SAWS Wilderness Rangers, including Stephen Eren, Ryan Stolp and Peter Reber.
Spanning over 2,000 miles from Maine to northern Georgia, the Appalachian Trail (also known as the A.T.) represents the pinnacle of American wilderness. It crosses through eight National Forests and six National Parks in 14 states, taking most thru-hikers about six months to travel it end-to-end. Although it has taken decades to get where it is today, one thing hasn’t changed – the AT represents one of the most remarkable American wilderness experiences ever.
A Persistent Vision
It was one of the founders of The Wilderness Society, Benton MacKaye, who originally conceived of this continuous trail over 75 years ago in 1921. MacKaye thought the AT could become a refuge from busy city life and a connector between communities in the Appalachian Mountains.
It took until 1937 to achieve the wilderness footpath, an effort primarily led by volunteers and activists who identified and blazed routes, established regional groups, produced guidebooks and maps and worked alongside national parks and forest agencies (trail construction pictured at left, photo courtesy of NPS). Over the years, the vision remained strong despite natural disasters, the Depression, wars, and the increasing threats of development. In 1968, President Johnson signed the National Trails System Act into law, officially designating the AT as a national scenic trail to be governed by federal agencies.
A strong band of allies continue to keep the trail alive today through primarily volunteer efforts - constructing and maintaining and monitoring trails, developing programs, collecting scientific data, forming alliances with local organizations and inspiring new generations of users and stewards.
A Labor of Love
One of these allies of course is The Wilderness Society, who has its own group in North Carolina called Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards (SAWS). In addition to work with outreach, science, policy and fundraising, SAWS trains and certifies volunteers to do trail maintenance in backcountry forest. This program also serves SAWS’ larger mission of recruiting the next generation of caretakers for the trail, as many local hiking groups consist primarily of aging populations. “The stewardship program has grown into a major part of our program work,” says Brent Martin, Southern Appalachian Regional Director.
This past summer, SAWS hired three wilderness rangers that were in middle of hiking the AT: Stephen Eren, Ryan Stolp and Peter Reber. Like most thru-hikers, these young men had started at the southern tip in Georgia in spring, and after hiking 475 miles in six weeks, they got to the border of Virginia and were talked into halting their hike to work as wilderness rangers.
"It is rewarding to have an impact on how people recreate in the outdoors."
“It was a heartbreaking decision to get off the trail,” says Stephen, who spent the summer of 2011 as a wilderness ranger as well. “But it was definitely the right thing to do. We knew the trail would still be there.” Stephen has been dreaming of hiking the entire trail since he first camped overnight on it in the fifth-grade.
In addition to maintaining trails, the rangers took inventory of campsites and invasive species to assess human impact, helped identify areas that need more attention and removed invasive species as well as trash.
But perhaps most importantly, the rangers were able to be advocates, talking to fellow hikers about stewardship and leave no trace ethics. "I enjoyed that part because it is rewarding to have an impact on how people recreate in the outdoors," explains Ryan.
“On the AT, there are two communities: hikers and maintainers. It was cool to be part of both groups,” says Peter. “It’s a highway in the woods . . . all the towns are supportive, which is neat to be a part of.”
Although there are many types of people on the trail – recent college graduates, retirees, seasonal workers, triathletes - everyone shares the common ground of the adventure, says Stephen. “It seems like you’ve been friends long before you met.”
"I chose the AT in particular because I saw it as the last place where people are altruistic, a pocket of society where people are always friendly,” says Ryan. The AT has a tradition of strangers offering food or rides to passersby, and though hikers may not always be walking alongside those they meet, they often leave notes for each other in trail journals at campsites along the way.
"Your problems are about where is the next stream crossing or a need to ration your food... It puts things in perspective."
But the community is only one reason the AT appeals to Ryan, who grew up as a city kid traveling to the woods on weekends. He says what he most enjoys about hiking the AT is "the simplicity of life because every day you get up and you are just walking and it doesn’t matter how fast you go because you have everything you need on your back . . . Especially today, it’s cool to be in a mindset where your problems are about where is the next stream crossing or a need to ration your food. It’s really freeing and empowering. I keep it in the back of my mind in my life after the trail. It puts things in perspective."
As these young men’s stories indicate, MacKaye’s original vision has reached fruition in the vibrant AT community as well as the special refuge this place offers. “It’s an amazing way to get to know the country,” adds Stephen. “Hiking the AT kind of made me lean towards thinking of hiking as a patriotic thing to do, because land is what makes this country so unique.”
Watch Green Tunnel, a five minute video of Kevin Gallagher's six-month thru-hike:
The Future of the AT
Looking back on several decades’ worth of passion for this expanse of land, one cannot deny its special place in America. But what will the next 75 years bring?
“I would say a likely future is increased use, and increasing urban/suburban encroachment,” says Brent. “Hopefully there will be another generation of trail stewards and advocates that will protect the AT corridor and advocate for increases to funding.”
Stephen is sure there will be, especially if the idea of a ‘gap year’ between high school and college becomes more popular. “People my age grew up with technology and are now starting to walk away from it. I think the AT is going to become an even bigger part of the culture of the east.”
Peter said he thinks that as the AT becomes more accessible, there will be more of an impact on it, and it could lose some of its rustic qualities. But Ryan thinks its popularity could make it an asset for people to rally around conservation issues: “Hopefully people will leverage it to conserve or protect other lands and steer public opinions toward conservation.”
"I think the AT is going to become an even bigger part of the culture of the east."
Whatever lies in store for the AT in the future, those who continue to rise to the challenge will be sure to reap the enormous benefits. Not surprisingly, Stephen, Ryan and Peter all plan to complete the trail, hopefully in the next couple years. They fully acknowledge how lucky they are for the trip requires a significant investment of both time off from work and funds to purchase good equipment.
Planning a summer-long adventure can require extensive planning, so if you are considering traveling a section of it this year, you might want to start your preparations soon. There are numerous guides that can help you find some shorter-distance portions to practice on.
The National Park Service's map of the Appalachian Trail: