Philip D'Anieri

Philip D’Anieri is a lecturer in urban and regional planning at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture & Urban Planning, where he teaches courses on the built environment. He is also the author of “The Appalachian Trail: A Biography,” published in 2021 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. VEDP President and CEO Jason El Koubi spoke with D’Anieri about the history of the Appalachian Trail inside and outside Virginia, why he chose to cover the trail’s history through a human lens, and the inseparability of urban planning from the natural environment.

Jason El Koubi: You’ve described yourself as a day hiker only. How much of the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) would you say you’ve hiked in the course of researching your book, and how did you combine the research project with the experience of the trail itself?

Philip D’Anieri: I’ve hiked on the trail in short sections in each of the 14 states it passes through. I’ve seen a lot of the trail in its various guises, the different locations that it’s in, the different forms that the trail itself takes. Sometimes it’s a sidewalk down a main street. Sometimes it’s a gorgeous mountain vista. A lot of the time, it’s just a trail through the woods that seems like any other trail. I’ve hiked on the trail enough to sample a lot of its different characters, but I’m not — and I never pretended to be — an avid long-distance hiker.

I’ve seen a lot of the trail and gotten a feel for it, but there are just thousands and thousands of people who have thru-hiked the entire 2,100 miles, sometimes in one trip, sometimes in several trips over the course of a lifetime. Sometimes they’ve dedicated themselves to just one portion of it. And one of the things I try to make clear in the book is that as awesome as that is — and as much as I might have hoped to do that, once when my knees were in better shape — that’s not the perspective of the book, where I’m really looking at the history and ideas behind the trail.

El Koubi: What makes the Appalachian Trail special and what inspired you to make this a major focus?

D’Anieri: It’s always been this iconic place. It’s not uncommon to be driving down an interstate highway and there’s a pedestrian bridge going over the freeway that says “Appalachian Trail.” In my urban planning studies, I came across the fact that the trail was actually conceived of by somebody who was thinking about cities and nature all at the same time and thought of the trail in part as providing a natural counterpoint to the cities. 

A shorter answer is I was interested enough in the trail that I wanted to read this book and it really wasn’t out there. I thought, “Maybe I could take a crack at it,” and I did. There wasn’t a history of the trail for a general audience, and I thought there ought to be one.

To commit to the trail and its environment for months to walk the whole thing in one go, that's a particularly American kind of escapism. It's got this quality of 'I'm going to prove something to myself and to others. I'm going to connect with the natural world in this really intense way.' 

Philip D'Anieri Author, "The Appalachian Trail: A Biography"

El Koubi: How do you go about writing a biography of a trail? You made a decision to focus on some of the major figures in the trail’s history. Can you talk about your particular approach and how it affected the final product?

D’Anieri: There was no A.T. before Benton MacKaye came up with the idea, and before a whole bunch of people organized around that idea and built the thing. So, it’s a human construction. I thought a good way to tell the story of the trail, as something that people created for themselves, was to tell it from the perspective of who those folks were at different points in time. What were they after? What did they see in a big long-distance trail over the mountains? What hopes and dreams and aspirations was it satisfying? How did those hopes and dreams and aspirations change over the years from even before the trail itself was proposed, all the way up to the present day? 

I’m not going to write a guidebook to the trail. There are plenty of good ones out there. I’m not going to write about my experience. There are plenty of good books out there in that vein, as well. But what I was trying to get at was why, and how is this place the way it is, and how has that changed over the years? In the same way that you would write a biography of a person — what were the influences? What were the times that person grew up in?

This idea of “The Appalachian Trail: A Biography” was twofold. Number one, I wanted to get at the character of the place. And number two, I wanted to do it with a bunch of individual biographies — here’s who Benton MacKaye was and how he came to it. Here’s who Myron Avery was, the field general who really got the thing built in the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. Here’s who Bill Bryson was, this author who popularized the trail when he wrote a book about it in the ‘90s. So, that was the thinking behind the term “biography,” even though it’s a biography of a physical thing rather than any one person.

El Koubi: Were there any big surprises or things you learned about the trail while doing your research?

D’Anieri: A few things. The first is how much of the Appalachian Trail is just a trail. If it didn’t have this narrow painted white blaze on a tree every 10 or 20 yards, you wouldn’t know that you were on the world-famous Appalachian Trail, versus a trail through a park in your community or in some state park. Although it does have incredible places with incredible vistas, for a lot of its length, it’s just a trail. I found that mundane quality really interesting.

I don’t think that takes anything away from the experience. I think it adds to it. A trail can be about a routine different perspective on the world without having to be atop some gorgeous mountain with an incredible view of everything.

The other thing that was really interesting was how many different types of people come to the trail, and come with their own version of what it is and why they’re doing it. In one chapter of the book, I talk about Earl Shaffer, widely recognized as the first thru-hiker, and Emma “Grandma” Gatewood, the first solo woman thru-hiker. They accomplished those tasks roughly 10 years apart, but were entirely different people.

