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A [brief] escape

Lyn Widmyer, an ATC volunteer, stands with her son Nick before he sets out on his hike along the Appalachian Trail in Virginia//Photo and text courtesy of Lyn

In 1996, writer Bill Bryson attempted to hike all 2,200 miles of the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) He failed. But he succeeded big time with his humorous account of the trip. His book, “A Walk in the Woods,” quickly became a best seller and inspired a lot more people to hike the Trail. The upsurge in hikers was called the Bryson Bump.

Another Bryson Bump is expected in September when the movie version of the book, starring Robert Redford, premiers. In 1996, when Bryson attempted his thru-hike, 334 people joined the 2,000 mile club, the official roster of those completing the entire A.T. between Springer Mountain, Georgia and Katahdin, Maine in less than a year. In 2014, the list expanded to 714, an all-time record. The Bryson Bump is expected to inspire even more hikers in 2016.

Some thru-hikers (those who complete the entire Trail in less than a year), are disdainful of Bryson because he “only” hiked 200 or so miles before ending his quest.

Benton MacKaye, founder of the A.T., would not share their disdain. He envisioned the Trail as an escape for “toilers in the bee-hive cities along the Atlantic seaboard.” Harried urban dwellers could escape to the Trail for a day or a week, but McKay never thought people would thru-hike the Trail all at once. In 1948, World War II veteran Earl Shaffer became the first to report a thru-hike. He wanted to “walk the army out of [his] system.”

Only one in four hikers who attempt the entire Trail actually succeed. Most hikers complete different portions of the Trail over a longer time period. My first day volunteering at the A.T. Visitors Center in Harpers Ferry, WV, an elderly woman appeared and announced she had just completed the Trail. We all cheered. How long did it take you? I asked. “Nineteen years,” she replied. For two decades, her husband drove her to different locations on the Trail and then retrieved her days or weeks later.

Clearly, Bryson was a bit naïve thinking he could hike the rigorous Trail with very little preparation or hiking experience. In “A Walk in the Woods,” Bryson realizes his quest is over while sitting in a shelter in Tennessee looking at a map of the A.T. He writes,

“All that we had experienced and done—all the effort and toil, the aches, the damp, the mountains, the horrible stodgy noodles, the blizzards, the dreary evenings, the endless, wearying, doggedly accumulated miles—all that came to two inches on the map. My hair had grown more than that. One thing was obvious. We were never going to walk to Maine.”

For someone like me, who considers a stroll along the C&O Canal towpath a major hiking event, Bryson’s decision to abandon his quest is very understandable. When I see thru-hikers at the Visitors Center loaded down with 45 pound packs, exhausted, hungry and reeking of sweat, I know even section hiking the Trail is not in my future. But my fascination with the A.T. only increases with each hiker I meet.

I agree with Bryson’s description of the Trail:

“There is the good old A.T., still quietly ticking along after six decades, unassuming, splendid, faithful to its founding principles, sweetly unaware that the world has quite moved on. It’s a miracle really.”

Experience the miracle. Park near the A.T. Visitors Center and walk into Harpers Ferry National Historical Park on the Appalachian Trail. The hike is less than a mile.

Now that’s my idea of a walk in the woods.

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Hey Bivouac Bob, we’ll miss you

Bob Proudman poses for a picture with a single-bit ax. Earlier this day at the 2015 Southern Partnership Meeting, he received an engraved pick mattock, a retirement gift presented by Pete Irvine of the U.S. Forest Service (on left)//Photo courtesy Bob Proudman//Text by Susan Daniels, ATC’s conservation coordinator

Bob Proudman has been my supervisor, my colleague, and my friend since I came to work for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) nearly 26 years ago.

My husband Bill and I moved to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia in the late ‘80s for the beauty of the area, its history, and its hiking, cycling, and canoeing opportunities. Hiking in Maryland one day, we came across Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC) volunteers, armed with loppers and saws and other implements, working on a short relocation. A revelation! The Appalachian Trail (A.T.) wasn’t just an old path that was kept passable by hikers tramping on it—it was actively built and maintained by volunteers. We signed on to help.

