachian Trail Reader

There’s a virtuous interchange between hiking culture and intellectual/book culture. People who spend lots of time outdoors–walking, or just observing–tend to be on the more contemplative end of the spectrum. Those traits also make good writers, and foster the patience and introverted concentration necessary to actually produce a book. For this reason there is a lot of detailed writing in publication about naturalistic exploration, usually written out of attachment to a specific place. The genre is not well-defined, and encourages DIY eccentricity with respect to organization: topics include what to do and where to go, amateur botany and biology, old-school naturalist appreciation, human history, and exquisite reflections on simply being there. Some of the best books are indifferent to genre and quite uncharacterizable, and tend to be written at the end of an author’s life, as an attempt to crystalize decades of on-the-ground life. Publication with a small or specialty press (of which there are fewer and fewer), or even self-publication, often makes these works possible. Michael Frome’s Strangers in High Places: The Story of the Great Smoky Mountains comes to mind. As a result these books are rarely in publication for very long; usually they fall out of print and into obscurity as soon as they appear. I’ve taken to collecting books in this space that I find particularly worthy of preservation, especially if they cover a region that I have long experience with like the Appalachians. The big centralized online booksellers like Amazon and its affiliates are often, for all their problems, the only sources for a few old copies of these books.

I was delighted to discover David Emblidge’s The Appalachian Trail Reader, which was published by a major university press (Oxford, 1996). I don’t know if there was something else about the Appalachian Trail that brought it to prominence in the mid-to-late 1990s, but it’s worth noting that this book came out the year before Bill Bryson’s much better-known memoir about the trail, A Walk in the Woods

As I wrote above about this weird genre, the book is a lot of things, but is in essence an attempt to preserve stories about the area the trail covers. Some of its sources are canonical (e.g., Benton MacKay, Aldo Leopold, Thomas Bartram), but most of its dozens of authors are ordinary unknowns, people reflecting on the trail in more transitory sources (trail bulletins, long-defunct magazines, regional newspapers, etc.). Its topics range from the deep pre-American backstory of Appalachian lands and peoples, to musings from “thru-hikers” who walked, or attempted to walk, the entire 2000+ miles of the AT from the 1960s to the 1990s.

Here’s the TOC:

Tags hiking outdoors nature reflection books culture preservation