It was one of those wilderness moments.
In May, as we hiked up to Weverton Cliffs, east of Harpers Ferry, W.V., the drizzle began to taper off, and the sky grew lighter.
Trees parted to reveal a rocky promontory with a dramatic drop-off below and a sweeping view beyond. The jade hills of West Virginia seemed lit from within; the Potomac River, swollen with rain, grumbled and surged toward Washington.
I stood there, slightly out of breath, drinking it in.
Then my phone rang. "Maureen," said the screen. My wife.
"I'm at Tires Plus. We're going to have to buy four new tires for the Subaru. Can you use your iPhone to do a little research on Continentals?"
"Um, this isn't the best time for this," I said.
I hung up, my well-being evaporating with the early morning rain.
"That's BS!" said my hiking partner Don Hopey, smiling his leprechaun smile. "That's news you don't need to know on the Appalachian Trail!"
Photo: Bo Emerson hikes out from the Rocky Run camping area in Maryland after a night on the Appalachian Trail. The white blaze in the foreground marks the trail for its entire distance from Georgia to Maine. Ben Gray / firstname.lastname@example.org
An adventure was born
The Appalachian Trail. It's a great place to get away from the world. Unless you decide to bring the world with you.
Hopey and I and eight of our colleagues were hiking to celebrate the anniversary of a remarkable project that, in 1995, brought the world to the trail in a big way.
During the spring, summer and fall of that year, five newspapers — The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Raleigh News & Observer, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Hartford Courant and The Maine Sunday Telegram/The Portland Press Herald — combined forces to hike the Appalachian Trail end to end, hoofing 2,158 miles from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mt. Katahdin in Maine, filing weekly reports along the way.
We called it "An Appalachian Adventure." Each newspaper carved off a 430-mile chunk of the trail, sent a flock of reporters, photographers and illustrators to trek from hill to dale, then handed off the baton to the next publication. Each week the hiking journalists would detour to a nearby landline and upload their stories and photographs and drawings to a file transfer site on the nascent World Wide Web, where they were shared by all five papers.
This was the same summer 26-year-old Cheryl Strayed, author of "Wild" (2012), set out on a solo hike of the 1,100-mile Pacific Crest Trail. Shortly thereafter humorist Bill Bryson struggled along the Appalachian Trail with his pseudonymous friend "Katz." A movie adaptation of his book about the experience, "A Walk in the Woods" (1998), debuts in September.
The AJC ran our ongoing tale of adventures along the trail as a weekly series from March through October. In a humble bid for multimedia cred, we activated a telephone line readers could call to hear taped updates that reporters phoned in from gas stations and motels near the woods.
I kicked off the journey for Atlanta. Over three weeks I hiked the first 204 miles from Georgia to the middle of the Smoky Mountains, and it was the coolest story assignment I'd ever had.
First of all, hiking? Climbing mountains? Camping out? Oh yeah.
Second of all, this was a huge undertaking, and I was incredibly excited to be part of it. The question was, how the heck would we pull it off?
Photo: AJC photographer Ben Gray uses a smartphone application called Fyuse to create an interactive panoramic image of the the view of the Potomac River from Weverton Cliff near Harpers Ferry. Bo Emerson / email@example.com
Technological stone age
"You see this?" said former AJC photographer Chris Hunt, holding up an iPhone and a shirt-pocket digital camera. "This little package could have saved us 110 pounds. It's kind of disturbing and wonderful at the same time."
Hunt, a lanky bicyclist with muttonchop whiskers, was standing with me on the towpath beside the old C & O Canal just outside Harpers Ferry. In 1995 Hunt had joined me for the climb from the Nantahala River to the middle of the Smokies. Now, in 2015, he and I were back on the trail with some of the colleagues who participated in An Appalachian Adventure.
