Before creating his masterpiece, the Appalachian Trail's visionary loved and lost
Benton MacKaye proposed the trail in the days after the tragic death of his wife — "an important walker in her own right."
Benton MacKaye was a big dreamer.
“Sometimes — in fact, most of the time — his thoughts got ahead of what he was able to actually call into reality, and he would frustrate his allies a little bit in that way," said Phil D'Anieri, author of a history of the Appalachian Trail.
D'Anieri said Benton MacKaye was one of America’s first foresters — the first forestry graduate from Harvard, in fact. He was also a socialist and a nonconformist.
“Mackaye was a restless thinker, philosopher, agitator in the fields of natural resources, human settlement, and how they joined up together," he said. "He was the kind of person who was always thinking bigger thoughts, more complex thoughts, and they all had to do with, how should society be arranged?”
MacKaye said in a letter that the idea for the trail may well have originated on Stratton Mountain in 1900. But D’Anieri said it’s reasonable to conclude Stratton Mountain isn’t the whole story.
“The lore of almost any invention or creation is finding that one point in time, and usually that one person that it came from," he said. "And while those make convenient stories to tell, and fun and interesting stories to tell, they usually mask a more complicated reality.”
"An Important Walker in Her Own Right"
Benton MacKaye’s wife — Jessie Belle Hardy Stubbs MacKaye — was a socialist and a progressive like her husband.
“She was an important walker in her own right.”
But she walked for women’s suffrage.
“One of the actions that women took to argue for the right to vote was to stage these long distance walks," he said. "And the rhetoric and the ideas of the time were, well, women are not equal to men, they're not as physically sturdy as men. These long distance walks over several days would really, physically, in a way you couldn't argue with, demonstrate that that was a bogus idea.”
They were called the Suffragette Hikes.
“They had a wide range of reactions," said Baruch College professor Tiffany Lewis. “Some people would see them and cheer them on. Some people would tell them to go home and go back to their husbands and tell them that they shouldn't be out, that they needed to be back taking care of their children.”
Lewis has a list of every suffragette who took part in the hikes. On one, she found the name Jessie Belle Hardy Stubbs — she hadn’t married MacKaye yet. She took part in one long trek from New York City to Albany. Newspaper reporters followed the women on their journey.
“They would stop in a town, and they would give some speeches, or have an event, or there might be a party or a dance or go speak at a theater, and then they would all find somewhere to stay overnight. And then they would get up the next day and walk and do it again.”
Lewis reads me one of the newspaper clippings.
“December 22, 1912, the Pittsburgh Gazette-Times … The headline was, ‘Mrs. Stubbs is trained. Daughter of Pittsburgher prepared for hike to Albany.’ … Mrs. Stubbs is of an athletic build, and finds the present tramp to Albany not one of unusual hardship, being in training for it through her love of outdoor exercise.”
But Jessie Belle Hardy Stubbs MacKaye also struggled with severe anxiety. She and her husband were living in New York City when she had a mental health crisis.
Both of them thought she’d feel better out in nature. Benton planned a trip to the country. But while he was buying train tickets, she disappeared from Grand Central Station. Her body was found later that day in the East River.
MacKaye was heartbroken. He went to stay with a friend in the mountains of New Jersey. And it was there he first proposed the Appalachian Trail.
"Acres, Not Medicine"
D'Anieri said it's important to note there's no evidence that the death of MacKaye's wife played any direct role in shaping his thoughts on the Appalachian Trail. Her role as a long-distance walker may have simply been a coincidence, even if it was a poetic one.
"What there is evidence for," he said, "is that they were both activists for a socially just and peaceful world. And his advocacy for the natural world was part of his larger advocacy."
D’Anieri said MacKaye was thinking about how cities tend to start in the valleys and worried they’d spread into the mountains.
“If the valleys are where we live and where our industry is, then the mountaintops ought to be where we create a barrier of protection, we keep the cities from getting too far extended," D'Anieri said. "So he cooks up this idea for big, wide nature preserves that run on either side of the ridge line of the Appalachian Mountains, from Georgia all the way to Maine. The center line would be a trail that runs over the highest ground available from peak to peak.”
“Let us assume the existence of a giant standing high on the skyline along these mountain ridges, his head just scraping the floating clouds," MacKaye wrote in his article. "What would he see from this skyline as he strode along its length from north to south? … The skyline along the top of the main divides and ridges of the Appalachians would overlook a mighty part of the nation’s activities. The rugged lands of this skyline would form a camping base strategic in the country’s work and play.”
And MacKaye also said the trail could be a good place for people struggling with their mental health.
“Many of these sufferers could be cured," he wrote. "But not merely by ‘treatment.’ They need comprehensive provision made for them. They need acres, not medicine.”
A lot of research suggests that Benton MacKaye might have been onto something. As does anyone whose mood has been lifted by a long walk in the woods. I met hiker Danielle Hallock at the top of Stratton Mountain. We looked out, at the view that inspired Benton MacKaye to one day propose a connected landscape. She spent ten days last year on the Long Trail in Vermont, the predecessor to the Appalachian Trail.
“Well, you have so much time to reflect, to think about your life, your memories, where you've come this far. But also you get these realizations about what you're capable of. “First you don't think you can do it. You think your feet hurt so much. Then you drink a lot of water, you eat, you get some sleep, and then the next day, all of a sudden you realize you can do more.”
And that’s a realization Benton MacKaye would have admired.