Ghost Trails

North America is lousy with ghost trails. Most of us walk right past them without noticing, or if we do, don’t stop to think about what we just saw, why it’s there, who (or what) made it, how it might take us into a historical moment if we would just step off the main path, push aside the overhanging branches, or step through the cat briars, and push off into the woods, following the ghost trail wherever it leads us.

Maybe it’s a primordial fear of the unknown, or the Hollywood created notion that if you walk into those woods you might encounter a crazy person with an axe. Whatever the reason, too often we walk right past ghost trails and leave it to others to wonder what might be up there in the woods, around those rocks, or over that ridge line.

These days I’m spending a lot of time thinking about ghost trails, because I’ve begun work on a history of Virginia’s “Lost Appalachian Trail” — the 300 mile-long section of the Appalachian Trail that used to run from just southwest of Salem, Virginia, down through Floyd, Patrick, Carroll, Grayson, Smyth, and Washington counties. That section of the Trail, first laid out in the early 1930s, was the official route of the AT for more than 20 years, until it was abandoned by the Appalachian Trail Conference (ATC) in the early 1950s. The decision to abandon the route through Southern Virginia was pitched by the ATC as a protective measure, designed to get as much of the Trail’s route onto federal land in the new Jefferson National Forest as possible.

You don’t have to be much of a historian to know that simple explanations like that are rarely the whole story. It is true that the ATC sought to protect as much of the Trail as possible by moving it into National Parks and National Forests. But it is also true that the relationship between the leadership of the ATC — effectively Myron Avery — and the local trail community in Southern Virginia was never a strong or comfortable one. The weak nature of that relationship meant that it was much easier to abandon the 300 miles of trail from Salem to Galax to Damascus than it would have been to route the AT away from a section managed by a trail club with a strong leadership closely tied to the ATC in Washington.

And so, I’m chasing a 300 mile long ghost across Bent Mountain, past Meadows of Dan, through Fancy Gap, over Fisher’s Peak, down Main Street in Galax, across the New River at Fries, over Comer’s Rock, through Skulls Gap, and down the Iron Mountains to Damascus. I’ve already interviewed a 101 year-old woman who remembers going into the mountains with her father to help build the AT in 1930. I’ve pushed through the cat briars to follow a ghost trail that might be part of the old AT route near Adney Gap. I’ve had lunch in the Floyd General Store and gotten lost near Elk Creek. I’ve chatted with an antique dealer about the “courthouse murders” in Hillsville, and I’ve driven through some of the thickest fog I’ve ever seen along the crest of a mountain, hoping that the lack of guard rails won’t be a problem.

As Bill Turkel wrote in The Archive of Place back in 2008, I’m after “latent or seemingly insignificant traces” of the past, traces that, I hope, will help me find my way to some interesting conclusions about a place and a past that is all but opaque to the community of hikers, advocates, supporters, and others who care about the Appalachian Trail. At the very least, I’ll end up with some good ghost stories.