“How can that be?” I asked my dad with wonder and intrigue as he pointed south and explained to me that the trail we were standing on extended to Georgia. Then he switched arms, pointed north, and explained that it also stretched to Maine.
We were traveling in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts and had stopped at an Appalachian Trail road crossing to ceremoniously set foot on the A.T. I was a young boy with an inherent love for being in the woods and a growing sense of geography. I paused and further pondered that this line in the woods made up of dirt, rocks, and roots extended all the way to places I had heard of, but not yet been to. Georgia and Maine seemed so far away, how could it be possible that a trail connected them?
And so began my fascination and lifelong connection with the Appalachian Trail: a relationship that has deepened, been redefined, and endured throughout my personal and professional life — in multiple ways. I’ve had the benefit and privilege of thru-hiking the A.T, maintaining it, managing it, protecting it, advocating for it, testifying on its behalf and living on and near it. I’m even married to a thru-hiker.
Twenty-nine years ago this spring, I stood at the bronze plaque on Springer and made a promise to myself that I would walk to Katahdin — no matter what. Throughout my thru-hike, as the Trail presented its varying challenges and displayed its full character of figurative and literal highs and lows, my motto was, “no doubts, just details.” Several months later, I stood silently at the large cairn on Katahdin’s Baxter Peak and reflected on the accomplishment. At that moment it became clear that while I had just completed walking the Trail in its entirety, I was not “done” with it. I also equally realized that while the Trail would continue to provide a sense of purpose for me, I was being called to fulfill a sense of duty to continue to care for and steward this much-cherished and one-of-a kind resource.
My ensuing career with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) has evolved over the past thirty-two years from a seasonal employee working on the A.T. in the White Mountains as a backcountry caretaker to Trail crew member and leader, program manager, ATC board member, Stewardship Council chair and most recently senior regional director in the Northeast. The tools I have used to accomplish the tasks on a given day have ranged from mattocks and rock bars, backpacks, laptops, helicopters, bear canisters, business suits and briefcases, chainsaws, and — in recent years — hundreds of Zoom meetings.
Which brings us to today. I have been selected to serve the ATC in a new role we have created as the vice president of regional and Trail operations. I am honored and energized to serve in this role and for the opportunity to lead this important foundational work of the Conservancy. The ATC created the new VP role to continue to provide sustained focus on our core Trail management responsibilities including the treadway, overnight sites, volunteer support, visitor management, and agency partnerships. Meanwhile, the ATC is investing additional resources to our growing and important work with landscape-level land conservation, science and stewardship, and federal policy and advocacy.
While we have rich opportunities ahead of us, there are plenty of challenges. Our nearly 100-year history of success provides a solid foundation to build from while we address some of the of the most complex work yet to accomplish. Climate change and the associated impacts to the Trail’s physical and natural resources is a real, current, and future threat. The Trail’s popularity continues to grow, and we will be developing and implementing both proven and innovative management techniques to ensure that the Appalachian Trail experience is available and sustainable for all. We will continue to strengthen the Cooperative Management System — a public-private partnership — so that current and future volunteers have the support they need to excel in their work, and to ensure that our partnerships with the Trail’s land management agencies are fully thriving.
My confidence lies in our history of proven success. Since we are all working together towards a shared cause, I trust that the relevancy and necessity of the Trail experience will remain as essential in the next 100 years as it has in the past 100 years. Perhaps even more so.
Having worked across the full spectrum of A.T. management over the years, I can now answer the “How can it be?” question either with brevity, or in deep detail — depending on who asks (and how much time they have). Vision, cooperation, dedication, planning, passion, and grit begin to answer that question. We might now ask; “How can it continue to be?”