Visiting the ATC

There are places you feel connected to. Some are related to the nostalgia of the past, a fond memory of some key event in life. Others, like in this case for instance, are of places you have never been, but have some unknown force drawing you to it.

For me it has always been the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Headquarters in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.

I have always had a desire to complete a thru hike of the AT and it is one of the top things on my bucket list. I have section hiked some of the trail, and have followed trail journals, listened to pod casts, and read books about the AT adventures of others.

All of these things revolve around a very quant and humble building tucked away in one of the most picturesque trail towns in America.

On assignment near Baltimore, my wife and I decided to take a weekend drive to Harpers Ferry this last Sunday to visit the Mecca of thru hiking. As we crossed the West Virginia state line it was like entering into a magical place out of a J.R.R. Tolkien book.

With mountains on both sides of the winding road, you cross bridges with unobstructed views down the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. The pitched roofs of homes, businesses and churches peak out of the treed landscape as you make your way into the sleepy town of Harpers Ferry.

Families with trail dogs walk along the sidewalks toward the countless hikes that spur off from the state and national parks surrounding the area. With the perfect blend of shops, bed and breakfasts, pubs, and hostiles, this place screams trail town.

We parked in the back parking lot of the AT Headquarters and walked through the outdoor seating area adjacent to the building. Wooden benches lined the brick walkway with the names of donors to the ATC engraved upon them.

Although in the off season, I could picture weary hikers hanging out under the shade of the overarching trees, relieved to reach the symbolic halfway point of the 2100-mile trail.

Making our way to the front door, we could not help stopping in front of the ATC sign hanging on the building’s street front for a picture. Tradition for all AT hikers, a picture by the sign is taken and kept in the hiker lounge of the ATC to log the hikers as they pass through each season.

I always pictured the ATC to be much bigger and more commercialized but I could not have been farther from the truth.

The entrance has a small information desk covered in local trail maps, hiking health information, and ATC information. There is a small section of swag for sale that helps fund the trail efforts and the remainder of the front room is more of a museum of the trail’s history and some of its most notable visitors, complete with a scaled 3D map of the entire trail from Georgia to Maine.

In the back there is a small room titled, the hiker’s lounge, which contains a small couch, a desk, hiker message board, and a book case containing the photo logs of every hiker that has passed through the ATC since the building was established.

We could not help but feel connected to those that came before us, and an emotional draw to the trail as we read the stories about the hikers that passed through in the previous seasons. We purchased a few keepsakes and as we left my wife and I made a vow to return in the future when we complete our through hike, and comparing the photo we took during this visit to the one we take then.

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