Jan. 30, 2024


There is no better way to turn a good hike into a bad hike than taking a wrong turn and hiking miles out of your way. Especially if that means you climbed an extra mountain or two. Today, we are exploring the history of blazing, signing, and mapping...

There is no better way to turn a good hike into a bad hike than taking a wrong turn and hiking miles out of your way. Especially if that means you climbed an extra mountain or two. Today, we are exploring the history of blazing, signing, and mapping the trail from Georgia to Maine.


Blazing the AT from the Archives of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club


Note: This transcript was generated by Otter.ai with light human correction


Mills Kelly  00:06

There's no better way to turn a good hike into a bad hike than taking a wrong turn and hiking miles out of your way. Especially if it means that you climbed an extra mountain or two. Because the Appalachian Trail is a wilderness trail that crosses mountains, roads and rivers, passes through boulder fields, dense forests, farm fields, and sometimes through towns. Knowing where you're going is critical to a successful hike. Welcome to The Green Tunnel, a podcast on the history of the Appalachian Trail. My name is Mills Kelly, and I'm your host. These days, it's hard to get lost on the Appalachian Trail because it is so well marked, signed, and well maintained. There are places though, where losing the trail is quite possible. And at least in a few sections of the trail, especially in Maine, quite hazardous. You also don't want to lose the trail in bad weather, as I once did. Lucky for me, the side trail I ended up on took me to the shelter I was aiming for. But only after I had hiked an extra two miles. Even though I ended up where I wanted to be knowing I was on the wrong trail and rain and fog was no fun. Helping hikers avoid situations like the one I found myself in all those years ago, was a prime objective of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and the trail clubs when they were building the trail, and remains one of their essential functions today. When the creators of the Appalachian Trail began their work in the 1920s. Only a few sections of the trail already had blazes or signs on them. The trail network of the Appalachian Mountain Club in New England, the long trail in Vermont, and a few sections in the Bear Mountain region in New York. Other than those sections, the rest of the new Trailhead to be blazed, signed, and mapped from Georgia to Maine. As you can imagine, building such a long trail, mapping it and marking it for Herculean tasks, especially for volunteers who typically could devote no more than a day or two each month to the work despite the limitations imposed by relying on volunteer labor, by 1937, the AT was declared complete. And by complete, the leaders of the project meant not just a footpath from one end to the other. They also meant that the entire trail was blazed or marked with tin trail markers or painted white blazes had signs at key locations like road crossings or side trails, shelters and springs. But how did those early trail builders get from nothing to an easily navigable trail?


Mills Kelly  03:05

Trail building began in the 1920s. And one of the issues to ATC leadership, especially Myron Avery obsessed about was the proper marking of the trail so that hikers could navigate it easily. In 1938. At the ATCs annual meeting, Avery said


 Voice Actor Jim Ambuske - Myron Avery to the 9th annual meeting of the ATC in 1938 03:23

The primary objective of the Appalachian Trail Conference must be an increasing effort to extend this unique recreational area of the Appalachian Trailway until it covers the entire Appalachian Range from Katahdin to Mt. Oglethorpe. Pending this Utopia our efforts should be directed toward the existence of a signed, marked and well-maintained route — a pleasant journey for all those who respond to the lure of following the white paint blaze.


Mills Kelly  03:59

Just a minute ago, I used the word obsessed, and I wasn't exaggerating. If you read through the archives of the ATC and some of the other trail clubs, as I have, you'll see literally hundreds of letters, memos, reports and instructional documents devoted to the proper blazing of trails, the proper height for attaching 10 signs to trees, and how to build carrots where the trail crosses open fields and where signs should be located. blazes those white rectangles you see on trees, fences and rocks along the trail for relatively easy for the trail clubs to put up and they were cheap and simple to refurbish from one year to the next. But because Myron Avery was such a stickler about, well, everything, he still felt the need to instruct and sometimes criticize local clubs for the ways that they blazed the trails. We've posted some archival videos of blazing instructions from the 1930s in our show notes, be sure to have a look.