A couple of years later, as mother of a 9-month-old baby, I was looking for an alternative to spending three hours a day commuting via train and Metro from Harpers Ferry to a job in Bethesda, Maryland. I spotted an ad for a secretarial position at the ATC’s headquarters in Harpers Ferry. Working for a national scenic trail organization with a two-block commute sounded ideal. I interviewed with Bob and other staff members and took the job when it was offered.

8ed0585f7588c208cc1c163b6c990183I learned that Bob had literally written the book of standards for the A.T.—Appalachian Trail Design, Construction, and Maintenance—and other trail manuals. I learned that managing a “simple footpath” as it winds through 14 states and numerous federal, state, and local jurisdictions is not simple. Particularly in that first year, when the complexities sometimes seemed overwhelming, Bob’s empathy, gentle manner, and sense of humor made me feel welcome and part of a team. He is easy to talk to, always willing to listen and to provide support.

Managing and maintaining the A.T. requires the partnership and cooperation of many people—volunteers, federal, state, and local agency personnel, Trail neighbors, and the ATC. It requires cooperative agreements, policies, meetings, conference calls, and informal discussions. Bob worked closely with the NPS-Appalachian Trail Park Office, the U.S. Forest Service, Trail club leaders, and others partners to manage the Trail. He has always been a staunch supporter of the volunteers who work on and for the Trail.

Disagreements arise and achieving consensus can be difficult. Bob encouraged everyone to have their say, gently brought people back on track when things were bogged down, and could smooth tensions with an anecdote or self-deprecating humor. He believes in using the “bully pulpit” to encourage people to do what is best for the Trail.

Bob began his trail career at age 16, working on a pro trail crew for the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC). He remains an active member and the secretary of the AMC Trail Crew Association, often spending vacation time at the crew’s cabin in New Hampshire and on canoeing adventures with other crew alumni.

He went on to become AMC’s first supervisor of trails, served on the ATC’s Board and worked for the National Park Service in the 1970s, and joined the ATC staff in 1981. Bob helped found numerous ATC programs that continue today, including trail crew, corridor monitoring, and ridgerunner and caretaker programs.

Bob worked on budgets and contracting, cooperative agreements, local management planning, incident management, advocacy, external threats (such as power lines and highways), backcountry sanitation, and on other problems and issues as they arose.

He is also a great story teller and can regale a group with tales of his travels, outdoor adventures, and Trail history. He loves to read, sing, and wield a chainsaw.

Bob’s good humor and easy-going manner, his dedication to the Trail, trail-building expertise, and willingness to share his knowledge have won him friends along the A.T., across the country, and even as far as Africa and Asia.

In 2006, he traveled to South Africa with a group from Conservation International to help lay out a trail in a region with diamond mines and a sensitive conservation area known as the Succulent Karoo, where rare succulent plants receive most of their moisture from sea fog.

In 2013, Bob was invited to give a keynote address at the Beijing Tourism Mountain Festival on the development of the national trail system in the United States, and particularly the A.T. That invitation came about after Bob met with a professor from China Cultural University who visited the ATC along with staff from the Taiwan Forestry Bureau in 2009. Even on a whirlwind trip of only six days, Bob was able to visit the Great Wall and Tiananmen Square and other historic places.

2014-07-28 06.57.37A year ago, Bob traveled to north-central Mongolia, helping to lay out a trail system in Lake Hovskol National Park. That adventure included sleeping in yurts and tents, bouncing across 500 miles on rough roads and rivers in an old van with no seat belts, and a week of travel by small Mongolian horses. The area was so remote that he said he did not hear an airplane or see a flush toilet for a month. Sleeping under the Milky Way with no city lights to dim the magnificent sky made up for any hardships.

