From Sandisfield to Mount Katahdin

The through-walkers are beginning to drift by. Those clever hikers who know more or less how long it takes to walk the entire Appalachian Trail set out from Georgia's Springer Mountain late last March, and they expect to be at the summit of Mount Katahdin when the Maine leaves are just beginning to turn, before it gets too cold.

Now they are a little more than halfway along, reaching into our companionable neighborhood. You see them in their ones and twos, walking wearily — or hitchhiking, aromatically — into Great Barrington, for a coffee or a bagel or a decent night's sleep.

I am sure that all of us in Sandisfield, where I live, are pretty familiar with the Appalachian Trail. Even if we haven't walked it — and I'd recommend the 10 miles from the Route 57/23 junction to the south end of Great Barrington as a great Sunday morning heart-starter — we know where it is in relation to us, where it starts and finishes, and how noble it would be to walk all 2,200 miles of it. It was born as an idea back in 1921, it was fully blazed and bridged by 1937, and it is now one of those all-American creations that contents us every one, gives us a smidgen of pride when the worst days get us down.

But these days I'm less interested in the AT itself, much more so in its northern and eastern extensions — in part because I am a geologist manqu , and in part because, as part of my own literary bucket-list, I'm planning to walk it. It will take a good two years, and I can see at the end, if I survive the experience, the makings of a rather good and possibly rather thrilling book.

"It" is the International Appalachian Trail, or the Sentier International des Appalaches, and for those of us who fantasize about walking it, it is the more manly, meat-and-potatoes trail that takes off where the milquetoasts stop and head off home to their mothers.

The IAT (or the SIA if you're a Francophone) begins at Mount Katahdin, and it heads down across the blueberry bogs of northern Maine across the St. John River into New Brunswick (passports must be packed), then into Quebec and Nova Scotia and by ferry to that long western arm of Newfoundland. From there the trail heads through the vastly impressive Gros Morne National Park and up to the Viking settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows, where doubters can finally be convinced that it was not Columbus who got here first, but a Norwegian who settled, built a farm, and whose wife had a baby — the first European born in North America and who was named Snorri Thorfinsson.

But I digress, for the IAT then gets rather more interesting. The part I've described so far was first hiked back in 1997 by a young man from Washington state who began his own walk down in Key West. His finishing in Newfoundland may have been sufficient for him. But it would hardly satisfy the geologist manqu in me, nor any other person interested in the tectonic picture of the North Atlantic Ocean. For the forces that created the Appalachian Mountain created a great deal more than our green hills — and most of what they made lies today on the far side of the sea. Which is where the real IAT runs, and which thus far has never been walked.

So the plan — maybe a pipedream, but an interested friend from Tyringham is eager to come along — is first to head (via a good deal of waterborne travel) north from Newfoundland to Greenland, then to Iceland, then the Faeroe islands and finally to Svalbard, north of Norway. Trails are marked in all of these countries, and with a pretty IAT logo to boot.

From the islands of Svalbard — and it would be nifty to begin there at the Global Seed Vault: please Google it — the trail goes south to Norway (by way of the Child Wanderers Path, please ditto), then to northern and western Scotland, through portions of Ireland, Cornwall, Brittany and Spain (touching the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, which I walked 20 years ago) and finally by way of the ferry from Algeciras to Tangier, down into Africa, to the Atlas Mountains and the trail's formal end.

There's said to be a signboard announcing so, somewhere near Agadir, and I have a plan to find it. Three thousand-odd miles of walking and two years to do it. The publishers have said they are interested. My boots are looking up at me, saying c'mon, you wuss. As is my old blackthorn walking stick, and my venerably battered haversack.

All I have to do first is to take that short initial stroll — a heart-starter of a kind — from Sandisfield to Mount Katahdin. And after that, as they say, it's all downhill.

This column first appeared in the Sandisfield Times.


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