Joining us were Steve Grant, formerly of The Hartford Courant, who got the ball rolling on the project and recruited other newspapers to participate; Scott Huler, a former reporter with the Raleigh News & Observer; Don Hopey, a reporter with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette; Robin Rombach, a photographer with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette; Walter Cumming, a former illustrator for the AJC; Martha Ezzard, a former editorial writer for the AJC; her son John Ezzard; and AJC photographer Ben Gray, who didn't participate in 1995 but came along this time to photograph and videotape our return. We all gathered at the site of John Brown's raid, because it is the psychological midpoint of the trail and the headquarters of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC). It's also a beautiful spot.
Among the things that fascinated us, besides seeing where the perilous arc of time had taken each teammate, was comparing technology then and now.
Interactive: Ben Gray captured the panoramic view below from Weverton Cliffs, east of Harpers Ferry, W.V.
While Hunt and I talked, our colleagues were filing photos of the reunion, updating their blogs and answering email, right from the banks of the Potomac. Twenty years ago, when we stepped off Springer Mountain on a frigid, rainy morning in March, there were no smartphones, no Wi-Fi, no 3G, no built-in browsers. The web was an infant and digital cameras were expensive and rare.
AJC photographers covering An Appalachian Adventure in 1995 shot their pictures on film. To develop that film, drivers would ferry "wet labs" and portable scanners to various points along the trail, where they would meet up with us. After photographer Dave Tulis and I slogged through three days of rain, AJC reporter and hiking coach John Harmon hauled our equipment up from Atlanta, met us at Mountain Crossings in Neel Gap and drove us in his truck to a Blairsville motel.
Tulis "souped" the film in a bathtub, hung it from the shower rod, dried it with a hair dryer and scanned the negatives with a Leafscan 35, a "portable" scanner (estimated weight: 80 pounds). After consulting my soggy notebook and writing my story — probably on a Radio Shack TRS-80 — I attached suction cups to the handset of the motel phone and pushed "send."
In a photo from 1995, Bo Emerson scans the mountain terrain he will be encountering from Spence Field. He is looking north at Thunderhead Mountain. The northwest side of the mountain has ice that formed during the sub-freezing night. Photo: Chris Hunt
Trail magic moments
Those efforts seem primitive today, but we were ahead of the curve back then. Few newspapers had a web presence in 1995, but we were using it to coordinate and execute a complex project. Just as impressive, five newspapers were pooling their resources, and their readers were getting the benefit of the combined staffs.
It was a cooperative effort that I hadn't seen before, and I haven't really seen since.
Our readers responded with abandoned glee. They called our dial-a-hiker line, sent us hundreds of letters and emails, and even hiked out to meet us on the trail.
Certainly that love reflected a deep fondness for the trail itself. The monumental footpath, conceived in 1921 by forester Benton MacKaye as a sort of utopian connector of refreshing greenspaces, was completed during the Depression with the help of Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) labor. It is maintained by more than 6,000 volunteers throughout the east coast, including members of the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club, and is considered the largest and longest-running volunteer conservation project in history.
In other words, it's a populist masterpiece.
The love continues. During our recent expedition we ran into such devoted through-hikers as Doug "Croc Rocket" Pecot, a red-bearded 22-year-old from Birmingham, who hikes part of each day in Crocs, those horrible (but comfortable) foam-rubber shoes.
Also on the trail was Kyle "Bullet" Curtin, 28, an Army veteran who has been deployed four times over the last 10 years, mostly to Afghanistan. He was hiking with his father, Paul, and earned his trail name "Bullet" because of his rapid pace. Despite his quick stride, he feels tranquil on the trail: "I like the opportunity not to think about anything for a while," he said.
Brian King, spokesman for the ATC for 28 years, met us at the headquarters and confided that our series bumped up the number of through-hikers in 1996 by about 50 percent.
He expects a significant increase after the film version of "A Walk in the Woods" premieres in the fall.
"Georgia will get the brunt of that," he said, because that's where most through-hikers begin, and filming took place at Amicalola Falls, Kennesaw, Stone Mountain, Neel Gap and other Georgia locales.
