Volunteers are magic behind this majestic trail
By Jayson Alexander | (firstname.lastname@example.org)
To keep a trail of this magnitude passable and in shape, and maintaining the shelters and privies along the way takes serious work — work that is largely carried out by volunteers. Even hiking the trail cannot be done completely alone. To have a truly successful thru-hike, serious help is needed.
Probably the easiest way to get involved is by joining a trail crew. Hikers simply volunteer through the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the organization created to conserve and protect the trail, and often join a group that takes care of a specific section of trail. Clearing overgrown weeds, repairing shelters and privies, and rebuilding water pipes at springs are only a few of the projects a trail crew undertakes to better the hiking experience for other hikers.
Getting signed up for the crew is the easy part, though. Volunteering to be a part of trail crew is not for everybody, because strenuous work is involved. To be able to work on trails and do a good job, the right tools are needed and there are no mechanical vehicles available on the trail. If a tool is needed it gets loaded into, or strapped onto, a backpack and carried in.
Working on a trail crew can be a rewarding experience: you get the physical workout, and there is the ever-present camaraderie. People from all walks of life get involved, which can lead to some serious team building and the development of good friendships, much like what happens when you are thru-hiking the trail.
The next step up, and a somewhat more serious trail position, is that of being a “ridgerunner.” This job consists of being a full-time hiker who takes care of a specific section of trail, sometimes up to 70 miles long.
Clearing or marking trail blockages from rock slides or downed trees, such as what happened during recent storms, and checking for shelter reservations in parks like the Smokies, are just a couple of specific examples of what a ridgerunner does. Ridgerunners have even been known to aid in emergency situations, such as a lost hiker or providing emergency medical attention until rescue is an option. The job requires spending several weeks on and several weeks off the trail, making for an interesting schedule for those who have a dead-set job. Recruiting for the position begins in November and December for the next season’s runners.
Users of the trail need just as much help as the trail itself. “Trail magic,” rides into town, and following good stewardship along the trail — “leave no trace,” or leaving it as it was found — are all huge benefits to the users. Trail magic is exactly what it sounds like: magic. Imagine walking along the trail on a sweltering summer day a third of the way done with a thru hike, but still miles to go for the day. Then, then in the distance, you see something odd beside the trail. After a closer look it turns out to be a cooler and inside there happens to be cold drinks and a box of snacks next to it with a sign that says, “Help yourself!”
Another trail magic event that has occurred on more than one occasion is arriving at a shelter after hiking in a cold miserable rain all day to find Bert “WILDCAT” Emmerson cooking steaks for the group of hikers who have made the lucky decision of stopping for the night. Those are examples of trail magic at its finest. Even the smallest gesture of kindness in the form of trail magic can help turn a day around and even save a hike.
Trail magic happens on The AT from end to end in the peak hiking season in both forms, as well as many others. People have even been known to set up small stands like a kid’s lemonade stand beside the trail and give out food from snack size to full meals for hikers. Trail magic can come with a few rules, though. In Great Smoky Mountains National Park, for example, The AT crosses Newfound Gap Road, or U.S. 441, and no trail magic is allowed because it turns into way too big a deal with all of the summer traffic and visitors.
Free food isn’t the only need of a thru-hiker. Rides are hard to come by when coming off the trail onto a road into town and road walking is awful. Cars whizzing past and tromping on hard pavement after being on a natural trail all day is not the best way to end a long day headed to town. Anybody who is willing to pull over and even just let a hiker ride in the back of a pickup is a God send.
Meeting hikers this way is also an interesting experience, because it lends itself to the camaraderie associated with the trail: giving somebody a ride is a chance to meet somebody new and learn something. The catch to this is making sure it is actually OK and not considered hitch hiking.
‘Leave no trace'
Following simple guidelines like the “leave-no-trace” concept is the final and most simple piece for helping the trail. The name says it all: "Leave no trace” means to leave the trail itself and campsites along the way just as they were found or better than they were found. Cleaning up even the smallest piece of trash or a load of it left by careless others keeps the trail more beautiful and natural and makes the experience that much more enjoyable.
Everyone who uses the trail needs to do their part to keep it around for another amazing 75 years.