Hiker Havens and Trail Angels: The AT Community Program

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The Waynesboro ATC Advisory Committee consists of about a dozen stakeholders, including (from left to right) Liza Peltola, Volunteer Coordinator; Courtney Cranor, Assistant Director of Economic Development and Tourism; and Stephanie Duffy, Administrative Assistant. Photo: Clover Carroll.

The Appalachian Trail (AT)—which opened in August, 1937, and became America’s first national scenic trail in 1968—stretches approximately 2,200 miles from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in northern Maine, within a protected 250,000-acre greenway. 554 of these miles traverse Virginia—from Damascus in the south to Front Royal in the north—crossing both the Blue Ridge Parkway (in the George Washington National Forest) and the Skyline Drive (in Shenandoah National Park) multiple times.

“Every year between early March and late April, about 2,000 hikers set off … most of them intending to go all the way to Katahdin,” reported Bill Bryson in his 1998 best seller, A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail. “No more than 10 percent actually make it. Half don’t make it past central Virginia, less than a third of the way…. As many as 20 percent drop out the first week.” By 2017, this number had doubled to over 4,000; the Appalachian Trail Conservancy reports that only 1 in 4 of these complete the trek. 

“Thru-hikers” [sic] are a special group, who follow the white blazes over mountains, through pristine forest glades, and beside spectacular views to complete the longest hiking-only trail in the world in one season. Section hikers, by contrast, may take several years to complete the trek piece by piece. Harpers Ferry, West Virginia—the halfway point at mile 863—houses the headquarters of the AT Conservancy and the official AT Visitors Center. Thirty-one member volunteer clubs help to maintain and map the trail and its shelters; the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC) has a Charlottesville chapter, which hosts hikes every Saturday. Forty towns and cities along the trail, including 16 in Virginia—have successfully applied to the AT Conservancy to become designated Appalachian Trail Communities (www.appalachiantrail.org). 

Pat Groot, consultant with the Downtown Crozet Initiative, explored the idea of Crozet’s becoming an Appalachian Trail Community in their Virginia Main Street grant application. Photo: Thomas Lucas.

“While Waynesboro is also an AT Community, there aren’t many others on the east side of the mountains,” explained Pat Groot of Groot Consulting and Grant Services, who is working with the Downtown Crozet Initiative (DCI) to explore the possibility of Crozet’s becoming a designated Appalachian Trail Community. Although farther from the AT than Waynesboro, Crozet might be more convenient for travel connections through Charlottesville or Richmond. Groot included the AT Community possibility in the grant application to the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, which has designated Crozet as a DHCD Commercial District Affiliate under its Main Street Program.

With Albemarle County acting as fiscal agent while the DCI’s status as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit is pending, DCI was awarded the Virginia Main Street 2018 Commercial District Affiliate grant in the amount of $7,000 in January of 2018. The funds are being used to develop a strategic plan to advance DCI’s goal of “Growing the Heart of Crozet”—which includes, but is not limited to, building the plaza on the former Barnes Lumber Property, to include a hotel. 

I met three hikers lounging at picnic tables under the pavilion in Waynesboro’s free, thru-hiker campground, each barefoot or wearing flip-flops, their damp clothes and sleeping bags hanging on the clothesline behind them. When I reached to shake hands, they gave me a fist bump instead. “This is the hiker’s handshake,” they laughed, “because we’re so dirty.” Chris “Yeh Yeh” and his son Jeremy “Goober” had flown all the way from Australia to hike the AT, and had joined forces with Matt “Rainbow” from Delaware. All AT thru-hikers have nicknames, they explained, based on a personal trait or something they do—a sign of membership in an elite family. One earned the nickname “New Year” because he started in January (brrr!). “The Appalachian Trail is known world-wide,” Chris explained. “It’s the most hiked trail in the world. And it’s a great way to see America.” Averaging 15 miles a day and carrying 30-40-lb. packs, they stop every 4-5 days—often at designated, “hiker friendly” Appalachian Trail Communities like Waynesboro—to rest, resupply, do laundry, and enjoy a hot meal. “We started in Georgia on April 20, and plan to reach Maine by mid-September,” Chris said—before their 6-month visas expire.

The AT Community application process includes specific requirements that must be met in order to qualify for this designation. At least two of these four criteria for selection are required:

• Community support is evidenced by creation of an advisory committee. Suggested members would be representatives from county or community government, Chamber of Commerce, Visitor’s Bureau, business association (DCI and Crozet Board of Trade), local hiking club (CTC and PATC), and the like.

• Hosting of an annual AT volunteer project, event, or celebration 

• Development of AT-related educational or service learning programs or projects, such as school partnerships, field trips, or guest speakers

• Language for the protection of the AT is included in land-use plans, planning tools, ordinances, or guidelines to promote stewardship of the AT.

“Our three-pronged strategy for revitalizing downtown Crozet is to bring more family-friendly businesses and events to the area, to encourage tourism, and to create a healthy entrepreneurial ecosystem,” Groot explained. “Once we learn what the AT Community designation requires, then we will connect with businesses to see if they are interested in providing the services hikers need,” Groot said. The DCI was incorporated in September 2017 with the mission “to foster a high quality of life in Downtown Crozet by securing resources to ensure that future downtown redevelopment preserves the best of the original character while serving the needs of a growing population.” (www.downtowncrozetinitiative.com). 

