May 7, 2024

The End of the Trail

Today’s episode is bittersweet because we have reached the end of our hike. After three years and 50 episodes, we are wrapping up The Green Tunnel with something a little different. Every episode of The Green Tunnel has focused on some aspect of the...

Today’s episode is bittersweet because we have reached the end of our hike. After three years and 50 episodes, we are wrapping up The Green Tunnel with something a little different. Every episode of The Green Tunnel has focused on some aspect of the history of the Appalachian Trail, but today we’re looking forward. What will the AT’s future look like? How will the trail evolve? What will the greatest challenges be for the trail we all love? 


Krystal Williams  00:07

This is Krystal Williams, aka Bumblebee through hiker from the class of 2011. I want to thank you for creating The Green Tunnel Podcast. Learning about the history of the trail, both the good and the uncomfortable, has made me love the trail in our community even more. The trails history is complex, and reflects the social and cultural evolution and revolution of America. That is just a part of what makes the AT so special among all of our national trails. What I love about the trail is that it's an honest judge. The trail does not care about the color of my skin or how much my pack weighs. And my hope is that our trail community continues to evolve, and that we align ourselves with the unbiased yet honest appraisal that the trail affords to each of us. I am hopeful that we will get there.


Mills Kelly  01:07

Welcome to The Green Tunnel, the podcast on the history of the Appalachian Trail. My name is Mills Kelly. And I'm your host. Today's episode is a bittersweet one for all of us on the podcast team here at R2 Studios, because we've reached the end of our hike. After three years and 50 episodes, we're wrapping up our show with something just a little different. Every episode of The Green Tunnel has focused on some aspect of the history of the Appalachian Trail. But today, we're looking forward. What will the ATs future look like? How will the trail evolve? What will be the greatest challenges for the trail that we all love.


Mills Kelly  02:00

When members of the various Appalachian Trail clubs assembled for their annual meeting and Gatlinburg, Tennessee in the summer of 1937, Appalachian Trail conference Chairman Myron Avery had stirring news. After 12 years of hard work, the Appalachian Trail was now a continuous footpath from Mount Katahdin in Maine to Mount Oglethorpe in Georgia. At 2050 miles, it was at that moment, the longest continuous purpose built hiking trail in the world. Many leaders of large and difficult projects like the Appalachian Trail might be tempted to sit back, look at what they and their friends had accomplished and bask in the glow of their achievement. Myron Avery was not that guy. Avery knew that if the Appalachian Trail was going to have a future, it needed to be protected from industrial and recreational property development. But it also needed to be made more accessible to the average hiker. Only if those two goals were achieved with the AT have a future. That weekend, the ATC and the trail clubs took the first step toward protecting the trail corridor by signing what became known as the Trailway agreement with the US Forest Service. Under the terms of this agreement, the Forest Service agreed to provide the trail with a protected corridor in all the National Forests through which it passed. But that wasn't enough. Avery knew that the trail club members who had built the trail needed a renewed purpose. And so in his report to the assembled volunteers, he said,


Mryon Avery read by Jim Ambuske  03:39

"The trail project has reached a stage now where careful thought should be given to its better utilization and protection. To this end, we have two courses of action which we believe to be constructive. The first is the matter of appurtenances. It is elementary to require elaboration that the Appalachian Trail system requires a system of accommodations along its route. In the ideal, this should be a dual system shelters for those who wish to camp wherever possible, listed available public accommodations for those who prefer to expend their energy other than in carrying equipment."


Mills Kelly  04:23

And so the following year, the trail club set about building the chain of more than 250 shelters that now dot the entire length of the at making the trail easily accessible to more hikers each year. The trail way agreement didn't save the AT from encroachment though. Following the Second World War, commercial and recreational development up and down the trail began to press up against the trails route and In some cases, the ATC had to take the trail back out of the mountains and onto roads, either to comply with canceled easements from landowners or to avoid logging. These pressures on the trail corridor meant something had to change. And so in the 1960s leaders in the ATC and the trail clubs began to push for federalisation. And in 1968, that goal was realized when the Appalachian Trail became a National Scenic Trail and a part of the national park system. Making the AT into a national park coincided with a growing boom in backpacking across the country. Beginning in the early 1970s, the number of people hiking and backpacking in the AT grew dramatically. And as the number of hikers grew, trail club volunteers began to see more and more problems along the trail. Increasing amounts of litter damage to the shelters especially graffiti, large numbers of weekend partiers at some of the shelters that were close to roads, and just a general lack of respect for the trail and the work required to keep it open and beautiful.


