March 26, 2024

Trail Writing

The Appalachian Trail winds its way through Appalachia which is a place where people make sense of their world through stories. Stories of their lives in the mountains. Stories of the land and its riches. Stories, both fiction and non-fiction, about...

The Appalachian Trail winds its way through Appalachia which is a place where people make sense of their world through stories. Stories of their lives in the mountains. Stories of the land and its riches. Stories, both fiction and non-fiction, about their journeys. In this episode of The Green Tunnel, we are exploring the history of writing about the Appalachian Trail. 


Note: This transcript was generated by with light human correction

Sharyn McCrumb  00:06

I guess back in a symbolic sense to the pilgrimages to the Canterbury Tales into the Santiago de Compostela. In France and Spain, the idea that you walk as a spiritual experience, and that it's a form of devotion. Your spiritual experience should be with the wilderness with the mountains with the environment, then it should be maybe not solemn, but certainly mindful.


Mills Kelly  00:41

Welcome to The Green Tunnel, a podcast on the history of the Appalachian Trail. My name is Mills Kelly, and I'm your host. In this episode, we're exploring the history of writing about the Appalachian Trail. When you think about books about the AT, what probably comes to mind is either an account of someone's thru hike or a guide to hiking the trail. In other words, nonfiction. And there are many published accounts of thru hikes, beginning with Ed Garvey’s Appalachian Hiker Adventure of a Lifetime, published in 1971. Garvey's book was the first book length account of a thru hike, and is credited with inspiring many 1000s of hikers to attempt to follow in his footsteps. But the Appalachian Trail winds its way through Appalachia in Appalachia, as I learned when I began writing my own book about the AT is a place where people make sense of their world through stories, stories of their lives in the mountains, stories of the land and its riches, and stories of the many ways American society has failed the people of Appalachia, over and over.


Mills Kelly  01:57

Novelist Sharon McCrum has a real affinity for the mountains traversed by the Appalachian Trail


Sharyn McCrumb  02:03

As a southern author, or more specifically, perhaps an Appalachian author because most of my works deal with the history and folklore and customs of the people who settled the southern mountains in the 18th century. And most of these people came from Scotland and Ireland and Wales and brought their traditions with them.


Mills Kelly  02:29

When white settlers came to Appalachia in the 18th century, many of them brought stories and songs with them from their homelands, mostly small villages in the British Isles.


Mills Kelly  02:45

At the end of the 19th century, British folklore a Cecil Sharp began collecting, or at least trying to collect those old folk songs.


Sharyn McCrumb  02:54

When Cecil Sharp was looking for the ballads that he'd seen referred to when all over Britain and couldn't find them. Everybody was singing music hall songs. And then he got a letter from Olive Dame Campbell, who founded the John C. Campbell Folk School and brass town, North Carolina, on the Georgia line. And she said, you know, the songs you're looking for they're here. You better get here faster before the radio does. So he came over, got a mu because there was no highway system then. And went from cove to cove, interviewing people and asking him to sing songs for him. And one woman Jane Hicks Gentry, who lived in Hot Springs, North Carolina and Madison County, sat down and sang him 500 songs. And these are the songs that had originated in Scotland and Ireland and England and had been lost over there. But they're here.


Mills Kelly  04:02

Those songs in those stories were essential to the fabric of the new settler communities in the mountains to AT traverses because they were the threads that kept those settlers connected to where they'd come from.


Sharyn McCrumb  04:13

That little trunk you packed to go on the ship had to carry practical things. The things that really reminded you of home, the stories, the fiddle tunes, the quilt patterns, the ballots, you had to carry all those in your head, but they were the family heirlooms and you treasured them. Because you didn't have the cemetery in the old home place and all those familiar things. All you had was what you brought in your memories, and they kept them and handed them down. And so we kept these things when they were last in the place they originated and that's why


