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Harpers Ferry, W. Va
Historic buildings in Harpers Ferry, W.Va.
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James Madison University
Wilson Hall, on the campus of James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va.
You've heard of trail magic? Those little acts of kindness that happen along the AT, gifts left behind from nameless givers.
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy has compiled a list of Appalachian Trail communities – towns with a little extra trail magic, maybe – towns that welcome the trail and the hikers alike.
Those towns include 10 communities in the Blue Ridge region:
Hot Springs, N.C.
Unicoi County, Tenn.
Harpers Ferry/Bolivar, W.Va.
Towns out of the Blue Ridge region are Great Barrington, N.H.; Boiling Springs, Pa. and Norwich, Vt. (Our print article in July/August missed one of 2009's additions, Franklin, N.C. and two 2011 additions: Bolivar/Harpers Ferry and Harrisonburg.) Following is an e-interview with Julie Judkins, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy's community program manager, about the trail and about the program.
Could you tell me about your own Appalachian Trail experience thus far – how much have you hiked over how long, which of these towns have you spent enough time in to know them well yourself, as a hiker?
I’ve been hiking since I came to summer camp in western North Carolina at age 12, where we frequented Rattlesnake Mountain in Montreat. I have continued to hike over the last 20-plus years in the U.S. and abroad, from the John Muir Trail in California and the Wind River Range in Wyoming to places I always come home to near the Appalachian Trail. I’ve hiked most of the A.T. in North Carolina and Tennessee, volunteer with the Carolina Mountain Club maintaining a section of the Mountains to Sea Trail near Rattlesnake Lodge, and maintain a section of the A.T. I am a new mom (15 months new) and enjoy taking my son to experience hiking and the A.T.
One of my favorite hikes in the springtime is from the grassy bald of Max Patch to Hot Springs, N.C. The troutlilies, trilliums and spring beauties all cover the landscape as you hike the 22 miles to Hot Springs – the first town you hike through along the A.T. if you’ve started a northbound thru-hike from the trail’s terminus at Springer Mountain. Hot Springs is also a great place to visit for a weekend. Being surrounded by the Pisgah and Cherokee national forests and close to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there are dozens of day hikes including a great loop hike along the French Broad River that quickly ascends up a rocky outcrop with a view back over town, called Lover’s Leap. If you’ve got all weekend, you can take advantage of the river and paddle down in a canoe, white water raft or rent an inflatable kayak and just float with your family. A perfect way to end the day is a soak in the Hot Springs Spa tubs that sit right along the river in private partitioned areas, and a delicious dinner over looking the mountains at the Mountain Magnolia Inn.
What was the original impetus behind creating the communities program?
For over 85 years, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), along with its federation of volunteers and federal partners, has been working to build the footpath and protect a contiguous greenway that we all know and love as the Appalachian Trail. In 2003, those same partners (along with many of ATC’s membership base) all met to discuss the state of the A.T. and the ongoing focus of the ATC. The outcome of the meeting was that the strategic direction needed to broaden by continuing its focus on the treadway and greenway while adding to the scope by reaching out to the next generation of users and deepening the Trail’s roots in adjacent trailside communities.
Back in 1921, Benton MacKaye wrote of his vision of a walking trail along the Appalachian mountains that inspired hundreds of volunteers to pick up tools and make that dream a reality. MacKaye also understood the Appalachian Trail experience could expand beyond just a walk in the woods. Hikers’ excursions into nearby communities to rest, wash and replenish is as memorable as the journey, along the path itself. For decades, hikers and volunteers have been welcomed and supported in trailside communities. In recognition of the central role these locales play in the A.T. experience, ATC’s new Appalachian Trail CommunityTM designation program was launched as a collaboration to promote the relationship that exists between the A.T. and trail communities.
The program is intended to enable towns to be a part of something bigger – a network of communities that recognize the Trail as an important asset that they can use to promote their unique qualities to folks in their own towns, counties and country as well as those around the world. Both the Trail and the communities leverage each other for promotion and protection. The program encourages and supports designated communities to help us protect the Trail, its surrounding lands and the experience that make it a national treasure and international icon. The benefits to the A.T. and the community are the symbiotic well-being of both.