Mills Kelly  06:18

In his book On the Trail, The History of American Hiking, historian Silas Chamberlin argues that it was around this time that hikers on the AT began to shift from being trailed producers, those who helped build and maintain the trail to trail consumers. Those who use to trail but did not contribute to its continued survival. He further argues the trail consumers were not as invested in the AT as a place to cherish. Instead, they saw it as a federal recreational resource placed there for their use, and, in some cases, abuse.


Mills Kelly  07:03

I'm a shelter maintainer myself, and I certainly see some of that abuse on the trail every year. Fortunately, it still seems like a very small number of hikers who leave trash along the trail, or who mark up the shelters with their Sharpies. But the problems are real. And it's up to the 1000s of people who volunteer on the AT each year to deal with those problems. When we asked our listeners to tell us their hopes for the future of the AT concerns about the number of people volunteering to care for the trail came up more than once. Here's Lee Howard, a lifetime member of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club.


Lee Howard  07:48

Trail clubs are intrinsic to the sustainability of the AT. I hope the future includes all 30 clubs thriving through an engaged and vibrant membership, working in harmony to ensure the relevance and vitality of the trail. And you can be part of that vision. If you haven't already, join a club and get involved. The future depends on you.


Mills Kelly  08:14

Cosmo Catalano has been volunteering on the AT for decades. And is part of the Appalachian Mountain Club. He hopes that


Cosmo Catalano  08:21

Future AT will always be open and free to all who wish to walk in the woods is strange magnetism will draw people from near and far to hike, sleep, play, grieve, exalt, laugh, cry, sweat, freeze, wonder, and uncountable other things in solitude or companionship in the heart of the natural world. The trail will exist because ongoing generations of volunteers will continue to work together to care, build, preserve, and love it.


Mills Kelly  08:54

The future of the AT depends on a new generation of volunteers coming out to maintain the trail. I'm one of those volunteers. But I have to admit that the largest number of people I see volunteering on the trail are like me over 50 Some of that is only natural. When you get to a certain age, you have more time to spend on the trail volunteering. But if the AT is going to survive as the unique public private partnership that it is the generation of hikers who are using the trail the most these days, those under 40 need to find ways to be part of that vision. Whether it is helping out one day or one weekend a year or taking a more active role. The AT needs you.


Mills Kelly  09:45

One of the things volunteers like Lee and Cosmo do a lot of is picking up trash left behind by other hikers. And as the number of hikers on the trail increases, so does the amount of that trash. In fact, since the 2020 COVID pandemic, the amount of trash volunteers we're seeing on the trail has really grown. So much so that some in the hiking community have advocated some pretty radical changes to the Appalachian Trail in hopes of securing its future. Among the changes, you can see being discussed online and in essays about the trail, or permitting system similar to what hikers find in a number of the trails in the west. Some have begun to advocate for the even more radical steps of scraping off the trail shelters as a way of discouraging hikers from coming to the trail. Given the nature of the Appalachian Trail with its thousands of access points, a permitting system couldn't possibly work. But even if it could, putting such a system in place would fly in the face of Benton McKay's original vision for the trail as a place where urban dwellers can go for a few hours, or a few days of fresh air and sunshine. But the growing amount of trash on the trail is a real problem that volunteers have to deal with. And that degrades the hiking experience for others. I'll admit, then, in the early 2020s, I was getting kind of grumpy about all that trash. Until I spoke with Brice Esplin. From the Subaru Leave No Trace Foundation. Brice has a different and I think very important perspective on what's happened on the trail since 2020.


Brice Esplin  11:27

COVID brought a lot more people in outdoors, they feel more busy and maybe more trashed. But reality we want those people to connect with nature, because in the future, we're going to need as many allies and stewards as we can, especially as populations soar. Climate change is an issue in our world. We're going to need as many people on board as we possibly can. So introducing these people to nature in a welcoming way, and making sure they have that right information is going to be the best way for us to do it.