His background as a mountaineer and an adventurer (known to some as “Bivouac Bob”), and ability to sleep anywhere and eat anything, were good preparation for those trips, which included an encounter with feral dogs in South Africa, 10-course meals in China, and breakfasts of roasted marmot and fermented mare’s milk in Mongolia, of which he said, “Tastes like buttermilk with vodka, only different.”

After 50 years of trail building and management, Bob retired from the ATC on July 19. He and I have been a great team, so close we can finish each other’s sentences. I am glad to report that Bob will continue to work on specific projects as a contractor for the ATC, including writing for The Register, which I edit, and working on the nomination of the Trail to the National Register for Historic Places.

I will miss you, Bob, as will all of us at the ATC. Safe travels, and bring us back some great stories!

Have you met Bob? Share a memory below, or wish him well in the comments.

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Taking a Look at the Big Picture

Text by Laura Belleville, Director of Conservation of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy

Here at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, a day does not go by where we, and our trail management partners, don’t hear about hikers engaged in activities that are not compatible with Trail values. That’s not to say that there aren’t thousands of hikers that are doing the right thing, but more and more it seems to be tipping in the other direction. And as Baxter State Park has called out, it’s time to wrestle this issue to the ground.

We need everyone’s help. When I think about inappropriate behavior on the Trail I recall the widely popular and effective anti-littering campaign in the 1980s. This campaign was effective because it depicted the extent of litter across our lands and asked everyone to take a hard look at what they were doing to contribute to the growing problem.

Let’s face it, we could all benefit from taking a hard look at how we behave on the Trail. Day hikers, thru-hikers, section hikers all have a responsibility to protect the unique experience of hiking a world-renowned National Scenic Trail. It’s a precious resource that should not be tarnished. Frankly, the last thing I want to hear is that a hiker chooses to hike elsewhere because the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) is no longer the outdoor experience we have all come to revere.

So, here’s a message from all trail managers: please, help out the Trail. It would be great if GOOD trail behavior goes viral. Here are some ways you can contribute to the effort:

  • Know before you go. The A.T. is unique in that it crosses 14 state borders, eight different national forests, six national park units and numerous state park, forest and game lands. Those lands are all managed for different purposes, which means the way you enjoy those lands will vary. But that’s just part of the A.T. experience!
  • Remember respect. Respect the Trail and those who choose to walk it. It’s just good Trail Karma.
  • Help others make the right decision. With such a large amount of people choosing to visit the A.T., the chances are great that any one of us may inadvertently damage the natural area around the Trail. Brush up on Leave No Trace here, and remind others when necessary.

We welcome your ideas and suggestions to promote the good while minimizing the bad. Let us know your ideas by commenting below.

View our response to the Baxter State Park Facebook post about this issue here.

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Celebrating Our Partners

Leaders in Conservation Awards Gala 2014//Photos courtesy of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Facebook page//Text by Olivia Pridemore, summer events intern

On July 16, we will be hosting our 6th annual Leaders in Conservation Awards Gala.  At first glance, awards ceremonies have an air of formality and prestige.  While that is certainly the case, it is easy to overlook the indirect benefits of such an event.  So what is it that makes an awards Gala truly valuable for a nonprofit organization like the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC)?

Interestingly most, if not all, nonprofit organizations hold an annual awards Gala.  These types of awards ceremonies are great for revitalizing and invigorating current partners, as well as inspiring new members to join the cause.  For the ATC, the Leaders in Conservation Awards Gala is a time to reflect on all that we have achieved.  With more than 2190 miles, preserving the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) is by no means an easy task.  Without the hard work of the ATC and our numerous partners, future generations would not be able to experience the natural, scenic beauty of the trail as we do today.  It is important to take a step back and recognize the progress we have made.

