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.

Advertisements

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.