This is no walk in the woods

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Driving the Appalachian Trail from Skyline to Sunrise
On a small outcropping of land between the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers—where West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland meet—sits Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. The picturesque, historical town marks the psychological halfway point between the southern terminus of the trail at Georgia’s Springer Mountain and its northern end point at Maine’s Mount Katahdin. Here, at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy headquarters, just uphill from a gorgeous, ambling, riverside stretch, thru-hikers can come in to rest and register a triumph over half of an epic walk through and over the backbone of the American East. It’s a place where hearty trekkers check their email while trading Trail stories in the back.

When I went in to get a map and additional information about the A.T.—for example, it’s 2,190 miles long, considered a National Scenic Trail, maintained by the Conservancy and volunteers, and protected by federal- and state-owned land as well as public rights-of-way laws—I saw two young, tired hikers who just finished a four-month hike from Georgia. They immediately told the volunteer that they hoped to make the second half of the walk in the spring next year, and I had no doubt they would be able to do it. When I mentioned I was actually just starting the trek north, they were a bit surprised. It was October, and the weather would surely turn nasty, even dangerous, up north by the time I got up there.
“Well, I plan to make the trip in the next three days or so,” I said and pointed outside. There was how I planned to tackle the Trail: a 2016 Audi TT Roadster in Tango Red. If it wouldn’t go on the Trail per se, I said, I’d try and follow it as closely as possible on the back roads of the inland East Coast.

I had just that morning walked a bit of the Trail, both in Harpers Ferry and a few miles just off Skyline Drive, on the spur just north of Luray, Virginia. I felt like I was connecting to an entirely different part of America, away from the interstate highways, from the deserts, even away from the oceans. As a walk, it was a tiny glimpse of what the Trail would show us. It was a spectacular drive, both from the scenic and performance perspectives, but it also became a scavenger hunt to find the Trail as I aimed north toward fall foliage and crisp New England air.
I felt like I was connecting to an
entirely different part of America,
away from the interstate highways.

Earlier, I’d been noticing the green grass, the rolling hills and the powerful precision of my TT. For the first time—but not for the last—I felt a pure kind of exhilaration, one I rarely encounter in my L.A. commute or during the drive with my son to his soccer game. It was the joy of driving, of hitting the curves on a gently rolling road, past barns and semi-grand estates not more than 90 minutes outside Washington, D.C. I was gliding. No understeer. No oversteer. Just the perfect balance of handling and power you strive for in a drive.

It was mid-morning by the time I entered Skyline Drive, a twisting road that’s part of Shenandoah National Park. After paying my fee—a worthy extravagance for what the road would prove to offer—I drove north toward Front Royal. It took maybe five minutes before this entire road trip was justified. I pulled off into one of the many stops, and the western Shenandoah Valley opened up. A small trail led away from the road toward a rock outcropping, and I am pretty sure this was the first time I encountered the Appalachian Trail since childhood. The Trail intersects Skyline Drive several times, with places where you can park and walk—which I took full advantage of over the course of the morning.
The road was smooth and intermediately challenging. But with Audi quattro® all-wheel drive—standard in the TT, by the way—handling the turns, and the navigation map of the Audi virtual cockpit giving me the view of the road ahead, I felt confident. Never overly confident, though; the thought of driving too hard in a very conspicuous, brand-new convertible Roadster was basically an invitation for the attention of the authorities. So I drove in control. I engaged the paddle shifters as the road went downhill, the elevation markers telling the story of a descent from a peak of almost 3,400 feet at the Hogback Overlook down to about 712 at the Front Royal exit.

After Harpers Ferry, I took a slight detour, one of the joys of a basically open-ended drive, to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. After leaving the Potomac Basin, the land flattened out significantly but still held some charms. A few trees started showing flashes of red and yellow. It was around 3 p.m. when I drove the TT into Gettysburg National Military Park. I wanted to see what still looked familiar to me, having been there several decades before as a child. Immediately, the memories of the massive monuments and the panoramic vistas came flooding back, aided no doubt by the parade of buses and students running up toward the hill crest where I stood.
It was getting late in the day, and I had barely traveled 150 miles, so I started to wonder where to pick up the Trail again. One look at the map showed that Boiling Springs, about 30 miles away, would be a good place. Boiling Springs was Pennsylvania’s first Appalachian Trail Community™, so designated because it has facilities of use to hikers.

Across the street from an Appalachian Trail Conservancy visitor center is Boiling Springs Tavern, a historic bar and restaurant, where the bartender said they get dozens of hikers every week. After a quick plate of fried oysters and a salad, I needed to figure out a place to stay. I knew that my morning destination would be Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, which straddles the Pennsylvania/New Jersey border, but I was unfamiliar with the area and needed to gain several hours.
The TT was effortless on the highway, with quick acceleration that showed an athletic ease with its 220 horses.

