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Hiking the AT vs. The Exploits of Admiral Richard E. Byrd


On the eve of leaving my position at the Virginia Historical Society to pursue my goal of Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, I’d like to take the opportunity to reflect upon my motivations for hiking, and in doing so, look at the life of one of Virginia’s most renowned explorers, Admiral Richard E. Byrd. In doing this, I’d also like to consider the relevance his travels have on my own impending adventure. Not to embellish too much, but a lot of the initial motivation for choosing to devote the next four to six months of my life to hiking is simply to see if I can do it. In his book, Alone, Byrd states:

“Above everything else . . . I really wanted to go for experience’s sake . . . to know that kind of experience to the full, to be by [my]self for a while and to taste peace and quiet and solitude long enough to find out how good [I] really [am]” (pp. 3–4).

Everything the Admiral did, he did in style (Seen here in a hood that resides within the VHS holdings)

Everything the Admiral did, he did in style (Seen here in a parka that resides within the VHS holdings – VHS accession number: 1993.95.15)

Fortunately for me, the adventure I hope to pursue does not involve nearly the amount of peril that Byrd faced. Nor does it require nearly the amount of detail in planning, nor coordination of resources and manpower (many have said these were Byrd’s greatest strengths). That noted, I’ll still need to account for my own most basic needs without relying on others, a steady income, or the convenience of a non-primitive environment (unfortunately restaurants and other amenities will be few and far between). In an ever more convenience-oriented world, I hope to use this opportunity to develop the discipline required in planning everything from healthy food and water consumption (what is light and nutritious to eat, how do I keep my water free of giardia and other water borne pathogens?) to the shelter that I sleep in at night. Needless to say, technology has advanced considerably since Byrd’s era, and the conditions where I’ll be are considerably more forgiving than the arctic; but without taking the time to plan these things, the chances of successfully completing the goal are minimal.

Just as important as being able to develop and follow through with a plan is being able to deviate from that plan if the situation calls for it. According to Alone, during Byrd’s second Antarctic trip, he suffered for several months from carbon monoxide poisoning caused by running a gasoline powered engine in the poorly ventilated shack he had constructed to study weather conditions. Rather than risk the lives of others by calling for help (once more this is in -60 degree temperatures in Antarctica), he continued reporting his weather findings as planned via radio until others inferred he was ill from his progressively nonsensical messages. Had he deviated from such planned reports or admitted his condition, assuredly the illness would have been treated sooner, thereby ending his stated mission momentarily. It’s also probable that the defective ventilation could’ve been remedied with the help of his comrades, thereby allowing him to continue reporting the weather. Needless to say, it is always a good idea to have a back up plan for your back up plan—or, even better, to have general/adaptable guidelines that can be molded to fit differing situations. So, just because an Appalachian Trail trip plan says that I’m hiking one hundred miles one week, it doesn’t mean that I have to hike those one hundred miles, so long as I keep a lifeline at home informed of my whereabouts and adapted trip plans.

Ultimately, the thing I hope most to take away from my time spent hiking in the woods is a greater appreciation for the world I live in; not only the natural wonder of the places I will visit along the way but also everything from the love of the people I leave behind to the seemingly basic comforts of warm running water and a bed. Byrd writes about his time in his Antarctic shack:

“I should have time to catch up, to study and think . . . and for maybe seven months, remote from all the simplest distractions, I should be able to live exactly as I chose, obedient to no necessities but those imposed by the wind and night and cold, and to no man’s laws but my own” (Alone, p. 7).

So, though romantic, his words ring true. I, as he did, will have more than ample opportunity to reflect on my life, on the world around me, on the relationships I share with others, and hopefully all will be enriched as a result of the journey.

One of many beautiful overlooks to be found in the Appalachian Mountains.  Unfortunately the trail does not pass over Old Rag Mountain.

One of many beautiful overlooks to be found in the Appalachian Mountains. Unfortunately the trail does not pass over Old Rag Mountain. (Photo by Matthew Chaney)

Interested to learn more about the Appalachian Trail, Admiral Richard E. Byrd, or other great explorers from Virginia history [see: Lewis and Clarke]? I won’t be there, but don’t let that dissuade you from visiting the library at the Virginia Historical Society to get your research on!

Matthew Chaney is a library clerk at the Virginia Historical Society.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Walter Hempfling permalink
    04/01/2014 3:36 pm

    Matthew: Thanks for your help in satisfying my Ruffin queries. Best wishes fir your adventure, which will likely be in your memory for a lifetime.
    Walter Hempfling


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