Mills Kelly  05:04

And one of the standard AT blazes white in New England. Sometimes they were orange. The local clubs pointed out that white blazes were kind of hard to see in the snow, so they insisted on Orange instead of white. And they stuck to that position. Even when the National Park Service in the US Forest Service tried to force them to standardize after the Trail became a national park until the 1960s. The ATC also encouraged the trail clubs to put up small metal markers along the route. The problem with those markers is that they were expensive. And sometimes people stole them as souvenirs. In at least one case, guilt over such a theft finally got to an AT hiker.


Mills Kelly  05:51

These days, I'm the volunteer Archivist of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club. And in our collection is a letter in which the author apologizes for stealing one of those 10 markers. More than five decades earlier, when he was a young hiker. He said he always felt guilty about the theft, and that now that he was moving to a nursing home, he felt it was time to return the marker, and he hoped the club would forgive him we did.


Mills Kelly  06:23

In addition to those blazes and markers, and important trail intersections, and especially at road crossings, the ATC in the clubs posted wooden signs that gave directions and distances to destinations along the trail. Unlike the blazes, those signs had to be replaced on a regular basis. Because the mountain weather got to them, people shot at them, and bears chewed on them. In the early days of the trail, the ATC in the local clubs typically made their signs white with black lettering, and tack them to trees, fence posts, or whatever else might be handy. Sometime after the Second World War, the club started making more elaborate signs that were stained and carved rather than painted. Tom Weaver is currently the president of the Carolina Mountain Club, and is also the club's trail Facility Manager, which means he's responsible for making the signs the club needs for its section of the 80.


Tom Weaver  07:21

When someone comes to me and says we need a sign replaced. First of all asked Do we have any pictures of the sign that was there, and we determine whether we should replace it or not. Given that we do want to replace a sign I first of all, look at what information that sign needs to contain Is it a sign that simply points to a shelter is that a road crossing sign that gives direction to hikers as to where they are or where the next shelter is where the next road crossing is etc. With our CNC router machine, I take a laptop and program the fonts. They were wording into the laptop and get it to where I want it I put some arrows on it and some numbers for mileage etc. And then I take that laptop and connect it to the CNC router and mount a piece of wood in it and push the Go button and it carves the sign for us. After that I finished the sign with a outdoor resistant finish, typically mounted on a four by four post and we mount it using some tamper proof bolts and then we give it to the trail section maintainer or the crew and they go out and take the hole and install that sign.


Mills Kelly  08:42

Tom has been making trail signs for seven years now.


Tom Weaver  08:46

I am a bit of a woodworker myself, my predecessor Howard MacDonald, as the trail facility manager made a few signs with his handheld router and some templates. And I thought there must be a better way we learned about LL Bean's grant program and we applied for a grant from LL Bean and they graciously gave us the money to buy a CNC router and some wood to make some signs. And our signs are all just dark brown with letters carved into them. We do not paint our signs because of the long term maintenance required for keeping those looking good. So we just carve letters and numbers into the wood and finish it with a clear finish weatherproof clear finish and put them up. And that's worked out pretty well. I mean, you have to stand in front of the scientists to read it. You're not going to read it from 50 yards away or anything with you know, some white lettering, but it works for us. And again, we think that's a lower maintenance sort of way to go.


Mills Kelly  09:51

Sometimes the trail clubs can have a little fun with their sides.


Tom Weaver  09:55

We've had quite a effort over the last several years to restore Max Patch, its an iconic southern bald here on the Appalachian Trail in our section. Part of that restoration is eliminating social trails. So I did get a little creative by putting a few signs out that say please respect the rattlesnake and ticks privacy stay on the trail.


