For more information about the trail, visit www.greateasterntrail.net. To follow Bart Houck and Joanna Swanson's journey, go to www.gethiking.net.
When you see big beards and bigger backpacks, they're not attached to bums. They're tourists -- just a little scruffier than most, and a lot more adventurous.
That was the message Sunday afternoon when the Great Eastern Trail Association proclaimed Chattanooga a "trail town." This is the first city to receive such a designation along the hiking trail, which runs from Alabama to New York.
With rain pouring, a group of about 30 huddled under the Tennessee Riverpark's Marsh Pavilion. The event, which was part of a two-day series of hikes and strategy meetings here, drew trail association members from New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Hamilton County Parks and Recreation Director Ron Priddy and Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke also attended.
"A lot of people think about trails in an individualistic way," Berke told the hikers. "But I think about trails as building communities."
The "trail town" title doesn't hold concrete value. Money is not spent. Legislation is not passed. Structures are not built.
Really, the title is about awareness and nothing else, but leaders of the trail association believe that alone is worthwhile. They want more people to know about their trail, which right now is a series of independent paths they hope to link into one 2,000-mile monster.
Joanna Swanson, 28, and Bart Houck, 43, are trying to hike the whole trail. They met when Swanson, a self-described "trail geek," started working on trails in Mullens, W.Va., where Houck is an athletic trainer for a high school football team.
In January, Swanson and Houck set out from Flagg Mountain, Ala. In February, they walked through Chattanooga, where they were mistaken for a homeless couple while stopping for ice cream in Red Bank. Last week they were in Bath County, Va., when Tom Johnson emailed them.
Johnson, the trail association's president, asked if Houck and Swanson could come to Chattanooga for the weekend to lead short hikes and meet with other association members. Friday morning he picked them up in his Subaru Outback and the three drove to Chattanooga.
In June, Houck and Swanson hope to arrive at the Finger Lakes in New York. That is the end of the Great Eastern Trail, which runs parallel to the Appalachian Trail. The two update a blog to promote the trail, which is for the most part still unknown. Sometimes they walk for days without seeing anybody else.
By comparison, each year thousands of people hike the Appalachian Trail.
"We hope this trail will grow into that," Johnson said Sunday before quoting Winston Churchill.
"This is not the end. This is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."
Contact Tyler Jett at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6476.