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[at-l] Importance of thru-hikers to the AT Project

"As I stated earlier, I'm not much persuaded by the argument that
extension makes going end to end more difficult, although I will agree that
this has helped publicize the trail. It probably helps build up a resevoir
of good will, but I think it has done relatively little to support the
organizational infrastructure that maintains and protects the trail, the
local clubs.  Few thruhikers are active in the several clubs with which I
am familiar, and few of the core members of those clubs seem personally
motivated by (as opposed to interested in) the thruhiking phenomenom (sp?)."

Almost all of the public awareness of the AT stems from the long-distance
hiking community in one way or another. This has been so from the
beginning. Benton MacKaye himself said that the AT project would rise or
fall on publicity. And, throughout its history, that has been the case.
Those who hiked long distances were the ones who got the earliest and best
public attention for the AT. Recognizing this, Earl Shaffer told me that
one of the main reasons that he did his first thru-hike in 1948 was to
revive interest in the Trail, since public interest had wained during WWII
and the Trail project was languishing somewhat. His thru-hike succeeded
grandly, galvanizing the imagination of the public, as did the hikes of
Grandma Gatewood and other early thru-hiking pioneers in the 1950s. In
recent years, my 1987 anniversary hike (which generated over 8700 newspaper
articles, resulted in coverage of the AT on all three evening network news
programs, had a nice segment on "On the Road with Charles Kuralt", and
featured the AT project and its infrastructure in countless other media
outlets) and Bill Irwin's hike a few years later have brought major
influxes of cash and people into AT organizations. Every thru-hiker who has
given an interview, had a newspaper article written about them, etc., has
added to this benefit to the Trail infrastructure. ATC income from all
sources was up almost $1 million after my 1987 anniversary hike alone, and
that was not coincidental; ATC membership increased dramatically, too, and
club membership increased, all directly related to publicity surrounding
that thru-hike. Most of the people on this list probably first heard about
the AT as the result of a thru-hiker article, book (most of the popular AT
books are about thru-hikers), TV interview or program, etc. The clubs do a
wonderful job of management and maintenance (that's why I dedicated the
1997 Handbook to these dedicated people). But, they and ATC are not the
main people responsible for keeping the idea of hiking the AT alive in the
public mind. The thru-hiking community, over the years, is mainly
responsible for the public fascination. Few people in the public are
inspired by the day-to-day maintenance or other club activities (they
should be, but they are not). Keep in mind that every Congressman's staff
reads the thru-hiker article that appears in his/her congressional
district, and sees the interest and reaction of their constituents (I know,
I've talked with many of them), and the primary reason they vote for AT
funding year after year is because it is perceived by them as popular with
the folks back home. Yes, the ATC staff does a fantastic job of
representing AT needs in Congress, but if the idea of the AT weren't
popular with the public, they wouldn't get to first base when it came time
to counting the funding votes. So, to dismiss the benefits of having a
steady stream of average folks from all over the country thru-hiking the
Trail year after year with high-visibility, and being mostly admired by
their local public as embodying the "American spirit of adventure" as they
do it, is of infinite benefit to the overall Trail project and its
organizational infrastructure. Anyone who fails to recognize this is
burying their head in the sand. And, let's get away from this notion that
the only way a person can make a contribution to the AT is to join a club.
That attitude (and the prejudice against thru-hiking that is still present
among many AT club members) has adversely affected the Trail project over
the years. If maintenance is your interest, I urge you to join a club.
Clubs always need members. But, if your talents lie elsewhere, or if you
live too far away from the Trail to join a club as do most thru-hikers (or
in some cases, if you don't want to go through the irrelevant-to-the-AT
social requirements some AT clubs have for membership), there are many ways
you can contribute to the Trail scene that are just as important as Trail
building and maintenance. Everyone doesn't need to do maintenance, and
field maintenance should not be the only criteria for judging whether
someone has helped the organizational infrastructure of the AT. The AT
needs a variety of talents expressed in a variety of way. In summary,
thru-hiking, I believe, is vital for the continued good health and public
support of the AT. Let's not shoot ourselves in the foot by making it
impossible for the person of average ability to do a thru-hike by extending
the "official" AT into Canada or Alabama, adding some 500 or so miles and
1-2 months to an already long trail. Let's applaud the trail-building
efforts of the folks who are building these new connecting trails on either
end. I know I do. Connecting trails are in keeping with Benton MacKaye's
orginial vision. One day, if someone wants to hike from Alabama to Quebec,
then they will be able to do so by hiking the Pinhoti Trail, the AT, and
then the International Friendship Trail (I refuse to acknowledge the AT
name the Canadian group is using). If someone wants to hike the entire
"official" Appalachian Trail, however, then let's let them continue to
start at Springer and end at Katahdin as they have been doing for almost
half a century.--Wingfoot

PS--For those of you who oppose extending the AT into Canada, there is one
immediate thing you can do. You can refuse, as I am doing, to call the
northern effort the "International Appalachian Trail". By including AT as
part of the new connecting trail's name, I suspect that the organizers hope
to make the new trail synonymous with the present AT in the public mind,
when in fact the only similarity at present is that they both will end at
Katahdin. The AT already does, and let's use our influence to keep it that way!
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