Mills Kelly  04:58

I have a lot of experience with that music, because I'm on the board of a wonderful little nonprofit in Floyd, Virginia, called the handmade music school. The philosophy of our school is to hand down the songs and dances of Appalachia, from teacher to student, note by note, step by step, the way they've been taught in the Blue Ridge Mountains for centuries. If you ever have a chance to attend one of the performances of the young people learning this music, you'll see for yourself, not only the joy they experience learning and playing those old songs, but also the joy their teachers have in keeping these mountain traditions alive. When I was researching my book on Virginia's Lost Appalachian Trail, everyone I sat with wanted to tell me stories, stories of how their families came to the high plateau of southwest Virginia, after service in George Washington's army, how their grandfather helped build the Appalachian Trail nearby about the great flood of 1940 when they saw a church float passed on the New River. We're about the 1912 courthouse shooting in Hillsville. These and many other stories were essential to the way that they understood their place in the world, and how they wanted to help me understand it as well. What brought me to share it was her cluster of novels set in Appalachia that she calls the ballad novels. These books set in the same mountains to AT hikers traverse every year, tell stories of loss of environmental degradation of justice lost to greed, in about losing the land to outsiders, especially corporations. And I've heard Ballard novels, when I think speaks to most of the experience of Appalachian Trail hikers is she walks these hills. Every hike on the Appalachian Trail is a journey, whether it is from a parking area to a viewpoint half a mile away, or last almost 2200 miles and many months. And almost every book ever written about the AT fiction or nonfiction uses the journey as a central motif. There are three main journeys in she walks these hills. And it's the second of those three that I think really speaks to the experience of so many at hikers.


Sharyn McCrumb  07:21

The second journey is the journey of a professor at Virginia Tech, who is studying the pioneer kidnappings that happened when the Shawnee particularly and sometimes the Cherokee would take prisoners when they raided a settlement.


Mills Kelly  07:39

The kidnapping of Caty Sage was one of the stories that I was told over and over when working on my book. And she was one of the women being studied by that fictitious Virginia Tech professor Sharon considered using Caty's story, but in the end, decided to use the story of Mary Draper Ingalls who was kidnapped with her two young sons. And what is now Blacksburg, Virginia, the home of Virginia Tech in 1755.


Sharyn McCrumb  08:06

She was taken all the way to the Ohio River through West Virginia. And she escaped and found her way back by following the New River. And so my Professor Jeremy Cobb is studying her for his dissertation, and he decided to duplicate her journey. But for the book, I didn't want to do the whole West Virginia thing because I needed to send him into North Carolina so I changed her name, change the story somewhat, and sent him down the Holston river and into western North Carolina, around Mitchell and Yancey County. And he's a tenderfoot he's not a hiker. He has no wilderness experience whatsoever. And so I was going into the trail outfitter shops around here. And I would say what is the stupidest thing that someone who has no trail experience could possibly do? And they would say you mean after they use the poison ivy leaves for toilet paper.


Mills Kelly  09:17

If you've ever read a thru hikers account of their hike north from Georgia, or if you were one of those hikers, you've read plenty of examples of dumb things hikers do at the start of their journey. Most of those stories revolve around packs filled with unnecessary gear. But I'm quite sure that more than one novice hiker has indeed used poison ivy for toilet paper. I haven't met one of those. But I might know someone who dug a cat hole at the base of a large tree, leaving their butt back against the tree without knowing that the fuzzy vine on the trunk was poison oak. And it was sorry for weeks. But I'm not naming names. In terms of experiences in the mountains, Sharon's Professor hikes his way to clarity and self understanding in the same way that AT hikers do, slowly, painfully, but with determination. That journey to self awareness is a key feature of so much of western literature. And so it's no surprise that it's also central to so many accounts of at hikes. This season, we've been looking closely at the ecological history of the Appalachian Trail. And during our conversation, Sharon emphasized another theme in her writing about Appalachia diminishment of the wilderness. Lately, I've been reading through dozens and dozens of at shelter registers spread over the past 90 years. One of the things that jumped out at me while reading all those entries, was about what makes the Appalachian Trail so popular with so many people. It's the opportunity to experience real wilderness, even if only for an hour. But as we've discussed in some of our other episodes, the mountains of Appalachia are a little less wild every year, when she writes about the experiences of her characters on the Appalachian Trail, and in the Appalachian Mountains more generally, Sharon thinks it's important to highlight this decline in the wildness of the mountains.


Sharyn McCrumb  11:23

I had the feeling that a lot of what we're seeing today is, especially in the natural environment, is a diminishment of what there used to be. When our ancestors came in, in the 18th century, they were chestnut trees that were enormous. Can people joining hands could maybe encircle the trunk. And these trees were 50 feet high. They're gone now. A metaphor that I really liked was that we have wolves in the mountains here. And so a couple of years ago, West Virginia decided that they wanted to bring wolves back. So they got some red wolves, a little doggie wolves because they couldn't afford big grey guys. And they put radio collars on them and turn them loose in the wilderness. And they keep an eye on them through the radio collars. And so if it's a bad winter and things like they might have trouble getting enough food, somebody sneaks out with Purina Wolf Chow. And so I thought, this is what has happened to the wilderness, we feed the wolves.


