Caretaking the trail

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(HOST) Commentator Willem Lange says that you meet all kinds of interesting people on the Appalachian Trail.

(LANGE) Saturday evening, I said to Mother, “If it’s decent in the morning, I’m going to take a look at my trail before church.” There was no answer, which I took for accedence.

Right after breakfast, off I went. I had Mother take the dog into the bathroom so she wouldn’t hear me take my cane out of the umbrella can. She’d’ve wanted to go, and she just can’t keep up anymore. So I shuffled off down the road alone, for almost the first time in fifteen years.

I’m what’s called an “adopter” on a little chunk of Appalachian Trail, that snakes all the way from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. I keep tabs on 1.8 miles of trail that wind through overgrown farmland, along ancient stone walls, and past abandoned orchards and cellar holes. My job is to do whatever repairs and improvements need doing.

The first stage on the way to my trail was through an uncut meadow. Within one hundred feet I was soaked to mid-thigh by the dew. The little bridge was still intact at the first stream crossing. (With a pang I remembered that the dog was the first creature ever to cross it, the day I built it.) Beyond the bridge, a muddy stretch for this time of year, which must be a pain for through-hikers with heavy packs. Experienced hikers know to stay in the trail, no matter how muddy. Trekking off to the sides widens it into a general mire.

There’s always blowdown to clear from the trail. Most of it I flip with the tip of my cane. There were a few that needed hauling. My water bars, which deflect running water off the trail, were slightly silted up; I’d be back with a hoe to clean ’em out.

In a wet spot where the trees’ roots are shallow, there was the usual tangle of fallen saplings. Hikers had made a trail around them. Five minutes with the axe, and they were out of the way.

The morning sun filtered through the trees, and the birds were waking up. And then suddenly here came a lone hiker in shorts, sweat band, and a trail-worn pack. We exchanged the usual information: starting point on the trail (Katahdin); home town (Rockfish Gap, Virginia); trail name (Dumbledore); and how much farther to Hanover?

Two minutes later, two women through-hikers (trail names Jimmylegs and Cats) who asked where they could spend the night in Hanover. Check the information board on the Dartmouth campus, I told them. They took off, and here came two more, a man and a woman, with the same questions.

There are hundreds of hikers on the trail, but, you can’t see them all at once, just in brief encounters. They march north and south for months, with visions of Mount Katahdin or Springer Mountain ever before them. Old Wounded Knees (that’s my trail name) waved them on, trudged home, showered, and left for church. Bon voyage, my young friends!

This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, and I gotta get back to work.

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