“Hike your own hike.”
It’s the unofficial code along the Appalachian Trail, America’s most popular through hike. Be respectful of your fellow hiker, the land, and the elements, but make those hard-earned hours, days, and months your own.
These are words that George Rue took to heart when he first set out on the AT as a fresh high school graduate five years ago. He has been hiking sections every summer since, completing the entire trail in early 2015, and returning to some of his favorite sections time and time again. But what he never anticipated was that his path along the AT would ultimately lead beyond the confines of the trail itself-and land on the whitewashed walls of New York City’s art scene.
Over the past three years, Rue has been piecing together an Appalachian Trail-inspired collection known as the “Appalachian Travelogue.” The multi-media piece, ranging from trailside sketches, to wood etchings, to a print of his muddy boot tread, is a gritty and personal portrayal of the 24-year-old’s experience on the trail, an honest window into an outdoorsman’s rite of passage.
“I think the more personal a work of art is, the more universal it is in a way,” says Rue, now a MFA candidate at New York Academy of Art . “I’m making something that is very specific from my experiences [on the AT], but I want it to be something that other hikers and people can relate to, the feeling, the smell, the gear.”
The idea for Appalachian Travelogue spawned almost by accident, when a professor at the School of Visual Arts, where Rue studied undergrad, recommended his students bring a sketchbook along with them over summer break. Rue obliged, knowing that his summer would lead back to the trail where he had spent his previous three.
That summer, the former Boy Scout sketched his way down the AT, in what he calls a, “diaristic [sic], direct way.” Those early pen and pencil sketches are among his all-time favorites, depicting some of the many shelters he stayed in, the people he met, and the words of wisdom he plucked from passers-by. When he returned from his summer wanderings, his professor, impressed with the visual logbook, suggested he continue and expand his project as a way to share the story of the AT beyond its oft-insular community.
He began turning his sketches into wood prints and etchings, and started drawing maps and comics to add variety to his work. When his installation started making the New York City gallery rounds, he created a campsite, replete with his sleeping bag and hiking boots to bring the Appalachian Travelogue to life.
“When people see all my gear, they’re a little bit shocked,” he says. “I’m at this glitzy party for a studio…and I’m rolling out my dirty sleeping bag.”
For viewers, the project reinvigorates a lost sense of Americana, the idea of getting out amongst it and entering a great, uncertain frontier. It’s art’s manifestation of the wilderness pilgrimage, a look at the power of self-discovery wrapped in the harsh realities of nature. Somewhere out there, Muir strokes his beard with approval.
His fellow hikers have also voiced their support, with many asking for copies of his trail portraits after their artistic encounters. Rue says he usually collects emails and sends them over the web, but admits that he once sent an entire woodcut to a Maine trail conservationist to hang in a hostel along the northern Appalachian route.
“While I’m out on the AT, I stop for a couple of days to sketch and do research, so I am always at a different pace than the other hikers,” says Rue, whose trail nickname quickly became Caribou Rue. “I try and really absorb the particularities of the places I visit.”
That attention to detail has helped Rue create a spin-off comic of his experiences titled “On The Trail”, an idea that even has him eyeing a graphic novel about the through hike experience somewhere down the road.
For now, Rue is planning his first AT-less summer in five years. A German magazine is flying him to Europe to produce a body of work similar to Appalachian Travelogue in Saxony.
No matter where Rue’s trail leads next, he hopes that his art can continue capturing the subtleties of putting one foot in front of the other, day after day.
“One of my favorite woodcuts is of this uphill climb I was doing in Maine,” he says. “It just gives that ‘oh shit’ feeling of climbing that hill, that moment of exhaustion, the stench of being out in the woods when the odds are totally stacked against you. This is the most brutal moment of your day, but sometimes, if you just look at the ground, it can be a powerful experience. Even something as mundane as climbing a hill can be a little magical.”