Mills Kelly  12:37

I love chatting with Sharon about setting her novels in the landscape AT hikers pass over and through so nice to get a novelist take on the mountains we all love. But most of the writing about the Appalachian Trail over the past 100 years has been nonfiction.


Mills Kelly  12:57

The oldest essay I could find about the AT was in the Mentor Magazine in August 1928. That long defunct magazine had a mission to educate Americans through essays on art, history, literature, travel and science. The article on the at began like this


Alison Langford  13:17

Princely path of Pedestrianism, the great Appalachian Trail, one of the world’s longest improved “walkways,” when eventually completed will extend from the crown of Mount Washington, the highest point in New England, to the crests of Mount Mitchell, near Asheville, and to Stone Mountain, a dozen miles from Atlanta. Overland trampers who seek renewed health and refreshed mentality by outings spent along this tortuous trail will walk close to cloudland over a considerable span of this long course.


Mills Kelly  13:49

The creators of the Appalachian Trail head who have been pleased to see a popular national magazine give full coverage to their emerging trail. And over the next several decades, the leaders of the ATC tried their best to get other national publications to cover the trail. Why? Well, those ATC leaders especially Myron Avery, were very concerned that the legions of AT volunteers would complete the 2000 mile long trail, and no one would hike on it. Avery submitted story after story to various national publications with only mixed results. He tried again and again to get the National Geographic magazine to accept one of his essays, only to be rejected by the editors. It wasn't until 1949 The year after Earl Shaffers historic first end to end hike, that National Geographic finally published a piece about the trail. The story by Andrew Brown brought the AT to a truly national audience. It had the collateral effect of inspiring a farm wife in Ohio named Emma Gatewood to hike the trail by herself a few years later. Since that national geographic story, most of the writing about the AT has focused on the journeys of individual hikers. But if you're a regular listener to our show, you know that some very good historians have also written some very good books about the trail and its history. Sarah Middlefield, Larry Anderson, Jeff Ryan, and several others have shared their insights on the trail and its history with us. Another the authors we've spoken with before is Sarah Jones Decker, the author of the Appalachian Trail, back country shelters, Lean tools and huts, which is both a history and a guide to those stopping points along the trail. She's also a professional photographer, a farmer, and the author of The Bridges of Madison County: A Guide to All the Hiking Trails in Madison County, North Carolina, just west of Asheville, where she lives on a farm with her husband and daughter. I asked Sarah why she decided to write a book on the shelters.


Sarah Jones Decker  16:02

I would say that the at has been a part of my photography for a long time. And when I was looking at my 10 year trails versary coming up, I was thinking about a way to hike the trail more and how could I get back out and hike. And I looked back in my journal from 2008 and saw that I actually had that idea in 2008, about documenting all the shelters. And I thought, I wonder if anyone ever did that. And then started researching and realizing that it hadn't been done. And that maybe there was an opportunity for me to write a book about the AT that was different or outside of the box, if you will of memoirs or other books that have been written about the AT. And that kind of started the snowball process that turned into rehiking the trail and writing about it for over two years.


Mills Kelly  16:52

Writing a nonfiction book about the trail requires research. And when it comes to the AT that research always includes hiking. When I first started writing nonfiction about the at myself, they realized right away that he needed to go to the sections of the trail I would be writing about. So I could see them, get a feel for the weather, touch the old shelters, and just generally get a better understanding for the physical aspects of the trail and a particular location. But Sarah began to work on her book about trail shelters. She also went to the places she was writing about. Unlike me, though, she was largely going back to places she had been to on her 2000 A thru hike


Sarah Jones Decker  17:35

Well rehiking the trail as a 36 year old with a baby versus hiking it as a 26 year old fresh out of grad school was two completely different experiences. So I've through hiked the whole trail. And then I've section hiked many sections of it again, in all 14 states. And I mean, I can't really say I'm the same person I was when I first like versus when I hiked again. But I was able to hike the trail in a way that was different from my thru hike, which was this is the weather deal with it, versus hiking the trail every month for two years. And I could pick and choose when I hiked. But I also got to see different states, you know, I think of Georgia as foggy and cold and March. And when I rewrote the book, I got to hike it in January, June, and September. For the books, I really got to see the trail differently in that I got to hike it year round for two years.


Mills Kelly  18:31

But she didn't just go back to the trail in different seasons to see it with fresh eyes. Plus, if she was going to write a book about shelters, she needed much better photographs than the one she took during her original hike. It's one thing to document your hike and pictures, but something altogether different to create a photographic record the physical structures for a book.