Mills Kelly  10:17

My personal favorite is assigned in Pennsylvania, along a section of the trail famous for being nothing but rocks. It announces a trail relocation and says old at closed while we add more rocks. Of course, signs in blazes were helpful, but not helpful enough. Hikers wanted maps, maps that told them where they were going, and how much farther it was to their destination.


Mills Kelly  10:49

Those original maps of the trail were a lot less detailed than the ones you might purchase today. But the makers of those early 18th maps put a lot of effort into making them visually pleasing. Not long ago, I had the good fortune to work with two journalists from The Washington Post, Lizzie Johnson and Lauren Tierney is they developed a wonderful digital story on why the length of the 80 keeps changing. Lizzy was the reporter and Lauren was the digital cartographer. During a couple of trips to the ATC archives, which are on our campus these days, I noticed that Lauren was as interested in the artistry of the original at maps, as she was in the details of where the trail went. Here's Lauren.


Lauren Tierney  11:36

Well, there are many things that really stood out. But one of the big things was the use of the at symbol in the maps to annotate the trail to annotate the compass rose or the north arrow is pretty incredible. This this symbol that it's just the letter A and the letter T stacked on top of each other. That symbol was used decades ago. And it's been used for such a long time. And so you see it out on the trail when you're hiking, you see it on trail markers, you see it on maps, current maps, you see. And then it was really cool to go back to some of these older maps and see this symbol used over and over again, whether it was something that was just highlighting as an Appalachian trail map, or it was on the cover of a trail map book or it had the state of Maine, for example, and then the at symbol in it. And the part that was most striking to me was having the at symbol used to differentiate the line of the trail on the maps.


Mills Kelly  12:36

Those maps mostly produced by the local trail clubs rather than the ATC, the Park Service or the Forest Service. So the clubs often used design elements that promoted their clubs, even as they provided directions to hikers.


Lauren Tierney  12:50

Another one was the use of the north arrow and Compass Rose. So to help readers orient whereas north, they had these really cool really, really elaborate ones actually, they were pretty massive, and they'd have these big North arrows and oftentimes that at this stacked A and T symbol were incorporated into those compass roses or into those North arrows. In other cases, the club logo was incorporated into those as well. The Potomac Appalachian Trail Club or PTC, they had a really elaborate north arrow and they still do that has their logo incorporated in it.


Mills Kelly  13:27

Those early maps of the AT were helpful and often quite beautiful. But I wouldn't want it to have had to rely on them for much more than major waypoints along my route. They were often produced at such an elevation from the trail that they were all but useless for making choices about whether the AT went left or right at an intersection.


Lauren Tierney  13:48

Looking at older maps, they tend to get more detailed over time as surveying improves or becomes more consistent or more maps are made or more information becomes available. So I did notice on the Appalachian Trail maps, especially some of the ones from decades ago, it was interesting because sometimes the most detailed information would be the river systems or the roads. But then the trail in some places would be a bit more generalized. And these maps to the majority of those trail maps didn't show any sort of terrain or relief. Map terrain or relief is essentially showing lighting and shadows on the map to help people understand there's a mountain here there's a hill here, there's a valley here. And so a lot of the maps were mostly just line so it was lines, rivers lines for roads lines for the Appalachian Trail, and a lot of those older maps was a bit more generalized. And my thinking is it may have been because they were still trying to figure out the trail. Maybe they didn't have quite the level of detail to detail it as much as the rivers or some of the roads, they could very easily go back to every time.


Mills Kelly  15:00

Those early maps also provided no useful information about the slope or elevation change along the trail. Of course, the men and women who made those early at maps didn't have access to all the technology we have today, GPS, satellite imaging, aerial surveys, and so on. Instead, they drew their maps by hand, using older maps and data that they or their colleagues collected in the field.


