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October 2008
Posted Sep 15,2008


My life has been bracketed by trails. I grew up near the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail, which meanders from the Pacific Northwest rain forest to the California desert valley and passes through the Sky Lakes Wilderness in southern Oregon. It’s where I first tasted the magic of two loves, a backpack and a camera. I can remember rolling out of a tent to photograph a small lake as fingers of light poked through a scrim of mist and the rising sun burnished the landscape with the intense gold of late summer.

Thirty-six years later, on the other side of the continent, I can sit on my front porch, look west to the Blue Ridge Mountains, and see that other marquee route—the Appalachian Trail. I remember the first time I hiked the Appalachian. Being a Westerner, I imagined I knew what real mountains were; I figured I was in for a cakewalk. I was wrong. The Appalachian Trail upended my arrogance. I realized that a challenging hike and incredible beauty were not exclusive to the Pacific Crest.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the founding of a national system that incorporates 1,077 trails, totaling more than 66,000 miles in all 50 states. We feature one of them—Arkansas’s Ozark Highlands Trail—in this issue. “Build a trail and they will come,” says Pam Gluck, executive director of American Trails, a nonprofit that works to protect trails across the country. Trails, she points out, promote exercise and can help ease traffic congestion and decrease pollution. Most of all, trails put us in touch with nature—and ultimately ourselves.


Photograph by Peter Essick

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