Deep in the forests of the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts we come across an old house on a lake. It's a simple gabled structure with a stone chimney and red clapboard siding, built, we soon learn, from American chestnut in the early 1900s. There is no car in the driveway, for there's no driveway. Nor is there any other sign of human life: no rustic woodsman chops logs with his trusty axe and no canoe paddles splash their way across nearby Upper Goose Pond.
It's late in hiking season, and around the house and on the path that led us here, a segment of the Appalachian Trail between the rural towns of Lee and Tyringham, the only sounds heard are the gusts of wind through yellowing oaks and beeches, and the hailstorms of acorns that follow. My two hiking companions have walked this 8km fragment of the Appalachian Trail several times before. One of them walks up to the door and tries the brass doorknob. "It's open," she says with surprise.
Lo and behold, there's a man inside. Inviting us in, John Carlson, a grey-haired retiree from Arlington, Texas, explains that he's caretaking the cabin for three days with his wife, Patricia, who soon joins us in the sitting room. On the ground level, the smell of pancakes and bacon lingers, while a comfortable woody odour pervades the upstairs bunk room, which sleeps 16. It fills up quickly at the height of summer, but it's already September and we're only the second group that's passed through in three days. Accommodation here is free, including a pancake breakfast. "We don't ask for donations," says John. "We just put the can here."
Upper Goose Pond Cabin is a coveted post for volunteers with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and affiliate groups like the Appalachian Mountain Club, non-profit organisations that preserve the 3,504km footpath known officially as the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, or in trekker's parlance, the AT. More senior members are allowed to stay here for week-long shifts and willingly do so for no money, says John Carlson. Perhaps that's because it's one of the most luxurious stays along the trail, as most other shelters are mere three-sided lean-tos. All are available only on a first-come, first-serve basis, and with the exception of a network of mountain huts in New Hampshire, are free. From Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Mount Katahdin, Maine, trekkers need to carry their own tents, be ready to sleep rough, and bring their own food.
Less than two years into his retirement, Carlson tried this year to join the ranks of the 10,000 or so people who have hiked the entire trail. It's a trek that's easy as apple pie in some sections - including this one - and requires agile use of all four limbs in others, such as the steep and slippery 450km in Maine. Most trekkers are university students and retirees, although with US unemployment at a 26-year high, this year has seen a spike in those between their 20s and 60s. A newcomer to the backpacking scene who had never done an overnight trek before, John set off from Georgia in February, tackling the route in sections. Along the way he met hikers from as far away as New Zealand, with many of the foreigners drawn by the popularity of Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods, a humorous account of a failed attempt to walk the whole trail.
With his wife joining him for a section in Virginia, John made it as far as the midway point in Pennsylvania. He had covered about 1,900km in 97 days of walking, averaging over 19km a day, when the cold and damp finally got to him. "I was trying to do a through-hike," says Carlson, using AT lingo for walking the entire length. "But I crapped out." A footpath that crosses 14 states, the Appalachian Trail salamanders its way through the Appalachian system, a linkage of mountain ranges that includes the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the Green Mountains of Vermont, the Berkshires of Massachusetts and, stretching from southern Pennsylvania down to northern Georgia, the vast Blue Ridge Mountains. Paralleling the eastern seaboard, the Appalachians were the first American hinterland, the inland frontier for the English settlers of the original colonies, and the trail, which ascends mountains as high 2,019m (Clingman's Dome, Tennessee), offers hikers a look at how the virgin land looked before the white man had his way with it.
The AT is effectively the longest and skinniest of America's national parks, though it is unique among national parks in that is managed entirely by a network of about 6,000 volunteers. Though it encompasses 100,000 hectares, the protected area sometimes extends only a hundred metres on either side of the trail. At I-90, the Massachusetts State Turnpike, it's a mere concrete overpass; at other points it plunges deep into protected forests. In North Carolina and Tennessee, the trail runs through the centre of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a 1,310-square-kilometre nature preserve, the largest protected area in the eastern US and the most visited national park in the country. Appalachian Trail hikers share the forests with moose, black bears, wild boars, beavers, and over 2,000 rare plant and animal species.
The most interesting fauna I come across during my day-long hike - I "crapped out" after just 11km - was a red-spotted newt, a nervous, slithery little fellow who stood out against the muck of the forest floor. Entering the woods is the psychological equivalent of walking into a darkened room, and it takes many minutes for a mind accustomed to sensory overload to notice the wilderness's subtle details. When it does, the forest springs to life.
In the autumn, for instance, one notices how easily embarrassed the maple tree is, for its leaves are the first to turn in the mainly deciduous woods of lower New England. In flares of vermilion red, they light up a canopy consisting mainly of yellowing beeches. Boulders, probably deposited by glaciers from the last ice age, lie frozen on the slopes in mid-tumble, their striated bands pointing every which way. The trail almost disappears at some points, enveloped in a deep green moss, though it never turns into a difficult climb, and always the reassuring white blazes make the way clear soon enough.
But it's not on account of natural beauty alone that the trail holds such an attraction for hikers, not just from America but from around the world. The reason people come from the opposite side of the earth to hike these relatively modest hills has something to do with the trail's location in the heart of the so-called developed world. The trail skirts and even penetrates the sprawling exurbs of the North-east Corridor, the megalopolis that stretches from Washington to Boston, an area with a population of 55 million that would rank as the world's fifth-largest economy were it a separate country.
At the time of my hike, American public television was exploring the country's fascination with the wilderness in a gravely intoned series of documentaries titled The National Parks. For Americans, walking in the woods is an expression of patriotism. We are a people "borne back ceaselessly into the past", says an oft-quoted line by F Scott Fitzgerald, and the Appalachian Trail represents that part of the country's character, a split personality compelled to tap into lost primordial roots even as it hurls itself forward in the name of progress. It touches on America's founding mythology. The untamed frontier was conquered, its native inhabitants often mercilessly subdued, the land transformed and all too often spoiled, yet we hold onto the few remaining bits like a precious old memento. Hiking the trail is our way of taking the memento out of its box, touching it lest we forget how it feels, and lest we forget how our entire world once was. firstname.lastname@example.org