By Lily Gelfars, 2021 Appalachian Trail Ridgerunner
Prior to my first season as an Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) ridgerunner, I saw trails as distances to be conquered. Stopping to smell flowers was frivolous; I’d rather race 25 miles through rain. Sure, I’d stop and snap pictures at viewpoints, but my goal was forward motion.
Ridgerunning on the Appalachian Trail (AT), I learned, is the opposite. We are backcountry educators who engage hikers on topics like campsite choice, poop protocol, and safe food storage (not in your tent!) so that hikers can enjoy the trail safely and responsibly. On my most successful days, I didn’t blast music through my headphones and bang out twenty-plus miles; instead, I hiked a few miles a day and had long conversations. I learned to slow down and be in nature rather than just move through it.
Ridgerunners are also stewards of the Trail itself, sharing knowledge in hopes of mitigating damage to the Trail so it can thrive into the future. After the challenges of the global pandemic, police brutality, and civil unrest, simply being alive and outside is a privilege. Our time on earth is fleeting. Why rush through the gorgeous moments? And why not take care of the places that give us solace, inspiration, and joy in difficult times?
Though our days are spent hiking, much of a ridgerunner’s work takes place in the evenings while camping with hikers at busy campsites. The most valuable interactions happen once we’re all in dry clothes, boiling water for ramen and reflecting on the day. I’d previously thought of camping as a perfunctory chore I endured in order to hike for days on end. Yet as a ridgerunner, I finally began to love camping. Ensconced in my evening uniform of an All-Paca hoodie, gaiter, and sleeping bag liner — and perhaps looking slightly eccentric draped in the liner — I easily endured cold nights of conversation with hikers. I’d talk about how to minimize impact on the Trail, of course, but soon we’d be debating shelter types and best trail foods. This would often lead to deeper discussions about our wandering trail thoughts, personal histories, and motivations for hiking. There is nothing quite like the enthusiasm of hikers from all corners of the country sitting around a dwindling campfire, talking about the journey ahead, listening to the hoots of owls juxtaposed against the crinkling of sleeping pads. The nervous excitement of people on the precipice of a life-changing adventure, many of whom were experiencing the woods for the first time, was infectious and inspiring.
“There is nothing quite like the enthusiasm of hikers from all corners of the country sitting around a dwindling campfire, talking about the journey ahead, listening to the hoots of owls juxtaposed against the crinkling of sleeping pads.”
Indeed, whether our trips last a few hours or a few months, we hikers leave the comfort and safety of home in the hopes that the Trail will leave an impact on us. In doing do, though, we often leave an impact on the Trail. I realized that, despite working as an outdoor educator, I still have much to learn. I used the season as an opportunity to reflect on my own shortcomings as a hiker. For example, packing out litter and abandoned gear made me realize I’ve bypassed thousands of pieces of trash on my own hikes. “I didn’t leave that wrapper,” I’d think; “I don’t want to clean someone else’s dirty toilet paper. That’s not my problem.” I’d push forward haughtily, prioritizing my own goals.
Initially, I felt ashamed. How often do we ignore problems, both on Trail and off, because we’re not affected in that moment? Then, however, I felt energized. Hauling out fifteen pounds of wet wipes and wrappers was tangible evidence that my presence was helping preserve the Trail for future hikers. This is a lesson I will gladly carry everywhere: to be mindful of my impact on shared spaces and work constantly to ameliorate them, even if I did not directly or intentionally cause harm.
As a long-distance hiker, you move swiftly from place to place, chasing weather, seasons, and an end point. You pass through areas but never get to know them. They become the background of a given emotion on a particular day. As a ridgerunner, though, you stay. The bitter, foggy mornings of late February roll into March, where dry sunny days let cracked leaves warm the ground, let flowers bloom. In this green April, thick leaves cover the Trail and humidity seeps back into the air. Spending so many days on this serpentine path, moving deliberately over the same ground, has shifted my perspective on both hiking and the outdoors.
“Spending so many days on this serpentine path, moving deliberately over the same ground, has shifted my perspective on both hiking and the outdoors.”
I used to believe I needed to complete the Triple Crown (hiking the AT, Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trail) and join a climbing gym to be an outdoor professional. However, after successfully helping hikers begin their northbound journeys, I feel empowered to pursue further opportunities in outdoor education and conservation. I’ll soon begin working as a Trail Steward in my home state of New York. I’m eager to impart what I’ve learned as an ATC ridgerunner in Georgia to hikers in my own community in order to expand the network of love for and support of public lands for years to come.