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The Appalachian Trail Hopes to Lure New Communities of Hikers

Shalin Desai

The Appalachian Trail stretches nearly 2,200 miles from Georgia to Maine. It depends on volunteers to keep the path clear, the shelters and latrines clean.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy is now trying to interest more people in the job – especially those who have not, historically, been included in the hiking community.

When Sandi Marra first discovered hiking, she loved it.  She felt so free – with everything she needed strapped to her back, and it was wonderful to visit places few others would ever see, but there weren’t many women on the Appalachian Trail.

“There was nothing that was really geared toward women," she recalls. "People just weren’t creating women’s gear and shorts that were comfortable, and packs that were different sizes.”

Today that’s changed.  Marra heads the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and she says about 3 million people, many of them women, visit each year.

“We’re within driving distance of the most populated area of the United States along the east coast," Marra explains. " Most folks can get to some access of the trail in 3-4 hours.”

One of those who shows up regularly is Marit Anderson –  a hike leader and founder of a group called Wild East Women.

She carries loppers and  a corona saw in her car and has just been certified to use a chainsaw on the AT.  Anderson delights in teaching people of all genders, races and ages how to build and maintain mountain trails. 

Credit Marit Anderson
Marit Anderson teaches other women how to build and maintain mountain trails.

“It’s hard work, but we try to do things in stages that people can do the work that they can with plenty of stops," she explains. "If you were not feeling like you can bend over and pick-up rocks, you might be the person that goes to beginning to clip vegetation or the person at the end that’s raking the dirt back on and leveling it.  So there’s something for everybody.”

Anderson is part of a movement started by Shalin Desai, a 35-year-old man who knows how it feels to be an outsider.

“I volunteer on boards, and often times I’m the only young person or the only Indian person or sometimes even the only person of color on that board,” he says.

He still remembers a hike in Wyoming -- clean water in short supply and 40 miles to go.

“I’m brown. I’m young. I’m not looking like a lot of the people around here.  When I open my mouth I clearly sound like a Yankee, so I don’t really fit in, and a truck came on one of the back roads that I was walking on, and I’ll be honest, my initial reaction was, ‘Oh no – this is not going to be.a good situation.’ They pulled up beside me, and it was two grizzly looking dudes. The guy in the passenger seat said ‘You look thirsty,’ and he opened up his cooler, and he had a pile of water bottles. You know everyone’s mom tells them not to get into a car with a stranger, but thirst overcame logic at that point.”

He accepted the water and a meal with the two who turned out to be really good guys. Desai loves the community of hikers, and he wants other people of color to discover that.  Some, he says, know nothing about the AT.  Others figure it’d be hard to reach, when – in fact -- it’s highly accessible.

“One example of that is in New York City," Desai says. "Some folks don’t know that you can actually take the train directly to one of the trailheads in upstate New York.”

As a member of the AT Conservancy board, he’s helped start so-called affinity groups for Latinos, Veterans and women.  He’d like to form groups for African-Americans, LGBTQ people and teens, who might feel more comfortable working with those who share their cultural values. 

Sandi Marra says the trail can use their help.  She notes the C&O Canal – another part of the National Park Service – has a sizable team of caretakers.

"They have probably a staff of about 45 or 50 rangers to maintain those couple hundred miles.  The AT Conservancy office has a staff of nine, for 2,190 miles.  We have one ranger!" she says with a laugh.

The job is doubly difficult with climate change bringing more storms, fallen trees, invasive plants and insects.

"It’s a whole new game.  We can’t even begin to imagine how things are going to be.  I mean this winter we had an ice storm down here + and the central section of the park was closed for over a month, just to clear out the trees that fell down because of this particular ice storm.” 

She, Anderson and Desai agree the work is rewarding and important.

"We need all hands on deck!" he says. "We’ll probably call it quits when the visitors and volunteers on the trail look exactly like the demographics of the United States, but we have a long way to go, and I’m not calling it quits any time soon."

Those who’d like to try their hand at trail construction and maintenance can learn more on the conservancy’s website.  

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief