The magic of in-between places along the Appalachian Trail

Walking through Transitions

#Walking isn’t just good exercise, but a great way to be in many places at once! #ecotone #AppalachianTrail

In my tent I can hear a cow mooing to the west, cars humming faintly to the east, and a wood thrush gurgling its enchanting melody in the canopy above. Two people I’ve never met before are sleeping in hammocks at this campsite, but they’ll probably be gone by morning. This is a normal Tuesday night for anyone hiking the Appalachian Trail (or “AT”).

There are a lot of books, blogs, documentaries, and movies you can read and watch about the AT and other backpacking trails. Indeed, the very idea of the AT inspires thousands to “thru-hike,” or walk the entire 2,190 miles between Springer Mountain in Georgia and Mount Katahdin in Maine each year. However, millions (yes, really) of hikers walk shorter sections of the AT for days or weeks at a time.

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Fig. 1 Me on the right, hiking the Massachusetts section of the Appalachian Trail with my aunt, girlfriend, and father, for a week this past summer (photo credit: EKuras).

What inspires me about the AT is the idea of walking from one place to another. It sounds simple, but in America and many parts of the world, the landscape is not well suited for walking. Highways, fences, private homes, farms, and rivers without bridges prevent most people who’d want to walk from easily being able to. Yet while this diversity of land use makes it hard to walk from here to there, it also creates unique transitions between places.

If you have ever walked to the grocery store, you’ll inevitably walk from an area zoned for residential use to a commercially zoned or mixed-use area. Houses will end, stores will begin, and a sidewalk may even appear at some point. Although you can watch such transitions happen from a car or bus window, there is a certain magic about walking through these changes. I especially enjoy standing at the exact in-between place, where the sidewalk begins or where you can hear cars and cows at the same time.

Early in my ecology education, I learned that everything is in transition. As trees grow, logs decay, and rocks erode, everything and everywhere is slowly changing. Similarly, as you walk across the landscape, some aspect of the environment is always changing, be it noise from the highway, sunlight, or soil acidity [1]. Transitions between places with very distinct characteristics are called ecotones, and within them you can find the most diverse mix of communities. For animals that move easily and are open-minded when it comes to food, ecotones present a two-for-one bargain. For example, in an ecotone between a shaded forest glen and a sunny pasture, a fox can eat berries and hunt for mice, respectively [2]. Similarly, a human can take an epic panorama photo.

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Fig. 2 A rapid transition between a shady forest and sunny field along the Appalachian Trail near Tyringham, MA (photo credit: EKuras).

The AT takes you through countless ecotones. Some ecotones occur quickly along changes in elevation; red maple groves transition to oaks and hemlocks, then mountain laurels and shrubby pines. These can be challenging to notice, especially if you are huffing and puffing uphill and trying not to trip! Other ecotones are more dramatic and intriguing, occurring at any of the boundaries between forests, farm fields, tiny villages, power lines, suburban lawns, and interstate highways.

I don’t know what it is about in-between places that I find so enchanting, but I imagine the reasoning is the same for eating bacon tuna melts (pig + fish + cheese) and traveling to the Four Corners.

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Fig. 3 The intersection of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. (photo credit: Four Corners Marker by Phil Konstantin via Flickr)

Perhaps walking through transitions inspires you to better appreciate difference and similarity between places, compelling you to push onward and discover what lies ahead. Next chance you get, I encourage you to walk to the grocery store and look for these transitions. Then, start taking longer and longer walks. Eventually, you may even walk the entire AT!

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Fig. 4 This sign makes it look so easy… (photo credit: EKuras)


[1] Munroe JS. 2012. Physical, Chemical, and Thermal Properties of Soils across a Forest-Meadow Ecotone in the Uinta Mountains, Northeastern Utah, U.S.A. Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research 44(1):95-106. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1657/1938-4246-44.1.95 http://www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.1657/1938-4246-44.1.95

[2] Chalfoun AD, Thompson III FR, Ratnaswamy MJ. 2002. Nest Predators and Fragmentation: a Review and Meta-Analysis. Conservation Biology 16(2):306–318. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1046/j.1523-1739.2002.00308.x http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1046/j.1523-1739.2002.00308.x/abstract

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