Lauren Tierney  15:27

Because maps used to be hand drawn, there are many different methods for doing this. But one of the methods was to work on a light table and have essentially different films, that if you had an area that you were mapping, you would have a film for your rivers, you would have a film for your roads, and essentially adding these layers to then trace the rivers, then you work with your film of roads, you trace the roads. And this isn't much different from how mapping software works in modern day is you're essentially layering things. So you have a layer for roads, you have a layer for rivers, it's a digital file that you're able to just very quickly drag and drop into your mapping software. But how it worked in the past was those files that you would now drag and drop at the time they were filmed, or were essentially used to trace. So imagine if you have a map of a section of Appalachian Trail, and a changes made to that trail, you need to retrace all the rivers you need to retrace all the roads and then you go in and you're adding the new trail or the new rerouted trail.


Mills Kelly  16:34

Since the Second World War, those maps have improved a lot. aerial surveys give map makers much better data about the mountains The trail passes through. The US Geological Survey produce new maps with much more updated information about the elevations, roads and other useful landmarks. And mapmakers from various government agencies like the Geological Survey, the Forest Service and the Park Service began producing much more detailed maps of those mountains. Over time, those new methods and all that new data began to be fed into computers. And the whole process of mapping the Appalachian Trail got better and better.


Mills Kelly  17:20

To understand the state of the art today, we spoke with Josh Foster, who is the Appalachian Trail Conservancies GIS specialist. As Josh explained, the modern digital maps of the trails still rely on maps produced by the National Park Service. After the passage of the National Scenic Trails Act in 1968.


Josh Foster  17:38

We still use the print segment maps. So in Harpers Ferry in the Appalachian Trail park office, we still have a series of map drawers with all the segment maps from when the Park Service had went out and did their centerline survey and then started the acquisition program. For the corridor, we sometimes have a question, we still go back to those maps, even though most of our GIS is kind of built from those print maps that were digitized around like 2003 2004. But we still go back to print maps sometimes when we have a question about access or who used to own something or where a shelter was before 1968.


Mills Kelly  18:14

Making maps with digital tools is a lot easier than it was in the days when cartographers had to use light tables and overlays.


Josh Foster  18:22

It's very easy now with all the software's that are out there to display. Like I made a map the other day where I had high biodiversity lands displayed over top of the USGS is protected areas database at a three by for me just had to make three maps for the trail. And you could almost wayfind off those maps if you really needed to. And before that would have taken a cartographer a long time to hand draw.


Mills Kelly  18:49

Well, digital tools make it much easier to produce much more detailed, and thus much more useful maps. Something gets lost when mapmakers work in offices at computers. 


Josh Foster  19:02

The one thing that older cartographers really did was go out and into the world. If you read some of the old acquisition documents from the Park Service, they would actually go out and talk to folks up and down the trail, kind of get those stories and be able to put those onto a map, where we do a little bit of that using GPS units. But a lot of times we have a very specific focus for a project where some of the older cartographers would have probably more time to spend in the field and then come back and make their maps after.


Mills Kelly  19:36

Now, I know that many hikers love their apps, but I'm a map guy. So I still carry physical maps with me when I hike. A sure sign that I'm getting old. But it turns out that Josh, who is decades younger than I am, still carries maps to which makes me happy.


Josh Foster  19:56

If I go to a different area, I always carry a print map. I always make sure I have one of our maps from ADC or another mapping company that I really like is the Purple Lizard Maps. They just made a map of Shenandoah, and they've done a lot of maps in Pennsylvania and other parts and I think the menorrhagia Heelan National Forests now, really great cartography really, they put these little lizards on their map that gives you like a little bit of historical context.


Mills Kelly  20:28

If you'll indulge me in a crusty old hiker moment, I'll just mention that a few years ago, I was on the trail in central Virginia in August. And as the trail often is, in August, the water sources were running dry. I had planned to spend the night camped along the trail near spring. But when I got there, the spring was dry, and a young long distance hiker was sitting there looking dejected. When I asked him what was wrong, he told me that he was out of water, and his phone was out of charge. So he didn't know how far the next spring was. In a triumph for the map, lovers of the AT they whipped out my physical map showed him that a good sized stream was just two miles north of us. He looked at me oddly and said, you carry a map. I simply smiled and pointed out that maps never run out of charge, and shuffled my way up the trail.