Rockfish Gap Outfitters celebrates AT ‘thru-hikers’ who actually complete the trail in one season— only about 1 in 4 who try—on its photo wall. Photo: Clover Carroll.

“The partnership becomes a symbiotic relationship; you only get back as much as you’re willing to put in,” observed Joe Abbate, a member of the Crozet Trails Crew (CTC), which may collaborate with the DCI to make this dream a reality. “We would need to partner with the PATC to develop signage and publicity to guide hikers to Crozet (www.patc.net). It would boost our socio-economic development. Recognition on the AT Conservancy web page would throw a spotlight on Crozet as a recreation destination.” CTC President Terri Miyamoto initiated this research as part of the group’s efforts to engage the community in using and expanding greenways. “Afton is a major crossroads,” she pointed out, “with the AT, Skyline Drive, Blue Ridge Parkway, and U.S. Bicycle Route 76 (which runs 560 miles from Missouri to Yorktown) all intersecting here.” “The CTC couldn’t take this on alone,” Abbate concluded, “but we can contribute.”

Waynesboro provides an outstanding model of how to become a successful AT Community. Since 2012, they have become a hiker haven that offers everything a hiker might need, from free showers at the YMCA, to a free campground operated by Parks & Rec (for thru-hikers only, with a maximum 3-day stay), to free wifi at the library. Their comprehensive Welcome Guide for AT Hikers is a double-sided, 14-inch handout that is jam-packed with information. It includes a list of all services, businesses, and events available in Waynesboro with addresses, phone numbers, and a map showing numbered locations of key services such as the YMCA, hiker campground, hostels, Post Office, restaurants, and public library. This handout is available online, at the Rockfish Gap Tourist Info Center just off the AT, at Rockfish Gap Outfitters, and in all trail angel cars. A separate sheet lists the 15+ volunteer “trail angels.” Hikers can call a trail angel, either from their cell phones or from the info center, to shuttle them to town and back. Some angels even park at the info center and intercept hikers as they arrive. At the tourist info center—also funded by the Waynesboro Economic Development and Tourism office—section hikers can register to park for the day.

“The program is established and well supported throughout the community,” said Courtney Cranor, Assistant Director of Economic Development and Tourism. “They come to recuperate, stock up on food, wash, get their shoes repaired, and pick up medicine or packages they have sent here,” she explained. Hikers enjoy the B-Z laundromat, Graham’s Shoe Service, and the Valley Mission Thrift Store. Grace Lutheran Church offers a free hiker hostel during the peak season, and Stanimal’s Hostel and Shuttle Service is also popular. There is a CATS bus that circulates through town Monday through Friday for only 50 cents, with stops at the campground, Kroger, Wal-Mart, and the library, among others.

“We really, really appreciate the free campground and showers,” said Chris from Australia. “Waynesboro is very hiker friendly.” They love Weasie’s Kitchen and the all-you-can-eat buffet at Ming Garden, which features seven tables of delicious choices. “I ate four plates!” grinned Matt from Delaware. As I entered the restaurant, hikers from Minnesota, New Mexico, and North Carolina were just leaving. Rockfish Gap Outfitters, right at the bottom of the mountain, sells needed gear, trail-related guide books and maps, and offers assistance with foot pain and expert pack-fitting. 

“Besides offering free showers to thru-hikers, we manage the check-in for the campground,” said YMCA Executive Director Jeff Fife. “We give them a pink tag to designate they have permission to camp there. We have a designated, safe space for their backpacks between the back doors while they shower.” The Waynesboro Post Office has a special table, out of sight of other customers, where they can park those backpacks—which take up some space! Both the post office staff and the tourist center volunteer said they typically see 10-15 hikers a day from all over the world, including Germany, Canada, and the Netherlands, during the summer season. “We had a guy from Japan stop in here this morning,” declared Duffy. 

The Waynesboro AT Advisory Committee, which meets twice a year, has about a dozen members, including Cranor, Duffy, Fife, Volunteer Coordinator Liza Peltola, Volunteer Liaison Amy Allamong, Stephanie Seltzer of the Department of Parks & Recreation, a couple of trail angels, the regional PATC chapter, and business representatives. The trail angels held a Hiker Fest June 9 to welcome any hikers who happened to be in town and treat them to dinner and a movie at the Zeus Digital Theater. “Lots of trail magic happens without our even knowing,” added Duffy. “Sometimes people put coolers up there full of popsicles & ice cream.” Clearly, Waynesboro citizens view hikers as an addition to the community and treat them with care and consideration. “There is no downside,” said Cranor.

Admittedly, Crozet is farther from the AT than Waynesboro—8 miles as opposed to 4—but by car this is only a matter of 10 minutes. There is a shorter route to the AT via Old Jarmans Gap Rd (which bears right where Jarmans Gap becomes Greenwood Rd), but few volunteers will want to drive the 4-5 miles up a narrow, rutted gravel road, made worse by the ravages of recent flooding rains (I tried and gave up after 3 miles). 

Is Crozet ready to commit to serving hikers in this way? “We want Crozet to be a place not only to work and to live, but also to play,” said Groot. Welcoming AT hikers into our community is my idea of fun!  

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