I ended up, at sunset, on Interstate 76 going east. This wasn’t entirely by accident, as I felt the need to open up the TT a bit. I went top down on the lovely autumnal evening, feeling the sunset on my neck while driving toward the old steel stronghold of the Lehigh Valley. The TT was effortless on the highway, with quick acceleration that showed an athletic ease with its 220 horses. Maybe that’s because quattro® helps transform each horse into movement with no wasted motion in the front or the rear—nothing but balanced, assured acceleration from an all-wheel performance system. The available driver assistance systems really helped here, particularly Audi side assist, which provided an illuminated signal on the inside of the side-view mirror housing when it detected a car in my blind spot.[1] The sound system worked well with the roar of the open air rushing by, which gave the drive a bit more of a rock-and-roll punch than my leisurely country ambling through Skyline Drive had—and that was as it should be. As I settled into a hotel room around 10 p.m., close to the old foundry of Bethlehem Steel, the Trail felt—at that moment—like a faded memory.
I picked up Route 611 out of Bethlehem and drove north to the town of Delaware Water Gap, just on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River from New Jersey. The range isn’t tall, but it can be dramatically beautiful. There was a fog covering the river and working its way up the gorge with tall, jagged hills on each bank. The Trail crossed here somewhere, although I couldn’t find it. Still, it would have made for a great hike, with both hills and a nice flat path alongside the river. And the views felt almost primeval, even with Interstate 80 humming unseen behind a line of trees and a bank of fog.

From the park, I went through town and then found Route 209, which I wanted to take to Dingmans Falls, before crossing into New Jersey. The falls, sadly, were closed, their season over, but I did reach Dingmans Ferry and its privately owned bridge. There has been a crossing here since 1735, and the bridge, completed in the late 19th century, is named after the man who ran the colonial ferry service here. For a buck, you can cross over to Jersey—and transverse an interesting piece of Americana.

One of the more amazing things about the Appalachian Trail is just how close it is to so many of our largest cities. Even in High Point, N.J., which felt remote, I was less than 50 miles from Newark. I had started my journey about two hours outside of Washington, D.C., and even that was a matter of choice, since Harpers Ferry is only about an hour and a half away from the nation’s capital. But once I got to Hudson Highlands State Park Preserve in New York State, I was essentially on the commuter rail line from the city. Located between tony Cold Spring and artsy Beacon, this stretch of the Hudson is a retreat from the concrete urbanity just down river for many city dwellers. Laced with trails, including the Appalachian, it’s an area that welcomes exploration for those who still might want a four-star dinner or an afternoon stroll at the grand Dia:Beacon galleries, a mammoth complex for contemporary installations and traveling exhibits.
The Trail passes Mount Washington, which is particularly notorious for bad weather and high winds.

But still, it’s easy to envelop yourself in nature, on one of the hills that overlook the Hudson or on a rock perched over the river itself, where you engage with the art of the landscape instead of the canvas.

My trip ended, basically, when I found myself walking in someone’s backyard, during a downpour, trying to take one more walk through an open field where there seemed to be a faint trail crossing through it. Part of the charm and reality of the Trail is that some of it crosses private lands, and part of the formal agreement is that so long as you don’t leave a trace, it’s OK to be there. In a residential cul-de-sac in Hanover, New Hampshire, I made the decision that after about 900 miles, I was done not leaving a trace.
These were road miles, up and around back roads mostly, and nothing was direct. The Trail itself had only gone about 725, from where I was back to Skyline Drive. Somehow, it was more direct. And somehow, it continues another 400 miles or so to Mount Katahdin in Maine.

But the last 400 miles weren’t going to be as sweet or kind as the previous 900. For starters, it was pouring, and the weather in northern New England is manifestly different than anywhere south of Hanover. The Trail passes Mount Washington, which is particularly notorious for bad weather and high winds. Katahdin itself is very remote, tucked away in Maine’s timber country, with few passable roads. And yes, I know these are excuses.

Still, there was reason to end in Hanover. It’s the home of Dartmouth College and, in 1923, students at the college helped legitimize and popularize the Trail, which started in 1921 as a notion by Benton MacKaye, a forester and conservationist who presented the idea in terms of regional planning, by providing cabins and hiking portions of it.

The Trail itself goes up Main Street in Hanover, which is why it felt fitting that it be the end of my trail, my pursuit of an enlightening shortcut. I was given a TT to explore and understand the vehicle, the land and the history of the places I chose to drive. Sure, it was an exploration of sorts, but it was no walk in the woods.