On weekends, I often trade the gritty blacktop of the city for the quiet solitude of the forest. As billboards and blinking LCDs give way to rocky paths and fresh air, I feel the deadlines fade away. My mind wanders, my feet follow the dirt track—the dog runs ahead. Depending on the locale, a series of trail markers, or blazes, pave the course. Nailed to trees, painted on boulders, sometimes reflective, sometimes not, these subtle guideposts—in brilliant or sun-faded shades of yellow, orange, green, blue, and black— guarantee hikers don’t get lost. All you have to do is follow along.
A few months ago, hiking near Manitoga, the 75-acre property maintained by midcentury designer Russel Wright, one such blaze stood out. Somewhere near Lost Pond, where a short section of trail connects Wright’s carefully planned landscape to the greater wilderness, a circular white metal marker seemed to point east. Tilted at the perfect angle, the arrow was in fact the letters “A” and “T,” stacked neatly together. My hand found its way to the printed map stuffed inside my back pocket to confirm what I already knew: we’d hit the Appalachian Trail.
Stretching from Maine to Georgia across 2,190 miles, the ambitious project was originally the brainchild of former forester Benton MacKaye, whose proposal “An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning,” appeared in the Journal of the American Institute of Architects in 1921. By 1922, work on the A.T. had already begun, under the direction of Major William Welch, the trail’s first chairman and a tireless conservationist—only yards from the very spot I stood. It was also Welch who designed the system’s iconic marker in the early 1920s, comprised of the simple A.T. monogram I saw that day, along with the words “Appalachian Trail—Palisades Interstate Park Section” encircling both letters, embossed on a square piece of copper. After several iterations, the text eventually shifted to the shorter and more manageable “Appalachian Trail—Maine to Georgia,” but the A.T. lock-up was never used on its own, at least not officially.
“It went from a square to a diamond shape, and then in the 1930s, because of cost during The Depression of making these things, it shifted to white paint blazes,” explained Brian B. King, publisher for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. “That’s the standard trail marker now. They’re still some diamonds out there and we make some as souvenirs, so people don’t take them.”
When I asked if Welch ever intended the monogram to be used as a directional arrow, I was met with a resounding, “No.” But the truth is a bit harder to uncover. Welch, who died in 1941, never granted a public interview and lived out his years in relative seclusion, ensconced in a cabin near Bear Mountain with his family. According to the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, which maintains routes in the area, before paint blazes became the norm all manner of “chaos” marked the paths, including wooden arrows cut from fruit boxes, bottle caps, and tin can bottoms. Metal blazes were often used for target practice by local hunters.
Today, the independent organizations that maintain and manage the A.T. do so according to the policy and standards set by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy—but the guidelines are broad and deviations are not policed. Hikers have also brought the monogram into common use, crafting variations from fallen branches, or carving them directly in dirt on the forest floor. Sarah Jones documented 444 of these “markers” in a poster she designed after hiking the trail in 2008, and A.T. enthusiasts have continued the tradition, recording each new discovery online.
The version I encountered is what King would term a “local option.” “I’ve never seen anything like it, and I’ve been looking for 30 years,” he said. Others I spoke to went so far as to call it illegal, and my inquiry will likely lead to its removal. To me, the blaze remains a brilliant mystery. Liberated from the diamond and pointing calmly eastward, perhaps a designer’s pure intent is revealed—direction for an otherwise aimless walk in the woods.