My summer of 1990 on the Appalachian Trail

There’s a little game going around facebook right now where someone gives you a numerical year, and you write a post on what you were doing that year. This story is about 1990 – the summer of 1990, between my sophomore and junior years of college. I was 20 years old, more than half my lifetime ago.

First I need to tell you a little about the college I went to, Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. It’s an “alternative” school, meaning the academic system is different than most schools. There is no credit system, and no grades. In fact there is no “freshman”, “sophomore” etc status. Schoolwork was completed by a “Division” system – I, II, and III. Div I was an introduction to the main academic disciplines. Div II was akin to choosing a major. Once I chose my major, I documented it with a portfolio of classes, papers, internships, and other scholarly pursuits that supported it. Div III was similar to a thesis year, where I chose one specific aspect of major to pursue in depth.

My field of interest was ‘environmental education’. Without getting into the specifics of my plan, I can tell you that as I approached my junior year at Hampshire I was worried about what my Div III thesis would be. It had to be something big, big enough to spend an entire year researching and writing. I saw other students at Hampshire during the their Div IIIs doing all this amazingly creative stuff, way beyond what most college students did at the undergrad level. I loved everything about environmental education – the kids I worked with, being in nature, learning about nature, teaching it – but I still did not know what my big Div III project would be. The pressure was on.

This is where the second character of my story comes in, lets call him Larry. Larry was a friend who lived in the area but was a little older than college age. He was an environmental activist and former environmental educator. Truth be told, he was more than a friend. We had an off again, on again romantic relationship.

We were in an “off again” phase when he came up with a great idea earlier that spring in 1990. It sounded like an adventure, a fun way to spend the summer outdoors, and would be excellent fodder for my Div III thesis. It was the kind of big crazy project that Hampshire students came up with all the time. We called it “Trekkin’ Turtle Island”, and here was the plan: We (Larry and I and some of his friends) would hike the  Appalachian Trail all summer. Not the whole thing, since we just had 3 or 4 months, but the New England portion, from Connecticut to Maine. We wouldn’t rush, and it wouldn’t be just a recreational hike. It would have an environmental activism and education mission.

We researched environmental issues along the AT corridor, and decided to focus our message on wildlife- extinct or endangered species native to the areas we were passing through. We’d talk to hikers we’d meet along the way about these environmental problems and challenges, thereby educating people and bringing attention to the issues. Maybe we even created petitions to obtain signatures and later mail to legislators. Frankly, I don’t remember the details.

In order to spark conversations, we decided each one of us would pick a species and dress up like that animal. If I recall correctly, there was a timber rattlesnake, a lynx, and a wolf. Realistically, our costumes couldn’t be too complicated since we’d be spending all day, every day hiking for miles upon miles. I think I was the rattlesnake, and my costume consisted of a sturdy baseball cap with a hand-sewn, stuffed replica of the animal attached to it in front and back. Then, in an effort that pre-dated my graphic design pursuits by at least 10 years, I created an illustration in black and white with those three animals, underneath the arched title of our project, ‘Trekkin’ Turtle Island’, which I had silkscreened on dozens of brightly colored heavy-duty T-shirts. We wore those shirts while hiking, and think we also planned to sell them as a fundraiser to cover the costs of our trip. Then I designed brochures on speckled recycled paper that described our project’s mission, to distribute along the way.

We called it “Trekkin Turtle Island” because according to Native American Iroquois lore, the earth was created on the back of a giant turtle, and thus ‘Turtle Island’ is their name for North America.

Our project was well-conceived and well-organized. We wrote to outdoor equipment companies requesting sponsorship and donations. We even got a small grant from the Earth First Foundation. We bought our maps and guides, backpacks and other gear, planned the trip, where we’d arrive when, when we’d need re-supplies, and then shipped food to post offices at those places so food would be waiting for pickup. I planned to keep a detailed journal of each day’s events, who we met along the trail, and what we discussed.

The core hiking team consisted of myself, Larry, and another outdoorsy young woman named Ann I did not know well, an environmental activist from Geneseo, NY who had somehow heard about our trip and was keen to participate. Other friends would drop in along the way and hike with us for a day or two and then return home. We departed from southwestern CT in late spring and headed north along the Appalachian Trail.

The days took on a steady routine – hike, eat meals, find swimming holes, more hiking. Nights were spent at established AT shelters along the way.

I wish I could say the trip was a resounding success, but it was not. Almost immediately, Larry developed an attraction for our female hiking partner. Even though he and I were ‘just friends’ at this point, it was very awkward. Soon – very soon – friendly interpersonal communications deteriorated, and all three of us felt we were on a forced march rather than a fun adventure. Larry and his new friend decided to leave the trail and abandon the project. I didn’t know what to do. I had no other plans that summer, having invested so much time & energy into this one. I decided to keep going, solo. I figured there were many people on the trail during the warm summer months and I’d soon meet fellow hikers and make new friends.

As it turned out, after about two weeks of this, I was lonely. So I gave up and left the trail in the Berkshires of western Mass. I spent a day wandering around Great Barrington deciding what to do. Trekkin’ Turtle Island was over. It had failed. Miserably. Disappointed and disillusioned, I was probably not in the best frame of mind, and decided to hitchhike to Burlington VT to stay with my college friend Susan for a few days. Please don’t tell my mother about this last part.

Fortunately I arrived safely, and the summer was still young. My friend Joe got me a job as a camp counselor on a dude ranch in Prescott AZ, and thus it turned out to be an interesting summer after all.

I went back to college in the fall, and for my Div III, eventually decided to write an environmental education curriculum for middle school students on Native American culture and lore of the local area, combined with a documentation of my teaching work at a local Audubon nature sanctuary.

I graduated from Hampshire College in 1992, and after doing the nearly-obligatory drive across the country with my friend Jessica, returned to western Mass. and moved to a commune, er, ‘intentional community’ called Earthlands in a rural part of the center of the state, where I was to head up a blossoming educational program. But that’s a story for another time.

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