By Brendan Meany, Manager
The Appalachian Trail is a footpath that begins in the mountains of Georgia, traverses fourteen states, and eventually tapers off in the rugged, hardy wilderness of central Maine. In spring of 2018, I decided to give it a go and took a leave from work at Mather Economics. Believe it or not, the facets of the hike turned out to be strikingly similar to those of would-be subscribers lost in the wilderness of online content. This is a short quip chronicling my adventure.
I set out in March, stepping foot at the southern terminus, Springer Mountain, just before lunch on a beautiful Thursday morning. In crossing the apex of Springer Mountain, I’d officially navigated to your website for the first time. My final destination is unimaginably far – the subscribe button lay at the top of Mount Katahdin, Maine, just under 2,200 miles away. In these woods, I’m part of a group of about 3,500 hikers attempting the AT thru-hike in 2018. In visiting your website, I’m part of innumerable brand new “flyby” browsers.
The first couple weeks are honeymoon like, the adventure nascent and fresh. I am a vagabond. Everything I needed I carry on my back. The sites, the sounds, the smells, I soak it all in with pleasure. I thumb through your website, brand new to me, enjoying the bells and tickers on the homepage, devouring witty articles, eyeing pictures in the gallery. I endure freezing temperatures, snow events, and the unforgiving terrain of northern Georgia. When I arrive at the GA-NC border, a sense of accomplishment pulses through me. Not only have I crossed off my first state, but I’ve already outlasted many of my compadres: 30% of the hikers have thrown in the towel already. These are the flaky flybys that navigate to your site once, never to be seen again. What did they think this was when they arrived?
The Smoky Mountains reside at the border of Tennessee and North Carolina and present the first real danger of the hike: most of the range sits above 4,000 feet, with some peaks climbing over 6,000 feet. Because of the time of year, hikers are almost guaranteed to endure blizzard conditions. Here, I begin to encounter messages popping up on your website: 5 free articles remain! We noticed you are using an ad blocker! Unbeknownst to me you’d been cunningly keeping track of my pitter-pattering around your website, just as my mind has been accounting the tolls of the hike so far, ready to send me home in defeat any day now. I was very lucky through the Smokies – a blizzard hit just as I was descending out of the park. I survive to browse your website at least for another day.
I crossed into Virginia in Early May. By now, more than 50% of hikers have dropped out. Virginia isn’t known for its challenging terrain. No, it’s the unrelenting rain that gets most hikers at this point in the journey. I can remember stretches of such heavy deluge, that the trail was less a footpath and more an ankle-deep stream. Hikers must learn to get along in the rain. Although it’s a terrible nuisance to hike in precipitation, hikers remain indebted to the rain because it replenishes the streams from which we drink. In this sense, the rain is precisely the same as ads on the fringes of your website: I dislike the clutter, but I understand that revenue from the ads help to underpin the existence of the site.
Well known for its biodiversity, the crown jewel of Virginia is the Shenandoah Mountains. Cacophonies of shrill birdsong fill the air each morning, ensuring each hiker is awake by 5 am sharp: the cerulean warbler being particularly egregious. I also stumble upon tens of black bear among the Shenandoah, each encounter more exhilarating than the last. Black bears are quite reticent, and only really pose a danger to hikers’ food at night.
Summer is in full swing as I approach Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, the half way point of the trail. By now, 60% of my cohort has dropped out, and within a week I am stepping across the Mason-Dixon line into Pennsylvania, leaving West Virginia and Maryland in my wake. At this point in time, two natural phenomena have, at precisely the same moment, reached their most unbearable levels. The peak of summer heat has arrived, exacerbated by the relative low-lying lands of Pennsylvania. The coming of nightfall offers little respite. Every piece of clothing I carry with me is permanently wet, and I won’t even mention the condition of my socks. I had long ago stopped worrying about showering or doing laundry, resolving to take a “cowboy shower” whenever the chance presented itself (for those not in the know, a cowboy shower is when you step into the shower with your clothing on, thus taking care of both chores at once).
The second unbearable phenomenon is the bugs. Oh, the bugs. Humans purport to be the rulers of the world. Not true. The bugs are in complete control. It was ironic. As I lay in my tent in the evenings, it was the buzz of the mosquitos that lulled me to sleep. The noise of things that wished harm upon me brought me comfort. And now, as I browse your site, the popup subscription reminders and ads are becoming more assertive. They begin to buzz in my face as I browse. I am at first comforted by my ability to easily swat them away, killing multiple at once with one blow. But, much like the bugs, there are endless ad replacements written into the underlying code, waiting for the right moment to show themselves. I grow weary, but I press on. The bugs and heat have sent another chunk of hikers reeling home, another swath of scrubby browsers have navigated away from the website.
The summer drags on as I continue north. The states fly by because of their brevity. I move through New Jersey and New York, where I get a glimpse of New York City in the distance. The human commotion is palpable even from this far away. It is unsettling to someone who’s been cut off from such bustle for so long. The next three states breeze by as well: Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont.
I march into New Hampshire in early September, half excited and half terrified at what lies ahead. New Hampshire and Maine. Together, these two states are like SATs: the entire hike up until now has been in preparation for this section. The climbs are long and impossibly steep. The trail can barely pass as a path at all: it is filled with boulders and roots that slow progress to a mere crawl. The paywall has clinched its jaws around me, my unimpeded browsing has come to an end. Teary eyed, I submit to entering my email address and I plug in my credit card number as I ascend to the final peak: Mount Katahdin. Only one in four hikers has made it this far. On the website, of course, this proportion is far less.
I’ve depicted the AT thru-hike as a series of hardships one must overcome in order to be successful. But amid the difficulties are rewards which themselves are augmented by the very challenges that proceed them. I was ensconced in nature for six months. I saw the most beautiful landscapes the eastern U.S. has to offer. The changing of the seasons unfolded directly before my eyes. I forged unlikely friendships with fellow hikers, bounded by the struggle. These factors made all the hardships that I endured worth it. Perhaps we can think of capturing online subscribers in the same light. The online experience, the “Vista”, should far outweigh the cost of access. Do aspects like site layout and ease of mobility have more influence on subscribership than say, article quality and subject? Does the use of more images enhance site experience? Let’s set out on an adventure to find out together.