We came. We saw. We built some things. We made the most amazing friends (some of whom may have been salamanders…).
The Tuesday we left for the trail, we were eight strangers: four military veterans, and four non-veterans who were willing to learn a little about what life in the military is like and how veterans view the college experience. Our mission: reroute 300 feet of the Appalachian Trail in order to ensure its sustainability for generations to come. The following Tuesday, eight friends returned to Vermillion with a few battle scars from the trail and enough memories to last a lifetime.
Day 1: The Team Departs for Louisville, Kentucky
0600 hours – We met up on campus, dragging all sorts of camping gear behind us, which somehow fit into the back of our 12-passenger van, “Big Red.” It was a quiet drive, since we were still getting to know each other while wondering what the week was going to be like. Ok…let’s face it, we were a little scared! Moving boulders? Using a pickaxe? Who did we think we were?
Luckily, we were able to bond over an amazing southern meal at Doc Crow’s in downtown Louisville (a first visit to Kentucky for some!). Over plates of fried catfish, hushpuppies, cheesy grits, okra, and a few po’boys, we started to get comfortable as a group.
Day 2: Basecamp Konnarock
After a visit to the Frazier History Museum and a walk through the past filled with miniature soldiers, shiny armor, and more guns than we thought could exist, we once again hit the road. We saw scenery that was quite the opposite of South Dakota: travelers soaked up trees, hilly land, and southern homesteads.
We arrived at base camp in Sugar Grove, Virginia just in time to get settled into our cabins for the night and eat the fixings of the last home-cooked meal (THANKS, JANET!) we would have for a week in the woods. Bobby and Sarah, our Appalachian Trail Crew leaders, gave us a quick safety briefing and things started to become real. Before hitting the hay, we took one last shower, the last before returning the following Monday.
Day 3: Northern Virginia, Tools of the Trade, and Intro to Trail Work
Important Note: In proper trail fashion, all of our participants took on trail names. Although revealing name origins is forbidden, the roster of our names is provided here for your reference (and amusement):
“Family Steve” Roster:
Wes “Oyster-spit” Johnson
Marsha “Trail Mom” Helgerson
Chris “Pancake Mule” Stockdale
Josie “Bowser” Flatgard
Morgan “Tree Book” Appley
Ethan “Hey Baby” Druin
Gretchen “G-Unit” McLaughlin
Alexa “Sparky, the Sleepy Chihuahua ” Kruse
Early wakeup. Breakfast of pancakes, scones, and all the fixin’s. We packed tools, personal protective equipment (PPE), food, water, tents, and everything else we would need for our week of work and camping out. Bobby drove our group two hours deep into northern Virginia to a section of the Appalachian Trail near Natural Bridge State Park. We were to enter the James River Face Wilderness Area, a federally protected wilderness, and therefore, we were to have no more than ten people working in a group at a time, with no help from power tools.
Bobby and Sarah lined up all the tools we would be using throughout the week: pick mattocks, shovels, rock bars, loppers, fire rakes, sledgehammers of various sizes, and a scary-looking, two-headed axe-type-thing called a Pulaski. It was cool.
After the tool intro, we each grabbed as many pieces of equipment as we could carry, and headed straight up the mountain. Oyster-spit, in all his glory, wielded two 18 lb rock bars and hauled them to the top like some sort of mythological beast. The rest of us tried to keep up.
This would be our first work day. We were a little timid with the equipment and a little unsure of ourselves, but luckily we had amazing crew leaders and members of the Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club who showed us the ropes. Even though Oyster-spit pointed out that “the old trail is looking pretty good right about now,” we weren’t deterred from our mission to reroute a 300 foot section of the trail.
Day 4: Trail Work – Bobby & Sarah-style
Splitting into two groups, we set out to put in our first full day of work. Since we cached the tools at our work site the day prior, our hike up was lighter and we were able to enjoy the flora and fauna that came into view. We got into the groove of things as we each took on a section of the trail to give our all.
A bit about our crew leaders:
Bobby, oh Bobby, was our fearless crew leader. He is as strong as his beard is long. At any moment you could find him madly swinging a sledgehammer, removing a hundred pound rock that was placed by a well-intentioned volunteer, or supervising projects large and small. We would spend all day trying to get him to laugh, and it was always worth the wait.
Sarah, our assistant crew leader, had enough spunk for all of us. She may have been small, but she could move rocks twice her size. Whether loudly singing random songs or playing a fast-paced game of “Contact!”, her energy kept all of our spirits high. The game of “Contact” caught on quickly, with Tree Book always playing for keeps.
Day 5: Work, Waterfalls, and Q & A with the Veterans
Another day, another eight hours of trail work. In order to build rock steps or crib walls for rock bridges, we learned the art of making “crush” by smashing large rocks into smaller rocks. We quickly found out that G-Unit and Hey Baby could definitely swing sledgehammers. STAND BACK.
To cool off and wash up, Bobby and Sarah treated us to a visit to the Fallingwater Cascades, where we hiked down a new mountain, across a bridge, and into a valley filled with waterfalls and scenic rock formations.
Throughout the trip, we took time out of our nights at Watson’s Pond, our campsite, to reflect on why we were there and what kind of a difference we were making for the future hikers of the Appalachian Trail. The pond was a great place for Sparky to seek out the frogs which sang us to sleep each night. Also incorporated into our talks was how the work we were doing reflected the camaraderie, work ethic, and experiences of the military veterans on our trip.
On this particular evening, we took turns having conversations with each veteran about why they joined the military, what it was like for them, and how they transitioned into student life at the University of South Dakota. We came together as a group after and shared what we learned from those intimate conversations. For many, it was eye opening.
Day 6: Rain, Bug Bites, and the Best Picnic Ever!
Do you seriously need any more explanation? It rained. Bugs devoured our bodies (if we weren’t sensible enough to put on some bug repellent). Oyster-spit was bitten by a spider. But have no fear, for Trail Mom took care of us all! And the Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club prepared a feast. We ate that feast.
Day 7: Final Touches and Packing Out
Upon hiking up the mountain one last time, we raked sections of the trail until they were level and scattered leaves across the newly dug path. We began to realize the ground we worked on was going to be part of one of the longest hiking trails in the United States and would be able to stand the test of time.
Thru-hikers of the trail were motivators as they passed along the steep terrain above us. Many of them stopped by to ask about our work or find out where we were from. We realized in a few weeks, the hikers coming through would be walking on our new section of trail. Remembering his father’s recent thru hike attempt, Pancake Mule made it a point to hand an energy bar to each thru-hiker he met along the way. This is the sort of “trail magic” many hikers rely upon to make it from Georgia to Maine – a six month journey for most. Several in our group including Bowser, Sparky, and Pancake Mule plan to come back some day and attempt the trek.
Day 8: You Can’t Go Home Again…
“Make your mistakes, take your chances, look silly, but keep on going. Don’t freeze up.” – Thomas Wolfe
This was such a new experience for most of us, but despite our inexperience on the trail, it was hard to leave it. We drove down out of the mountains and away from the tools we had relied on all week, the tents we had slept in, that familiar pond, ALL THOSE DARN ROCKS, and our new friends Bobby and Sarah. As the streets whizzed by to the soundtrack of a Modest Mouse album, we were all stuck in our own personal thoughts. What would hikers experience when they walked across our new section of trail? How had we changed from the veteran/civilian interactions? When would we come back???
Bowser, Pancake Mule, and the rest of the Family Steve Crew