Maureen Milliken here…
Remember back in 2009, North Carolina governor Mark Sanford’s alibi for an extramarital affair with a woman in Argentina was that he was hiking the Appalachian Trail?
Sanford was away from home for about a week, but events overtook him and the alibi didn’t hold up.
And the Appalachian Trail, briefly at least, became part of a bad punchline.
Until then, not that the trail was unheard of, but it wasn’t really in the news a lot. There’d be brief mentions here and there, but it was just there. Someplace, for most of us, other people went to hike.
Not this summer though. I’m going to dub this The Summer of the Appalachian Trail.
A lot of the credit goes to Maine crime writer Paul Doirin, who’s sixth Mike Bowditch novel, “The Precipice,” was released at the beginning of the summer and the trail plays a big part.
Hollywood has also remade the Bill Bryson classic “A Walk in the Woods,” with Robert Redford playing the Bryson character. The movie comes out next weekend. If you’ve never read the book, it’s as harrowing as Doiron’s in its own way as Bryson and another horrifically unprepared friend hike the trail from Georgia to Maine.
The movie is getting a lot of buzz, and no one seems too bothered that 79-year-old Redford is playing the role of Bryson, who was 44 when he hiked the trail in 1996. Bryson, least of all. Though if Robert Redford were turning my book into a movie, I probably wouldn’t have any gripes either.
Nick Nolte, 74, is playing his friend, Steve Katz. And of course, because it’s Hollywood, 56-year-old Emma Thompson is playing Redford’s wife. I guess I’d look kind of jerky if I pointed out that Bryson’s wife would have had to be 21 for that to match, but I guess I should just be grateful Hollywood, which can’t conceive of men over 30 actually being paired with women their own age, didn’t give Redford a 21-year-old wife. I guess he wouldn’t be out on the Appalachian Trail if that were the case. But I digress.
This morning’s Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel, as well as other Maine newspapers, carries an Associated Press story about hikers trashing the trail, drinking, crowding it out. Kind of the latest Mount Everest.
The story speculates that the movie “Wild” about a troubled woman hiking the Pacific Rim trail led to the resurgence and speculate “A Walk in the Woods” is going to make it worse.
The AP story says that more than 830 people completed the 2,189-mile hike last year, up from just 182 in 1990, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. At Baxter State Park, the north terminus of the trail, the number of registered long-distance hikers grew from 359 in 1991 to more than 2,000 in 2014.
So fame has its downside. Funny as an affair alibi, it’s now become a bucket list must-do for, I guess, people who like to party and throw trash around.
It’s getting bad enough that Baxter State Park officials are threatening to have the last miles of the trail and it’s famous end moved from the park and the summit of Mount Katahdin.
The reality of the trail, as Bryson so effectively spells out, is not as a party spot.
Doiron’s book, while fiction, is also a reminder that the trail is remote, it’s dangerous and it shouldn’t be taken lightly. Doiron told the Boston Globe in an interview published in Sunday’s paper that a harrowing event on the trail when he was 22 changed his life and informed his fiction
He and two friends were hiking the trail in 1988 when they were struck by lightning and one of them was critically injured.
“It was the longest night of my life and my first brush with mortality,” Doiron told the Globe. “In my books now I write about the need for humans to be humble before the power of nature. I learned that lesson when I was 22 on the Appalachian Trail.”
Two years ago, Geraldine Largay’s disappearance on the trail, brought it onto the front pages of newspapers. The Tennessee woman, a thru-hiker, vanished without a trace in Franklin County here in Maine as she neared the last hundred or so miles of her hike. She has yet to be found.
Largay was hiking through what’s considered the toughest and most dangerous section of the trail’s 2,000-plus miles. Despite intensive and repeated searches, they have yet to find even her backpack. No, it’s not to be taken lightly.
My guess is that once movies that have made college kids and rich bucket-list people think the trail is something they just have to do fade back a little, the trail will get back to normal.
But the things that make it so compelling — to the brave few who understand it and hike it because of that, and the rest of us who settle for reading about it — will always remain.
Maureen Milliken is the author of Cold Hard News, the first in the Bernie O’Dea mystery series.