Paying it Back, Paying it Forward

I can remember the first time I met a long distance hiker on the Appalachian Trail. I was fifteen and on a hike with my local hiking club, the Blue Mountain Eagle Climbing Club,‎ out of Reading, PA. He wasn’t an extremely tall man but his backpack towered over his bearded face. He was in a hurry and it didn’t appear as though he wanted to chat. He only half turned to answer the questions that my hiking club friends asked as he passed by.

“How far did you come?”

“Georgia,” he answered as he disappeared down the trail, wet socks dangling from the outside of his pack, a plastic bag of fresh fruit swaying so it wouldn’t get crushed.

I remember being transformed that day. And my life has never been the same since.

My parents did not hike but when I was a young teen, I discovered that I loved it and wanted to do as much as I could. Although I did not yet drive, I merely had to meet at a rendezvous point in downtown Reading, PA give the club members a few cents for gas, and hitch a ride. The elders of the club shared so much with me, took me under their wings, taught me to fall in love with hiking and backpacking. I became active in my hiking club, building and maintaining a section of trail and paying it forward.

After hiking the entire AT in 1978-9 (two halves because of a broken foot), I penned my first book, A Woman’s Journey and went on to become a writer. The Appalachian Trail gave me a life, and an occupation. I never stopped hiking, went on to long distance cycle and paddle as well as write about these sports.

My husband, Todd and I got away from trail maintenance when we became parents but have recently gotten back into it. Todd helped the club build two log shelters as he is a log builder and a chainsaw carver and has since taken on the new position of Shelter Co-Chair. He is responsible for maintaining 5 shelters on our club’s 65 miles of trail.

Bake Oven Knob Shelter 005

Today my daughter, Sierra and I tug along for Todd’s early spring inspection of Bake Oven Knob Shelter. It is a very old and historic shelter, dating back to the 1930’s. The club ponders whether it would be a good idea to remove it, as it is less than a mile from the road and the scene of many a party and a trashing. There is no out house in the vicinity for managing a composting toilet is a challenging job that few choose to embrace.

Bake Oven Knob Shelter 004

I forgot how gross a job it is to clean up an Appalachian trail shelter after the winter breaks. There is trash everywhere, soggy toilet paper, used menstrual pads. It’s a good thing we brought along disposable gloves.

Bake Oven Knob Shelter 001

Strangely, there was a cooler at the shelter, loaded with ice and raw hamburger. Two dozen cans of beer and soda were tucked away inside the shelter. Collapsible stadium chairs leaned against the wall and a roll of toilet paper and paper towels, but no owners were in sight. We had come up a short cut trail only known to the trail maintainers. Had the owners gone back out to the road for yet another load?

Bake Oven Knob Shelter 003

We spent an hour picking up trash and Todd making notes on shelter repairs yet still no partiers. We slung our stuffed trash bags over our shoulders and walked out, cringing to think what would be left behind after this weekend’s party, and also about the club’s dilemma over the Bake Oven Knob Shelter. Should they build a new one- a log shelter, under the direction of Todd, or should they tear it down and leave the area resort to being wild?

When the idea of River House PA was born,  my Co-Founder, Elizabeth and I realized that it would make a great extended project for some of our veterans. It would be a wonderful way to give back to the trail, especially after we taught them to be hikers and they experienced some long distance AT adventures on their own. Or, to merely pay it forward, thinking of that day in the future, when some of them would become AT end-to-enders like Todd and I and have their lives transformed.

Bake Oven Knob Shelter 007

Shelter clean up after the winter is about the worst job as a trail maintainer. Shelter construction is quite fun, on the other hand, especially if you can learn a new skill like log building and perhaps even go on to build your own log home! And goodness knows, there are many miles of trail to clip and brush. Todd and I have only 2 ½ miles of trail on the Blue Mountain ridge and it takes us two days to clear it- with loppers and chainsaw, and that must be done at least two times a year. (Multiply that by 65 miles!) The Blue Mountain Eagle Climbing Club could sure use the help of some veterans who want to pay it forward! They schedule work trips on the trail every month- wonderful opportunities to get some exercise, make some new friends, invest in your future.

And, you just might run into a thru-hiker on his way to Maine, who could completely transform your life.

PS- Oh, and by the way, it is by no means a thankless job. You can’t pick up trash at a shelter or clip trail and not have nearly EVERYONE who sees you and passes by , say, “Thank you for all you do.” That is enough of a reward.



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9 thoughts on “Paying it Back, Paying it Forward Leave a comment

  1. WOW!!! Your reflection on meeting your first AT thru-hiker brought back memories of my first AT hike.

    It was the summer of 1968, Just graduated from HS had a week off from my summer job, (July 4h week before heading off to college Concord University in Sept) and hiked from Delaware Water Gap to Unionville, NY. Had a massive heavy tent, sleeping bag, old pack and other heavy equipment! I was young and dumb! I didn’t meet a thru hiker but met other folks out for day hikes and other backpackers. After that I was hooked! Over the years,while in college, I hiked many sections of the AT in southern VA, and PA, NY and VA. And in the past 2 years, I’ve hiked the trail in GA, and parts of it in NC.

    Also reading about the Bake Oven Knob shelter also brought back memories of my time spent hiking the sections in the PA back in the early 70s. I also was a shelter maintainer in the early 70s, when I was home from college and still living in NJ, (the Leroy Smith shelter) and a member of the AMC – Delaware Valley Chapter. I met a lot of thru hikers during the weekends when I would go up and watch over the shelter. I can totally relate to you problem with weekend partiers! While I didn’t have many problems when I was a shelter caretaker, I do recall having to remove lots of trash when I was only able to get there on a sunday afternoon. As to the dilema of whether or not to have a shelter that is a tough one.

    I do so miss the AT and hopefully I will someday go back and finish the parts of the trail I didn’t hike. These days, I give back to the hikers here in CO by maintaining a section of the Colorado Trail up near Leadville, CO and into the Holy Cross Wilderness area. Luckily I don’t have a lot of brush to clear but I do have a lot of work in keeping the water diversions flowing and to ensure the trail is kept clear of fallen trees!!!

    Thanks so very much for the memories!!!

      1. No I wasn’t maintaining any part of the CT in ’92. I was section hiking the CT and climbing and exploring CO, UT and NM in those years! I do recall seeing you and your hubby and children on the TV being interviewed when you were starting your hike through Waterton Canyon, I think! Keep writing, posting and hiking! I enjoy your reading your posts and insights!

  2. I found your site while reading Trail Journals. I’m keeping up with MamaGoose and Lost and Found as they section hike. Loved the write up you did on MamaGoose. I didn’t know her story. She is an amazing person.
    I read a comment on Trail Journals that you were “barred” from reporting on the Warriors Hike. Is this true and why?
    Enjoying your post.

      1. actually- there is not such thing as being “barred” to write about a public domain such as Warrior Hike- in this free country of free speech, fought for us by our veterans… I CHOOSE not to support the program anymore

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