This week, the Assistant Crew Leader, Katie, headed to the beach instead of the mountains, and took a well-deserved break. Logan, a long-time trail maintainer and three-time S.W.E.A.T Crew survivor stepped in as Assistant Crew Leader. And I stepped in to tell you guys how we did without her:
The volunteers trickled in Monday afternoon. First Bo, a lover of mountains and challenges, arrived at Soak Ash just in time to be put to work replacing a door knob. Then came Julien, a man with many tales of his travels and a love of Kung Fu Panda. Next was Isaac, a firefighter on a hotshot crew looking to enjoy the peace of the backcountry. Emma and Ariella, crew alumni and dynamic duo from the same college, drove up together. Lastly came Devin, an Air Force Academy cadet, who was spending the first bit of her three week summer break here before flying out to China.
We all passed Crew Fit with flying colors, and proceeded on to the true challenge: staying awake during the orientation meeting (joking... mostly). We succeeded. As our meeting came to a close, , the Camp Coordinator, had dinner ready: coconut curry chicken, "vegetable bean stuff", rice, cornbread, garlic bread, and salad. It was delicious, so naturally we all ate way too much; and that was before we had ice cream and cookies for dessert.
With an 11-mile hike to get underway, we had breakfast at 7:00. prepared yet another meal fit for royalty, and we hit the road a little after 8:00. Forty-five minutes later, we arrived at our trail head: Newfound Gap. The first 3 miles of our hike were accompanied by , Javier (Trail Facilities Manager), and Don (Smoky Mountain Hiking Club member), who were hiking mulch up to a privy. About 5 miles in, we stopped at Charlie's Bunion, a breathtaking scenic view. After a quick photo-op, we were back on the trail. We took our time, stopped at more beautiful vistas, and made it to our campsite at around 5:30. This week, we had unique accommodations: .3 miles from Peck's Shelter, the National Parks Service has a cabin to which we were granted access. Inside, we found backcountry luxuries such as foldable chairs, a card table, and screened windows that kept out the gnats. For dinner, we had coconut curry lentils, which was given the crew's stamp of approval. Full and sleepy, we all made for our sleeping bags. Devin was lured by the creature comforts of the cabin and chose to sleep in one of the bunks instead of her tent. The rest of us slept in the field surrounding the cabin. Logan, whose tent is a tarp and well-placed trekking pole, spent all night battling daddy long-leg spiders and other things that love to lurk in tall grass. He characterized his night as "EPIC".
First work day! When working on a trail crew, you find yourself caring about three main things: how much work you've done/still have to do, what the weather is going to be like, and what is for dinner. So that is what I can tell you about. With six miles worth of maintenance awaiting us, we stretched, donned our Personal Protection Equipment, and started working our way out from camp. Logan, Julien, Isaac, and myself were set to digging while Davis, Devin, Ariella, Emma, Bo, and Isaac took on brushing. There weren't too many water bars to clear, so digging crew took more of a "hike with tools". Digging crew did about 3.5 miles of work by the end of the day, and brushing did about 2.5. We were treated to full sunshine that made us appreciate the shade of the forest. During the day, Steve, the Smoky Mountain Club member who is responsible for the section of trail we were on, hiked up to help us. It was immediately obvious how much Steve loved the Smokies, and it gave us all fresh eyes for the beauty of this remote section of the Appalachian Trail. Dinner was Chili Mac. We found that if you "forget" to add the dehydrated vegetables, the meals taste even better. We still added a few to feel less guilty. Isaac established himself as the "Mary Poppins" of the crew: not only did he bring banana chips, hot sauce, and spices, but he generously shared with the rest of us. After dinner, we all sat in our fancy folding chairs and enjoyed each other's company until the sun went down. Logan, not excited to spend another night with the creepy-crawlies, used Devin's tent and got some well-deserved beauty sleep.
