I’m Mountain climbing the Appalachian Path From Residence. Right here’s How You Can, Too.
In the fall, the Appalachian Trail erupts into bright orange and red foliage. But as I wander up the path I see palm trees and citrus trees.
This year I am virtually hiking the Appalachian Trail. Every day I leave my Florida apartment and go. I log into the virtual trail with the Walk the Distance app. The app tracks my steps and shows how far I would have walked the actual Appalachian Trail. The trail cuts along the east coast and extends from Georgia to Maine. I started my trip a few weeks ago. Since then I’ve slowly stepped up the map.
The Appalachian Trail offers hikers valuable lessons about the Appalachian culture and nature, but the trip is not always accessible. Although I grew up in the North Carolina Appalachian Mountains, I never finished the trail.
I remember seeing shaggy hikers running on highways and through state forests. But I am a strange, chronically ill woman, and I accepted that I would probably never walk the path alone. While many hikers have made the Appalachian Trail safe, researchers like Kathryn Feener have pointed out that LGBTQ + women are at greater risk. And for people with disabilities or financial insecurity, the Appalachian Trail may feel like a pipe dream.
Fortunately, Walk the Distance makes the Appalachian Trail more accessible to everyone – including people with chronic illnesses like me. Virtual hikers will miss some important parts of the Appalachian Trail: the cultural experience, trying new foods, meeting local people, observing wildlife. However, Walk the Distance offers an alternative when the Appalachian Trail is unsafe or inaccessible.
Personal hikers can see peach plantations, apple trees, breathtaking waterfalls, and mountain views. As I hike, I download music and nature sounds from the different states of the Appalachian Trail. Moonshine Kate accompanied me with her banjo as I walked around Georgia.
On Walk the Distance, hikers can enjoy great views of real Appalachian landmarks from their phone screen. If I’ve gone far enough to unlock one of these new virtual pit stops, I’ll be able to see a Google Maps view of the landscape. In some pictures I see hikers. A satellite camera captured a moment of these hikers’ hikes through the mountains. With this technology, I am making my own journey. And for the first time I feel like I’m on the Appalachian Trail too.
Although I walk my neighborhood in Florida alone, I don’t hike the Appalachian Trail alone. When I joined the app, I was able to see a cohort of other virtual hikers who, like me, had just started their journey. Every day the app shows my progress next to these familiar faces. Some of the people I met when I joined have outperformed me in pace, but that’s fine.
The author hikes the real Appalachian Trail at different times.
Even when I lived on the Appalachian Trail, I always took my time on the trails. Now when I close my eyes I can almost hear the crispy leaves crunching under my feet as I walk. I can imagine the vinegar-sweet smell of rotten apples that deer left behind. And even in the Florida heat, I feel close to the Appalachians, who I call home.
This app invites more people than ever to learn about the trail. And that commitment can help save the actual Appalachian Trail. If people invest their time and energy in hiking as well, they may be more likely to promote environmental protection efforts and learn about measures that could damage the Appalachian Trail.
Yesterday I took a break from walking to watch an alligator basking on the bank of a lake. My phone showed me how I was finally crossing to North Carolina, my home state. Most Appalachian Trail hikers complete the trail in five to seven months. I’m on track to finish my own hike in late April or early May so I will be walking all winter and into spring. While I miss living on the trail, I won’t miss trudging through the snow.
You can prepare for your own virtual hike on the Appalachian Trail by downloading Walk the Distance: No boots or backpacks required. Even if you don’t have a group of friends to join you, you can find plenty of friendly faces in the app to cheer you on. You can even consider making a donation to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy to help preserve the trail for generations of future hikers, virtual and physical.
My journey ends in Maine and I still have many virtual miles to go. But as the parable says, a journey of 2,190 miles begins with a single step.
Laken Brooks is a PhD student at the University of Florida studying disability, gender, and the digital humanities. When not studying and teaching, she is a freelance writer for CNN, Inside Higher Ed, Good Housekeeping, and other national publications.