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The Spirit of the Appalachian Trail

Community, Environment, and Belief

Susan P. Bratton

Publication Year: 2012

“Want to know what wilderness means to people who live it for over two thousand miles? Then read this extremely interesting, informative, intelligent, and thoughtful book.” —Roger S. Gottlieb, author of Engaging Voices: Tales of Morality and Meaning in an Age of Global Warming

“There is no doubt that Bratton’s book will be of value to students and scholars of leisure studies, recreation, and religion. Those who are familiar with the Appalachian Trail sense intuitively that a journey along its length kindles spiritual awakening; this book provides the hard data to prove it’s true.” —David Brill, author of As Far as the Eye Can See: Reflections of an Appalachian Trail Hiker  

The Appalachian Trail covers 2,180 miles, passing through fourteen states from Georgia to Maine. Each year, an estimated 2–3 million people visit the trail, and almost two thousand attempt a “thru-hike,” walking the entire distance of the path. For many, the journey transcends a mere walk in the woods and becomes a modern-day pilgrimage.
            In The Spirit of the Appalachian Trail: Community, Environment, and Belief, Susan Power Bratton addresses the spiritual dimensions of hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT). Hikers often comment on how their experience as thru-hikers changes them spiritually forever, but this is the first study to evaluate these religious or quasireligious claims critically. Rather than ask if wilderness and outdoor recreation have benefits for the soul, this volume investigates specifically how long-distance walking might enhance both body and mind.
            Most who are familiar with the AT sense intuitively that a trek along its length kindles spiritual awakening. Using both a quantitative and qualitative approach, this book provides the hard data to support this notion. Bratton bases her work on five sources: an exhaustive survey of long-distance AT hikers, published trail diaries and memoirs, hikers? own logs and postings, her own personal observations from many years on the trail, and conversations with numerous members of the AT community, including the “trail angels,” residents of small towns along the path who attend to hikers? need for food, shelter, or medical attention.
            The abundant photographs reinforce the text and enable visualization of the cultural and natural context. This volume is fully indexed with extensive reference and notes sections and detailed appendixes. Written in an engaging and accessible style, The Spirit of the Appalachian Trail presents a full picture of the spirituality of the AT.
Susan Power Bratton is professor of environmental studies. She is the author of Six Billion and More: Human Population Regulation and Christian Ethics, Environmental Values in Christian Art, and Christianity, Wilderness, and Wildlife: The Original Desert Solitaire.

Published by: The University of Tennessee Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v

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Preface: Hill Walking, Heart and Soul

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pp. xiii-xviii

I grew up between two cultural traditions, both of which considered walking as a healthful avocation. One influence was the Protestant middle class of the eastern U.S. seaboard—sponsors of children’s YMCA and church camps. Scrambling through patches of oak forest, bordered by bramble-filled old fields, we took short hikes, studied nature...

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pp. xix

This volume is dedicated to all the individuals who have worked to establish, maintain, and interpret Appalachian natural areas and hiking trails, including those who have passed on. I fondly remember Carlos Campbell, Anne Broome, Don Defoe, Al Radford, Robert Whittaker...

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Chapter 1. The Appalachian Trail as Spiritual Experience

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pp. 1-24

Although landscape architects, designers, and planners have appreciated the built or developed environment as an expression of human integration with the greater geologic and biotic milieu, some very important human constructions are, more often than not, left out of the dialogue about spirit and nature. One of the most obvious forms of human...

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Chapter 2. The Trail as Physical and Social Environment

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pp. 25-42

For the reader unfamiliar with the geography and construction of the Appalachian Trail, the AT is a footpath maintained at the width for one hiker, or about twelve to twenty-four inches of bare soil or treadway (about thirty to sixty cm), and a branch-free zone, just slightly greater, to about three feet (one meter). Many sections are wider owing to use of old roadbeds or the concentrated impacts of hikers and weekenders who trample...

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Chapter 3. Today’s Hikers: Gender, Age, and Religious Affiliation

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pp. 43-62

Prior to introducing the volunteer support network and the question of hiker experience, it is important to know who the hikers are. Is the iconic AT hiker— the young, muscular, white male, wearing loose rustic clothes and setting out happily by himself—still the typical Appalachian Trail thru-hiker? My AT questionnaire requested standard demographic...

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Chapter 4. Angels and Volunteers: The Heart of the Trail

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pp. 63-80

Much as the trail was originally the product of volunteers, one of the major expressions of the spirit of the Appalachian Trail has always been the people along the way who offer assistance to hikers without asking for compensation or, if running a business, who provide something extra for hikers at no cost. Today, hikers call those who just appear...

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Chapter 5. Religious Organizations and Support for Hikers

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pp. 81-98

A unique feature of the Appalachian Trail is the involvement, along its length, of churches, retreat centers, and religious nonprofits in hiker care. The National Park Service has allowed a Christian nonprofit to recruit unsalaried, volunteer ministers, many of whom are seminary students. They organize worship services for national park campgrounds, at least...

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Chapter 6. Hiker Ethics: Interactions with the Support Network and Volunteers

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pp. 99-118

This project tapped five sources of information on the ethics of Appalachian Trail hikers, the hikers themselves, the support community, environmental and trail professionals, journals published by 2,000-milers, and personal observation. The comments of hostel managers and owners of trailside businesses reflected the perceptions of hiker...

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Chapter 7. Environmental Values and Learning on the Trail

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pp. 119-144

The second major source of information on hiker ethics was the self-reported perspectives of the AT hikers themselves. My hiker survey incorporated sixteen questions concerning ethical values, with an emphasis on environmental ethics and care for other people; and thirteen questions concerning how the AT trip had influenced the hikers’ ethics. In...

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Chapter 8. Building Friendships, Discovering Self, Enjoying Terrains

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pp. 145-166

The AT survey quantified hiker perceptions of the impact of their journey on personal outcomes such as forming friendships, improving physical fitness, and experiencing inner harmony. The questions were an amalgam, primarily derived from the original applications of the Spiritual Health in Four Domains Index (SH4DI)1 and other surveys intended...

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Chapter 9. Spirit in Nature: Religious Meaning andthe Transcendent

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pp. 167-194

The fourth element in the SH4DI was the transcendent domain: the relationship to God or “the relationship of self with something or someone beyond the human level a Transcendent Other.”1 The final section of the survey concerned explicitly religious or spiritual responses to the Appalachian Trail. To remain open to a variety of religious traditions, the questions...

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Conclusion : Gains in Four Spiritual Domains

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pp. 195-214

Other studies have confirmed that wilderness recreation has positive correlations to self-actualization, self-esteem, emotional or psychological healing, building teamwork, and reducing antisocial behaviors.1 The AT surveys verified that the trail filled a remarkable range of individual needs for change and life reorientation and provided benefits in all...

Appendix I. Tables of Ethical Values

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pp. 215-218

Appendix II. Tables of Personal Values

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pp. 222-224

Appendix III. Tables of Spiritual and Personal Values

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pp. 225-230

Appendix IV. Written Comments by Religious Background

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pp. 231-258


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pp. 259-270


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pp. 271


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pp. 292-305

E-ISBN-13: 9781572338814
E-ISBN-10: 1572338814
Print-ISBN-13: 9781572338777
Print-ISBN-10: 1572338776

Page Count: 304
Publication Year: 2012