Due to the persistence of its champions, more than 99 percent of the A.T. is protected by right- of- ways, easements, state parks, and various other means of private ownership.  However, much has yet to be done.  Now that most of the corridor is protected, our focus can shift to maintaining viewsheds, curbing the impact of invasive species, and mitigating development proposals that threaten the quality of the hiking experience.  The Gala helps boost moral by offering encouragement and recognition of all we have accomplished by showcasing the fruits of our labor.  But it also reminds us to keep pushing forward.  For those who aren’t familiar with the ATC, the Gala offers enlightenment to the challenges involved with preserving and maintaining the longest hiking-only footpath in the world.  Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the Leader’s in Conservation Awards Gala is also one of our biggest fundraising opportunities.

In addition to the fundraising aspect of the event, the Gala allows us to increase our presence in D.C.  Out of the 14 Trail states, 27 congressional districts are represented.  All of the Representatives of the aforementioned districts, as well as 28 Senators, are invited to attend the annual Leaders in Conservation Awards Gala.  The political opportunities associated with the Gala are absolutely invaluable.  The ATC’s connections within the federal government strengthen our ability to effectively preserve the Trail.  Together with our partners in the Department of the Interior, Congressional staff, and many other key individuals and organizations, the ATC uses its political front to lobby for land protection and obtain funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund.  The Gala plays a large role in maintaining these political connections, as well as displaying our appreciation for continued support in preserving the Trail as a haven for all to enjoy.  Moreover, we strive to make the Gala a balanced, bipartisan event by honoring individuals from both political parties.  The main focus of the Gala is, in fact, the Trail.  By taking a fair and equalized approach to the Gala, we hope to create an environment in which we can foster friendly relations between all parties.  Therefore, when moving forward in the future, we can all work together for a common goal.  With bipartisan aid, we will be one step closer to fulfilling our mission:  to preserve and manage the Appalachian Trail – ensuring that its vast natural beauty and priceless cultural heritage can be shared and enjoyed today, tomorrow, and for centuries to come.

This year’s Leaders in Conservation Awards Gala is sure to be a success.  We are excited for the opportunity to celebrate our achievements, recognize those who have helped us along the way, and look forward to the future.  This year we will be honoring one of our corporate sponsors (REI), Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), and Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) for their outstanding contributions to preserving and maintaining the Appalachian Trail.

Want to learn more about the Leaders in Conservation Awards Gala or purchase tickets?  Visit here

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Celebrating 90 together

Randall Brooks, now and then//Photos courtesy Randall Brooks//Text by Olivia Pridemore, summer events intern

As many of you know, we are currently celebrating 90 years of protecting and managing the Appalachian Trail. But 2015 has ushered in an additional 90th occasion. June 19 marked the 90th birthday of one of our dedicated members, Randall Brooks. In his 90 years, Randall has led an eventful and adventurous life, in which his experiences have fostered a deep passion for protecting the place that has become a sanctuary to him, the Appalachian Trail.

Randall Brooks is the youngest of eight children. Sorrow struck the Brooks family mere months before Randall’s birth with the passing of his father. Therefore, Randall and his siblings bore the brunt of responsibility. Just a year before he graduated high school, Randall’s mother passed as well, leaving the children to fend for themselves. However, Randall’s hardships were far from over.

Randall BrooksIn the midst of World War II, Randall was required to register for the draft as soon as he turned eighteen. Four months later he was sent to infantry training in Alabama, and found himself stationed in Italy within the year. Before his 19th birthday, Randall was serving in combat along with three of his brothers. Times were hard, and some of them incurred injuries. But thankfully, all four of the Brooks Boys made it safely home to the U.S. After returning from the war, Randall attended The College of William and Mary under the GI Bill. He later went on to do graduate work in history at George Washington University and McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

Randall’s hiking experience began when joined the Wanderbirds Hiking Club, an organization established in the 1930s that is still active today. Many of the Wanderbirds were also members of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC). Thanks to the exposure from his friends, Randall became a life member of the PATC in 1986 and a life member of the ATC in 1989.