Georgia surely took the brunt of us. Our 1995 coverage started out like saturation bombing. All five newspapers sent reporters and photographers to hike the first 30 miles, to give us a chance to meet each other. We looked like a walking press conference. Occasionally all of us would converge on a single stunned hiker, seeking quotes and photos. The other hikers called us "Geraldo's Gang."
Before Geraldo's Gang got back together this May, I started a private Facebook page to coordinate the effort. For several months we debated dates, locations and other logistics for the reunion. And we amused each other by suggesting shorter and shorter day hikes — preferably toward a place where one could buy craft beer.
"My feeling is, this is Appalachian Adventure 2.0: Sitting On Our Asses Edition," Huler posted on Facebook.
On the first misty morning, before we got on the trail, we indulged in a short session of yoga, led by Grant, our fearless chairman, who now sports a mane of snow-white hair. (After he left the paper in 2009, he became a freelancer and a yoga teacher.)
We did the "cat," the "cow," the "chair," the "breath of joy," and the "artillery of arthritis." (That last pose is what it sounds like when old hikers stretch.)
Then, a few miles into the hike, we encountered Matt and Shannon Stypula, recently-married hikers from Baltimore, and our pack mentality kicked in again. All 10 of us pounced. We found out that they were both transportation engineers, that they work building roads for the Maryland State Highway Commission, that they'd eaten all their food, and that his trail name is HazMatt, due to his strong aroma. (Hers is She Rex.)
When Hopey, of the Post-Gazette, discovered Matt was also from Pittsburgh, Hopey reached in his pack and magically materialized a pepperoni roll from the famed Pitaland Mediterranean Bakery. "Do you want it?" he asked Matt.
"Oh! Trail angel!" cried Matt happily.
High impact camping
The trail changed us. Encouraged by the scope of the project, Huler expanded his ambitions, left the Raleigh News & Observer and started writing books. He is currently retracing, on foot, the journeys through the Carolinas of 18th century explorer and naturalist John Lawson. It will be his seventh book.
Photographer Michael Kodas of the Courant found that "tie on the boots and put on the backpack" was his favorite way to report and is now associate director of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado. Hopey served as a Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism at the same center, and is treasurer of the Society of Environmental Journalists.
Our adventure prefigured dramatic upheaval to come in our industry. We saw how the Internet could change newsgathering, but we never imagined how much. Now, 20 years later, only a handful of the Appalachian adventurers still work for newspapers.
In 1995 we hiked together at the beginning of the trek and at the very end, summiting Mt. Katahdin in unison. Our time together was brief, but the impact was high. We talked about that in 2015 as we drank local beer at The Anvil Restaurant in Harpers Ferry, and as we sat around the breakfast table at the Econo Lodge the next morning, while a gloomy weather report played on the television.
"This project meant so much to me," said Huler, the raconteur of the group. "I thought, â€˜if this is as good as it gets, if, when I die, I say the best thing that happened to me was I was paid to hike the Appalachian Trail, then that's good enough.'"
That night, as we tasted some of former AJC staffer Martha Ezzard's Tiger Mountain wine (she now owns a vineyard in Rabun County), we raised a toast to John Harmon. The AJC reporter and dedicated outdoorsman spent many practice hikes trying to get us AJC greenhorns into shape. Then, five months before the project, he had a cancerous tumor removed.
John hiked his portion of the trail with a 12-inch scar in his side and a positive attitude in his heart.
"Death seems far less terrifying when you're walking in the woods," he wrote.
He died five years later at age 45. His last gesture: In lieu of flowers, he asked friends to donate to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.
Photo: Henry 'Screaming Coyote' Tanner, of Raleigh, N.C., reads his map as he takes a break in the Maine mountains in the 1990s. Photo: Lloyd Ferris
Taking the stairs
Harmon and I were the same age, and in 1995, I thought I was old. When it came time to prepare for An Appalachian Adventure, I started taking the stairs at work.