Sarah Jones Decker  18:53

Even though I had the idea in 2008, I did not take as many pictures as I thought I did have shelters. So I thought oh, this is going to be a breeze. I'll just go back to my pictures and I'll have all the shelters and of the over 250 shelters, I think I only had pictures of maybe 20 of them. And they may have had my goofy friends in them or it was raining. I didn't have enough photographs to make a complete book. So by going back out with my DSLR and a tripod and taking the time to document these places. I have had some criticism that I made the shelter's look too nice that they aren't all that nice, and my photography is making them look nicer than they really are. But by having the right equipment, I was able to make those structures shine a little bit more.


Mills Kelly  19:38

Sarah told me that for inspiration, she drew on the work of the German photographers Hilla and Bernd Becher, who famously documented the crumbling industrial landscapes of Europe in the post world war two era. There wasn't that the at shelter she photographed and wrote about were crumbling. But because the Bechers arranged the structures they photographed into what they called typologies If you've hiked too much of the AT, you know that the shelters can also be arranged into typologies. From the original Adirondack style lean to, to the US Forest Service post and beam version of the three sided lean to, to the CCC built stone site at Hudson, Shenandoah National Park. And on and on.



Anyone who's hiked on the AT knows that there is absolutely very little rhyme or reason or consistency except the fact that there's three walls. That's an probably the biggest consistency, because they do change from state to state and materials and time periods and trail club tastes. And that one wacky guy in Pennsylvania that wanted to do that one thing, by organizing these for the first time, with a visual example of them, I think people really could see the uniqueness and their beauty.


Mills Kelly  20:57

One of the things that makes writing about the Appalachian trails history challenging is the fact that the records of that history are spread across almost 40 different archives, ranging from the National Archives of the United States, to the archives of the ATC, to the various club archives, some of which are in libraries, some of which are in archives, and some of which are in plastic tubs in someone's basement. Over the past half dozen years, I visited archives in New England, the Mid Atlantic and the Southeast, sometimes had been sitting in very formal archival reading rooms wearing white gloves is I examined letters and photos. Other times I've been in a public library, university libraries, trail club offices, in a warehouse filled with boxes of material ready to tip over onto my head in a freezing cold storage facility in a former factory and at someone's dining room table.


Mills Kelly  21:53

Perhaps my most memorable moment was in March 2020. I had arranged to visit the archive of the Tennessee Eastman Hiking and Canoeing Club. But you may remember that March 2020, was just a bit well, chaotic would be one word for it. The club's president called me the day I was scheduled to go to their offices on the campus of Eastman Chemical in Kingsport, Tennessee. He said that the entire campus was shutting down that afternoon. So if I still wanted to come by, I needed to understand that I'd have about an hour to look at whatever I could find an hour that was already in town. So I hot footed it over to the campus. He met me at the door with a security guard who was not happy I was visiting. And we spent just one hour in their office while I zipped through a couple of file cabinets of records, photographing anything that looked remotely interesting. The whole time, the guard was out in the hall, tapping his foot and glaring meaningfully.


Mills Kelly  22:57

While Sarah didn't have to mollify any angry security guards, like any good historian, she did have to visit many of the same archives I'd been to.



There's not just this one place that you go, and all the information is there. And it's the most updated, and it's really accessible. So for me to write this book, you know, I didn't want to be that person that just did research on, you know, Wikipedia, I contacted every trail club, I contacted historians, I met with people who had built the shelters, I had met with people who remembered this shelter before that one was there. By writing about the trail I got to reconnect with being on the trail and being in the woods. But I got to connect with the history of the trail in a way that I never could have imagined.


Mills Kelly  23:38

A throughism about the ATs history is that there is so much conventional wisdom about the trail that well isn't exactly supported by what in the history business. We'd like to call facts. In this concern, Sarah a lot when she started working on the book.


Sarah Jones Decker  23:54

My first degree is in journalism, and creative writing. And so I have that journalism, integrity beaten into me to make sure I get it right. And you know, I don't want to just repeat zombie facts that just can't be killed. You always hear oh, well, I heard you know, this shelter was built at this time, but then you actually physically hike there. And there's a sign on the shelter that says no, it was built a different year. But the guidebooks have always just said it was built this year and those facts just keep going and going and going. I was trying to do the best I could to throw a really large net, and gather as much correct information as I could, and create a document that would be seen as a respected document and seen as writing done with the correct amount of research.


