I love the smell of dirt. When I was a teenager I had jobs that were hard, but I enjoyed them more than other jobs I have had since. I used to lay sod, plant trees, and all kinds of landscaping. It has always been a passion of mine to see plant life in its most natural state. One summer I experienced one of the most awesome settings of all, the Appalachian Trail, and it changed my life.
I was a caretaker at this estate in Round Hill, Virginia, with my friend Steve Buzzoine; he got this job for us. We had to prune apple trees, and cut the grass, and do general maintenance on the property for free rent. What a great job we had! A service road ran around one side of the property. Everyday while I was working, this guy would walk down the road towards town. In the evening, I would see him walking back up the road. It made me curious.
I walked up the road one day for a short while, and came upon a man who was building his own house. I asked him if this was the end of the road and he said “no.” Then I asked him what else was up the road and he said, the “Appalachia Trail.” I thanked him for his time and said good-bye. As I continued on my way up the service road I noticed that the dirt road was really hard, the hardest un-paved road I think I had ever walked on and really old too. I saw an antique green Ford pick-up truck along the way; it looked like a forest workers truck. It had a couple of old stickers on the doors that were faded and looked like it was from the late 1930s. It must have belonged to someone because the tires still had air in them and all of the glass was still intact. As I looked beyond the truck, I could just make out an older house up the road. Through the thick woods, I could see moss growing on the roof and on the stones that were the basement walls, I could tell it was the north side because the moss was thick. It had a wrap around porch, and the screen door had an old wooden sign on it that read, “Hikers welcome.” I went on in; it was a step back in time. I could see the service road through the rusty screened in porch at the top of that hill; it smelled like dirt, I love the smell of dirt. I thought at first that the trees had been cut away for the road, but I was wrong, the trees had been cut away for the view, and what a view it was! I could see all the way down the service road to the estate and beyond it to the town below. I wondered if this was where that guy came from each day and what his story was. Reluctantly, I left with questions unanswered and made my way back home. Later that evening I tried to ask Steve what he knew about the house up the hill or the Appalachian Trail but he didn’t know much about it and the conversation died there.
Then I saw him. The guy who walks down off the hill everyday! He was coming back up the hill dressed in his usual flannel shirt, shorts and hiking boots. I assumed that he was making his way back from town. My curiosity came back to life and I could hardly contain myself. So I got in my car and chased him down. I leaned out the car window and asked him if he would like a lift, and he accepted. When we exchanged names, I found out that his name was Zeb short for Zebulon Pike, like the western Explorer. He explained to me that he was the current caretaker of the old house I had visited earlier, the Blackburn Trail center. He told me many interesting things about the Appalachian Trail. That you can hike, from Georgia to Maine. I was amazed, what an incredible journey that would be. My desire to know more and be close to this place only grew stronger that night.
It wasn’t long before I ended up working on the trail with Zeb more than I worked at the estate with Steve. After a while, all I did was trail maintenance. It was a volunteer job, but I loved it. Zeb and I would work around the center, or we would go up or down the trail and clear it of brush and other larger logs and rocks. On the weekends, there were workshops on the trail. Other times we would cook for through hikers when they came down off the main trail and I would run them over to the Shenandoah River to take a bath. Man, everybody always felt better after that. My favorite part though, was getting to talk to the through hikers about their experiences on the trail. I would ask north bounders how the trail was coming up from Georgia, and I would ask the south bounders how the trail was coming down from Maine. I would ask things like how their gear was holding up, and what it really takes to do such a long hike. Things always got quiet around the time the sun went down and the thru hikers were usually gone when I got up in the morning. It seemed most of them had a fire in their hearts to get to Maine before it got too cold.
Five hundred people start this hike every year, but only about 10 percent of those people finish. Still what an incredible hike that has to be. You have to plan a trip like this very carefully. All of the gear you will need for the trip must be carefully assembled and packed into a backpack that you can carry for 15-25 miles a day. It is a good idea to mail yourself care packages about every 10 to 15 days to nearby post offices along the trail. When you get your care packages you repack your backpack with the new stuff and the old stuff that remains, and you are ready for the next ten days or so. If you have too much you mail it ahead so you don’t run out of your supplies. As a hiker, you spend 100 to150 days or more without all the modern things most of us take for granted. Life is different without T.V., phone, or radio. There is no guarantee of a dry bed or indoor shelter; in fact, there are no guarantees where nature is concerned at all. However, most hikers find that sleeping in shelters, tents or tarps out in the wilds of the oldest forests in the United States is its own reward. It can change your life.
My life has led me down many different roads to many different places all over the world since that summer in 1986. However, the fire in my heart for the Appalachian Trail has never left; it is a fire that will not be put out until I have hiked the trail myself. I was going to hike it before I turned 30, then I was going hike it before I turned 40, now I am determined to hike the trail before I turn 50. When life throws me a curve, I just close my eyes and picture that I am standing at the beginning of the Appalachian Trail in Springer Mountain, Georgia, 2,175 miles to go.
Just thought I'd share that hope you enjoy it!