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This page last updated on March 16, 2007
|The following article appeared in the
Appalachian Trailway News, November / December 1998
Reflections of a crew leader
It's been seven years since I last led a work crew for ATC, but I am still drawn to the Trail in many ways. I decided to write this article after receiving my 1997 ATC calendar. March's picture was of a bridge built by my 1989 mid-Atlantic crew in the Cumberland Valley of Pennsylvania. I felt proud that I had made an impact and grateful I had the opportunity to work with the fine people of the A.T.
My story begins with a city boy's decision to go to forest-ranger school. I left home in Crete, Illinois, and went to Hocking Technical College in southeast Ohio. While studying for an associate's degree in recreation and wildlife management, I applied for a job as crew leader on the A.T. in the southern Appalachians that was posted on Hocking's bulletin board.
In May 1989, after being interviewed by phone four times, I was hired. Bob Brown, a veteran Konnarock crew leader, gave my resume to Morgan Sommerville, who gave it to Bob Proudman. They took a big chance when they hired me. I had no previous volunteer experience. My trail-construction experience was limited to a weekend on a West Virginia fire line.
One thing I had going for me was the college courses I took, including chainsaw operation, recreation-areas equipment, leadership training, out- door education, and backpacking. I looked pretty good on paper.
After college graduation, I headed for Sugar Grove, Virginia, with little idea of what lay ahead. I was hired to lead a crew for the last six weeks of the season. After two weeks as a volunteer doing sidehill and rock work under the leadership of Bob Brown, I was anxious for my own crew and project. With a caretaker from the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy as our guide, we hiked three miles to Grassy Ridge in about an hour. We arrived at the most splendid campsite in North Carolina, a narrow saddle lined with Roan's trademark rhododendrons. Camp was set up, and there was still time to wreak an hour's worth of destruction on unsuspecting blackberries.
We were known as the "Grim Reapers." This was the second year of a four-year project to preserve the magnificent balds of the Roan Highlands by hacking blackberries to ground level. With the exception of a couple of power weed-eaters, the tool used was the scythe, hence the name Grim Reapers.
The blackberries were a battle-ready foe. Our first clash with the enemy resulted in several casualties on our side. Scythe handles came loose or broke, and we retreated from the battle to lick our wounds and return fresh in the morning. Only, morning wouldn't come so easily.
Rhonda, the caretaker, Scot, a crew member, and I drove 20 miles to Spruce Pine, North Carolina, to buy supplies. Then, we drove back to Roan to hike back to camp. At the top of Round Bald, I learned a valuable lesson about mountain weather. Clouds rolled in, and rain began to fall. We were without raingear, and soon darkness enveloped us. With just one disposable flashlight, we found our way over the treacherous Jane Bald, back to Grassy, and stumbled into camp.
"Where's Tim?" was the question that greeted us. Tim, an older crew member, had gone looking for us and got lost. Fortunately, he made his way back to camp soon. After a short talk about not going anywhere alone and a good laugh, we went into our dry tents, hoping for a clear morning/ which never came. We spent the week wet and wind-whipped, but we pressed on relentlessly, taking out our misery on acres of blackberries.
The unshakable determination of my crew kept that week from being a total disaster. Some of those folks were already pillars of the crew program: Jim Horsely, a veteran workhorse; Tim Cahalon, who went on to do a fine job as the mid-Atlantic crew's camp coordinator that year; Kathy Faulks, with her cool English head and helpfulness, was a great support.
Our last full day arrived. That Sunday, the clouds parted, and the wind slowed down. Roan returned to the midsummer splendor that had first greeted us. Most job-benefit packages offer health insurance, profit sharing, and a 401K plan. That night on Grassy, we experienced the job benefit Trail crews take most for granted. With the moon and stars shining bright in the cloudless North Carolina sky, childhood dreams were coming true.
After my adventure with the 1989 Konnarock camp, I was offered the crew-leader position with the mid-Atlantic crew. Tim Cahalon and I headed north for Pennsylvania. Karen Lutz was in desperate need of a crew leader, and, just as Morgan and Bob had done, she took a chance hiring a college kid with lots of experience hacking blackberries. Thanks, Karen.
Mid-Atlantic was a valuable experience. I had to change from a blackberry slayer into a bridge-builder and setter of rock steps. That season, there were mainly all-season volunteers, so a close-knit family atmosphere prevailed. I met two of ATC's lasting "legacies," Beth Beary and Bob Smith. Beth, a quiet college student from Ohio, went on to become an outstanding Konnarock crew leader and a dear friend. Bob signed on for one week. Like many others before him, he became addicted to crew life. It was my pleasure to be able to recommend him as my replacement for the following year. The season ended with mixed feelings: The A.T. had become a part of me.
I could not promise Karen another season, because I was anxious to get into a wildlife-oriented career. By July, I was working as a wildlife technician with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. However, I was grateful to join nearby Konnarock crews on weekends. I was fortunate to work under the "Trail Boss," Keith Smith. Keith came out of crew-leader retirement and away from his own trail-construction business on the West Coast to lead the construction of a major projectthe Laurel Fork Gorge Wilderness Bridge.
During this time, I grew discontented with my course in life. At the wildlife commission, my career options were limited with just an associate's degree. I turned to where I felt accomplishment and satisfaction, where the atmosphere and esprit de corps were such that people returned year after year. I wrote to Morgan Sommerville and asked if I could return for another summer as a crew leader.
Konnarock 1991 was a first. With the unstoppable "Fred" Lashley and the debut of Beth Beary as a crew leader, two out of three crew leaders were women. We accomplished many things that season. A few projects that had dragged on over several seasons were finished. Shelters and bridges were built; several miles of new Trail were dug. Of course, there was the continued ravaging of the Roan Highlands blackberry population. That was my last season as a crew leader. With some hugs, a few tears, and promises to keep in touch, I headed north for home.
My life has changed drastically in the seven years since then. Jodi and I were married in November 1992, and I've enjoyed taking her to the places on the A.T. where I worked as a crew leader. I look forward to sharing those places with our daughter when she's older,
In October 1995, Jodi and I went on an extensive tour of New England. One of my goals enroute was to visit the Deuell Hollow Bridge in Dutchess County, New York. This 50-foot hemlock bridge was also built by my mid-Atlantic crew in 1989. The bridge was standing strong, just the way we had left it six years before. An elderly couple stood at the end of it. While I was inspecting the bridge, Jodi talked to them and found they were from nearby and frequently visited this spot during their daily walks. Jodi explained who we were and why we were there. Those folks expressed the kindest words of gratitude to me.
That is just one example of what the Trail means to me. The sense of accomplishment, the team work, and the never-ending spirit of "we can do anything" has stayed with me. I read the Appalachian Trailway News and The Register and see that others believe, with me, that the Trail experience lies in people working toward a common goalto make a difference, to make an improvement, to be part of this way of life we call the Appalachian Trail.
Richard Atwood lives in Steger, Ill., with his wife, Jodi, and daughter, Rebecca, born in January 1997. He is a firefighter/ paramedic in the south suburbs of Chicago.