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I’m a little bit angry at Virginia. I feel cheated. Lied to. Ripped off. From day one in Georgia, hikers have been talking about this state with great anticipation. Discouraged by the abuse your body is taking on countless steep climbs everyday? Don’t worry, in Virginia the trail is just a long flat ridgeline. Worried about making it to Maine when you only did seven miles today? Don’t worry, once you get to Virginia, you’ll be cranking out 20 mile days easy.  Enduring some mountain misery now will pay off in Virginia, they told us, where the trail gets easy and thru-hikers hit their stride.

Like an Okie heading to California, the northbound thru-hiker starts to form a picture of this better place he knows only by hearsay. For my part, I envisioned a wide, well-worn trail free of rocks and roots. It passes through a lush green forest along the top of a level ridgeline, gently curving to allow views of more beckoning pathway to unfold. Its rises and falls are calm, like the chest of a slumbering giant. At the tops of its barely perceptible peaks, gaps in the foliage frame sweeping vistas across the rolling pastures of the valley below. Flowers in full bloom add splashes of color.  Bluebirds sing from the trees and deer scamper across the trail. It’s mostly sunny, about 71, light breeze. I knock out five miles before even fully waking up and 15 before lunch without breaking a sweat.

Imagine my disappointment then when I crossed the Virginia state line to find, you guessed it, still more mountains to climb. The state’s tallest was on the second day. Virginia’s AT is known for is its length; at about 550 miles, it is over a quarter of the entire trail. So the effortless ridgeline hikes I’d been promised must be a little farther up, I reasoned. Well, I’m now well over halfway through this state, and I can tell you that I made plenty of panting climbs more days than not. When the trail has been on long ridgelines, they’re usually covered with boot-swallowing boulders. In one stretch the trail crossed rock slabs pitched like barn roofs. Then, just when you’ve hit your stride up on a decent ridge, the trail dives down the side of a mountain, crosses some pastureland, a creek, a road, and more pastures, then climbs straight up another mountain to a new, parallel ridgeline.

Virginia may not be the cakewalk we were promised, but in truth the trail is easier here than farther south. To understand the challenge of the AT in Georgia and North Carolina, you have to understand the frustration of its routing. Many of the trails I’ve hiked in the Pacific Northwest, on the other hand, show exemplary routing over their mountains. From the trailhead, they follow a creek or small river upstream. As the trail gets higher, it follows smaller and smaller tributaries until it passes the water’s source. This may not be level terrain, but it is the most gradual ascent possible. From there, it aims for the lowest point in the ridgeline, the pass. Once it crosses over the ridge at the pass, it quickly finds a stream to follow downhill, just like the ascent but in reverse. Notice the smart line the trail follows, the path of least resistance across the obstacle of the mountains. The trail might not be easy, but like a high jumper clearing the bar, it wastes no effort.

Compare this to the playful alpine acrobatics of the southern Appalachian Trail. The trail climbs up to nothing in particular only to dive right back down. It weaves in and out of hollows and valleys with no apparent sense of purpose. What’s called a pass in the West, the easiest place to cross a range and the highest point on a trail, is here called a gap and is invariably a low point as the trail dances over and around and through the mountains. These heights may not be as formidable as those of the Cascades, but a steep climb hurts at any altitude. It hurts even more when you were just at the same elevation two miles ago.

Figuring out why the Appalachian Trail takes the course it does is no simple proposition. Virtually all of the area it covers had been populated, farmed, or logged before the trail was built. The trail might follow existing footpaths, or old logging roads, or creeks. Its wandering is sometimes because it was easier to connect existing routes than to build a more direct one from scratch. Through Tennessee it often zigzagged around private property. Often it’s  routed through the land least suitable for growing crops or grazing livestock–the ridgeline. Since the Appalachian range generally consists of long mountains running southwest-northeast, walking this line keeps us moving in the right direction. The ridges are not flat though, and spending a day walking up and down its every viewless summit is exhausting.

The exaggeration that the trail through Virginia is easy turns out to be just a convenience of description. State lines mean very little in the wilderness; they’re often not even marked. Still, thru-hikers think of the trail in terms of the reputations the states’ sections have developed. Virginina is easy, Pennsylvania is rocky, New Jersey has bears, New Hampshire is cold, Maine has river fords. There is surely some truth to all of these, but for the thru-hiker the experience is not so easily separated. The trail is one continuous path, 2,176 mile after miles of ups and downs, rocks and streams, views and valleys, fields and forests, from one white blaze to the next.