That helped. But nothing compares to humping a backpack up and down mountains for 200 miles. It put me in the best shape of my life.
Something else happened, too. I met people, like Harmon, who inspired me to persevere. When my Achilles tendon froze, when my shoes fell apart, when I made a wrong turn and stumbled a mile off the trail, I knew these things were no big deal.
Near the top of the list of the people who inspired me that first trip was Henry "Screaming Coyote" Tanner.
I met him in March our first day on the trail. A 21-year-old college student from Raleigh, he'd suffered a stroke from a blood clot that broke loose when he was rough-housing with his roommate. Despite being partly paralyzed on his left side, he set out to keep the promise he'd made himself to give the trail a try.
"A week's my goal," he told me that day, seeking refuge from the rain inside the darkness of the Hawk Mountain shelter. "After a week, I'll set another goal."
Tanner didn't quit. On Oct. 1, when the rambling press gang climbed Mt. Katahdin to reach the signpost at the end of the Appalachian Trail, limping up behind us, smiling broadly, his curly hair waving in the high-altitude breeze, was Screaming Coyote.
Someone started clapping, and Tanner walked up to a standing ovation.
"Wow," he grinned. "I feel sort of like a celebrity."
Tanner showed us: Don't quit.
I still take the stairs at work.
Fully wired hikers
Today a handful of problems jeopardize the future of the trail. Proposed natural gas pipelines, carrying fuel eastward from West Virginia and Pennsylvania, threaten to scalp viewsheds and dice up the habitats of songbirds, according to Laura Belleville, the ATC's head of conservation.
Popularity can also be a problem. The trail is longer today — 2,189 miles — partly because it's been re-routed in some places to spread out the impact. But some 4,000 through-hikers will try an end-to-end hike this year, compared to 2,000 in 1995. Most will kick off their trips in Georgia, creating congestion in March and April. Many more visitors use the trail for day-hikes and section hikes — some 2 million to 3 million each year.
A subtler threat is implied by that glass lozenge in my pocket. I passed one hiker on this trip who was packing two cellphones and an iPad, plus a portable battery charger. He said he needed his phone for photos, one for backup and his iPad to take notes at night.
The younger hikers, in general, have a different attitude toward technology, said trail spokesman Brian King. "They are sitting in their shelters at night with their tablets streaming Netflix. They're calling the pizza place to meet them at the road crossing."
Through-hiker Ryan Linn has created a smartphone application that provides maps, mileage data, trail descriptions, photos, location of springs and shelters; 11,000 people downloaded the free version last year.
But even Linn isn't crazy about technology on the trail, especially hikers playing music on bluetooth speakers. "That's obnoxious," he said.
Environmental threats are the most troubling. The trail acts like an early warning system for the effects of severe storms, drought, acid rain and sprawl. ATC members recognize this, but most are also pragmatists, who know that development and energy needs must be balanced with the desire to keep the trail pristine. That's why Belleville says overuse is the least of their problems. "Get out there and experience it," she said. "The more people feel connected to the trail, the more likely they are to pay attention to these more complex environmental issues."
On the last night of our reunion get-together, we saw evidence that Belleville's dictum was being heeded. Walter Cumming, Chris Hunt, Ben Gray and I took a short hike to the Rocky Run campground, near Gathland State Park, arriving in time to get spattered by a brief squall.
I hurriedly yanked out my tent and snapped on the quick-clips, until I realized it was a false alarm. The rain stopped as soon as it started. In the meantime, Cumming and Gray found a better site a little farther up the trail, where one of the oldest CCC-era, three-sided shelters looked down over a spring; nearby was a stand of pink lady slippers.
Beautiful, we agreed. And apparently so did everyone else. A crowd of about 10 college-age hikers were packed into a nearby two-level shelter, a scattering of a half-dozen through-hikers were at tent-sites nearby, and later in the afternoon a murmuration of 15 or 20 boys flocked into the valley below us, hooting with happiness.
