Augie Buchheit travels light.
In fact, he carries everything he needs to survive in his 22-pound backpack. As a “ridgerunner” employed by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, he is in charge of hiking 112 miles of trail through Shenandoah National Park from May to September. While the park’s traditional rangers serve as law enforcement or nature “interpreters,” Augie actually lives in the backcountry woods for week-long stretches. He sleeps in a one-man tent, cooks dinner on the world’s tiniest camp stove and has a nodding acquaintance with the black bears he regularly passes as he hikes his rocky, winding path.
Dressed in a green PATC uniform, Augie, 45, treks 10-plus miles each day and greets each hiker he encounters: “How you folks doing?” He provides lessons on backwoods bear-proofing: “Hang your food on that metal pole, if you want it to be there in the morning.” He consults with Scout leaders: “Probably too far for you to make it to the falls and back before nightfall.” He teases those who watch too many survival shows and pack for every emergency. Including snowstorms. In July. But mostly, Augie is charged with tending to the Appalachian Trail “thru-hikers,” those roughly 1,700 hardy souls who set out to hike the 2,180-mile length of the AT from Georgia to Maine each year. “They’re definitely the rock star celebrities of the AT,” lavished with praise by other hikers, he says.
He knows. He, too, has walked the entire length of the AT, and more. Five thousand miles-plus in the past five years. This gives him trail cred.
Still, he’s humble. He doesn’t mind explaining the ins and outs of trail life to naive newcomers like, say, some hypothetical person who might have the audacity to think she can walk in his trail runners. Were such an urbanite to tackle such a 30-mile backcountry hike, Augie would have to be firm. He might, for example, begin by plowing through the novice’s backpack. “You won’t need this, you won’t need this,” he might say, shoving aside a down sleeping bag, the extra freeze-dried meal. He might hand her his own, lighter-weight sleeping bag (he’ll use an even thinner sleeping bag liner himself). He might then chide her for the large size of her now nearly empty pack, he might quickly repack it “properly” with straps cinched perfectly, and tent stakes and water bottle on the outside. He might take off up a hill that leaves her panting for breath and wondering, 10 minutes into the hike, how she will survive 74 hours in his lithe shadow. He might; she might.
* * *
Augie moves down the dirt path, a narrow, green, canopied chute marked by the stuttering series of 2-by-6-inch white blazes on the trees that assure hikers they’re still on the trail. He’s a solitary worker. No supervisor, no time clock. A gentle steward, he is simply trusted to do what’s right to maintain the environment — such as picking up detritus that includes, at this moment, a single abandoned black Croc — and, above all, keeping the hikers safe.
Most times, the conversations he has with them are prosaic —“Is there a privy at Bear Fence Hut?” —but many times they turn philosophical.
“You know who you are by figuring out what you appreciate,” muses Steve Shmania, a Chapel Hill, N.C., day hiker who stumbles on Augie having his cigarette break at a trail shelter. “On the Rose River Trail today, we hiked to the bottom of the falls. And then in the next step, suddenly the world changed, and we were in a little chapel of nature. ...”
Augie nods, says nothing, exhales a cloud of smoke.
Shmania’s wife, Laura, waves away insistent bugs and then drapes green mosquito netting over her head, a kind of hat that is cinched at the top in an island of round green fabric; she looks, for a minute, like Jackie O in a pillbox, stepping out of church.
“... and it occurred to me,” Shmania continues, “as I was standing in this chapel, that you’re a part of it, and yet, it’s there when you’re not. It exists outside of you, but you get to be a part of it just at this particular moment in time.”
Augie nods, agreeably, stubs out his Newport and stands before hiking on. Four hours later, Augie pauses again. “My favorite part of hiking is not hiking,” he says, perching on a boulder, shoulders hunched, sucking on a cigarette. “Pretty days when the weather is nice, it’s hard to hike. You just get to a place with a view, and you want to sit in the shade and look out at things and do nothing.”
A companion, hiking with him, might be inclined to agree — if she could catch her breath. Indeed, she might do anything to keep him resting a smidge longer. Likely, she would ply him with questions, ruthlessly encourage that second Newport, raise the specter of bears because, given their prevalence here, nobody is neutral — or brief — in discussing the subject.
Augie — thank God! — has plenty to say. He averages a sighting a day. Last week, he saw 10 in two days. Bears have been an especially hot topic in the park since one impertinent snip began searching tents for munchies this summer. Augie considers the creatures from all angles. He begins with a pop quiz: “What state along the AT has the largest bear population?” (Answer, freakishly: New Jersey.) He segues into his opinion. “I’m not a biologist or anything. But I think bears are really a lot like us: lazy and opportunistic,” he says. He had to chase a bear off a hiker’s tent this summer. The camper claimed he had hung his food on one of the metal bear poles erected at each shelter; Augie has his doubts. In any case, while the hiker was away, a bear tore up his tent. Then, she kept coming back. Augie chased her off one night. “And it was like she knew she was being bad,” he says. “She trotted away to a log and laid down and yawned at me.”
