Tag Archives: Appalachian Trail Conservancy

Say it ain’t so Sandi!

I saw so many eager thru-starters this year carrying the 2020 AT tag as they prepared to leave the Amicalola Falls Visitors Center to take those first amazing steps on a northbound odyssey toward Mt. Katahdin. I serve as a trail ambassador providing a little friendly encouragement to this diverse group of people, and I know exactly what’s going through their minds.

I have seen so many like them over the years, ready to take on the challenge and see if they could measure up to it in a physical, emotional and spiritual sense. This year, sadly, the opportunity has been taken out of their hands.

In a decree I received by email from Appalachian Trail Conservancy Executive Director Sandi Marra, the 2020 class of AT thru-hikers is being asked to cease and desist from pursuing their dream. Oh man, does this ever hurt. All the dreaming, planning and training goes down the drain.

It seems cruel and unreasonable at first glance. Seriously, what safer place could there be from the Corona Virus than out in the wide open spaces of the AT? Well, think about it. Personal cleanliness is critical to avoiding this scourge, and anyone who thinks that trail hygiene is much better than hit or miss is kidding themselves. And even though you are in open air for sure when you are out there, so many hikers get in close quarters in shelters and shelter areas for hours at a time. Also, trail hostels — as friendly and inviting as they often are — are not conducive to healthy interaction and social distancing. And is it safe for trail angels to give people a friendly ride from the trail into nearby towns and back? Of course not; it is unsafe for both hikers and drivers. All told, it is not a good year to be out there.

So, I think back to 1973 when I was a 21-year-old out there having the most amazing adventure imaginable as I thru-hiked southbound from Maine to Georgia. I don’t think Sandi Marra or Mahatma Ghandi or God himself could have talked me into stopping. I am older now, and if not wiser, I am surely less impetuous. Impetuosity is harder to come by as you near the end of seven decades. I think I have to agree with Sandi. AT thru-hikers should delay until next year.

I am sure that Sandi feels terrible about her decision to ask hikers to call it quits for the year. But I am also sure that as a responsible leader, she knew she was correct when she pulled the trigger on her suggestion. Let’s hope this works out well for all of you out there. I look forward to bumping elbows with you at Amicalola Falls Visitors Center next Spring.

 

 

 

 

National Trails Act and Wilderness Act are at the heart of so much that matters!

Forgive me for emoting a little, but I appreciate so little of what the government does without my asking that when it does something wonderful — I want to point it out.

Lyndon Johnson signed a groundbreaking piece of bipartisan legislation 53 years ago called the Wilderness Act giving Congress the right to decree tracts of federal land as wilderness. I have visited a number of wilderness areas in the last half century and am a better man for it. I spent a career in the oil business and watched the Kabuki dance that went on between bureaucrats, politicians, businessmen, environmental groups and public citizens about how “wilderness” would be established and where.

This year we celebrate another major half-century milestone, the National Trails Act which gave government incentives and funding to recognize and promote maintenance, development and protection of a number of trails including the PCT, the AT, the CDT and the Florida Trail.

I wonder if any of this would had happened if Benton MacKaye — the ultimate hiker’s hero — had not (1) Conceived of the AT and (2) Cofounded the Wilderness Society. Let’s just be glad he existed so we won’t have to find out. Stay vertical and keep walkin’!

 

Stealth Thru-hikers Up and Running!

This little piece of plastic is a common sight hanging off thru-hikers packs as they head up the Approach Trail from Amicalola Falls State Park. Again this year, I am participating with paid ridge runners and volunteer trail ambassadors to talk to aspiring thru-starters at the park visitors center ready to walk through the stone arch and head up 604 steps to the top of Amicalola Falls.

Part of my job is to sign them up and hand them the little hang tag pictured above. The tag is a way of saying they registered with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and that they agree to follow Leave No Trace rules such as bury your poop, camp on durable surfaces and keep your food away from critters — particularly bears.

I am seeing every type of age, nationality, race, gender and preparation level as we talk to people and send them off. Most of them are eager to sit down and listen to a brief talk about equipment, water treatment, Leave No Trace and common trail courtesy. What I love most is the demeanor of the hikers just as they are ready to take their first step — a combination of grim game face/eager anticipation/”What the %$#@ have I gotten myself into?”

In THRU: An Appalachian Trail Love Story I describe thru-starters who pass over Springer Mtn. as “starry-eyed Alices going through a white-blazed looking glass bound for a dream they don’t understand with shiny new gear, fresh faces and resolve in their eyes.” Since I wrote that, nothing much has changed — just the volume of hikers.

This year more than 4,000 hikers have registered with the ATC, and there is no way to calculate how many will actually be out there. Let’s hope clueless dolts are at a minimum. Most of the hikers are genuinely nice folks who join a supportive and congenial trail culture. Leave No Trace was never so important if we are to keep ourselves from loving the beloved AT to death.

 

 

LNT is the Key to Hikeable Trails

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.