10/10/2012 04:54 pm ET Updated Nov 05, 2012

The Appalachian Trail, America's Smallest Massive Achievement (PHOTOS)

At 2,184 miles long, the Appalachian Trail winds the equivalent of almost 9 percent of the Earth's circumference between Springer Mountain in Georgia and Mount Katahdin in Maine. Still, this massive American institution is almost obscured from view by a few puddles and fallen leaves on a rainy day in New Hampshire.

The Appalachian Trail, it turns out, is a massive endeavor and a very small place. If we estimate that the trail is, on average, three feet wide -- this is probably generous -- than the entire trail takes up one and a quarter square miles.

The modesty of America's first App was brought home to me as I watched two bedraggled walkers step off the trail onto the Daniel Webster Highway in Franconia Notch and proceeded to follow their motel bound footprints back into the woods. I was expecting a sort of tunnel through the trees, a sweeping walkway suitable for, at the very least, a horse drawn carriage. I was expecting this not because I had any reason to -- the word "trail" is right there in the name -- but because I assumed that this grand thing I'd been hearing about my whole life would turn out to be grand.

I paced the same quarter mile stretch for a while, checking and rechecking that I was in the right place. I was. I was pretty sure I was. I was.

This had been a much anticipated stop on my way from Boston to Canada. I'd had visions of meandering happily into the woods for several miles and really getting a sense of the trail. I was shocked to discover that this great thing was little more than a ribbon of wet dirt. Then I decided that I had nothing to be disappointed about.

Originally conceived of by a mourning widower in 1921, the trail was originally meant to provide city-types with access to the woods. Though the scale of the trail kept and keeps expanding, the basic idea remains the same: The trail is where Americans can meet the great woods they sometimes forget they occupy.

The beauty of the trail is that its fragility has not resulted in its extinction. It would have taken me maybe thirty minutes to kick apart the beaten path and strip away the painted bark marking the way, but here was this century-old thing that no one dared hurt because it seemed too massive. In conflating the grand ambition of the trail with the trail itself, I'd fallen into the Appalachian Trail's trap, a sort of pitfall for romantic-minded outdoor-types.

Turns out the trail isn't what is monolithic. Americans' connection to nature is.

This thought was rattling around my brain as I started to photograph the trail itself. I admired its humility and ambition, two traits that once defined what it was supposed to mean to be American. Keeping that in mind, I decided to take its portrait rather than a picture of it disappearing into its scenic surrounds. What you see below is the texture of about 20 feet of trail -- .00017 percent of the total length. I find it stunning apparent how fragile the trail truly is.

That something so fragile as the narrow, muddiness shown below is both world famous and shockingly resilient, seems a tribute to America's narrowest institution. The trail isn't going anywhere, though everyone on it is.