Shaffer was a young person just out of the Army, trying to find himself. Gatewood was a grandmother from Appalachia who just wanted to go for a walk. I think a lot of folks, including myself, carry in our head with respect to the A.T. the idea, “Oh, it’s this thru-hiking venue. It’s for the hardcore outdoors person who’s going to hike the whole thing in one summer.” In fact, that’s a tiny, tiny percentage of the people who use the A.T. That’s not at all what it was built for. It serves a lot of different people’s needs in different ways. 

El Koubi: So, where did that thru-hiker goal come from in our country’s cultural imagination?

D’Anieri: One of the places it comes from is the one thing that makes the A.T. unique — the fact that it’s nearly 2,100 miles. I was saying how being on it can feel everyday and mundane. It can. But then you get these notions of “Wow, it doesn’t end at this one mountain peak,” or “It doesn’t loop back to the parking lot I started from.” It goes and goes and goes for an almost infinite distance in terms of your day-to-day experience of it. Not surprisingly, people started to wonder, “What if I just committed myself to doing the whole thing?” It offers this opportunity for separation from our day-to-day lives.

While you can get that from a three-hour or three-day hike, to commit to the trail and its environment for months to walk the whole thing in one go, that’s a particularly American kind of escapism. It’s got this quality of “I’m going to prove something to myself and to others. I’m going to check out from the day-to-day of my job and my neighbors, and I’m going to go off and be in the woods. I’m going to connect with the natural world in this really intense way.”

I think that taps into a lot of cultural trends that are out there. And it didn’t take long after Earl Shaffer did this hike in the ‘40s for that idea to catch on with a lot of people. Nowadays, in the era of social media, it’s an incredibly popular source of online personality.

We've always had a real physical connection between our urban life and the natural world around us. One thing trails do is provide the gateway from one to the other. 

Philip D'Anieri Author, "The Appalachian Trail: A Biography"

El Koubi: I’m interested in how this book connects with your other work as a university lecturer focused on the built environment. How does planning outdoor attractions like hiking trails intersect with the needs of other parts of the built environment, such as cities and towns?

D’Anieri: The idea of Benton MacKaye, who thought up the A.T., was we’ve got cities defined by and dependent on the natural world around them. They need fuel sources. They need raw materials for their factories. This is in the 1920s. It’s 1921 when he publishes his article. That’s where the water power is coming from to power mills. He saw this intimate connection between the physical landscape at a regional scale with the urban lives lived within that. 

Think about how Virginia runs from the Appalachians in the western part of the state through gradually flattening terrain all the way out to the coastline. That physical geological reality has defined where the cities are, what they do, what industries popped up within them.

We’ve always had a real physical connection between our urban life and the natural world around us. One thing trails do is provide the gateway from one to the other. As urban planners, we’re always thinking about the natural environment. Obviously, we think about trails from the perspective of recreational planning. 

I love to point out to folks that the U.S. National Park Service has its own standalone urban planning office. Everyone asks, “How can that be? The parks are the opposite of the cities. Why would the national parks do urban planning?”

What happens when you go to a national park? You’ve got to park your car. You’ve got to stay somewhere. Facilities have to be provided. Different uses are allowed in different parts of the park, just like we use zoning to carve out different land uses in different parts of the city. So, this divide we like to have between, “Oh, well, here’s the urban and the built. And then over there’s the natural and the environment” — it’s not so clear. They actually blend into and overlap with one another a fair bit.

When we can be on a trail, we appreciate nature, the trees, the animals. Just the fact that we’re moving under our own power with dirt under our feet, up and down the terrain — we can see and appreciate that, as well as the working farmers’ fields and small towns, or the valleys we can see from these vantage points. Sometimes that gives the walk a different character, when we realize it’s got this human history made at the same time as this natural timelessness.

Philip D'Anieri Author, "The Appalachian Trail: A Biography"

To me, it made perfect sense as somebody who’s interested in urban planning and the built environment to go all the way to one extreme of that, the Appalachian Trail, and look at how it itself is built and what people were trying to do when they built it. Maybe that gives us a more accurate perspective on how the natural and the built connect to one another.

El Koubi: What can an attraction like the Appalachian Trail do for nearby cities and towns? Are there any towns or communities along or near the trail, whether in Virginia or other states, that really seem to be doing a good job of connecting to the trail, embracing it, capitalizing on its value as a cultural and recreational asset?

D’Anieri: Probably the best example along the whole A.T. is in Damascus, Virginia, which describes itself as Trail Town USA — not only because the A.T. comes through there, but also the Virginia Creeper Trail and others. Damascus is one of those places where, as a practicality of building the trail, it comes down out of the mountain, runs through town, uses a road bridge to get over the river, and then goes back up into the hills on the other side. And Damascus, over the years, has developed a whole culture and identity with shops serving hikers and hostels or campgrounds where hikers can camp or spend the night. 