Mills Kelly  12:04

When I think about the future, the at the thing that worries me the most is not overuse, or the lack of volunteers, or seeing empty plastic water bottles left on the side of the trail. For me, the thing that will pose the greatest risk to the future, the Appalachian Trail is human driven climate change. As Krystal Williams said in the opening, the trail is an honest judge. And so his nature. Already here on the East Coast, we're seeing more violent weather that climatologist say is the result of global climate change. And that weather is wrecking havoc on the trail, more blow downs, more erosion, more landslides, and so on. And of course, climate change is having a significant impact on the ecosystems to trail passes through. The growing number of dead trees along the trail is the most visible sign of this impact. But if you look closely, you'll see lots of evidence of how the mountains are suffering. Of course, I'm not the only at hiker worried about climate change. concerns about the impact of climate change on the trail came up in the calls from listeners we received as well.


Barry Buschow  13:18

Hello, this is Barry Buschow. I'm a PATC trail maintainer. And I view the trail just about every month. And I'm concerned about the fauna and flora of the trail with global warming. So I'm hoping in the future, we can come up with a solution for global warming and allow all of the modern flora, plant life, animal life insect life to continue and thrive on the trail.


Mills Kelly  13:49

I agree with Barry, but I think we have to do more than wish for the best. I think that all of us in the trail community need to advocate for the planet, pressing our elected representatives to make the hard choices that are going to be needed if we're going to stave off a complete climate disaster. Virtually every decision we make to address climate change will have a negative short term impact on our lives. But if the natural world is going to rebound from what has already happened, we have to make those hard choices.


Mills Kelly  14:27

The fact that more and more people are going to the Appalachian Trail each year would I think have made Ben Mackay very happy. And I know it would have made Myron Avery and the early trail builders happy. They were actually quite concerned that they would build a 2000 mile long trail and almost no one would hike on it. If you've spent any time on the AT recently, you know that's no longer a concern.


Mills Kelly  14:59

In the trails First 60 or 70 years, almost all of those hikers were white and middle class. That's also less and less the case every year. But as the trail communities demographics change, as more and more people from different cities, towns and countries come to the AT, to experience it in all its natural glory, ensuring that the trail is a welcoming place for all can be a challenge sometimes.


Dakota Jackson  15:27

Hi, Green Tunnel Crew. This is Dakota Jackson, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, director of visitor engagement. My hope for the future of the AT is a trail that is welcoming to all visitors, and that the ATC continues to uncover and provide a space for the amazing stories that take place along the AT. I also hope that visitors are better prepared and practice responsible recreation so that we as a community can protect the 80 for the centuries to come.


Mills Kelly  15:55

The Appalachian Trail is a much more welcoming place than it was in the 1930s or the 1960s, or even the 1980s. But there will always be more work to do on that front. And as the trail community evolves, the variety of those amazing stories that Dakota mentions will expand as well. Everyone brings a little of themselves to the AT. And the great stories arising from that growing diversity of life experiences is really wonderful to behold. The shelter I maintain is in Northern Virginia. And over the past year, I met hikers from a Korean American church group, a Croatian engineer who had come to the US for two years for his job. A through hiker from the UK, the lesbian couple on their honeymoon, and on and on. Every one of those folks experienced the Appalachian Trail in their own way, and each contributed something unique to the trail community. From where I sit, this increasing diversity in the hiking community is one of the best things to happen on the trail and decades. And it's one of the things that makes me the most hopeful for the trails future. Much of this change has been organic, and at least some of it is the result of intentional efforts by the ATC and the trail clubs to open up the trail to an ever widening circle of hikers.


Sandra Marra  17:24

This is Sandra Marra, president and CEO at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, just like the AT itself, The Green Tunnel Podcast has been a rewarding journey of personal stories rich history, transformational experiences and lifelong connections. As the ATC embarks on its centennial anniversary next year, we're working to create a future where this iconic footpath is cherished and protected, accessible to all and a vital source of inspiration and connection to the natural world.


Mills Kelly  17:55

When Myron Avery charged the trail clubs with building out the chain of shelters in 1937, he was hoping to imbue those volunteers with a new sense of purpose for the trail project. I want to suggest that as the AT enters its second century next year, the new purpose for the trail is going to be providing hikers with a place to go as they try their best to survive emotionally in an increasingly tumultuous world. threatened by climate change, riven by political division, and prone to conflict. To quote the great environmental writer Barry Lopez, I think it's worth remembering that "In the wilderness, we find our truest selves. It is there that we are stripped of all pretense and ego, and faced with our own vulnerability and insignificance." The more time we spend in the wilderness facing our own vulnerability, the more we will give ourselves the opportunity to seek solutions, solutions for ourselves, solutions for others, and solutions for the planet. If the Appalachian Trail can do that for us, and we can do that for the AT then the trail and the trail community will have found a new purpose for the AT's second century.


