MATEWAN, W.Va. -- Snow clung to the hilltops lining the Tug Fork Valley surrounding them, but at river level, it was a rare snow-free day on the trail for Joanna Swanson and Bart Houck as they walked across the bridge separating McCarr, Ky., from the Mingo County town of Matewan.
Wednesday's walk into West Virginia marked the fifth state that Swanson and Houck have entered since beginning what they are determined will become the first through-hike of the 1,800-mile Great Eastern Trail.
Extending from the highlands of Alabama to the Finger Lakes region of western New York, the Great Eastern Trail, America's newest long-distance hiking venue, extends through nine states in all, with West Virginia falling at its midpoint.
"I like to think of Mullens being the true halfway point," said Houck, a Wyoming County native and a substitute teacher and athletic trainer for Wyoming East High School. "But it's probably closer to Hinton."
"After getting to this point, I'm very confident we'll make it the rest of the way," said Swanson, a native Minnesotan who served as coordinator of West Virginia's section of the Great Eastern Trail as a VISTA volunteer based in Wyoming County in 2011.
The first half of their journey has been a frosty one for the long-haul hikers.
"We've hiked through snow in every state so far, but it was our idea to start in January," Swanson said. "We're ready for spring."
Swanson said the Great Eastern Trail, and the Appalachian Trail, which she through-hiked in 2009-2010, "are totally different monsters. The Great Eastern Trail goes into places that feel more rural and remote than the Appalachian Trail, but at the same time, the Great Eastern goes through towns, including downtown Chattanooga."
The concept for the Great Eastern Trail is more than 60 years old. Four years after Earl Shaffer completed the first through-hike of the Appalachian Trail in 1948, he proposed opening a parallel route to the west, linking a series of existing trails meandering through a patchwork of state and federal land.
As use of the Appalachian Trail steadily increased, with some stretches becoming crowded at times, hikers began to take a fresh look at Shaffer's proposal. In 2003, the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club and the Southeast Foot Trails Coalition began to discuss the creation of a western alternative to the Appalachian Trail. By 2005, the American Hiking Society and the National Park Service's Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance program joined in the effort, and came up with the name Great Eastern Trail.
While segments of the Great Eastern Trail remain sketchy, including much of the section passing through West Virginia, most of the GET incorporates existing long-distance trails, including parts of the Pinhoti Trail in Alabama and Georgia, the Cumberland Trail in Tennessee, and the Pine Mountain Trail in Kentucky.
In West Virginia, plans call for the trail to pass through R.D. Bailey Lake Wildlife Management Area, Twin Falls State Park, Camp Creek State Park, Pipestem State Park, and follow the New River through Bluestone State Park and Wildlife Management Area to the Virginia border. The trail then veers into a section of Virginia near Glen Lyn and joins a section of the Appalachian Trail near Pearisburg, where it follows the top of Peters Mountain on the West Virginia-Virginia border before joining the Allegheny Trail and moving back into West Virginia.
Plans call for the GET to continue along the Allegheny Trail through Monroe and Greenbrier counties to Lake Sherwood in the Monongahela National Forest, cut back into Virginia for a 150-mile link of connected trails before joining the existing Tuscarora Trail, which passes through an additional 33 miles of West Virginia, and extends through parts of Virginia, Maryland and into Pennsylvania.
"This trail showcases 190 miles of West Virginia, and will be great for the state," said Houck. Several towns along the trail's route through Southern West Virginia, including Matewan, Mullens, Pineville and Hinton, have already signed on to be Great Eastern Trail host communities and have agreed to blaze the trail through their streets and encourage trail activities.
In Southern West Virginia, GET hikers can be expected to use the same amenities that have sprung up to serve motorized trail users on the Hatfield-McCoy Trail. "Both ATV riders and hikers like pizza and cheap places to stay," said Swanson.
While other through-hikers are sure to eventually follow the trail blazed by Houck and Swanson, most trail users are expected to be day-hikers exploring sections of the GET that pass near their homes.
"In West Virginia, there will be plenty of bite-sized day hikes," Swanson said.