The spirit of adventure has driven Randall to experience the world. His travels have taken him to all fifty states and more than 40 countries. Yet of all the wonders he has seen, it is the Appalachian Trail that holds a claim on his heart. Despite his persistent back issues, Randall has hiked in 13 of the 14 states represented on the Trail. Randall’s favorite hike involved scaling Mt. Washington, a feat he described as both his greatest challenge and joy.

Over the years, Randall has come to learn the importance of protecting the Trail he holds so dear. He has consistently prioritized volunteering and giving in a way that is truly inspiring. His numerous contributions include hands-on work clearing the trail corridor and years of faithfully manning the Information Desk at the PATC headquarters. In 2001, Randall established a generous Gift Annuity of $100,000, and is proudly a Steward Level member of the Benton MacKaye Society.

Although he has no children, Randall Brooks strives to leave a legacy within the community. He recognizes the importance of engaging today’s youth. In his words, the Appalachian Trail is brimming with “natural beauty and cultural heritage. It is our world, and we must do what we can to ensure [the Appalachian Trail’s extraordinary scenic, spiritual and educational qualities] for centuries to come.” Randall also believes that there should be “more diversity among members and hikers.” Randall’s views are directly in line with our Five Year Strategic Plan, and what better advocate for this lofty goal than a man who has seen the Trail grow and develop across the span of several generations.

When celebrating our 90th anniversary, it is important to remember individuals like Randall Brooks who helped us get here. Without the support of more than 43,000 members, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy would not be where it is today. And consequently, the A.T. would be far different from the lush, natural sanctuary so many have grown to love.

Want to get involved in our 90th anniversary celebrations? Find out more here.

Lehigh Gap, Pa.

Hey mister

The Pennsylvania portion of the Appalachian Trail is known for its rocks, as evident in this picture of Lehigh Gap//Photo courtesy the ATC Mid-Atlantic Regional Office//Text by Peter Farrell, guest contributor

Editor’s note: It’s probably hard to remember a time when you didn’t know about the Appalachian Trail (A.T.). For many enthusiasts, it’s an integral part of life. But believe it or not, there are people out there who haven’t heard of the Trail, and that makes what we do all the more relevant. We believe everyone should have a chance to have that A.T. experience at least once.

What follows is the winning submission from our May essay contest. Although we asked for a written description of a memorable time ON the Trail, we enjoyed the unique perspective of this inspirational essay written by Peter Farrell. Check it out.

I’m getting ready for my third and perhaps last installment (hope to finish in Summer 2015) of hiking the Appalachian Trail (A.T.). Having finished the southern half and Connecticut, I want to get ready for the rocks of Pennsylvania by walking with my 30-pound pack along railroad tracks.

Last Sunday, I set out to do about 6 miles on tracks here in rural Eastern North Carolina (i.e. flat and sparsely populated). About 3 miles in, I saw three kids, probably 8 to 10 years old, playing near a trailer home, which might have been theirs.

I could see them talking and looking my way and the talk got more and more animated. Next thing I knew they were running towards me and I hear this little voice,  “Hey mister, you lost?”  (emphasis on the you). Just then from around the trailer home came four very large pit bulls who quickly passed the kids, heading with lightning speed towards me. I yelled, “How about the dogs?”  A voice said, “They won’t bite.” Sure enough, the dogs arrived, long before the kids, with butts wagging, seeking pats on the head.

When the two girls and boy arrived, the first order of business was for the boy to introduce each dog to me by name. Then the boy extended his hand and introduced himself as Tyler and his two sisters were Lydia and Lindsey. I told them my name. Lindsey asked me what I was doing so I told her just getting some exercise. Their look said, “Are you nuts?” She asked why I had a pack so I told her I was getting ready to hike parts of the Appalachian Trail. They had never heard of the Trail, but they had heard of the Smoky Mountains, so I told them I had hiked all the way through the Smokies.

“How far is that, like 10 miles?” asked Lydia. When I told them I had hiked more than 1,200 miles, the look in their faces told me that was incomprehensible. So I asked if they had travelled very far in a car, and they responded they had been to the ocean about 100 miles east. I told them the Trail is 22 times longer than that.

