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.
3 thoughts on “The AT is a place to serve”
I tried to stop and thank every trail volunteer!. Thanks sooo much. I am finishing up my AT hike book…and the kindred magic is amazing!!..hervus my intro to eBook…Nature Magic: The Incredible Magic of Nature on the Appalachian Trail..here is free link if interested in all volunteers met, plants, and hikers…
My car pooling partner in 1986 first told me about the Appalachian Trail’s “Nature Magic.” Each year 3 to 4 million people hike parts of the Appalachian Trail (AT). In 2018 over 1,000 hikers completed the AT between Maine and Georgia in one year, called a thru-hike. Most attempt this to experience nature.
But something about nature motivates fellow hikers into best friends, strangers into hiker-helpers called trail angels, hiking clubs to maintain the trails, and townspeople and businesses to serve these hikers like family. A common saying is, “The trail community is how people should be everywhere.
My car pooling partner described backpacking into forests where the noisy traffic was replaced by birds singing. Where lakes were so clear and clean it was impossible not to jump in for a swim. Where the only people present were those carrying everything they owned in a backpack.
His words motivated me to join the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. I already loved camping. But it took me a long time to finally backpack. Sometimes for a night, taking only a sack for supplies. Sometimes for a week. The forest ALWAYS brought me a peace rarely found in modern society.
Backpackers can’t carry modern conveniences, so they actually go to bed soon after dark, with only nature sounds for “entertainment.” At night in the forest we experienced the thrill of loons yodeling, moose moaning, coyote howling, and insects trilling. Owls hooted us to sleep. Occasionally waking up at night we saw stars and the big dipper reflected in a clear mountain lake. One night lightning bugs lit up all at once like magic.
Each morning birds sang us awake, celebrating a brand new day! We got our water from tiny streams. We rested on logs and rocks overlooking mountain valleys letting nature work its magic on our thoughts and hearts. The hard work climbing up and down trails hardened our muscles. The hardships toughened our minds.
A famous saying among hikers is, “Hike your own hike.” Younger hikers often wanted the challenge. They wanted to clear their minds before starting a working career. Older hikers wanted to unwind after long careers. All wanted to experience nature magic.
At the end, most were happy to finish and unhappy to finish. They were sad to leave the forest and their new friends. They were happy to sleep in a bed and eat real food. The most common regret I heard was, “I wish that I had slowed down to enjoy nature more.”
Finally 33 years after learning about this “Nature Magic,” I retired on a Friday. By Sunday our daughter Brittany and I were road tripping to start my AT hike from Katahdin, Maine to Springer Mountain, Georgia, 2192 miles south:
On July 4, 2019, Brittany and I stood on top of Mount Katahdin. Trees and lakes filled the view in every direction. My goal was to stop for every bit of nature magic. To meet each hiker and learn their stories. I learned nature’s magical flowers, pollinators, trees, wildlife, springs, and God’s creations too wondrous to replicate.
Nearly a year on the AT left me with no regrets. I documented this incredible nature magic with stories and photos. This is a story about hiking the Appalachian Trail AND slowing down to enjoy the wonderful nature magic and happy hikers.
In the spring I finished my thru-hike, starting before Covid-19 closures. The trail reopened just in time to experience the Great Smoky Mountains’ famous spring wildflowers. That story will be published soon. The 2019/2020 hiking year was unlike any in history.
Serving and doing the right thing…themes I see you and the volunteers exhibit in your posts. It makes me feel more positive. So many other negative actions and directions take center stage in the stories we read and hear. Thanks for pointing out those good things. It is important to rake, pound, shovel, and make sawdust.
Great entry, Jim – thanks for your comments on service and volunteering!