The Appalachian Trail, October 27, 2021 — This month’s “AT Journeys” magazine reflects on the AT’s history and features essays on the experience of some of it those highly connected to it. The essays prompted me to ask myself, “Why?” This is my answer.
For me the AT is not some romantic ideal. I don’t go there to find myself or heal from hurt. Instead, it represents a kindred community and an open-ended opportunity to rake, pound, shovel, and make sawdust.
Selfless service has been the central ethos of my life. It began as a family value, was reinforced by my military service and yet again at the culmination of my career by the very purpose of the Corporation for National and Community service, the parent of AmeriCorps.
Community service as a post retirement mission was a given. My lifelong love affair with nature, backpacking and endurance athletics led naturally to the Appalachian Trail which runs less than an hour from my house.
I thought the best way to prepare for my, then pending, 2,200 mile AT thru hike should include involvement in service to the trail, a deposit in the karma account.
Two months after retiring I was cleaning waterbars, clipping vegetation and the other tasks novice maintainers do. By the end of that summer, building log structures and stonework had been added to my rookie resume. I was hooked.
Later, that thru hike proved to me the priceless value of those who lend their muscle, money and intellect to preserving and protecting trails. Mother Nature can easily reclaim her ground if we don’t take care of it.
Since scaling Katahdin I’ve been privileged to clear blowdowns, empty privy compost bins, be a ridgerunner, and serve in leadership roles.
The selfless example of the countless volunteers with whom I’ve been privileged to work is the beating heart of this experience. Some have been showing up for decades. Many drive hours just to get to where they’re volunteering. These givers stand in sharp contrast to the takers in our society.
No one volunteers for the pay. Everyone does it for the camaraderie and satisfaction of knowing their effort matters. Their example keeps me coming back.
A successful thru hike and years of hiking with our ridgerunners have allowed me to witness the evolution of trail culture. Change is inevitable, driven by the advent of lighter equipment, new technology, social media, and the march of new generations. It morphs a little each year, but the underlying spirit of the community remains constant. All told, the AT offers an amazing place to serve and do.