IIt’s been 100 years since an unemployed forester named Benton MacKaye had the idea for an Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia. Today we know the trail for the hiking possibilities it offers, but its inventor had something much more ambitious in mind. In the wake of his own personal tragedy, MacKaye envisioned a mountain kingdom that would change the shape of American life.
In 1915, MacKaye, at the age of 36, married forty-year-old suffragist and social activist Jessie Hardy Stubbs, known as Betty. She was far more important in her own field than MacKaye was in his, a leading organizer of efforts to give women the right to vote. Betty MacKaye, like Benton, was dedicated to social change on many fronts, and their marriage was as much an activist partnership as it was a domestic arrangement. Washington, DC was their base, and they shared cohabitation with like-minded friends in a place the group dubbed “Hell House” for the hellish sensibilities of its residents. Both spent long journeys traveling and separated from each other, she organized campaign activities, conducted her research.
In early 1918, Betty had a nervous breakdown, in the parlance of the day, consumed with anxiety to the point that she could no longer function. Betty and Benton struggled to find anything that would improve it, including a hospital stay in Washington. But the prospect of confinement upset Betty, no less, so they made arrangements to travel to a friend’s country home in the Hudson River Valley in upstate New York. It worked; in the calm countryside atmosphere, Betty regained her balance, and the two came back to life together. They decided to follow the same program if she was to have similar episodes in the future.