The men and women who join volunteer trail-maintenance crews on the “AT,” as hikers call the 74-year-old trail that rambles 2,180 miles from Georgia to Maine, may also be spotted peeling bark or digging ditches. Their goal: to prevent erosion and keep the trail hikable. In exchange, they get free food and the satisfaction of supporting conservation with their bare hands.
In late July, I spent five days on the Green Mountain Club’s Volunteer Long Trail Patrol, one of six such crews affiliated with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. The Vermont group roams the 100-mile stretch of the state’s 273-mile Long Trail that intersects with the longer Appalachian Trail.
Some volunteers are hiking enthusiasts who want to give back to nature, while others seek a structured introduction to backcountry camping or a chance to meet friendly strangers. I joined because it sounded like a great (and free) way to combine the pleasures of hiking with the satisfaction of community service.
“It’s so much more rewarding than a normal vacation,” says Jeff Gordon, 21, a University of Pittsburgh senior who has volunteered on the Appalachian Trail in several states. “Afterwards, you’ll never look at a trail the same way again.”
Applying to join was little different from applying for a job, except without the stress. When I e-mailed the Green Mountain Club, I was asked to submit contacts for two references — who were, to my surprise, contacted — and to explain my interest in trail work.
“I’ve heard a lot about trail crews, but I’ve never been on one,” I wrote.
“Thank you for volunteering to help build and maintain hiking trails in Vermont!” Mari Zagarins, a GMC administrator, wrote back three days later. “You may find that this is the hardest work you have ever done for fun.”
“As if,” I thought. How hard could it be?
Wood plank 101
On a balmy Sunday afternoon, I drove to Danby, Vt., and parked my Subaru beside the Mount Tabor Work Center, a white-and-gray building that houses Forest Service and Green Mountain Club personnel.
Most of my 10 fellow volunteers, it turns out, were bright-eyed college students who had traveled to Vermont from other states. One had just graduated from high school in Germany; another was a student from South Korea fresh off a study-abroad semester at UC-San Diego. In that vein, the work center looked like a frat house, and inside was no different. As speakers blasted songs by the Vermont jam band Phish, my fellow volunteers baked pizzas and opened bottles of Long Trail beer.
Arriving was the easy part. At 9 o’clock on Monday morning, our late-20-something crew leaders — Darcy Kimball, Moira Bieg and Sam Parisi — shepherded us into minivans, drove for about an hour and dropped us at the entrance to a muddy forest-access path.