Driving the Appalachian Trail

By Peter Mandel
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 5, 2001

All my life, I've wished I were one of those woodsmen who know trees and not traffic signals. Raised in Manhattan, I am a flop out of doors.

Still, I've always wanted to tackle the Appalachian Trail.

Realistically, I knew that conquering America's oldest and longest interstate hiking trail was beyond me. Unless I found a miracle stamina drink or some other solution to my tendency to pant like a retriever after short stints uphill, I would probably never make any progress on this 2,168-mile, mountain-studded, Maine-to-Georgia marathon.

Then it hit me. Though often remote, the Appalachian Trail is a route like any other. Ordinary roads must run near it and intersect it as it winds its way around towns, over rivers and across forested valleys. What was to stop me from tracking the trail by . . . car?

I got out my map. Not only did the AT cut across paved roads and march through villages and towns, but in places like Virginia's Blue Ridge Parkway, hikers spill out onto the pavement to walk along road shoulders and bridges.

That settled it. I would get on my duff and drive the AT. I would do it to see the sweep of the trail, to sense its distance and challenge, to take in its mountain views. I would follow the dirt path as closely as I could in my car, without actually driving right up onto it (which, by the way, is expressly forbidden).

And though it sounded sacrilegious, like snowmobiling the Alps or Jet-Skiing the English Channel, I would do it with pride – and the whole length of it, from Georgia to Maine.

Planning my route, I discovered that although books for AT hikers were plentiful – including Bill Bryson's wildly popular "A Walk in the Woods" – there wasn't a shred of encouragement for a guy with a car.

Had anyone ever tried to follow the AT by automobile?

No one was quite sure, and Brian King, public affairs director at the Appalachian Trail Conference, wasn't too optimistic about my chances. "Since people sometimes steal the signs at road crossings," he warned, "it's likely you'll be driving along not finding the trail at all. And cars have been torched at night when people have pulled over to sleep near the trail."

Still, I wasn't deterred. I would bring a compass, just like a real outdoorsman. I would ask around until I found the trail crossings. I would risk some nights sleeping in my car, spend some nights camping out. For food, I'd cook up hiker-style campfire meals on the trail, complemented with stops in cheap restaurants.

It takes hikers five months or more to walk the entire trail. I would take two weeks (an embarrassingly brief time frame) and hope to cross the trail a couple of times a day, while chasing the dotted line on my map.

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