The dirt and crushed limestone crunch beneath my steps as I continue my walk in the woods. I pause briefly to reflect on why I am here in the first place. Sweat beads on my hairline as my mind takes me back to my youth, hiking behind my father in the middle of the woods, walking a short section of the Appalachian Trail together.
“I think there’s one over there,” my father says as his eyes narrow. He checks his map and walks off the trail. Hesitant, I follow him. My father works for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, so he takes me on what he calls “bear routes.” He has different stations throughout the forest that help determine the population of bears in the area. However, unfortunately for young me, it involves a lot of hiking.
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Little did I know at the time that hiking and time spent outside would be a deeply integral part of my life. I continue with my walk in the woods, reminiscing about my childhood and the time I spent roaming about the Appalachian mountains. Today, I walk through a trail in the panhandle of West Virginia, otherwise known as the Panhandle Trail. The nearly 30-mile trail connects West Virginia and Pennsylvania and is a key part of the cross-country route of the Great American Rail-Trail®. The trail is relatively flat and paved in many areas, although the West Virginia portion is limestone gravel. It’s well maintained and there are plenty of bikers that swoosh past me, letting me know what side they’re going to pass me on. I continue to walk through the woods when I see a family pushing their smiling grandmother in her wheelchair. This is one of the more accessible trails I have been on in a while.
While I haven’t always found peace and contentment on trails, they do provide a way that I can step away from the stressful nature of life nowadays. I’ve hiked more miles than I can count throughout my life, and I continue to experience peace while among the trees, rocks, moss and dirt. Breathing deep as I take in the scenery, forgetting about topics that bother me. The forest washes away the taxes that need to get done or the daily politics. For the moments that I’m on trail, I can be free from the stresses that life brings. Often in past, I had felt like I was running away while I took myself to the trail, but now I think of it as a break. Taking the term “a breath of fresh air” literally.
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Walking farther along the trail, I find myself mindlessly kicking sticks off the path. I stop to pick up a wrapper someone has dropped and stuff it in my pocket. I walk trails to clear my mind, but that doesn’t mean I am completely unaware or out of it. The trail provides a certain kind of therapy—for that I am thankful. It’s difficult to verbally thank a trail for the help that it selflessly gives. In return, my goal is to help preserve and clean the trail. Keep it accessible and pleasant for everyone to experience while giving the trail all the respect it deserves as well.
Trail stewardship has yet to be squished down into one definition, probably because reducing the idea of trail stewardship to one thing is impossible. The types of care for trails can range from simply identifying maintenance needs to physically cutting back branches that have fallen onto the path. Sometimes trail maintenance can be extremely demanding on a person, but other times, it can be as simple as kicking a few twigs out of the way to keep the surface clear. While I was attempting my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail in 2018, minor stewardship activities became second nature to me. The trail was my home. I wanted to keep it as tidy as possible, even if I wasn’t going to walk through that same spot again.
While volunteering out in Utah doing maintenance in Dinosaur National Monument, I helped moved several fallen and broken cottonwood trees from the well-carved trails. Some of these were essential to move, not only for the trail preservation but for the needs of wildlife that used the same trails to move up and down the steep canyon walls. There are plenty of volunteer programs throughout the United States. If there’s a trail on public lands, there is probably a conservancy or program that helps maintain it. There are also national groups such as Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, which is dedicated to connecting more people with trails, connecting trails with the resources they need to thrive, and connecting more trails across the country. There are plenty of ways to help beyond being physically involved, as well. Donating money is an essential part of ensuring that volunteers have the resources they need for trail maintenance. Sharing your story and speaking up to advocate for trails can make a big difference too.
Trail stewardship is not only a way to bring more integrity into your life but also a way to meet like-minded people, a way to build community. Doing the right thing feels good, but doing the right thing with others, as a team, can feel great. If you feel so inclined, you can also help organize different cleanups for trails too! Putting together a trail cleanup can be super fun and an opportunity to get involved. When I was living in my hometown, a few of my college friends decided to take a few trash bags up one of our favorite mountains. We spent all day walking up the mountain and filling our bags with different kinds of garbage that had been left on the trail. Becoming a steward of the trail can be as easy as taking a hike with intentions to clean the place you’re hiking.
My walk through this small part of West Virginia isn’t crowded, but there’s an air of community as everyone passes by one another. The trail had a few different scenic features to enjoy. The sky was exposed for most of my outing, and it made for a terrific walk in the sunlight. There was a river and a small waterfall to experience as well. All of this is just part of the experience on trail, the relaxation and the community.
As we move forward as a society and continue to use our trail systems for different reasons, we want to be able to uplift our conservancies and trail managers and support them as well! As mentioned, volunteering is a great way to give back! If you’re considering trail stewardship, you should reach out to your local trail-managing organization and see what events they might have coming up! You never know what kind of rewarding experience you might have.