D’Anieri’s New Book Explores the History of the Appalachian Trail

Phil D’Anieri, a lecturer in urban and regional planning, has published The Appalachian Trail: A Biography (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021). 

Born in 1921, the Appalachian Trail, which stretches 2,192 miles from Georgia to Maine, is one of the world’s best-known treks. Millions of hikers set foot on it every year. D’Anieri’s book explores the backstory of the dreamers and builders who helped bring it to life over the past century. 

D’Anieri explains how the conception and building of the Appalachian Trail (the AT) is a story of unforgettable characters who explored it, defined it, and captured national attention by hiking it. From Grandma Gatewood — a mother of eleven who thru-hiked in canvas sneakers and a drawstring duffle — to Bill Bryson, author of the best-selling A Walk in the Woods, the AT has seized the American imagination like no other hiking path. D’Anieri argues that it is not just a trail through the woods, but a set of ideas about nature etched in the forest floor. 

“The question that the book asks and tries to answer is where did the Appalachian Trail come from and why does it attract our attention,” he said in a recent interview with Discover magazine. “The answer that I share with readers is that the trail comes from the people who built it, and what those people wanted out of nature. So what I’m trying to do is characterize this place as a place that we have built for ourselves — a place to get away.”

The trail was first conceived as a cluster of small camps or backwoods places connected by a trail that was surrounded by a lot of protected forests. In reality, it became just a trail, not an alternative style of living or the massive forest preserves that were originally envisioned. After World War II, the federal government stepped in to protect the trail with national park status, as it was threatened by development.

The AT captured D’Anieri’s imagination when he witnessed it criss-crossing interstate highways while growing up in the eastern United States. “It’s this sliver of backwoods nature that snakes its way through the very built-up eastern part of the U.S., and every time you encounter it, it’s almost like you’re seeing this portal into another world,” he said in the Discover interview. “That idea of a portal to another world would always be stuck in my brain as I’d drive past the trail or encounter it somewhere, and I was curious to know where it came from.”

D’Anieri also teaches in the Program in the Environment at U-M’s College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. A former journalist, legislative policy analyst, and grantmaker, his research has focused on the politics of planning at the metropolitan scale, including a historical case study of Detroit.

Learn more about the book here.
Read the complete Discover magazine feature here.