Hiking the Appalachian Trail is an incredible experience. One of the positive aspects of the journey is the excellent marking of the trail. The AT is always marked with the white blaze – a 3×6 inch rectangle – painted on trees, fence posts, and rocks. There are approximately 165,000 blazes marking the trail and keeping the hiker on the correct route. The trail is so well marked that I did not take a map. I carried an AT Guidebook that indicated water sources, shelters, camp sites, towns and elevation changes, but I did not need a map because of the superb marking of the path.
So who oversees all the painting on the trail? It’s the same people who maintain the trail itself with clearing blow-downs, controlling sections overgrown with grasses/weeds, and addressing issues of erosion and deterioration of the path. Although there is an Appalachian Trail Conservancy located in Harpers Ferry, WV, the vast majority of the trail upkeep and improvements are conducted by thirty-one maintenance clubs that serve the AT. These amazing clubs are responsible for painting blazes, excavating damaged areas, rerouting for repairs, shelter maintenance, and general care of the path.
All of these maintenance clubs are run by volunteers. According to the AT Conservancy during 2014, people contributed 241,936 hours in volunteer service to keep the trail open and looking beautiful. That is the equivalent of 30,242 work days (eight hour days) or over 6,048 forty-hour weeks. It would take one individual more than 116 years working 40 hours each week without a vacation to accomplish this much volunteer time.
In reality those 241,936 hours were accomplished with 5617 volunteers. That means that each person averaged over forty-three hours of sacrificial service to the hiking community. What an amazing volunteer force that maintains this inspiring trail.
I was able to meet several groups of volunteers on my hike. I always stopped and visited awhile, thanking them for their ministry to me personally. I talked with a painting crew of two retired ladies renewing the paint to shiny white in Virginia. There was a rather large group of a dozen volunteers excavating a small section of the trail in Vermont by establishing large stepping stones to help in the descent of a very steep incline. I had a quick conversation with an older gentleman and his wife who were trimming part of the trail with chain saws. They were concerned about the next generation and the lack of younger volunteers to take their place.
I passed a volunteer in Pennsylvania using an axe to clear a fallen tree (blow-down). I thanked him for his work and he shared that he was not a member of a club, but just a former thru-hiker who lived nearby who knew that trail would be impacted from the storm the night before. I hiked through Massachusetts with a doctor from Boston who had adopted a particular section of the trail and personally managed his segment with pride and precision. I regularly found this spirit of giving and love for the hiking community.