trail stories
trail stories
Enjoying a lunch break during the Wild East Women’s Work Day (author is standing at right)
Enjoying a lunch break during the Wild East Women’s Work Day (author is standing at right)
Give and Take
Building a relationship with one another and with nature by showing up
By Nicole Ager

Coming most recently from just outside of Boston, I knew next to nothing of the Appalachian Trail. I had no idea how far it was, just how many states it covered, or where it started and ended. But then I moved to Rabun County, Georgia, the very northern point of north Georgia, and the Appalachian Trail is now 11.5 miles from my back door. On Labor Day weekend last year, my husband and I hiked up to Siler Bald. It was a beautiful crisp morning — a perfectly magical day to set foot on the Trail for the first time. We made our way through the woods and the mist, following our first white blazes higher up the mountain. Greeted with spectacular views from the bald, I fell in love with the idea of seeing more of these blazes and views. As if he was placed there for a reason, when we were heading back to our car, we met a 63-year-old thru-hiker who was 11 days away from finishing his hike. I remember thinking to myself, “What an amazing thing to accomplish… but I don’t think I could ever do it.”

Fast forward to this past school year at Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School, where I work as a chemistry teacher. We had the honor of hearing from Jennifer Pharr Davis, hiker, author, speaker, National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, and founder and owner of Blue Ridge Hiking Company, who spoke to our students, faculty, and staff about how she found the Trail right out of college, and from that, a purpose in life. At that moment, I realized that this amazing trail didn’t have to be foreign to me; it didn’t have to be done in one hike, nor was there a “right” way to hike it. I finally decided that I would spend the next part of my life section hiking the A.T., however long that would take.

I also realized, though, that I can’t just hike the Trail and enjoy everything about it without giving back to it — the world does not work that way. You have to give so that you can take away meaningful and beautiful experiences. When I was searching for ways to volunteer to help the Trail, I found a Wild East Women’s Work Day on the local REI events page, with a description that read: “This event is suitable for women of all ages with the ability to hike two miles carrying 15 pounds. All training and tools will be provided.” Hike a few miles, learn about taking care of the Trail, while in the company of local women who also love the Trail? Yes, please!

On yet another beautiful, crisp morning, I set foot on the A.T. again. Among those who met in the parking lot that morning were some of the lovely women of the Nantahala Hiking Club, who work on their section of the Trail every Wednesday: Katie Currier, from Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards (SAWS); Julie Judkins, from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC); and Janae Scott from REI. Boy, did I luck out and learn so much from this group of women. Just in the first 100 feet on the Trail, I learned the purpose of water bars and how to take care of them, the basics of how to protect the A.T., and so much more.

One of the jobs we completed was protecting part of the Trail. We cleared away some of the earth on the upside of the path so that we could move the Trail back to its correct spot, and then put sticks where we didn’t want people to continue to walk. While doing this, I had to take a moment to laugh inside because I never would have thought that was what the sticks were there for, and I probably would have thought myself a good person for picking them up so dogs wouldn’t hurt their paws on them. I knew about Leave No Trace, and I do have common sense, but I grew up away from hiking and away from having to think deeply about how to protect and build trails.

I realized that this amazing trail didn’t have to be foreign to me; it didn’t have to be done in one hike, nor was there a “right” way to hike it.

Between cleaning out the water bars, cutting downed trees across the Trail, and cutting back some brush, all of us got to talk, laugh, and bond. I learned about the amazing variety of jobs the women around me had related to the A.T. — from director of outreach and education to outdoor programs and outreach market coordinator — and the many ways someone could mix their passion for the outdoors with a communications, business, or education degree, among others.

On a day I was supposed to be there as a volunteer and steward to give back, I ended up still receiving so much by just showing up and being willing to participate. I learned what goes into the protection and preservation the Trail, the resources and workshops the ATC and REI provide, and even received some delicious snacks and cool swag from REI. I acquired a new appreciation for the Trail and nature from women of all ages and backgrounds as I worked alongside them and ate lunch with them.

Looking to the future, in just a few short weeks, I will be taking to the Trail again with a group of high school students in tow. Under the trees, we will get to build a relationship with one another and with nature, and hopefully I can spread my appreciation of trails with them. I also hope that they will get a sense of belonging in the vast world around them, and in the long-term, understand the importance of giving back in some way to allow for others in years to come to receive the same gifts.