An Alabama injustice that's now corrected
Atop Cheaha Ridge, something big happened last weekend.
First, severe-weather sirens on Saturday blasted from Alabama's highest point
while a group hunkered down and conspired inside the nearby Bald Rock Lodge.
They were preparing for Sunday and an event of national significance.
Then, when storms had passed and a perfect Sunday sunrise began to warm the
mountain, people prepared for the event. They were coming to see a big rock that
had been mined from the LaFarge Quarry in Jefferson County. Weighing more than
10,000 pounds, this huge block of granite and limestone was hauled nearly a mile
deep into the woods for the event.
By noon, the cool sky was nearly cloudless and the wind was still. Dozens of
people had begun to arrive on Cheaha. And by 2 o'clock, hundreds had trekked
their way back into the woods to see the big rock, embedded with an impressive
brass plaque. Included in the group were reporters, elected officials, lawyers,
children, scientists, business leaders, teachers and others, all interested in
the same thing: connecting a simple walking trail from Maine to Alabama. The
rock would serve as a permanent symbol that corrected a significant Alabama
What was this injustice? It was that America's most famous hiking trail has
always been too short. Indeed, the well-known Appalachian Trail stopped short of
Alabama where, as we all know, the Appalachian ridge begins. Even Benton
MacKaye, the man who created the concept of the Appalachian Trail, had
envisioned a path that would extend "South to Alabama" from Maine. Until last
Sunday, that had never happened.
All who attended the event — and all who have an interest in the outdoors —
can now celebrate because MacKaye's dream has come true. The Appalachian Trail,
connected to the Benton MacKaye Trail in Georgia, is connected to the Pinhoti
Trail, completing the simple path that's now 2,504 miles long.
It was my friend Mike Leonard, an Alabamian now living and working as a
lawyer in North Carolina, who introduced me to the concept of extending the
trail the length of the Appalachian Mountains. The idea was so logical that
nearly 20 years ago, State Rep. Richard Lindsey, Cherokee County lawyer Al
Shumaker, local conservationist Bruce Hutchinson, Mike and I went to Washington
to lobby. On one of my first trips to Capitol Hill, we talked with legislators
who agreed that an extension should be in our future. Not too many worthwhile
projects happen overnight. This one took decades.
Nevertheless, it's an exciting time in Alabama, because we are becoming
connected in so many other ways. From our new Airbus factory in Mobile, to the
growth of UAB's medical complex and the Marshall Space Flight Center in
Huntsville, we have new connections that will benefits us in many ways. From one
end of the state to the other, we are becoming connected to a high-tech future.
In a very different way, the low-tech future has a similar impact on
connecting Alabama to others.
Developing ecotourism in its purest form, we have created a National Park
unit and are connecting Little River's deepest canyon to these highest mountains
through the Appalachian Mountains Scenic Byway. Thanks to NASA, the National
Park Service, Alabama Power Co., Rep. Bud Cramer and Rep. Robert Aderholt, as
well as others, we are set for a grand opening of the Jacksonville State
University Canyon Center in early 2009.
We have connected Anniston to Atlanta through the Chief Ladiga and Silver
Comet trails — and thanks to Coca-Cola, the PATH Foundation, the Rails to Trails
Conservancy, Rep. Mike Rogers and others, we are set for a grand ceremony this
But last Sunday, we celebrated the new Appalachian Trail connection, and
friends from Maine such as Brian Wiley, president of the Katahdin Area Chamber
of Commerce, celebrated with us. Jamie Renaud and Marsha Donahue from the
Appalachian Trail Café and Lodge sent these words: "Congratulations from
Millinocket, Maine, the home of Mount Katahdin and the Northern Terminus of the
Appalachian Trail. It's great that Maine is now formally connected to Alabama
via the Appalachian Trail; we join you in celebrating your new connection."
They also invited us to their first Trail's End Festival in September of this
year. Certainly some of us should go there and brag about Alabama, the Pinhoti
and the trail's new beginning.
Last Sunday was Palm Sunday. On that day, the ridge served as a most
beautiful church, appropriate for prayer, contemplation and deep thanks.
There were so many thanks to deliver, but for sure we must thank former
Congressman Glen Browder who during his first week in Washington in 1989 took
advantage of "Members Day" to expand the Talladega National Forest's boundary,
allowing for this connection.
We need to thank the late U.S. Sen. Howell Heflin and Rep. Tom Bevill, who
supported this connection through their policies and appropriations.
Sen. Richard Shelby also deserves our thanks, as through his support and
significant appropriations we were able to complete the connection. As Shelby
stated, "Connecting Alabama's Pinhoti Trail to the world-famous Appalachian
Trail is great news for the many outdoor enthusiasts who have been waiting for
the entire Appalachian range to be joined together. I believe that we must
protect and preserve our natural resources for future generations to enjoy. I am
proud to have played a part in ensuring that the Appalachian Trail connects to
our great state."
Also, important to thank are those behind the scenes. The people who built
the trail are too many to name, but I'd like to thank volunteers such as Jim
Austin, Joe Copeland, Gene Padgham, Carroll Wilson and the late Tom McGehee, who
quite literally died while hiking and working on this trail. From Huntsville,
most believe Tom died doing what he loved.
From those who have passed away loving trails to those like Anniston's little
Lexie Weidner, who was there last Sunday celebrating her very first birthday and
learning to love trails, let us all be proud of this accomplishment. Let's also
commit to less talking and more walking, especially outdoors and right here in
our own back yard on the Pinhoti Trail. In fact, to see what that brass plaque
says, you'll just have to walk out and read it!
Something big happened last weekend. Forevermore, it's yours to enjoy.
Pete Conroy, director of Jacksonville State University's Environmental
Policy and Information Center, spoke at the Pinhoti Trail connection ceremony
See story at The Anniston Star's website: www.annistonstar.com