Trail Bosses

Ridgerunners learn their patch of the Appalachian Trail like the back of their hand - keeping track of trash, fallen trees and eccentrics.

July 12, 2000|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

They sit in the back room of a farmhouse in the woods, the veterans alongside the rookies. Soon enough they'll be walking the beat, gearing up for the long, hot summer. But first, a briefing on current conditions:

"We've got a guy coming south out of Massachusetts," says the briefer. "He's going into shelters and talking about Armageddon and the end of the world. It scares some people. Before long he's going to run into a northbounder who is camouflagued and traumatized by the gulf war."

"I've seen him," somebody says. "Says he's Special Forces, an explosives expert. Calls himself `Rainbow 6.' "

"Fortyish?" asks another. "Talks a mile a minute?"

"Yeah. That's him."

More news follows: Multiple sightings in Pennsylvania of "The Naked Warrior," wearing only boots and a backpack. Reports of a deaf guy named Robert, who cons his way into homes then becomes an extended houseguest. An update on the Buff Chef, who invites the unsuspecting for a hot meal, then disrobes, saying he always cooks in the nude.

Judging from the roll call of characters and cranks, this might be a police precinct house at shift change. Look around, however, and mostly what you see are young guys in shorts and T-shirts, hiking boots and bandanas, a lean crew of the hale and hearty armed only with wit, tact and strong legs trained to run quickly out of harm's way.

It is a gathering of about 19 "ridgerunners," who every summer serve as a sort of Neighborhood Watch for the Appalachian Trail, the fabled mountain footpath stretching from Maine to Florida. The briefing comes courtesy of Robert Gray, the trail's only National Park Service ranger, and it's part of a training session in May for the ridgerunnners of the mid-Atlantic states.

From Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day, they and some 30 others to the north and south are on patrol, rain or shine, serving alternately as the trail's constables, pathfinders, mediators, naturalists and garbage collectors. Their public: a mobile community of hikers and campers, which in the course of a sunny Saturday can reach a population of 25,000, strung out beneath the trees for 2,158 miles.

It is not a job for those inclined toward air conditioning, hot showers and videos on demand. But if you enjoy long, strenuous walks in the woods well enough to endure clouds of bugs and three-day downpours, ridgerunning might be your idea of a perfect summer job.

As for danger, one shouldn't get the wrong idea from Gray's briefing. There are plenty of eccentric characters out there, all right, but a single night of clerking in a Baltimore convenience store is probably more hazardous than a summer on the trail. The most worrisome critters a ridgerunner usually encounters are deer ticks carrying Lyme disease and field mice infesting the trail's 262 open-air shelters, nightly skittering across sleeping bags and gnawing at stashes of food. Throw in the occasional bothersome bear, and a fireside chat with "Rainbow 6" seems quaint by comparison.

One of the first things a ridgerunner needs to know about the Appalachian Trail is its class structure, much in the way that a high school principal must stay abreast of the cliques and cabals in the hallways.

First there are the day hikers - people who generally pack little more than lunch and a bottle of water. Stay any longer and you're an overnighter, a nice enough bunch that includes Cub Scout packs and church groups. These first two groups represent the trail's proletarian masses, largely pleasant and well-behaved. But among the overnighters is an invasive element - party-hearty types who gather on weekends near trail junctions with local highways. This sort thinks nothing of lugging a case of beer several miles up a steep and rocky path, but would never consider hauling the empties back down the mountain. Noisy, trashy and sometimes aggressive, they are best approached in early morning, when their excesses of the previous night tend to make them docile and eager to please.

Section hikers are the next rung up, spending days or weeks at a time on the trail. But the ruling elite - and the trail's most interesting bunch - is made up of 1,500 or so thru-hikers, people attempting to walk the entire trail.

It is a rolling society of the footsore and the fetid, fueled by instant oatmeal and Ramen noodles, and traveling under aliases, or "trail names." The frivilous and the unprepared are weeded from the field with Darwinian severity, hitchhiking home in early May from North Carolina and Georgia, leaving excess clothes and food in their wake. Only a few hundred succeed each year, and most take about five months to finish.

Some have an agenda of personal healing or discovery - the emotionally wounded walking a comeback trail. Others seek a spiritual path to enlightenment. Many keep journals; and whenever they meet they break into trail jargon while comparing notes on blisters and equipment failures.

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