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Appalachian sprint: one hiker's homage to a trail turned 50

DANIEL BRUCE reckons he must be taking his 2 millionth step so far, but you'd never know it. The hiker is practically sprinting up the green hills in Virginia's Shenandoah National Park, only slightly stooped under his 35-pound, tightly organized gray backpack. This five-month trek through 14 states is Mr. Bruce's homage to the 50th anniversary of the Appalachian Trail. With the help of various trail clubs, he has organized small celebrations in towns along his 2,000 mile journey north to honor America's most beloved footpath.

The trail has always represented individual initiative. It was the idea of Benton MacKaye, a forester and philosopher who proposed in an architectural journal in 1921 that a long wilderness path be built along the Eastern Seaboard so city dwellers could enjoy nature. The idea captured America's imagination, and soon people from Georgia to Maine were blazing trails across their orchards, farmlands, and forests. The little trails were pieced together by volunteers, who cleared brush, moved boulders, and painted white blazes on trees. Today the trail is still maintained by volunteers, under the administration of the National Park Service.

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When developers started buying up the orchards, and the trail had to be moved on to roads, trail devotees pressured Congress to pass protective legislation. It did, with the 1968 National Trails Act. In 1978, President Carter signed into law a bill authorizing the National Park Service to purchase land as needed to protect the trail. Today, more than 90 percent of that land has been acquired.

``When you look back on how tough it was to get this whole trail built, organized, maintained, it's almost a miracle,'' says Jean Cashin, spokeswoman for the Appalachian Trail Conference, an umbrella group that oversees the 32 volunteer groups that manage and protect the trail.

The Appalachian Trail lies within a day's drive of half the nation's population, and millions from all 50 states and overseas hike parts of it every year. ``Thru-hiking'' the whole 2,000 miles is only for the hardy, however. Only 1,500 people have done it. It takes planning (a year for Bruce), and endurance. He started in early spring in Georgia, and plans to wind up with the fall colors in Maine at the end of September.

During those five months, Bruce, who was dubbed by another hiker as ``Wingfoot'' because of his speed (he adopted it as his ``trail name''), will hike through canyons and across rivers, and up and down 400 mountains. He'll face boot-ripping boulders in Pennsylvania and likely 70 m.p.h. winds on Mt. Washington in New Hampshire.

What possesses a structural engineer from Conyers, Ga., to spend six months hiking along what can seem like a long, green tunnel? Twice - he thru-hiked in 1985.

``The main reason I'm doing this is the sense of freedom I have. You go as fast as you want to, take a nap when you want to, you're free to be with people or not, free to enjoy life at whatever pace is suitable for you.''

Oddly, for all the freedom he says he's enjoying, Wingfoot's trip is highly organized. This is no nostalgic hike. A disciplined, self-described ``high-tech hiker,'' he wears a soccer uniform (they dry faster), lightweight walking shoes instead of hiking boots, and specially designed socks. ``I try to incorporate the latest in modern equipment,'' he says. ``I use aluminum, nylon, plastic bags - things that people in the early days of hiking did not have,'' he says. Also nestled in its own pouch is a small, weatherproof videocamera with which he's making the first-ever chronicle of the whole trail.

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The hiker eats instant gourmet meals right out of their boilable pouches - rainbow trout amandine, beef stroganoff, chicken `a la king. ``So I'm not suffering as far as menu is concerned.'' Every so often he spices up his diet by ordering the largest pizza he can find when he gets into a town. And hiking does something to one's sweet tooth, he says. ``Four of us [hikers] hit a Baskin-Robbins one time and polished off cups of all 31 flavors.''

Accommodations run the gamut: hikers' huts pitched a day's walk apart on the trail, a monastery, church hostels, and small hotels. Here in Waynesboro, he and other hikers pitch tents on a 100-foot-square patch of grass outside the town fire station.

One big treat in doing the trail, says Wingfoot, is the first approach into town. ``First of all you hear the hum of the city; the motors and things like that. As you descend a little bit farther, you start picking up the individual barks of dogs. Then as you get almost within touching distance of the town, you can hear the little children laugh and play. That repeats itself almost every time we come into a town.''

He stops in towns every four to six days to do laundry, pick up food packages his parents have sent to local post offices, and sleep in a real bed. He also meets with reporters and takes part in local celebrations of the trail.

The hiking's been great, ``But the real high point has been the outpouring of affection for the Appalachian Trail and for the people who are hiking the trail,'' says Wingfoot. ``That's just something that's totally gratifying.''

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