Mills Kelly  19:25

I wrote the script for this final episode of The Green tunnel with some very mixed emotions. It's been such a wonderful ride from our first meetings in late 2020. When we batted around the idea of a podcast on the history of the Appalachian trail to the launch of the show in the fall of 2021. Over the past three years, we've all learned so much about the trail, about the trail community, and about our wonderful listeners. Ending something you've cared so much about as hard as we began to think about wrapping up our show. We asked a number of folks we've interviewed where their favorite place on the trail is. As you would expect, we got a lot of different answers. Sometimes favorite places on the Appalachian Trail are obvious choices. McAfee Knob, the summit of Katahdin, Sunfish Pond in New Jersey, Damascus Virginia during Trail Days, or the camp store in Pine Grove Furnace State Park with its half gallons of ice cream. But more often, the favorite places hikers told us about are much less obvious and much more personal. Maybe it was the first place they ever spent the night on the AT. Or it was where they realized that they had the fortitude to overcome a difficult physical or emotional challenge. It might have been the first place they saw a bear or where they met a future life partner. Or it could have been a spot where a sunrise over the mountain filled them with joy. It might have been the place where the peace of the forests finally broke through.


Mills Kelly  21:09

My own favorite spot is one almost no one would ever choose because it has meaning only to me. I've been hiking on the trail since 1971. But the stretch of the AT that holds my happiest memories is one I walked through just eight years ago. I was on a seven day section hike in central Virginia. And it was hot. So hot that I was waking up at 4am so I could get the bulk of my walking in before mid afternoon. When the temperatures were soaring into the unbearable range. I'd stopped for an early lunch, more like brunch at the Cornelius Creek Shelter, and had the climb of Apple Orchard Mountain ahead of me before I got to the Thunder Hill Shelter where I was planning to spend the night. Despite the fact that it was only 10 or 10:30, it was already 90 degrees. And I was not looking forward to that five and a half miles up and over the peak. We've all been there sitting somewhere cool and pleasant with a difficult hike ahead. It can take a lot of self talk to get the backpack on and get moving again. But we do about a half a mile north of Cornelius Creek, I suddenly found myself in a deep green section of the green tunnel. Huge ferns crowded into the trail. And mixed into those ferns were bright orange Turk's Cap Lilies, nodding in the faint breeze blowing down from the top of the mountain. The sudden, unexpected beauty of that 100 yards or so of the AT took my breath away. And I just had to stop and let it settle into me. It was one of those moments we have on the trail to stick with us forever and keep bringing us back to the green tunnel, year after year.


Mills Kelly  23:12

That short otherwise nondescript stretch of trail in Virginia is my favorite spot. But I don't want to end the show on that note. Instead, I'm going to leave the last word to Dave Field. If you've been listening to our show since we began three years ago, you've heard Dave several times. Among his many, many important contributions to the Appalachian Trail, Dave was a trail maintainer for almost six decades in Maine. And of all the people we've spoken to over the last three years, I can't think of anyone who has done more for the AT than Dave Field. So it's only fitting that he should have the last word. I asked Dave what his favorite stretch of the trail was and here's what he said.


David Field  24:02

The Saddleback Alpine Ridge, no question. Three miles above the tree line, polished granite, wonderful Alpine flora, and the fact that I maintain it for almost 60 years. And of course, that was the biggest battle for protecting the Appalachian Trail was dealing with the ski area. And it was the last major acquisition in the entire protection program. 2004. Saddleback is just a magnificent hike. Anyway, you look at it.


Mills Kelly  24:30

The Green Tunnel is a production of R2 Studios at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. Today's episode was produced by me. The Green Tunnel has been a team effort from the start. I'm just the host. Without the following members of our team, we never would have managed to bring you so many episodes of the show.


Jeanette Patrick  25:01

Our executive producers are me, Jeanette Patrick,


Abby Mullen  25:03

Abby Mullen


Jim Ambuske  25:04

and Jim Ambuske.