Mills Kelly  21:32

One of the earliest tasks of the trail building clubs was to start writing guidebooks for the trail. Books that would give hikers all the information they needed, on how to get to the trail, what they would find along the trail, and how to get from one place to another. Those early trail guides, unlike the early maps, were incredibly detailed. Here's just one example from the 1969 edition of The Guide to the Appalachian Trail in Maine, describing the approach to the Saddleback Ranch from the south.


Voice Actor Alison Langford - The Guide to the Appalachian Trail in Maine   22:05

From the dirt road on the old railroad grade along Orbeton Stream, the trail ascends steeply for ⅓ of a mile, then more gradually, climbing toward the dome of Poplar Ridge. The route passes over a rocky section with sparse growth and crosses a brook at 2.3 miles, where the Poplar Ridge Lean-to is located. The trail then bears left, crossing another summit, and then a boggy section, and ascends the south slope of Saddleback Junior, crossing a brook in 3 and 1/3s miles. Just beyond, it emerges from the woods and reaches the summit of Saddleback Junior at 3.62 miles.


Mills Kelly  22:51

Right from the beginnings of the Appalachian Trail, the ATC staff began writing guidebooks for those sections of the trail where guidebooks didn't already exist. In addition to making the trail more accessible, and easier to navigate, those guide books were an important source of revenue for the ATC. It's hard to imagine now, but until the 1970s, the ATC was perpetually broke. The Conservancy raised money through membership dues, dues paid by the trail clubs, and the sale of guidebooks and maps. The Green Mountain Club and the Appalachian Mountain Club sold their own guidebooks. But Avery wanted hikers to buy the ATCs guides. At one point, Avery got into such a squabble with the AMC over guidebooks sales pit the leadership of that venerable hiking club, almost ditched the bat project. Avery was also forever pushing the local clubs to purchase hundreds of the trail guides from the ATC and then to resell them to club members and local hikers. Those guidebooks were being constantly revised as the trail moved around. So Avery was always pestering the local clubs to purchase the newest additions. Sometimes they were happy to comply with his pestering. Other times, they politely but firmly refused. When they did, he just became more insistent, sometimes leading to strained relations between the local clubs and the ATC.


Mills Kelly  24:23

Not long ago, I was giving a presentation about my new book to the Patrick County Historical Society and Stuart, Virginia. And at the end of my talk, Jean Golightly introduced herself to me. Jean is one of the 10s of 1000s of volunteers who have made and continue to make the 80 possible. And among the many things she did as an AT volunteer was to write and edit trail guides.


Mills Kelly  24:48

I started hiking on the AT in 1971 as a young boy scout jeans experience with the trail goes back much further. You see Jean is 90 years old.


Jean Golightly  24:59

I grew up in New Jersey, flatland, New Jersey, where we went for vacations not to the beach, but to the mountains to the White Mountains in New Hampshire, which is where I got introduced to hiking by my father, who took me up Mount Washington. And I stood there and looked across the mountains at this little thread of a trail going off into the distance, thinking, Oh, wouldn't that be exciting? Never dreaming that 50-60 years later, I would be hiking it and able to do the whole thing. Went to Bucknell University, which is where I met my husband in English class. And majored in music. Got married right after college. So we were married for 67 years. taught music for a couple years. My last experience with music. Well, I was church organist, choir director, all that kind of stuff. Never really had a career. It was all volunteer stuff, and piecemeal things and raising kids. And foster kids had 100 foster kids over the years. My last music experience was teaching at a preschool, and I would get up in the morning, that was three days a week and go to preschool and the other three mornings, I would get up and go to work at Appalachian outfitters backpacking shop. And didn't take me long to figure out that the mornings I was going to the preschool, I didn't care whether I got up or not. Today's I was going to work at the backpacking shop, I couldn't wait to get there. So that was the end of the music career.


