Last Wednesday's Escapes page incorrectly listed the Web site of New York realty agent Urban Living, specialists in furnished-apartment rentals. It is www.urbanliving.net. (Published 11/06/1999)
During the week, Becki Swinehart is the harried editor of a publishing firm in Alexandria, but on weekends, she drives out near Shenandoah National Park and hikes on a wooded trail that winds through the mountains. Here, where deer outnumber humans, she watches sunsets unobstructed by tall buildings, and she can listen to those thoughts that one only hears in solitude. This isn't just a stroll in the park; she also comes out here to work. Swinehart is a volunteer trail overseer and this is her trail.
The hundreds of miles of hiking trails that Washington area residents enjoy in Shenandoah National Park, George Washington National Forest and other nearby areas are maintenance-intensive. Nature is always eager to reclaim man-made pathways; without regular intervention, especially during the growth surges of spring and summer, weeds and foliage alone can make a trail impassable in one hiking season. Growing branches crowd sunlit trail openings. Trees can topple across trails and rains will wash away treadways if waterbars (which divert rain runoff away from the trail) aren't kept clear of leaves and other debris.
The Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC) is responsible for maintaining nearly 1,000 miles of hiking trails in national parks and forests, state and even regional parks in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Out for a pleasant day in the woods, few hikers realize that more than 80 percent of the trails in Shenandoah Park, for example, including the famous Appalachian Trail, are not maintained by paid employees but volunteers--as are many trails closer to town, including the popular Billy Goat Trail at nearby Great Falls and trails in Rock Creek Park.
Although volunteers can choose to join established groups that dig waterbars, prune bush and fell trees, others elect to travel a more solitary path. More than 450 PATC members serve as individual trail overseers, going out as their schedule allows and working on their designated sections of trail.
These volunteers scythe weeds, prune branches, repaint the blazes on trees that guide other hikers, clean out the waterbars and report on trail conditions. Although the work can sometimes be strenuous, overseers aren't expected to fell mighty trees and divert rivers. "If one of our trail overseers encounters a large tree . . . or discovers erosion that'll require rebuilding an entire stretch of trail, we simply ask that they report it to us," says Pete Gatje, PATC trails supervisor. "We'll then send a crew out to take care of it."
Swinehart is responsible for 1.2 miles of the Tuscarora Trail near Bentonville, Va. Although she usually goes out by herself, she occasionally gets friends to accompany her, offering them the sense of accomplishment and pleasant weariness that follows a day's hard work, and if that remuneration is a bit too abstract, she offers the ultimate enticement: ice cream cones in nearby Front Royal. "The ice cream comes after we've worked on the trail," Swinehart says with a laugh.
When asked why she chooses to do physical labor during her free time, Swinehart says: "Over the years I've done so much hiking on trails that other volunteers have worked on that I feel like I should be returning their efforts. Also, I live in an apartment in Alexandria, I don't have a lawn or garden to cultivate--but out here, all this is my back yard."
Alex Lampros, another overseer, echoes Swinehart's proprietary feelings. "One day I was working on the section of the Appalachian Trail when a family of hikers passed by and said, 'Thanks for all this work. Your trail looks beautiful.' I realized they were right, this is my trail. Not only do I feel a sense of accomplishment after working on it, but I actually feel pride of ownership, too."
One recent Saturday, Swinehart, accompanied by Tony Hoade, a fellow PATC member, parked at the trailhead off Route 340 near Bentonville, outfitted themselves with handsaws, pruners, loppers, weed scythes and hard hats (all supplied by the PATC), and proceeded to clank their way up the Tuscarora Trail, which branches off the Appalachian Trail and heads west from the Shenandoah National Park on its way into West Virginia.
As they made their way up the mountain trail, pruners in hand, they clipped away encroaching branches (the scenery is what you want to catch your eye, not a sharp stick) until they arrived at the site of today's principal task, which was to clear out a warren of dead trees looming over the trail, close to where it crosses into the eastern border of the Shenandoah National Park. Dead trees had toppled together in several areas to form interlocked tepees of wood.
It takes time to decipher the proper sequence of disassembling these trail-blocking puzzles. The trees have to be sawed and removed in the reverse order of which they fell; if you cut the wrong tree, it'll simply hang there, entangled in the branches of the tree that fell atop it.
Today, progress was measured in yards; one tree cut to manageable length and rolled off the trail led to another one a few steps away, but the task was finite and the result, after several hours' concentrated labor: a cleared section of trail that hikers and backpackers will easily traverse, the more observant among them briefly noting the litter of sawdust at their feet as they easily walk through. Perhaps on maps this trail is officially called the Tuscarora Trail, but 1.2 miles of it is definitely the Swinehart Trail.
WAYS & MEANS
The Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (118 Park St. SE, Vienna, Va. 22180-4609; www.patc.net) has trail-overseer openings for PATC members in areas ranging from the southern district of the Shenandoah National Park to trails close to the Washington area, including the Bull Run-Occoquan Trail in Fairfax County and the Dumbarton Oaks Trail in the District. The lengths of trails assigned range from two-tenths of a mile to more than two miles. The club schedules training workshops for volunteer overseers, instructing them in the proper use of trail-clearing tools, trail maintenance techniques and safety on the trail. For more information, contact trails management coordinator Heidi Forrest (703-242-0693 weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., or e-mail: email@example.com).
Still thinking on spending the Big Eve in Times Square with a couple of million close friends (some of them alarmingly close)? Or maybe just a Thanksgiving break, or Christmas, or a four-day theater-intensive holiday in New York sometime this fall or winter?
No doubt you've already discovered that hotel rooms in Manhattan, historically rare and precious, are even more so through the end of the millennium. So here's something to think about--and perhaps act on:
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Give them at least six weeks notice, Habbaz says, tell them when you'd like to be in the city, and Urban Living will try to find you something--from a $150-a-night Greenwich Village studio with sleeping loft to a $13,000-a-month Upper East Side two-bedroom with a world-dominating view. The prices are generally about the same as--and often cheaper than--comparable hotel rooms in the same neighborhoods.
If a match turns up (you can see some of what's available on the Web site), the price Urban Living quotes includes its own fee and utilities. Apartment owners usually ask for a security deposit (generally equal to the total rent), fully refundable if you don't trash the place. You'll be able to make local calls--from your own (temporary) kitchen just off Broadway, perhaps--but bring a phone card for the toll calls. And be nice to the doorman.
If Urban Living can't find you a place, try the veteran bed-and-breakfast and furnished-apartment agency Urban Ventures (212-594-5650, www.nyurbanventures.com) or the Bed and Breakfast Network of New York (1-800-900-8134).
CAPTION: Armed with her trail-clearing tools, volunteer Becki Swinehart of Alexandria makes her way down a path in Shenandoah National Park.