I made a fire in the stone-lined fire-pit. Cumming cooked a meal of cheesy beans, rice and hot chocolate. Though the boys stayed up late, throwing rocks into the spring and charging about with their headlamps on, their joy was contagious. And they didn't mind the noise when Cumming and I played hillbilly music on our camp guitars. We even heard a round of applause.
While we slept in the shelter, Hunt, hoping to protect us from his legendary snoring, chose to put up his tent in the dell below, not far from the Boy Scouts. "If you need me I'll be in the Valley of the Dorks," he said.
An Appalachian Adventure reported on environmental and social issues, offered portraits of the trail's wonderful denizens and explained how to poop in the woods. In addition to appearing in five newspapers, the series became a book, published by Longstreet Press. (Out of print now, second-hand copies are still available at Amazon.com.) If we raised fondness for the trail, even a little, we did a good job.
In its 90th year, the longest continuously marked footpath in the world has many things going for it. Its utopian beginning sets the tone, and the horsepower of goodwill, from volunteers and hikers, provides the momentum to keep those good intentions cranking.
Bad things have happened along the trail, including the 2008 murder of Meredith Emerson, abducted while hiking in Vogel State Park. But they haven't dimmed the enthusiasm of trail devotees.
"There really are wonderful people in the world," wrote a hiker with the trail name White Root in the Cold Springs shelter register in 1995, "and a lot of them happen to surround the trail."
The trail is an illusion, a make-believe "wilderness" that's only 1,000 feet wide in some places, but it's a beautiful illusion, a 250,000-acre park stretched out in a thin line. I put my foot on it in Georgia and I can feel the vibrations radiating down from Maine. Walking in that wildness is like finding a pocket of air under the ice; it refreshes, restores and gives you the strength to keep going. It gave me the strength to return to Atlanta and see about those tires.
Steve Grant: Steve began pursuing "adventure journalism" in the early 1990s, starting with a five-week paddling trip on the Connecticutt River, from Canada to the Long Island Sound. He and his editors at The Hartford Courant conceived of An Appalachian Adventure in 1994. Steve left the Courant in 2009 and now freelances and teaches yoga.
Scott Huler: A former reporter with the Raleigh News & Observer, Scott hiked 400-plus miles for the N & O, just as his divorce was becoming final. The trail was cathartic for him; he found escape and even romance. His seventh book will be about 18th century naturalist and historian John Lawson; Huler is retracing, on foot, Lawson's treks through the Carolinas. Video: Scott on the trail
Don Hopey: A reporter with The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Don is also a former Scripps Fellow at the Center for Environmental Journalism, an area he was inspired to pursue as a result of the AT project. Two knee replacements have made hiking much easier, he said. Video: Don on the trail
Robin Rombach: A photographer with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Robin said her time on the trail gave her the confidence to tackle a bicycle tour in France, break up with her "crappy boyfriend" and find a wonderful husband. Video: Robin on the trail
Walter Cumming: A former illustrator at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Walter has made a lifetime of pursuing the outdoors, climbing in Switzerland, bicycling in Germany and mushing sled dogs in Canada. He brought his malamute, Tanook, to the reunion. Video: Walter on the trail
Chris Hunt: A former photographer with the AJC, now a freelancer, Chris hiked from the Nantahala River to Newfound Gap in 1995 and hauled a portable darkroom to Fontana Dam ahead of time, so it would be there when we arrived. Video: Chris on the trail
Martha Ezzard: Martha is a former columnist and editorial writer for the AJC, and now makes wine at her Tiger Mountain Vineyards in North Georgia. Video: Martha on the trail
John Ezzard: Martha's son John, who was 25 when he accompanied his mother on part of the trail, returned for the reunion hike. Video: John on the trail
Bo Emerson: A feature writer at the AJC, Bo was a mediocre Boy Scout who never made it past First Class.
Ben Gray: The AJC photographer didn't make the trip in 1995, but he joined the reunion hike to take photos and video.