The low-mileage first work day gave us all a chance to recover from the hike in. So for our second work day, we hiked to the outer extremity of our section— Dry Sluice Gap at 6 miles out. In between hiking out and back, we only had about 3 ½ hours to work. But, we managed to clear all but nine water bars, and brush all but about a mile and a half of our section. We once again were treated to full sunshine (and very sweaty shirts). Burritos were made for dinner, which was ranked the best meal of the trip. Ariella discovered her love for Sriracha. Talking with each other until sundown by now had become a kind of unspoken tradition. Bo and Steve both proved themselves avid story-tellers. They are both veterans, and Devin and Logan are currently serving, so the rest of us learned a lot about life in the military. Turns out, all branches get into very similar shenanigans.
With only 1.5 miles of our section left to do, we were done by lunchtime. In fact, Logan, Ariella, Emma, Steve, and Devin seized the opportunity to do a celebratory photoshoot— if there isn't a trail volunteer calendar yet, there should be! Now it was time to move on to "bonus" work. We hiked back, and cleared the .7 mile trail from the AT to our camp along the way. With the little bit of time we had left, we sharpened and prepared our tools for the last work day. Weather was, once again, sunny. But there was distant thunder in the afternoon, and it rained for a collective 30 seconds. Dinner was pesto alfredo pasta, my personal favorite. Again, we sat down for our daily wait-for-the-sun-to-go-down conversation. We kept finding ourselves asking questions that, in the front country, we would simply Google the answer to. Since no one had service, we chose instead to designate a "Google person" to give us an answer. Whatever they said was fact.
Steve had to pack up and leave in the morning—he said something about being an adult with responsibilities. With all of our work done, we moved on to working in the opposite direction from camp, doing what the next session's S.W.E.A.T. crew is assigned. Ariella, Emma, Devin, and I grabbed loppers and declared ourselves "The ' Four". As we expertly cleared branches, we also showcased our talents as a cover band. Our signature songs were Jolene and the Phineas and title sequence. The trail was already in good condition, so we made it about 2.5 miles before lunch. Afterwards, we went back to camp, and carried 40 pound bags of mulch from the cabin to the privy at Peck's shelter—.3 miles. We spent the rest of our work time cleaning the tools once again, and making sure the cabin was going to be as pristine as we found it. We were down to the last dinner: "Thanksgiving". It consists of mashed potatoes, rehydrated vegetables, gravy, and . Throughout the week, Thanksgiving had earned a reputation as the meal everyone wanted to avoid, so we saved it for last. Well, we all survived. The ' Four decided to make the last night in the field a slumber-party in the cabin. We stayed up until eleven (way past hiker bedtime) playing cards. At one point, Isaac ran in, saying he heard boars. This quickly escalated into a melodramatic man v. wild scenario with Davis, Julien, Isaac, and I walking through the forest with our headlamps. Sure enough, a few hundred feet from camp, there were distinct piggish sounds of snorting and shuffling. We threw some rocks, heard some fleeing hooves, and declared ourselves the victors. Isaac decided to join our slumber party in the safety of the cabin.
Despite all of the excitement of the previous night, we woke up early, broke down camp, stretched, and were on the trail by 7:45. Back at Soak Ash, we knew was preparing lasagna and apple crisp. Such strong motivation made us hike the entire 11 miles back by 12:30. The parking lot at Newfound Gap was a chaotic swarm of tourists and day hikers, so we wasted no time in getting out of there. We made it back to Soak Ash, and all took our long awaited showers. We found ourselves appreciating simple things: good smells, fresh fruit, and cushioned seating. The welcome home dinner lived up to all of our expectations, and once again we collectively ate way too much.
Volunteers trickled out, just as they had come in: Julien and Isaac hit the road to get home in time for work the next day. The rest of us stayed the night. Bo left early in the morning to prepare for a trip to see a friend. Devin caught her flight to Beijing. Ariella and Emma drove back with an essay to write by the end of the day. Davis drove out to help a friend do rockwork. Logan is taking a day to relax before setting out. I am taking a flight back home tomorrow morning after volunteering for four sessions. The ending of each session is always a little bittersweet. You realize how unlikely it is that you'll see any of these people again, people that you've gotten pretty close to in just six days. Corny as it sounds, that’s also the beauty of volunteering. For whatever reason, we all showed up, we all worked together, and we all accomplished something difficult. Our lives all converged for this week, and we did something meaningful with our time. That is a great feeling. And a feeling I am going to miss after getting to experience it for 40 days.