Mills Kelly  24:43

Writing a book, it's a labor of years, not weeks or months. In addition to her book on the shelters, Sara has also written shorter nonfiction pieces about the trails history. For example, she recently wrote a shorter essay about trail families or tramilies for AT Journeys, the magazine of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy asked her to tell us the backstory on that article, and how writing shorter nonfiction was different from writing an entire book.



Writing the tramilies article was probably one of the easier articles to write because I was writing about family on the trail and the family that I have created in the last three years of recession hiking the 80 that goes through my county in North Carolina. Even though we didn't have that catchy word tramilies when I threw back in 2008, I absolutely had a trail family in 2008. And it ebbed and flowed. And I hiked with a brother and sister for two weeks. And I hiked with two old guys for a week. And then I hiked with this one guy for a month. And you know, it's always kind of changing. But my trail family here are all previous thru hikers and we all are married and have kids and we all are so excited to get away that one weekend a month to do stuff and we've done some really amazing things together. By no means is a traveling necessary. You know, anyone can go in the woods at any time and find their solace and find their quiet but the idea of sharing the hard times together can often make things easier, and having someone to share the adventure with makes the good times great and the hard times bearable.


Mills Kelly  26:17

People who don't spend a lot of time on the AT or any other long distance hiking trail, often view long distance backpackers as solitary, grubby, impossibly slightly strange creatures who don't smell very good. All those things are true, except for the part about solitary. The trail family phenomenon is something I've seen in my own research. And it emerged in the late 1970s. As long distance hiking really began to take off. And what I found in the records of the 1970s in the 1980s mirrors Sarah's own experience when she through hiked in 2008. Hikers just seem to gravitate to one another for long stretches of time.



I just think it is a way to share the suck together because it isn't always sunshine and rainbows and anyone who's hiked any considerable length knows that it's not always perfect weather or a perfect day. And I think those things bring us together out there.


Mills Kelly  27:16

I think you can see that whether a writer is telling a fictional story like the tale of Sharon McCombs professor, or Sarah Jones Decker's nonfiction trail family. Some of the very best writing about the Appalachian Trail uses the journey as the central motif. Sometimes those journeys are real. Sometimes they're made up. But they speak to us in similar ways.


Mills Kelly  27:44

We love stories about journeys, because they tell us something about who we are, or who we want to become. We know journeys are difficult. We know that sometimes people crash and burn, they give up and go home, they die, they get divorced. But often they don't. They roll up their socks and keep moving forward. And despite it all, despite the suck, they make it to their final destination. Whether that destination is a gnarly wooden sign on the summit of a mountain, which is back to their car in the parking lot at the end of a long day hike to get there. And along the way, they learned something for several things about themselves. Those lessons learned are what keeps us reading stories about journeys, because we hope that maybe we can also learn something from the experiences of the people we read about. It is excellent 2016 meditation on trails in their role in human society, Robert Moore wrote, to put it as simply as possible. A path is a way of making sense of the world. That's what the best writing about the Appalachian Trail does. It offers us a path for making sense of our world.


Mills Kelly  29:11

The Green Tunnel is a production of R2 Studios at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. Today's episode was produced by me. Jeanette Patrick and Jim Ambuske are the executive producers. We want to offer a special thanks to Sharon McCrumb and Sarah Jones Decker for sharing with us the many ways they think about writing and about the mountains and trail we all love. We also want to thank the Luxembourg Center for Contemporary and Digital History for making it possible for us to use their recording studio. Original Music for our show is performed by Scott Miller of Swope, Virginia and Andrew Small and Ashley Watkins of Floyd, Virginia. Were able to bring you this show to the generosity of the Andrew W Mellon Foundation and many individual donors like you. If you enjoy The Green Tunnel podcast, we have some more great shows for you at R2 Studios. Take a minute to check them out at Thanks for listening, and we'll see you soon.

Sarah Jones Decker

Sarah Jones Decker is a photographer, writer, farmer, AT Trail Maintainer, and all around outdoorswoman. She graduated from Virginia Tech University and the Savannah College of Art and Design and is the co-owner of Root Bottom Farm in Marshall, NC. A long-time friend of our show, Sarah is also the author of The Appalachian Trail. Backcountry Shelters, Lean-Tos, and Huts.

Sharyn McCrumb

Sharyn McCrumb is an award-winning Southern writer, best known for her Appalachian "Ballad" novels, set in the North Carolina/Tennessee mountains, including the New York Times Best Sellers : The Ballad of Tom Dooley, She Walks These Hills and The Rosewood Casket.