Page last updated at 11:12 GMT, Saturday, 17 July 2010 12:12 UK

Plans to extend America's Appalachian Trail to Africa

Mount Katahdin
Mount Katahdin is the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail

By Simon Winchester
Massachusetts

In 1937, the Appalachian Trail was opened, running from the southern US state of Georgia to Maine in the north. In future, could it be extended to Europe and even Africa?

Not far from where I live - deep in the hills of western Massachusetts - runs the famous Appalachian Trail, the 2175-mile (3500km) walking trail, getting on for a century old, and of which American east-coasters are understandably proud.

We see it when we drive to our local grocery store, where the trail crosses Route 23.

An arrow pointing left says simply, "Georgia" and to the right, "Maine", and in each direction the tiny pathway snakes off into the woods, in just a moment vanishing among the trees.

This is the time of year when we see people on the trail - bearded young men alone, or young couples staggering under giant rucksacks, heading north.

Dick Anderson, founder of the International Appalachian Trail
The IAT plan is the brainchild of fisheries biologist Dick Anderson

These are the famous "thru-walkers", tough and ambitious types with five or six months on their hands, who decided to begin their walk among the early dogwoods down in Georgia last March, and who hope to get to Mount Katahdin in Maine by October, before the first snows fall.

Occasionally we meet them hitch-hiking - people who have decided to break off for a few hours, to get a shower in a local motel, buy some more granola bars or just call home.

Rite of passage

Generally you do not pick up hitch-hikers in America these days, but with thru-walkers, we always give them a ride.

They have such tales to tell: sometimes of encounters with black bears back in Tennessee, or terrific storms on the ridges of West Virginia, or learning how to spot poison ivy, or what it was like to cross the Hudson on that vertiginous old bridge.

Why not... persuade people with strong thighs and a very great deal of time on their hands to stroll all the way from Georgia to the Atlas Mountains, north of the Sahara?

Most are young, and you know that, for them, "doing the AT" - as they call it - really is a rite of passage.

And now there are plans to extend the track.

I meet the planners of this new "international" AT - most of them geologists - at a gathering beside an ice-cold lake in northern Maine.

Their plans are nothing if not ambitious.

They want to take the trail not just over the Canadian border and into Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and up to the tip of Newfoundland.

They also want it to go all around the North Atlantic Ocean.

They insist it makes good geological sense.

The forces that threw up the Appalachian chain 350 million years ago also formed mountains across North Africa, back when there was no Atlantic Ocean, when the continents were all one - the Pangaea supercontinent - and they were linked together.

So why not link them up again, by extending the walking trail and persuade people with strong thighs and a very great deal of time on their hands to stroll all the way from Georgia to the Atlas Mountains, north of the Sahara?

Blazing a trail

The idea, mind-bogglingly mad though it sounds, appears to be catching on.

Greenland has said it will cut a short trail across its ice-free southern tip. Iceland too, and the Faroe Islands.

Sheep at Tyndrum, part of Scotland's West Highland Way
Could American hikers one day finish their rite of passage in Scotland?

There has been a communication from the people who administer the West Highland Way in Scotland to say they will probably get on board, agreeing to mark their trail with the little green AT triangles that are so familiar to us here, and painting white or blue markers, known as blazes, on trees (the origin of the phrase "blazing a trail").

The Isle of Man walking community is saying they want a piece of the action. In Ireland, walkers are full of enthusiasm.

In western France, and in Galicia - where there's already a famous walk to Santiago de Compostela - and down in the cork forest of southern Spain, there is interest.

And from there it is just a short hop across to Africa, and the hills of Morocco. The Berbers have been very accommodating, say the people in Maine, and especially the geologists in Casablanca.

Small problem

All this talk is going on in the brooding shadow of Mt Katahdin in Maine, while it still has cornices of late snow on its upper cliffs.

Maps are brought out, routes planned, pictures swapped.

I tell the chief planner how I liked seeing the thru-walkers crossing Route 23 back near home, with the sign pointing to Georgia one way, and that maybe it would soon say Morocco instead of Maine. But then I ask: "What about the sea?"

"Ah, yes", he replied. "The sea. A bit of a problem, true, but we'll manage. Got to have the vision first. That's just a detail.

"You'll see Morocco on the signboard soon, I guarantee. And you know, they have just as much snow there as we do here in Maine.

"Same rocks, same snow. It all makes such good sense."

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