The Appalachian Trail goes digital

Students Carlos Chapa and Bethany Shoop at Corbin Cabin on the Appalachian Trail in Virginia. Photo by Mills Kelly.

A new class in the History and Art History Department combines the beauty and deep history of the Appalachian Trail with digital media.

History of the Appalachian Trail was created by George Mason University history professor Mills Kelly as a special topics course within the proposed digital history concentration that will soon be part of the BA in history. Kelly, who came to George Mason in 2001 specifically to work at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, wanted to get his undergraduate students more involved with what digital media had to offer to history majors.

Students in the course complete various readings, write essays and participate in discussions just like any other class, but they also create their own digital exhibits on Omeka, a historical web-publishing platform developed at the Rosenzweig Center. According to Kelly, these exhibits will cover a wide range of the Appalachian Trail’s “rich and complicated history,” including issues of race, class and gender.

One student, Bethany Shoop, is an undergraduate history major who has hiked approximately 882 miles of the trail since she was 13. Her exhibit will focus on when and how the hiking community decided to stop wearing cotton on the trail.

Creating the course also gave Kelly the opportunity to combine “avocation with vocation.” Kelly has been hiking the trail since he was 13 as well, and now volunteers with the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, one of the 31 volunteer clubs that maintain the trail.

Hikes, therefore, are encouraged as part of the syllabus. Earlier this semester, members of the class hiked to the Manassas Gap Shelter, which is the closest point on the trail to Mason. On a separate trip, they went to a cabin built in 1909 that Kelly co-oversees in Nicholson Hollow in Shenandoah National Park.

The hikes are not required for class participation, but Kelly believes that physical learning can do something positive for the brain and allow students to think a little differently than they would in a classroom.

“I’m a big believer that if you can go to the place where the history happened, it forces you to think in a way that you wouldn’t have otherwise,” Kelly said.

As she continues her journey of section hiking the entire trail before graduating with a master’s degree, Shoop said she plans on looking out for potentially historic spots on the trail and interacting more with the hikers she meets on the way.

“I want to find out where they fit into the narrative of the trail,” Shoop said.

To culminate the digital exhibits, the students in the class will be painting a map of the Appalachian Trial on the wall across from Kelly’s office. Their trail map will contain QR codes along the way that link directly to their digital exhibits. Kelly said these digital exhibits will give students a tangible product they can use for job applications in the future.

“I want them to say, ‘I made that … I can translate my work into something,’” Kelly said.

To learn more about the Appalachian Trail, check out the course’s website.