Appalachian Trail Ridgerunner: Dream Job or Not?
Short answer? No. I wouldn’t call it a dream job unless your life calling involves shoveling other people’s feces.
Don’t get me wrong, I’d rather work outside all day hiking and talking to people than sitting indoors staring at a computer in a zombie-like trance, scanning Excel spreadsheets. It’s true, I suffer from the-grass-is-always-greener-on-the-other-side syndrome. A year out from my AT ridgerunning gig and I’m itching to be back out in the field. My indoor desk job, while cushy, is not feeding my soul. But again, it’s been a year so I can feel romantic about it. Same deal as a thru-hike, we all seem to only remember the good times and forget about being miserable, tired, and hungry. So let me un-sugarcoat what it’s like to be a ridgerunner IRL.
A Common Misconception
Ridgerunning is not all mountain views and waterfalls. It is not the dream job you think it is. Yes I am outside every day, and yes I essentially get paid to exercise and yes getting to tell people about the water sources and weather is glamorous, but I’m not feeling like a rock star while shoveling your shit. And no this Appalachian Trail Conservancy patch doesn’t give me any actual legal authority so don’t go calling me a narc.
When I met a ridgerunner on my 2011 thru-hike, I thought what better way to spend the summer and make some money than getting paid to hike? Now as a former ridgerunner, I feel compelled to tell you, that is not the mission. With the increased amount of folks on the trail, someone has to take the place of landlord. Personally, I like the word ambassador. A ridgerunner’s main objective is to educate and help thru-hikers. Leave No Trace education is at the root of the mission. Yes, you pro hikers might know to camp on durable surfaces and how to dig a cat hole, but the hundreds of other novice backpackers want to set up their tent on the nice soft flora and do not realize that we all can see their crap under that pebble of a rock they masterly hid it under, proudly thinking they must be the first person to ever think of that.
Lastly, I wasn’t putting in big miles like thru-hikers. Most days I only hiked shelter-to-shelter, maxing out at ten miles. Those ten miles were sloooow going. I was constantly stopping to pick up trash, covering un-established campsites, breaking rogue fire rings, sawing blow-downs from across the trail, and talking to everyone I met. I was not feeding the mile monster as a ridgerunner; I was feeding the Ziploc trash bag in my pocket.
I hiked the same 58-mile section over and over again throughout the summer; therefore, I hiked the rollercoaster something like 13 times. I struggled to turn off the thru-hiker brain that just wants to put miles in. I had to physically and mentally slow down. I tried to make each day special, even though I had hiked that section repeatedly, so I found favorite places each day that I always would look forward to, such as Ravens Rocks overlook, Blackburn Trail Center, or a strong-flowing creek. As a thru-hiker who passed by a section to never be seen again on my way to Maine, I didn’t take the time to notice my impact on the trail let alone the thousands of others on the trail. However, as a ridgerunner hiking the same section all summer, I witnessed hikers’ effects, from the mud bogs getting wider and the privies getting fuller to full-on social trails being made by short-cutting switchbacks. I also had the time to observe areas change over the course of the season; I picked wine berries when they came into season, saw the pawpaw fruit start growing, and noticed the creeks go from rushing water to barely a trickle.
I struggled because I met people who were going to Maine or Georgia, and I got the hiker buzz and wanted to keep going. Or I met people that I connected with and wanted to keep hiking with them. It was hard to stay put and see others pass by in their thru-hiker euphoria of chasing down the dream end-goal. So by the end of the season, the stationary factor did alter my view of backpacking. I wasn’t enjoying it anymore.
Dealing with the public
People say they’ve had their faith in humanity restored from hiking the trail with all the trail magic and generosity they witnessed on their hike. As a ridgerunner, I felt the exact opposite. Faced with encountering every kind of user on the trail and meeting thousands of recreationists, there was definitely more than a handful of people with poor trail behavior. The trail is not some tree hugger’s mecca where only those that love wilderness flock to; the AT sees the same representation of people that are found off-trail in “the real world.” If there are lazy scumbags in your city, you can find them on the trail too.
I should also note that a ridgerunner’s personality obviously plays a big role in their outlook of the job and how they manage their duties. You won’t find me smiling all the time. This is my face. I’m not feeling like Miss Congeniality when I arrive in camp after picking up toilet paper and cigarette butts all day and then have to give my spiel 10 times before I can set up my tent. I’m not a coffee person, but it’d be nice to wake up and eat breakfast before falling into the semi-authoritative role of ridgerunner. If you’re looking to be a ridgerunner, you need to know that there’s not really a separation between working and not working. One of my fellow ridgerunners wisely said, we work eight hours and volunteer the rest of the day.
The Sunny Side
I know, you didn’t think I was going to have anything positive to say after my rant. Well, I’m not completely bitter and cynical from my job as a ridgerunner. My encounters with fellow hikers provided a great learning experience and a chance to meet people from all over the world (even though I spent less than 12 hours with them). We shared stories and there were many nights filled with laughter. I enjoyed feeling that I was actually helping people get to Maine. Also, my fellow ridgerunners are the best people and they continue to inspire me with their energy and tireless giving.
As a thru-hiker, I didn’t realize the depths of the ceaseless work that goes into maintaining the trail and the selflessness of the volunteers that keep it. I was not as grateful as I should have been. That’s part of the reason why I wanted to be a ridgerunner. I knew I wasn’t going to make bank, but I wanted to give back to the trail that got me from Georgia to Maine. The trail is an icon and I genuinely feel honored that my efforts went into the story that is the AT, to be part of its history. I feel proud to have been one of a select few chosen and granted the duty of preserving the Appalachian Trail.
Simply, the trail deserves our best. The AT is only going to get more popular and we all need to do our part to make sure it can be part of someone else’s story.
If this inside-look of this position didn’t scare you off and I inspired you to be a real-life trail superhero, then props to you. Check out the ATC website for seasonal positions here.
I like to think that I’ll return to the trail in my 60’s and be a ridgerunner again. Who knows, maybe by then people won’t be eroding the trail by hiking it, they’ll be going down it on their hover boards. Or even be able to teleport their poop to Mars. One can dream.
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