America's southern mountains are stirring. That's because intrepid hikers are once again off to test the world's longest continuous footpath: the Appalachian Trail. It stretches from the top of Georgia's Springer Mountain northward along the ridge lines of 14 eastern U.S. states. The trail runs north to south, too, of course, but four-fifths of those who attempt to hike the entire trail in one year choose the northward course. That's because they can begin a trek that will last from five to seven months in the relative warmth of an early Georgia spring.
And they'd better make it to the finish marker, atop Maine's tallest peak, Mount Katahdin, by the end of October, because park officials block the mountain to hikers when Maine's late-fall snowstorms begin to howl.
Every state along th e way has its memorable places -- an unbelievable view here, a lean-to shelter there, a small town where people take in hikers and cheer them on. Some who attempt the grueling hike imagine long stretches of solitude, but they rarely find them. That's because chatty day hikers pop onto the trail all along the way.
Still, there are simple pleasures, shared in trail journals: seeing shooting stars, listening to a howling coyote, picking one's fill of red, ripe raspberries.
No one keeps records, but it's thought only 300 or so people a year complete the five million strides it takes to conquer the full 3,400-kilometer journey along the Appalachian Trail. The experience presents a physical and mental challenge from blisters, twisted limbs, mountain thunderstorms, and boredom. But it's a chance to get away from things back home, and to ponder one's life and future. All in all, it's an unforgettable, life-changing walk in the hills.