This same greedy bear — tagged and dubbed Nuisance Bear No. 24 — was “hazed” with rubber bullets to make her associations with humans unpleasant, tranquilized and deported 100 miles away. One month later, she was back at the same tent site.
“They took to calling her my bear,” Augie says, because he kept encountering her. “And she was smart.” Recently, the park’s biologist tried to seduce her into a trap with a trail of sardines. She ate the sardines but stopped just short of the trap. They caught another, less clever bear.
Augie stubs out his cigarette — break’s over — and heads down the path toward Bear Fence Hut, the evening’s campsite.
With his slight form and the small slingshot his supervisors gave him to chase off bears dangling from his pack, one must work hard to put David and Goliath out of mind.
* * *
Augie withholds one fact till morning: The campsite was the selfsame one his girlfriend, Nuisance Bear No. 24, was so fond of. Sleeping without the tent fly in July’s heat, as Augie advised, had its advantages. The sky was bright with stars, and a gentle breeze blew. But it also meant that a thin screen provided the only protection from whatever was behind the cacophony of nighttime sounds. If a person were truly jittery, she might flick on her flashlight to try to pinpoint the source; she might discover that the light does not penetrate the screen but reflects it back, leaving her in a spotlight surrounded by blackness. And noise. And the invisible animals behind that noise.
Augie, for his part, sleeps well. These sounds are familiar, comforting even. But it’s not as if he’s a natural outdoorsman. On the contrary.
Augie fell into hiking gradually. He was born in Baltimore, the son of a homicide detective and a medical records clerk. After dropping out of college, he moved back to Baltimore, where he worked handling the inventory in an art gallery. To escape the city, he started doing some day hiking locally, which grew into backpacking, which swelled into an intense desire for the solitude of the trail. Hiking the 2,180-mile Appalachian Trail was a gauntlet he recklessly threw down for himself in 2005. At the time, Augie was turning 40. “The trip was my midlife crisis.”
Most thru-hikers who tackle the AT begin at Georgia’s Springer Mountain in March or April and end at Mount Katahdin in Maine’s Baxter State Park in September. These are the “Nobos,” for “northbound,” Augie explains. Nobos think they can buy more time, starting in the South, where spring begins earlier. Also, if they’re among the one in four who makes it to the end, northbound hikers tend to be in peak condition for hiking Maine’s mountainous terrain. But Nobos must conclude their journey by Oct. 15, when Baxter State Park closes, followed quickly by harsh snowfalls.
Quick to run against the grain, Augie was a “Sobo.” He began in Maine on June 1, 2005, and hiked south, finishing on Nov. 19. “I did it because it was less crowded,” he says. “And because a southbounder can take a year if he needs to.” He describes hiking the AT as a “stupid human trick” that is “twenty percent physical and eighty percent mental.
“I quit every single day,” he says. As he got to know fellow Sobos, they would joke with him: “Hey, how many times did you quit today?” “Seventy-five times,” Augie would say. “It was a good day today.”
It is somehow a reflection of the Zen spirit of trail life that random events regularly propelled Augie forward. The first time he called it quits, 60 or so miles into the Maine woods, he sat on his pack on a dirt logging road, lit a cigarette and wondered how long it would take for a car to pass him on this deserted stretch. He was so taken by surprise when a truck immediately roared by that he forgot to raise his thumb for a ride. He took it as a sign, kept hiking.
Once, in Massachusetts, he kept his spirits up for a day or two by promising himself a detour into town. He stepped off the AT to hitch his way in, but no one would stop for him. He tells this story with indignation, but it is not hard to imagine why drivers might roll on by. After months on the trail, Augie’s hair had grown long and wild, his frame was gaunt, and he was, he admits, always in desperate need of a shower. He quietly cursed a man driving by in a truck loaded high with kayaks for slowing down to a near-stop but continuing past. “Next thing I know, the guy in the truck comes back,” Augie recalls. He scrambled in as the man explained that he had to get rid of the kayaks first. “You’re coming to my house,” the man told him. “My wife’s got dinner cooking.” Augie ate, revived his spirits. He took it as a sign, kept walking.
Augie and other thru-hikers refer to such random acts of kindness as “trail magic.” (Thru-hikers burn about 4,000 calories in their 15- to 20-mile days, yet are reluctant to weigh their packs down with excessive food.) These acts range from the free pancake breakfasts that strangers have arranged beneath canopies, to lifts into town, to the six-pack of beer a very happy Augie once found chilling in a stream. “You think the worst,” Augie says, “and you discover the best in people.”
