at-workIt’s a good thing in life to be humbled now and again. I was surprised, though, when my recent come-uppance came at the hands – and feet and strong backs – of a bunch of agile, jolly sixty- and seventy-somethings.

An avid hiker, I volunteered for a week of maintenance work on the Appalachian Trail in the mountains of southwestern Virginia. My legs seasoned from running on the pancake-flat streets of my neighborhood in Florida, my confidence in my backwoods abilities too high for my own good and my backpack brimming with too much stuff, I was sure I’d be able to do my share. I would be no tenderfoot shedding folding chairs and cheap Wal-Mart inflatable mattresses fit for a swimming pool as I made my way up the trail.

Bob, Sylvia, Herb and Skywalker – that’s his “trail name” – soon put me in my well-deserved place, but along the way inspired me about the looming season of life I’m approaching. They out-worked, out-hiked, out-joked, out-camped and out-shined the lot of us, their never-flagging positive attitudes a wonderful example for our crew, from the pair of college students who made up the younger set to the middle-aged folks like me who thought they knew something about working in the woods.

I spent a morning with Bob shoring up a spot where the trail crossed a rushing mountain stream, and at 75 he lifted, hauled, shoved and levered boulders so huge that it left me astonished. We needed the biggest rock we could find, he said, to make our treadway in the very bottom of the stream, and he was absolutely certain the six-foot-long, three-foot wide and one-foot tall monster lying just downhill from our crossing was the perfect candidate. I had no doubts we’d never move the thing an inch, but Bob miraculously, and nearly single-handedly, propelled it straight up the steep slope using nothing but the sharp end of a mattock that he levered beneath it. He moved that giant rock, one inch at the time, while the rest of us scrambled to help. It was a lesson in patience and persistence.

A retired industrial arts teacher from Richmond, Bob hiked the entire trail at 55, liking it so much he did it again, in sections, in later years. At 75 he still dusted most of us on the five-mile trek to our campsite, only to eagerly volunteer to shoulder more than his share of our common gear, food and tools on the way out. By then, most of the rest of us were stumbling from exhaustion and conveniently looked the other way or wandered off to fetch some forgotten item when the call went out to carry the stuff.

Sylvia, 65 and a grandmother, hiked the trail in sections over a number of years, and, like Bob, does volunteer maintenance work several times a year, both for her local hiking club and for the Appalachian Trail Conference, the national organization that runs our nation’s oldest and arguably most famous trail.

I would bet most people think the trail is maintained by the U.S. Forest Service or some other government agency. That is not the case. The ATC and its affiliated hiking clubs sprinkled from Georgia to Maine shoulder the burden, and the vast majority of the work is accomplished by volunteers.

From late spring through early fall, the group sends out teams of up to a dozen volunteers with a couple of its own paid staffers for work weeks. They labor mightily repairing or re-locating washed-out sections of trail, building rock steps, trimming brush, removing fallen trees blocking the path and turning treacherous stream crossings and steeply-pitched “side-hill” sections into solid, durable tread. The clubs, meanwhile, take primary responsibility for long stretches of the trail and send out their own members on work weeks and weekends for similar labor nearly year-round. Individuals even volunteer to maintain their own two- or three-mile sections, hiking out several times a year, loaded down with tools, keeping the path in good condition.

The work can be brutal, carried on in whatever weather Mother Nature decides to send. Volunteers typically get covered with mud and muck, and occasionally get scratched, bruised, bashed and mashed, although serious injuries are rare as the ever-watchful ATC staffers constantly remind and instruct them about the risks. Every morning as we set out to work, our irrepressible assistant crew-leader, Doug, a retired firefighter, would sing out, “Just remember, safety never takes a holiday!”

I found the work and camaraderie rewarding, and the example of the older volunteers especially heartening. Skywalker, a retired defense worker from New Hampshire, hiked the whole trail, all 2,100-plus miles, in five months at 63, while Herb, at 67 a slow-drawling Tennessee native, hopes to do his last 100 miles or so this summer, capping off a 20-year span of yearly section hikes.

These people love the woods, nature and above all the Appalachian Trail, a living, breathing collective enterprise that would cease to exist without their efforts.

At 54, I can only hope I am as eager, energetic and involved in 20 years. Seeing the commitment and dedication of the ATC staff and volunteers, I have no doubt the trail will be there waiting, in as good shape as willing hands, strong backs and sunny attitudes can keep it.

Photo shows Skywalker and Sylvia at work on the Appalachian Trail.

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Mike Williams

Mike Williams

With roots in Mississippi and Alabama, Mike Williams worked for newspapers across the South for 27 years. After earning a degree in American Studies at Amherst College, he worked for Alabama newspapers in Baldwin County, Montgomery and Birmingham, followed by stints at the Miami Herald and The Atlanta Constitution. His last job was as a foreign correspondent for the Cox Newspaper chain. He now splits his time between Florida and the North Carolina mountains. His interests include race relations, history, Southern folk culture and the environment.