Next, they just had to see what was in my pack. Their entire concept of a tent, multi-tool, cooking gear, water purification, sleeping bag, camp shoes, etc. changed as I emptied my pack and explained the contents. My Trail guidebook fascinated them when I pointed out the climb from Fontana Dam to Mollies Ridge Shelter and told them it took me 6 hours to make that climb. The kids had lived in flat Eastern North Carolina their whole lives, so the idea of climbing a mountain was not easily grasped.

I had my phone with me, and we spent a good 5 minutes looking at various pictures of me in the rain, at a shelter, on McAfee Knob (they asked how close I got to the edge), and at Harpers Ferry. Pictures of snakes seemed the most exciting, but one picture of a female hiker got Tyler’s attention (the hiker was cute). Tyler could not believe that girls actually hiked the Trail, but I told him they easily out-hiked me. Lydia and Lindsey showed their discontent with Tyler’s gender bias with a swift punch in the shoulder.

The kids helped me re-pack, and as an exclamation point to the gender issue, Lydia challenged Tyler to try and pick up the reloaded backpack. He did so with great effort while Lydia made it look easy. Tyler extended his hand to say goodbye, and as they walked back to the trailer, I heard at least three “thank you’s” for my stopping and talking to them.

Nice kids and a nice encounter.

Want to try your hand at one of our contests? We’re hosting a new one each month in honor of our 90th anniversary. See what’s coming up here.

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Reunions—Trail Days style

Appalachian Trail Conservancy staff display the organization’s 90th anniversary banner during the Hiker Parade at Trail Days in Damascus, VA//Photo courtesy of Dan Innamorato//Text by Anne Baker, marketing assistant

I remember very clearly the first time I visited Damascus, Virginia. I was clutching a paper coffee cup in my hand, riding shotgun in a rental car early on a Friday morning, admiring the fog as it burned away from mountain peaks that hovered in the 3,000s.

“I’m kind of nervous,” I told the driver of the vehicle, who happened to be my boss.

And then the car rounded the corner, and I saw the tents.

“Happy Trail Days,” he said.

I had heard all sorts of things about Trail Days, the annual hiking festival that attracts the weird, the proud, and the dirty. People told me about the hundreds that come back to visit with their respective hiking class; the people that line up hours early to sign up for the legendary Hardcore Trail Crew; the excited thru-hikers that walk or hitch into town; the partiers in Tent City and the barrage of water guns in the parade.

But most of all, when people learned I was going to Trail Days for the first time, I heard the phrase, “Have fun.”

This year, I again had the opportunity to represent the Appalachian Trail Conservancy at Trail Days. It has become one of my favorite parts of my job. I step away from my computer, my phone, and my email, and for a solid 72 hours I am able to interact face-to-face with those who share the same passion that I am consumed by. To say that it is inspiring is an over simplification.

The Appalachian Trail experience is more than the approximate 2,180 miles that span from Georgia to Maine (or Maine to Georgia, depending on your perspective). It is something that involves perseverance, dedication, and heart. It requires adaptation. It involves both self-reliance and the ability to embrace those that make up your Trail family.

And during Trail Days, you are not only able to see all of that in action, but you feel it, too. I shared hugs with Rosalie “Gweem” and Daniel “Pop,” Trail Angels and ATC volunteers in the Roan Highlands, a couple I had chatted with last year during the event. I laughed as Scott “Flying Pork Chop” handed out buttons that read “I heart Bob Peoples,” and I saw the look on Bob’s face when he finally noticed the swarms of people proudly wearing them. I talked to countless volunteers and supporters who have helped maintain and protect the Trail, and I excitedly thanked those who became ATC members or who renewed their commitment. And I watched as hikers put their packs back on and hit the Trail for the continuation of a grand adventure.

The generosity of the A.T. family will always astound me. I can’t wait to see everyone again next year.

Want to see more pictures from Trail Days? Check out our gallery here.