One of my favorite hiking pals is a guy named Jay Dement. I have hiked to numerous places with him — including the Balkans and the Himalayas — and have found him to be a constant source of witty cynicism, good humor and friendship. We have so many funny stories to share that it would take days to share them all.
Jay is also a persistent and stubborn son of a %$#@. He has several major obsessions, and he hangs onto them like an grouchy pit bull with a big soup bone. Obsession #1 is the whole Leave No Trace (LNT) philosophy. Jay has handouts, an elevator speech, detailed slide presentations, patches and an overarching commitment to the idea that anyone who goes into the wilderness should understand the basic precepts of leaving things as you found them. He also understands and preaches that just saying “take only pictures, leave only footprints” is not enough to get the point across.
Obsession #2 is the Trail Ambassadors program which pretty much goes hand in hand with LNT. Working with the U. S. Forest Service, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club, Jay has worked tirelessly (Well, actually, I imagine he does get tired sometimes) to assemble a group of qualified, highly trained volunteers to assist in handling the onslaught of people who arrive in Georgia each year to head north from Springer Mtn. on the AT headed for Mt. Katahdin in Maine. There are professional caretakers and ridge runners in Georgia who help handle this yearly northbound diaspora, but Jay’s cadre of Trail Ambassadors are on the job to fill in when the hard working paid staff take days off.
I am one of Jay’s volunteers. Having hiked the AT twice and staying involved in the trail community for decades, I am somewhat qualified to size up what we call “thru-starters” and engage them in friendly conversation. I have seen all kinds of inappropriate gear and behavior out on the trail, and as a TA, it is my job to suggest — without being imperious — better ways to succeed on a thru-hike with an overarching emphasis on LNT. Jay’s training sessions helped me to do this job by using role playing to practice what to do if a hiker is committing such malfeasances as setting up a new fire ring, allowing his/her dog to run rampant and terrorize other hikers, carrying a three-pound handaxe, getting drunk or cluelessly indulging in all manner of other activities that are not good for them, other hikers or the trail. TAs have no authority and must call up their best powers of diplomacy and sincerity to persuade people to exercise good behavior rather than “lay down the law.”
What should be emphasized about Jay is that the program has been very successful and has resulted in many positive outcomes. He has been the main mover and shaker in the success of TAs, and he has done so despite the red tape and bureaucracy of dealing with the Forest Service. USFS personnel are very dedicated, but they will be the first to tell you that implementing new programs within a federal agency is never easy. My friend Jay has done that, and I tip my hat to him.
One anecdote: For those of you who have read my novel, THRU: An Appalachian Trail Love Story, you may remember the Captain Stupid character, a 350-pound schlub who heads north from Springer Mtn. seeking his final shot at redemption on the AT. I actually met his real-life equivalent last year as I served as a Trail Ambassador at the Hawk Mtn. Shelter about seven miles north of Springer. This poor guy was morbidly obese, over equipped, in dark despair and hobbling on ankles he had twisted seven times (one incident per mile) since embarking from Springer. I had a long talk with this Captain Stupid doppelgänger, and he was ready to cash in his dream before it had a fighting chance to get started. I talked to a kind soul who was willing to give the fellow a ride out to Dahlonega, a town about 2o miles away. My suggestion was to lay up for a day or so and take stock of his morale and his body. Judging from the look on his face, his trip was about done.
Fortunately, most of the hikers encountered by Trail Ambassadors have happier stories. Some are eminently well prepared and need no one’s advice. Some are fine tuning their equipment and attitudes and are happy to discuss ways to improve. Most are having a positive experience, although many are asking themselves, “What have I gotten myself into?” As this year’s crop of thru-starters get underway, I wish them the best. And God Bless Jay Dement and his cohort of Trail Ambassadors who spread the gospel of LNT.