Digging a volunteer weekend

We stood in a circle, this group mostly in our 50s, 60s and 70s, but I couldn’t help feeling like I was 8 again, shuffling nervously in a schoolyard playground. Our team leaders were choosing work crews, but it had the unmistakable feel of picking teams for a pickup football game.

“Do you want to take Steve?” John Lanman asked.

“I don’t want Steve,” Bruce Wisely replied.

Fortunately, Steve didn’t have the fragile ego of an grade schooler accustomed to being picked behind his kid sister. And Bruce’s rejection wasn’t about Steve’s ability; rather, he realized Steve’s expertise could better be used on another project. What Bruce needed was people who could carry stuff, which is how I wound up on his team.

About 60 of us had shown up Saturday morning in a light drizzle that would escalate to a steady rain before day’s end. We stood huddled at the Thunder Hill Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway near Boone, eager to help complete a 5-mile stretch of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail that would establish a 300-mile segment of the 1,000-mile trail-in-progress between Soco Gap and Stone Mountain State Park. The MST, which is over half finished, will one day run from 6,643-foot Clingman’s Dome on the North Carolina/Tennessee border to Jockey’s Ridge on the coast. It’s being built by volunteers operating as the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. And not just a handful of volunteers pitching in here and there: In 2010, more than 1,000 volunteers put in 18,295 hours on the MST.

Mostly, the trail is cobbled together on Saturday afternoons when local volunteers gather to clear a mile-or-two stretch of trail, install steps, build a bridge — whatever needs to be done to forge a hiking trail. Every once in a while, when there’s a group of projects to be tackled on a consolidated stretch of trail, the FMST holds a work weekend, issuing a statewide call for volunteers. This past weekend the call attracted 60 volunteers, from Asheville to Morehead City. It seemed the perfect opportunity to answer a question I’d had for some time:

What kind of people give up an average of 2.3 days a year for back-breaking trail work?

* * *

John Willis, recently of Hillsborough via Indiana, camped next to me in the Price Lake campground, his Mini-Wini next to my REI two-person half dome tent. Friday evening a group of us were chatting about the area’s dense, rhododendron-dominated foliage when someone made a comparison to the Amazon.

“I’ve been to the Amazon a couple times,” John said.

I don’t often run into people who’ve been to the most inhospitable places on Earth, and having just read “River of Doubt” I was all over John, like malarial mosquitoes on Teddy Roosevelt, with questions. Turns out he’d taken a paddle boat — “about the size of the African Queen” — up river a ways, then gone up a tributary to a town of 65, maybe 70,000 people. The town was isolated; the only way to get there was by boat, yet it had electricity, roads, nice restaurants. He spoke of the adventure from six years ago with the same enthusiasm and awe as if he’d returned last week.

Likewise when he mentioned having been to the top spot on my list of exotic destinations:  Machu Picchu.

* * *

Around a campfire Saturday evening Allen de Hart, the godfather of the MST, introduced me to Steve Joines, an FMST board member from Sparta and avid backpacker. Joines had spent a cold (0 degrees one night), snowy (chest-high drifts) and wet (a washed-out bridge forced him to cross a frigid creek in his bare feet) week backpacking the Smokies this past winter. A year earlier he’d gotten altitude sickness on a trip up California’s Mount Whitney and had to be evacuated by helicopter. That wasn’t the remarkable part of his story.

“Do you do a lot of day hikes?” I asked. Surely he must to stay in shape for his weeklong backpack trips.

Hardly ever, he replied. Joines has worked for the same company for 28 years (remarkable!), a factory (even more remarkable!). His shift starts at 7 a.m., so at 5:30 he’s at the gym doing some kind of cardio workout.

“But not on weekends,” he clarified. “I don’t get up at 5 on weekends.” On weekends, he either runs 6 or 7 miles, or does a 28-mile bike ride — on an elderly mountain bike. That’s before heading off to work a second job he’s held for years, tending cattle. Small sacrifice to support his passion.

“I’m not sure what I’d do if I didn’t have my hiking trips to look forward to,” he said.

* * *

On a day when others were bundled in fleece and rain gear, Bruce Wisely appeared content in a T-shirt.

“Aren’t you cold?” I finally asked.

He flashed a smile that came easy. “I work in a cold room,” said Wisely, who quickly described his work researching proteins. “I get in trouble for not wearing a lab coat.”

Wisely is the MST’s bridge engineer and was our crew leader for the weekend. Our main mission was to build a pair of 16-foot bridges, which seemed ambitious for eight guys in two days. Ambitious, that is, until I learned that Bruce precuts all the lumber and marks where the pieces go. All we had to do was cart the wood into the forest and assemble.

In 2007, Bruce thru-hiked the MST (23 people have done so to date, one, Scot Ward, has done so four times). He did the trip self-supported and stayed in his vehicle, which meant he had to set up his own shuttle — on a used $25 bike he picked up on eBay shortly before the trip.

“One night about 4 a.m. I was flying down the Parkway, going about 40,” he told us during a break. “It was pitch black — I had a little headlight on the handlebar, of course — when a deer ran in front of my bike. I mean right in front. I think there’s still some deer hair in my front tire.”

* * *

I also met: James from Newton-near-Hickory who discretely pulled an insulin pump from his pocket for a periodic check. (As he downplayed the delicate dietetic balance he had to monitor I thought of how I mindlessly consume whatever’s handy for fuel.) There was Charles from Asheville who volunteered to take our soggy, muddy crew to-and-from our worksite in his pristine Hyundai. There was Grace, one of our senior members, who spent Saturday retrieving rock and sand from Goshen Creek and, late that evening, was practically sitting in the campfire still trying to get warm. There was 20something Anthony from Clayton who endured the wet cold in shorts, T-shirt and sneakers. There was Steven from Clemmons who led us to a hermit’s cave covered with brush just off the trail. There was the aforementioned John Lanman, a retired attorney specializing in international law. There was a guy in dreadlocks driving a 1970s VW van, there were guys driving shiny new extended cab dualie pickups with throaty diesel engines.

In short, there were more stories than there were people, which made a wet and cold weekend of hauling heavy lumber and trying to get stout tree roots to accommodate our bridges go by in a flash.

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