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A new book gets off the beaten path in telling the history of the Appalachian Trail

“I was curious,” says its author, “why it means so much to us today”

PORTLAND, Maine — There is no shortage of books about the Appalachian Trail, but when Philip D’Anieri started working on his project he knew that he wanted to take a different approach. A guidebook? No. A history? Not exactly. What he ended up writing is what he calls a biography of the AT.

“The story I wanted to tell,” he says, “was about why and how we care about this trail so much, even those of us, like me, who haven’t spent a ton of time on it. It has become over the past hundred years an icon of the American landscape, a place that a lot of people connect to even if they’re not diehard thru-hikers. And I was just curious about the people who built it, why they built it, and how that connects to why it means so much to us today.”

The AT stretches for 2,190 miles from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to the summit of Katahdin in Maine. Many of the people who end up writing books about it are passionate hikers, and often they have spent months, even years, on the trail, covering it from start to finish and often returning to hike part or all of it again. Again, D’Anieri took a different approach.

“I’ve hiked on the trail in each of the fourteen states it goes through, sampled it that way,” he says. “But I don’t presume to be an authority on hiking.”

Where he went in researching his book, “The Appalachian Trail: A Biography,” is revealing. “In Maine, I spent half a day hiking on Saddleback Mountain. I spent three days in the basement of the State Library in Augusta reading old letters.”

Yellowing letters from decades ago tell part of the story of the AT, but more recent history touches on how technology has changed the experience of hiking it. D’Anieri notes that when he was descending from Mount Liberty, a 4,400-foot peak in New Hampshire, his phone buzzed with a call from his mother. “It was a reminder,” he writes, “that the entanglements of everyday life do not disappear at the forest’s edge.”

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