Rachel Birch  25:06

Our episode producers include me, Rachel Birch,


Bridget Bukovich  25:09

Bridget Bukovich,


Mills Kelly  25:11

Mills Kelly,


Hayley Madl  25:12

Hayley Madl,


Eleanor Magness  25:13

Eleanor Magness,


Ashley Palazzo  25:14

Ashley Palazzo,


Amber Pelham  25:15

Amber Pelham,


Rachel Whyte  25:16

and Rachel Whyte.


Hayley Madl  25:18

Audio production is by me Hayley Madl,


Abby Mullen  25:21

Abby Mullen,


Jeanette Patrick  25:21

Jeanette Patrick,


Jim Ambuske  25:22

Jim Ambuske,


Rachel Birch  25:23

and Rachel Birch.


Bridget Bukovich  25:25

Outreach, marketing, and social media management by me, Bridget Bukovich


Alison Langford  25:30

Website, show notes, and administrative support by me, Alison Langford


Melissa Cannarozzi  25:35

and Melissa Cannarozzi.


Mills Kelly  25:34

We want to offer a special thanks to everyone who called in to tell us what they hoped for the trail. We also want to say a thank you to everyone who agreed to be interviewed for our show over the past three years. We've interviewed more than 70 historians, trail maintainers scientists, authors, and hikers. Everyone who agreed to be on the show helped us tell the story of America's most iconic long distance hiking trail. And we couldn't have done it without you. Thank you also to all the people here at George Mason University who read primary sources for us in various episodes. Original music for our show is performed by Scott Miller of Swope, Virginia and Andrew Small and Ashley Watkins of Floyd, Virginia. For this final episode, we also want to thank Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, Germany for making it possible for us to use the recording space while I'm in Germany on a Fulbright Fellowship. We've been able to bring you this show through the generosity of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and many individual donors like you. Finally, we want to thank you, our listeners. you've downloaded our episodes almost 200,000 times. And every time I say that number, I get goosebumps. Thanks for listening. Thanks for donating. Thanks for spreading the word about our show. And thanks for helping us keep the Appalachian Trail an open and welcoming space for everyone. I hope I'll see you out on the AT one day soon. Until then, hike well.

Brice Esplin

Brice Esplin is a Subaru/Leave No Trace team member. He educates communities across the United States on responsible recreation techniques and Leave No Trace ethics to encourage the protection of public lands.

Dave Field

Dave Field has been volunteering with the Appalachian Trail in Maine since 1955 and was the maintainer of the AT on Saddleback Mountain from 1957 to 2016. He has served as the president of the Maine Appalachian Trail Club (MATC), on the ATC’s Board of Managers, and is a member of the Appalachian Trail Museum’s Hall of Fame. He is also a historian of the trail, working to transcribe and digitize Myron Avery’s correspondence and the papers of the MATC.

Dave is a professional forester who spent most of his career as a college professor running forestry programs in various places. Dave holds B.S. and M.S. degrees in Forestry from the University of Maine and a Ph.D. from Purdue University. He taught forestry at Purdue, Yale University, and the University of Maine, where he retired in 2006 after 30 years on the faculty.

Cosmo Catalano

Cosmo Catalano is the volunteer coordinator for the Berkshire Chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club and has been volunteering on the Appalachian Trail in Massachusetts since 1999. He is also the group outreach coordinator for his trail club.

Krystal Williams

Krystal Williams, better known as Bumblebee, is a member of the AT NoBo Class of '11. When she is not dreaming of the Trail (or lamenting the loss of her pinky toenail which never grew back after her hike), she is busy as the founding manager of Providentia Group, a legal and business advisory firm focused on achieving economic dignity for all. In 2020 she also founded the Alpha Legal Foundation, a non-profit organization with a mission to diversify Maine’s legal profession.

Krystal is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer and holds a J.D. from the University of Maine School of Law, an MBA from the Amos Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, and BAs in Mathematics and Psychology from Williams College.

Dakota Jackson

Dakota Jackson is the Director of Visitor Experience at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC). Her work focuses on creating empowering, educational, and inspiring experiences for all visitors to the Appalachian Trail and the ATC's visitor centers. In 2015, she thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail. Dakota has a background in museum collections management, interpretation, and archaeology.

Lee Howard

Lee Howard is a lifetime member of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club

Barry Bushow

Barry Bushow is a PATC trail maintainer.

Sandy Mara

Sandy Mara is the president and CEO at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.