It’s an entire economic identity for a town that otherwise, like a lot of places built up as forest towns and the forest products industry, doesn’t have that livelihood anymore. Now they have this new identity around recreation in general, and the trail in particular. That phenomenon of smaller rural mountain towns and communities seeing an economic resource in the trail has happened up and down the trail — to the point where now the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) has a formal Trail Towns program cities can qualify for and announce themselves as Trail Towns. That features in their own economic development efforts and makes for valuable partnerships between the trail and its community of hikers and the towns it runs through. 

Grayson Highlands State Park

Grayson Highlands State Park

 

El Koubi: We want all our readers to read “The Appalachian Trail: A Biography.” But I’m also interested in other things you ran across in your research for folks who want to learn more. Are there other books, articles, or films about the Appalachian Trail that you would recommend, or about trails in general?

D’Anieri: On the history of the trail itself, last year the ATC published “From Dream to Reality” by Tom Johnson, who unfortunately died just before its publication. It is the full, thick, authoritative history of the trail and the folks who built it. My book is a slimmer look at how and why we would have a trail, but this is a denser deep dive on everything you could want to know about the trail and its development over the years.

At the other end of the spectrum, a book that’s not exactly about the A.T., but written by an A.T. thru-hiker, is “On Trails” by Robert Moor. It’s a fascinating explanation of why we care so much about trails. Why do we keep creating these paths and using them? He goes to a bunch of places and examines different kinds of trails. It’s a very interesting philosophical reflection on why this idea of a trail keeps attracting us.

El Koubi: One of the personal projects I’ve been working on is trying to hike every mile of trail in Shenandoah National Park here in Virginia. It’s about 100 miles long, and there are actually about 500 miles of trail throughout Shenandoah National Park. Are there any insights you’ve learned that might be helpful to me, or that would help enrich the experience of a person who just likes to get out and hike in and around the A.T.?

D’Anieri: What I found interesting as I hiked was trying to understand the human history of the place. When we can be on a trail, we appreciate nature, the trees, the animals. Just the fact that we’re moving under our own power with dirt under our feet, up and down the terrain — we can see and appreciate that, as well as the working farmers’ fields and small towns, or the valleys we can see from these vantage points. Sometimes that gives the walk a different character, when we realize it’s got this human history made at the same time as this natural timelessness. That might be something to ponder as you shuffle down the path.

I think a lot of folks carry in our head with respect to the A.T. the idea, ‘It’s for the hardcore outdoors person who’s going to hike the whole thing in one summer.’ In fact, that’s a tiny, tiny percentage of the people who use the A.T. It serves a lot of different people’s needs in different ways.

Philip D'Anieri Author, "The Appalachian Trail: A Biography"

El Koubi: One thing that makes Virginia’s relationship with the Appalachian Trail special is that we have a larger portion of the trail than any other state. Any thoughts on the Virginia section?

D’Anieri: Across that length, it takes in a lot of different landscapes — all of them mountainous and a lot with great viewpoints. But the mountainous terrain at the southern end of the A.T. in Virginia is different than up by West Virginia and Maryland. 

A big part of the A.T.’s history was the fight between it and the builders of parkways, especially Skyline Drive in Shenandoah and the Blue Ridge Parkway, all the way down to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. They fought over the ridge line. So, a large chunk of the A.T. in Virginia was moved as much as 50 miles from its original location to get it away from the Blue Ridge Parkway. That’s definitely a key part of the trail’s history, which is especially visible in Virginia.

El Koubi: That’s really interesting. Thank you so much for joining us today. This has been terrific. 

D’Anieri: It’s been a joy to talk about it. Thanks for having me.

 

Suggested Reading

Virginia Creeper Trail VER Q3 2022

Selling Virginia Delicacies Along the Commonwealth's Tourist Trails

Third Quarter 2022

From fourth-generation oyster farms to award-winning distilleries, Virginia’s food and beverage trails offer a bounty for hungry travelers. Here’s how some of those businesses have benefited from being on these trails.

Read More
 René Rodgers

Following The Crooked Road: A Conversation With René Rodgers

Third Quarter 2022

Dr. René Rodgers, head curator at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol, spoke about Virginia’s role in the popularization of what’s now known as country music.

Read More

Podcasts

Rene Rodgers Podcast Headshot VER Q3 2022

Following the Crooked Road: A Conversation With René Rodgers

September 30, 2022

Head Curator, Birthplace of Country Music Museum

Philip D'Anieri Podcast Headshot

The Story Behind an Iconic American Hike: A Conversation With Philip D’Anieri

September 30, 2022

Author, “The Appalachian Trail: A Biography”

Anne Kress Podcast Horizontal Headshot VER Q2 2022

Creating Positive Outcomes for Students and Employers: A Conversation With Anne Kress

July 5, 2022

President, Northern Virginia Community College

View All Podcasts