Cool Rocks. Bad Trail. Hoodlums’ Mission: Fix it.

Hiking trails are like smart phone aps. Sometimes they need to be up-graded. Unlike phone aps, you can’t just punch up the ap store and push a button.

Upgrading a hiking trail is hard work. Normal maintenance such as weeding, clearing blowdowns, and repairing check dams and water bars only maintains the status quo. Adding features takes it to a whole new level. This is the story behind a trail upgrade that changed everything.

The Appalachian range is chock full of remarkable rock formations. Many of these iconic nature works are on the Appalachian Trail (AT) itself which has been purposefully routed so hikers can appreciate them. Others are nearby on side trails marked by blue blazes.

One blue blaze you hardly notice passing by crosses the AT on Compton’s Peak in Shenandoah National Park (SNP). It leads to a delightful, and one of the more geologically interesting columnar basalt formations in the eastern U.S. It’s well worth a look.

Compton Peak columnar basalt formation.

Compton Peak columnar basalt formation.

Better yet, the trail intersection is about a mile south of the Compton Gap parking lot on Skyline Drive. It’s an easy approach hike to the top of Compton Peak. With the side trail, it’s a snappy 2.5 mile round trip. Wow! Let’s go.

Not so fast. – literally. The blue blaze was not only steep, but was treacherous featuring spring-saturated mud-covered boulders and unstable talus on the final half. Not fun to hike and an easy way to turn an ankle or worse.

That’s a problem. The solution: Send in the Hoodlums.

By way of full disclosure, the Hoodlums aren’t criminals. This grubby group of trail maintainers just looks that way. In real life they’re educated professionals who love the AT, Shenandoah National Park. They volunteer their time, sweat and energy to protect and maintain them for everyone to enjoy.

The moniker came by way of an unknown tourist in SNP. When she saw a gang of filthy, tired folks staggering out of the woods, she was overheard observing that they looked like a bunch of “hoodlums” to her, and a brand was born.

Over three hard days last week, a Hoodlum crew of seven led by three National Park Service pros proved that rolling rock isn’t always a brand of beer as we pried, pushed, rolled, dragged, levered, and pounded chunks of basalt, some weighing hundreds of pounds, into 64 stone steps and hundreds of feet of rip rap.

When we were done, the new trail was like a stone escalator down and back up. Thanks to National Park Service folks – Don, Eric and Lyndon, plus PATC Hoodlums – Wayne, Noel, Scott, Steve, Jim, Amy and Cindi – we got ‘er done in three days. We used the last day of our volunteer week to build stone erosion control structures further south on the AT.

At the end we were an exhausted and bruised, but happy lot. As a bonus, I was able to meet some of the thru-hikers I’ve been following this year. Hike on folks, and have fun ya’ll. Meanwhile, we’ll keep improving the AT for those yet to come.

To be or not. Story-telling on the AT. That is the question.

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Is less more or less?

Why tell your story? Who is the audience?  What’s the message? What’s the most effective way to communicate?

Enter technology.  Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, You Tube, Trail Journals, WordPress, Blogspot, photos, video, text, smartphone, tablet, camera, paper and pencil, all of the above?

Constraints.  Poor cell coverage, where’s the WiFi, phone it in?  What to say, when to say it, TMI?  Privacy? Who can see it?  Family?  Friends? Creepy voyeurs?  Is that a problem?  How to grow an audience?  Is that a good purpose?

How about a co-pilot?  Is there someone at home who can help increase efficiency?  You post it once, or send it in, and the co-pilot posts it everywhere else and in the various formats needed. Many hikers do this.

There’s a lot to think about before stepping off.  It’s much harder once the trek is underway.

Some hikers develop a fan base of hundreds, especially on Trail Journals.  They report that the encouragement and feedback reenforces their commitment to stay on task and strong.  They’re stunned that so many people care to share in their adventure.  They relish and are energized by the on-going conversation with their fans.

Every step you take?  Every move you make?  What’s the audience want to know? “Here I come.  There I go.  Pitched my tent and dug a hole.”  How interesting is that 180 times over 2,000 miles?

My favs are the thematic entries.  People write entries on single topics – milestones, hiking and camping routine, cooking, gear, weather, trail conditions, the interesting characters they meet, hostel and town reviews, food – food – food, unusual situations, their mental state, rain – rain – rain, shelters, views, the flora and fauna, rocks, archeology, thank trail angels, hopes and fears. They retrospectively review and prospectively anticipate. The list is endless. They also warn of danger and rip-offs.

Pictures and videos are worth a thousand words.  There’s nothing like seeing and hearing rain pound a poncho, the view obscured by the hiker’s foggy breath, to erase  gauzy romanticism and drive home the hard realities that define the AT’s epic quest.

Hope this wasn’t too boring.  I’m just trying to get a grip on how to share my hike next year.