Thursday, July 19, 2007

Hardy Trail and Its Fans Age Together

By PETER APPLEBOME
Our Towns
The New York Times
July 19, 2007

HARRIMAN STATE PARK, N.Y.

As a newlywed, married two weeks ago, Paul Dodson may have been skating on somewhat thin ice by leaving his bride behind so he could attend the conference of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the 80-year-old group that supports America’s most famous hiking trail.

But then, two months after he had his left knee replaced a few years back, he was out hiking mountains in New Zealand, which says something about Mr. Dodson, 70, and about the demographic that turned out over the past week at Ramapo College in Mahwah, N.J., for the 36th biennial conference of the conservancy (it used to be called the Appalachian Trail Conference).

Completed in 1937, maintained by hardy volunteers and rendered fleetingly trendy by Bill Bryson’s 1998 book, “A Walk in the Woods,” the A.T. is one of the true wonders of American life, even if no one really knows how long it is (the conservancy now puts it at 2,175 miles).

But if the image that comes up is of footloose granola-heads badly in need of a shower trekking from Georgia to Maine, the reality this week turned out to be another snapshot of the graying of America. The biggest age group at the conference was 60 to 69. The entertainment was the venerable folk-rock duo Aztec Two-Step and (yikes!) 1910 Fruitgum Company, and, in addition to the glories of the trail, the frailties of the flesh was a common theme.

“Old men, old boats and old cars are a pain,” muttered Glen Pyles, 74, after a mild tumble during a 5.5-mile hike Monday. He’s done 875 miles of the trail but figures doing the whole thing is probably out of reach.

Attendance was 855 people, down a bit from recent years, which organizers ruefully attributed to anti-New Jersey prejudice. Apparently many hikers think the A.T. in New Jersey wraps around the New Jersey Turnpike.

At the conference, held every two years, the faithful attended sessions on nature and history. But most sessions, held all day and into the evenings, had to do with the varieties of the trail experience (Hammock Hiking, What’s New in Tents, What to Do if Lost in the Woods, Beginning G.P.S. Usage) or staying healthy (Orthopedic Injuries on the Trail; Care of the Feet, Infections and Other Medical Problems on the Trail).

And mostly they hiked — a mile to 20 miles. The group that included Mr. Dodson and Mr. Pyles on Monday did Section 11 of the trail in New York, a lovely slice of Harriman State Park, about 15 miles from Mahwah, filled with abandoned iron mines, which date back to the 1730s.

They scaled Fingerboard Mountain, passed by the old Greenwood Mine, navigated the Lemon Squeezer — a narrow passage between mammoth chunks of rock — passed by Island Pond, reached the summit of Green Pond Mountain, turned onto Old Arden Road, which once connected the estate of the Harriman family to the town of Tuxedo, and ended at the Elk Pen parking area near the place where the Harrimans had unsuccessfully tried to establish an elk herd.

If you didn’t bring enough to eat, there were plenty of wild blueberries. There are many, many worse ways to spend a day. Many of the hikers are part of the 5,500 volunteers who essentially maintain the trail, which meanders through 14 states. Whether a generation raised on Xboxes and video games will do the same thing is a question that people are beginning to wonder about.

LEST it seem that only those with an AARP card hike, the highlight of the day was running into the through-hikers headed toward Maine, working on finishing all 2,175 miles.

First came Aaron Faust, a 25-year-old graduate student at Bard College, then Sharon Petersen, a quilter from Vermont, who is a 57-year-old grandmother of two. Then came a middle-aged couple barreling through as if they had a train to catch, and finally three hikers in their 20s: an Iraq war veteran, a guy lugging his guitar and a woman whose trail name was Singe.

These days, they do the trail with iPods and cellphones, so even the A.T. isn’t the ultimate wilderness experience. Still, only about a quarter of those who start finish. Mr. Faust said the hiking itself was the easy part. “You miss your friends, you miss your family, you overthink every aspect of everything,” he said. “I’ve been out here a quarter of a year, and it takes its toll.”

Mrs. Petersen said it’s still a cruel world on the trail. “We women don’t even lose weight out here,” she said. “You eat so much junk food; there are 240 calories in all those energy bars. You eat one and you’re hungry again in a half hour.”

E-mail: peappl@nytimes.com

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