The white blazes are the dots that the AT connects. These two by six inch vertical white rectangles on trees and rocks are what make a route the Appalachian Trail and not just some other footpath. The purist thru-hiker attempts to cover every inch of the trail and pass every white blaze. Side trails, usually leading to a shelter or water or viewpoint, are marked with blue blazes. “Blue-blazing” is a term referring to the practice of taking blue-blazed parallel side trails to cut out large portions of the true AT. The purist white-blazer frowns upon the blue-blazers. Also discouraged are “yellow-blazing” (driving a highway to skip sections of the trail) and “aqua-blazing” (canoeing the Shenandoah River instead of hiking the trail in northern Virginina). “Pink-blazing” (when a gentleman hiker hikes unusually fast or slow in pursuit of a lady hiker) is considered within the boundaries of a purist thru-hike.

More than one thru-hiker has made it his mission to count each and every white blaze along the trail, tens of thousands of them. Even if they remember to click their counter for each and every one, the grand total will be inaccurate by the time they’re done. The AT is constantly changing. Sections are rerouted for any number of reasons. New trail circumvents old trail that has been overused or eroded. New trail eliminates white-blazed highway, roadwalks that used to plague hikers much more frequently. Most frequently, new trail routed gradually up a mountain replaces a steeper grade. I have it on good authority that trail builders don’t do this to spare hikers’ legs. They do it because water washes steep trails away more quickly than gently sloped trails. Most hikers think trail builders are sadists.

I recently spent two days with the Tennessee Eastman Hiking and Canoeing Club, the maintainers of over 130 miles of the AT through North Carolina and Tennessee, on a trail building project. Our goal was to reroute a climb I had tackled a few weeks before. The old trail went straight up the steep spine of a mountain. The new trail was to be zigzagged in switchbacks up its side. My fellow volunteers and I just needed to dig that new trail out of the mountain.

What I learned in my two days as a trail builder is that these paths don’t spring up spontaneously from the forest floor. They take a lot of manpower and a lot of sweat. About two feet of the mountain’s slope must be leveled so that from side to side the trail is close to flat. This is done with hand tools by digging into the mountainside one bit at a time. Digging reveals roots to be cut and rocks to be moved. Small trees are sawed down, their roots dug out to prevent tripping. The work involving rocks is done by a dedicated rock crew. Small retention walls are built with rocks. Water routes are channeled with rocks. Steps are created with rocks. The rock crew counts among its ranks the most powerful lifters, the smartest trail engineers, the best of the best. In building a small stone staircase, they might spend half an hour digging out a boulder, moving it to the location, placing it in the right direction, and cradling it with smaller rocks dirt.  Moving earth is an act of dominance against the terrain. Moving rock is an exercise in humility.

The final path must be resistant to erosion, somewhat smooth, and at a somewhat consistent grade. “Is this a trail that you would want to walk on?” was the question to determine if a section was finished. In one day we finished 2,250 feet of new trail. That took about 600 volunteer hours, less than four feet of trail per hour. Late in the afternoon, a man walks the nearly-completed trail,  scrapes a patch of bark off a tree, and asks who wants to paint the white blaze. Everyone wants to paint a white blaze. They carefully make the outline, then carefully fill it in, then stand proudly next to their blaze for a photo. After months of following other people’s blazes, now everyone else will follow theirs. The blazes on the old trail are painted over with black, and their entrances are blocked with piles of branches. Suddenly the trail I hiked a few weeks ago looks abandoned, as it is. And a place that was this morning just another piece of the forest is now the Appalachian Trail. Because we dug a trail and painted some blazes, hikers will walk there, meet each other there, stop for a snack there,  curse their boots there. The first thru-hiker on the new trail came through before we brought our tools down.

While we added 2,250 feet of trail, we subtracted less old trail. We added mileage to the A.T. A more gradual climb takes a longer distance. This happens all the time as the trail is rerouted. When people say the length of the trail changes every year, they mean it gets longer. As the crow flies, it’s only about 1100 miles from Springer Mountain to Mount Katahdin. The AT manages to almost double that. It’s probably an easier route than the most direct one, but hiking extra miles can be frustrating. Then again, if a thru-hiker isn’t complaining about long miles, he’s probably complaining about steep climbs. And if he’s not complaining about steep climbs, he’s probably complaining about rocks. But the complaints are only half serious. If he wanted to get to Maine faster, he’d book a flight. He’s out here for those rocks, those climbs, those miles of pointless meandering trail. Even in Virginia.

-May 30, Waynesboro, Va.

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