Of course, Augie wouldn’t come right out and say this because it might sound what he calls “cheesy,” but he has had a few moments out on the trail that he might consider transformative. Once he was hiking, thinking about his best friend who had recently died of heart failure, when he stopped to rest beside the path. Just then, a monarch butterfly began insistently circling him, drawing his attention. For the briefest breath of time, Augie felt the butterfly was his friend — but he’s reluctant to share such stories because, how cheesy is that?
* * *
In his off-season, Augie works at REI in Timonium, where, hypothetically speaking, he might randomly sell a reporter a pair of hiking boots, might get to talking, might tell her the one about the three hikers who bragged about procuring the lightest three-man tent in the universe — a mere three pounds — only to set it up that night and discover it was a kids’ tent. As he chats, he might suggest a synthetic shirt for hiking, might ask her if she wants to be an REI member.
Augie is very good at both his jobs.
Between REI, which allows him to be a seasonal employee, and his girlfriend, Raquel Arbaiza, he feels lucky. “Rocky is really supportive, too,” he says of Arbaiza. “A lot of people would be like, ‘Get a job, dude.’ ”
Given his job at REI, one would think Augie would be a gear-hound. He is not. He hikes in a pair of 2009 Montrail Hardrock trail running shoes that he bought online after putting more than 1,200 miles on his old shoes, and his backpack is spare. It includes: a plastic zip-lock bag with his cellphone and other “valuables,” a tent, a single tent pole, a ground cloth, a sleeping bag liner, a walkie-talkie, spare batteries for the walkie-talkie, a collapsible saw, a headlamp, a ballpoint pen, two lighters, toilet paper, wet wipes, toothbrush, toothpaste, vitamins, body glide (to prevent blisters), a compact first-aid kit, a well-worn water bladder, a raincoat, a pair of shorts, a T-shirt, a pair of socks, a pair of orange Crocs, a slingshot, food (mostly Top Ramen and individually packaged slices of Entenmann’s pound cake), and a single book, “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” Edward Abbey’s 1975 novel of sabotage in the name of environmental activism.
It is a curious thing to consider in this consumerist culture. What do a person’s possessions reveal about what’s important to him? Augie has gradually whittled his life down to a small set of essential objects. Along the way, he made some discoveries. “When I set out to do the AT, I said to people who asked, ‘I live in Baltimore, and I’m sick of people. I just want to be . . . all by myself,’ ” Augie explains. “But on the AT, it’s all about the people you meet along the way, about community. It reaffirmed my faith in people.”
Still, before readers envy him too much, they might want to walk awhile in his worn-treadless shoes. His journey is both more — and less — romantic than one might think. “Sometimes, the weather can be brutal and the job tough,” he says. On his first day on the job, rangers handed him a dossier on a man who had gone missing. Then, Augie hiked all day through wet snow and blistering winds along the ridge. “I got to the shelter, and my lighter was wet and wouldn’t work,” he says. No hot food. Worse, no cigarette. He shivered in his damp sleeping bag and got existential: “What the hell am I doing here?” he asked himself. The missing hiker would be found frozen, dead, two days later.
Other times, especially in the spring when the woods are rife with flowers and baby bunnies, fawns and bear cubs, he can’t imagine a better job.
Indeed, who wouldn’t trade a brutal Beltway commute to clamber barefoot from a tent, perch on a sun-warmed birch log for a smoke and a cup of joe (albeit instant), and contemplate the nature of the universe as nature itself — in this case, an inquisitive doe that stands three yards away — takes him and his companion by thoughtful surprise?
However, it could be that Augie’s hypothetical companion is given to rhapsodize and romanticize. “It can get monotonous after a while,” he says.
He says this, but every Thursday at dawn, he rises, slips out the back door of his Baltimore rowhouse into an alley, disturbs the cadre of rats who claim the space each night, gets into his 1997 Volkswagen Golf, drives three hours from the gritty city to a random trail head in the Shenandoah, shrugs into his backpack and walks. And walks. And walks. For $10 an hour. Four hundred dollars a week. No health insurance.
Were some hypothetical companion to watch him walk away at the end of three days of hiking, she might notice the slew of mosquito bites on his bare, spindly calves; the slightly stiff gait that comes from strained muscles stirred to motion after a too-brief pause; the clank of a tent pole hitting a metal slingshot — both strung to the straps of a frayed backpack; a pair of paper-thin-soled orange Crocs dangling off the back, next to their newest companion, that single black Croc he picked up while cleaning the trail.
As Augie is fond of saying, “You never know what you might find on the AT.”
Karen Houppert is a contributing writer who lives in Baltimore. She can be reached at email@example.com.