What is the criteria/process?
An Appalachian Trail community becomes part of ATC’s program by working with the local A.T. club, ATC Regional Partnership Committee (a regional management committee for the Trail that has final approval of the application) and regional ATC staff to complete an application. Currently, ATC limits entrance into the program to match volunteer and staff capacity; as experience and support for the program grow we expect greater expansion and benefits to grow.
Applicant communities (which may be villages, towns, or counties) must focus on at least two of these four criteria to be considered:
• Form an active Appalachian Trail Community Steering Committee
• Host an annual A.T. related event or service project (projects or events may include promoting or sponsoring a volunteer workshop/workday, assuring information about the Appalachian Trail and the ATC is available at ongoing community events, etc.)
• Host an A.T. related service-learning program or project
• Language for the protection of the A.T. is included in land-use plans, planning tools, ordinances or guidelines; or there is demonstrated support to amend, change or add such plans.
Once the application is accepted ATC works with the community to celebrate the designation by providing program materials (e.g. signs) and announcement of the new partnership via proclamation.
Can you describe the nature of your day-to-day work on this program?
When a community calls me with interest of becoming designated, I work with them to provide appropriate contacts to our local volunteers as well as provide information for them to share with the local leadership, organizations, schools and other appropriate folks to get involved. The first step for communities is to gain broad support for moving forward with the application process, and we work with them closely to support this by doing presentations or providing presentation materials, contacting local land managers and businesses as well as providing recommendations for the advisory committee make-up. Many towns and/or counties work to get a resolution passed by their local councils or aldermen. The application process is a way for ATC to work in a flexible way with each community, by seeing what ways they would like to partner with us -- from conservation tools to raising awareness of the A.T. for sustainable tourism initiatives. The A.T. Advisory Committee that is developed during the application process is a way for us to have ongoing communication with the community, and work with them on their initiatives such as A.T. events, comprehensive planning, mitigating Trail threats or providing information and signage for local chambers and tourism bureaus. I also work very closely with our Trail to Every Classroom (TTEC) program, a year-long professional development program for K-12 teachers that focuses on place-based service learning and using the Trail as an outdoor classroom. Teachers in our designated communities receive priority in the competitive application process, and we work with teachers and schools to bring students out the A.T. for service and adventure.
Could you tell me about the towns in the program you have had personal experience with? How have YOU seen them to be friendly, specifically and individually?
Hot Springs, N.C., for instance, adopted a comprehensive plan that includes the A.T. as a community resource and asset; teachers in Hot Springs are implementing TTEC curriculum in which students have adopted a section of the Trail and written and published an Appalachian Trail ABC book; construction of a visitors center began that will house community information on town history, recreational opportunities and services for Trail visitors; and the annual Trailfest had its 15 annual celebration for A.T. hikers this year, providing a yummy all-you-can-åeat spaghetti dinner, free white-water rafting and trash clean-up along the French Broad River, ice cream eating contest, etc. The Sunnybank Inn (a.k.a. "Elmer’s"), caters to hikers, hires hikers and enables those who fall in love with the town during their hike an opportunity to come back and live. Elmer’s hostel is a great example of the full "trail town" experience, and allows you to stay in a cultural heirloom – a Victorian home built in the 1840s, once owned by the Gentry family, and right on the A.T. on "main street."
I’ve had magical experiences there myself, camping in town, working with volunteers to remove exotic-invasive plants along the special riparian corridor and then going for a soak at the Hot Springs Spa.
Franklin, N.C. shows their support to A.T. hikers and has shuttle service from the highway crossing down into town. They have partnered to promote and expand their April Fool’s Trail Days festival; incorporated the A.T. blaze in their town logo; formed an A.T. committee made up of town leaders to move forward with promotion, education and outreach goals.
These communities are joining our journey in protecting the A.T. for generations to come; let’s continue to join them before, during, and after our hikes -- following Hot Springs’ motto: “take your boots off and stay a while.”