Mills Kelly  26:48

Jean probably saw me in that store. Because Appalachian Outfitters was my church when I was a kid. On Saturdays, I would ride my bike the five miles or so to the store, and just wander around inside, touching all the gear, dreaming about what I might buy, and pestering the staff with questions about stoves, boots, and backpacks.


Mills Kelly  27:11

Every trail guide since the 1930s is essentially a revision of those original guides. And that's the kind of work Jean took up when she joined the PATC as a volunteer.


Jean Golightly  27:22

My thing with them was writing those trail guides. And then I became in charge of all the publications Once I retired from that committee in but it just got to be too much after 10, 13 years because it wasn't like it is now where you have somebody with GPS and somebody doing maps, you know, we were physically doing the map, physically measuring the trails. We had to keep revising them. The Shenandoah, that was the first guidebook that I revised the dens the wrote that guidebook, we're still here, and I would consult with them and you know, make changes at all. And then at that I think things were just typewritten, it seems to me on a typewriter.


Mills Kelly  28:11

Over the years, Jene edited the PATC Guide to the AT in Northern Virginia, the guide to the AT and Shenandoah National Park and several guides to trails that connect to the Appalachian Trail. During our conversation, I asked Jean, if she interviewed other hikers for information for the guides she was working on. Or if she went out and hiked the trail herself.


Jean Golightly  28:34

I was the hiker. And one of the areas that I did in that first book was were big losses on the Virginia West Virginia line. And it was an area that there was nothing written about at that point. And I found someplace at old Xerox copy of that area that had some lines drawn on it that looked like trails. And that's how I explored that area. Because there was there were no other maps out there. And that was such fun.


Mills Kelly  29:14

Like the guidebook writers of the 1930s. For gene that was the fun part, getting out into the mountains, finding a route, and then describing that route in enough detail that other hikers could replicate what she had done. If you're an app user, the next time you pull out your phone, remember that much of what you read in your app is drawn from the work of those early guidebook writers and later editors like Jean, or from the maps trail club cartographers pieced together on light tables using transparencies. Without those early wayfinders all of us would find the AT a lot more difficult to hike on.


Mills Kelly  30:01

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 Josh Foster, Lauren Tierney, Tom Weaver, and especially Jean Golightly are sharing their stories about maps, signs and guides with us. Original music for our show is performed by Scott Miller of Swoop, Virginia and Andrew small and Ashley Watkins of Floyd, Virginia. We're able to bring you this show through the generosity of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and many individual donors like you. To help us continue to produce the world's best podcast on the Appalachian Trail. Please visit our website at R2studios.org and click on the Support Us link to make a donation of any amount. We really appreciate it. Thanks for listening, and we'll see you soon.

Lauren Tierney

Lauren Tierney is a Senior Graphics Reporter at The Washington Post, focusing on mapping, weather and natural disaster coverage. Before joining the Post in 2017, she was a Graphics Editor at National Geographic Magazine, and has a masters degree in geography from the University of Oregon. She is a cartographer who enjoys telling stories with maps and specializes in mapping environment, climate, wildlife, and adventure topics.

Jean Golightly

Jean Golightly volunteered with the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club for decades. During her time, she updated many guidebooks including the PATC's Guide to the AT in Northern Virginia, the guide to the AT and Shenandoah National Park, and several guides to trails that connect to the Appalachian Trail.

Josh Foster

Josh Foster is the GIS Specialist at Appalachian Trail Conservancy and makes and updates maps.

Tom Weaver

Tom Weaver was the president of the Carolina Mountain Club and the club's trail Facility Manager. He is responsible for making all of the trail signs the club needs for its section of the AT.