Many people dream of the day when they will complete a successful thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, when they will look out from the summit of Mt. Katahdin and know they have traversed essentially the entire length of the East Coast on foot.
Unfortunately, as a broke college student I currently lack the time and resources to fulfill this particular dream, as well as the audacity to put my education on hold to acquire said time and resources. So, when I had the opportunity to spend the summer between my junior and senior year working as a Ridgerunner for the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), I couldn’t think of a better compromise. And that is how I found myself sharing the 65-mile section of trail that runs through Connecticut and southern Massachusetts with three co-workers this season, instead of hiking the 2,181 miles from Georgia to Maine.
I admit, when I first heard about the AMC’s alleged “Ridgerunners,” I wasn’t quite sure exactly what the position entailed. Was this just a glorified title for a park ranger? And with my high school track star days far behind me…um, would there be any actual running involved? Due to this initial confusion, I am not surprised when people I come across in my trail work ponder my khaki shirt and shoulder patch with puzzlement.
I do my best to enlighten them: as a Ridgerunner, my main purpose is to converse with the people I meet on the trial in order to educate them about ways to mitigate their impact on the wilderness. For example, in lieu of issuing a fine to someone who is not camping at a designated campsite, I attempt to explain to them the negative effects of pitching a tent on fragile undergrowth that can barely recover from the imprint of a hiking boot, let alone the impression of an entire sleeping pad.
While saying, “in leui of issuing a fine,” sounds kind and sympathetic, it also illustrates the fact that, unlike park rangers, Ridgerunners have no actual legal authority. Instead, we encourage hikers to abide by Leave No Trace principles via Dr. George N. Wallace’s non-confrontational approach to environmental education, which he dubs: “Authority of the Resource.”
This approach avoids human’s distrust of authority figures and their rules and regulations and instead appeals to their fondness for all things green or whiskered. “Don’t do it for me,” I essentially ask. “Do it for the trees, ferns, chipmunks, and other cute woodland creatures.”
Other Ridgerunner duties include checking that all of the campsites and shelters are equipped with the proper materials (informational signs, wash pits, etc.) to help people abide by these low-impact standards, and to pick up the trash that is left behind when my encouragement is perhaps not as effective as I had hoped. Thus, if my love for nature weren’t incentive enough, the arduous experience of lugging ten-gallon trash bags of crushed soda cans, empty insect repellent bottles, and wooden Buddha figurines (there is always a surprise) out of the woods has made me even more determined to find the most effective way to communicate with people about the importance of respecting their environment.
Indeed, life as a Ridgerunner isn’t always easy, as people do not always enjoy being asked to extinguish their campfires and relinquish their accompanying s’mores. And sometimes, while sweeping out a particularly pungent privy, I cannot help but envy the thru-hikers that pass effortlessly by me with their singular purpose to push further north, from the lush valleys of Shenandoah to the snow-capped peaks of the White Mountains, while I am forced to check in at every campsite I pass by, and to turn around when I reach the end of my section.
While I still admire the thru-hikers’ ultra-light packs, bulging calf muscles, and scruffy yet simultaneously glamorous beards, I realize that my mindset has changed from the beginning of the summer. I used to become bored at lower elevations and less-exciting wildlife, but I have come to appreciate the value of stopping to spend time in a place and recognizing its subtle, unique beauty.
I now look forward to the view from the top of 2,316 ft. Bear Mountain after the surprisingly steep ascent up its northern slope, and to late-afternoon swims in tucked-away Guilder Pond when I’m scheduled to spend the night at Glen Brook Shelter. And just the other day I caught a deer using the trail for its own personal travels and it was the coolest thing ever.
I still eagerly anticipate the day when I can call myself a thru-hiker and stand on top of Katahdin with a paramount sense of accomplishment (and the slightest semblance of cockiness), but for now, I am proud of the work I am doing to make that dream possible for those who are currently taking the trek.
But perhaps even more so, I am proud of the work I am doing to help enrich the experience of the many more who escape to the trail for a few precious hours after a long day at the office. Because, unlike me, not everyone is lucky enough to spend a summer getting paid—to go hiking. For more info on the work of Ridgerunners, like Rachel, and the Appalachian Mountain Club, check out the AMC's website: www.outdoors.org