Walking Distance #06 | Giving Back ft. Andrew Downs and Gina Knox

In this episode of Walking Distance presented by The Trek and hosted by Blissful Hiker (Alison Young), we are joined by Andrew Downs, the Senior Regional Director of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) – South, and Gina Knox, a 2021 Granite Gear Groundskeeper. Downs thru hiked the AT in 2002, and has a volunteer-first approach to protecting and maintaining the Appalachian Trail. Gina Knox has postponed her AT thru-hike for 2021, and is instead dedicated to cleaning up 300 miles of public lands.

Blissful Hiker covers how hikers can become trail volunteers, how COVID has impacted the cleanliness of outdoor spaces, and the logistics of packing out pounds of trash from the trail.


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Interview with Andrew Downs

1:00 – The AT has many trail maintainers, which some hikers might find to be surprising.

2:00 – Hikers can sometimes take the trail for granted, as something that has always been there.

2:55 – The trail itself is almost 100% permanently protected, but the areas around the trail are not. 

3:40 – Volunteers built the trail before the ATC and Parks Service was involved in the maintenance of the trail.

4:55 – Some hikers have a disconnect with trail crews and an understanding of how trails have to be maintained. How do you invite hikers in to participate?

8:27 – COVID has brought many people outside, and many are acting irresponsibly. How do you educate people and change attitudes to have reverence for this land? 

12:11 – A lot of what we’ve been talking about during COVID is being grateful for what we have and can do even in a rough patch of our lives. What are you grateful for?

13:50 – Downs gives hikers a “wander based experience” by managing an army of volunteers.

14:30 – There are many ways to get involved in the AT if you live close by. If you live farther away, there are still options to travel and volunteer. The ATC also sponsors a diversity program to help bring underserved communities to the trail.

Interview with Gina Knox

15:39 – Gina’s picking up trash on the trail as a Granite Gear groundskeeper, and getting appreciation from other hikers.

16:55 – Gina’s introduction to hiking was on the Ice Age trail in Wisconsin, when her earth science teacher took the class to experience the power of glaciers.

17:15 – Gina’s photographs of the outdoors are stunning; her philosophy is to use her camera as a tool to show where she is, rather than going on hikes specifically for photo-worthy subjects. But some of the things she saw made her dismayed.

19:14 – You’re a 2021 Granite Gear groundskeeper, which means you’re committed to packing out trash for 300 miles of public land. How do you manage your own hike and the logistics of packing trash out?

21:18 – As you keep track of your garbage, do you also keep track of your distance?

22:06 – You brought up COVID, which has changed our habits in a lot of ways. One part of that is way more trash outside. What do you think the best approach is to changing peoples’ mindset about keeping the outdoors beautiful?

24:00 – Have you had any reactions to hikers or people in your neighborhood who see what you’re doing?

26:01 – I’d imagine some of the garbage is gross – how do you manage that?

26:51 – You’re giving back with your time and energy – it’s been a hard year for many of us. Would you describe yourself as giving gratitude to the trail with what you’re doing?

28:19 – The loss from COVID has affected many of us, including Gina, who has had to postpone her AT thru-hike, which makes her commitment and positive attitude even more remarkable.

Mentioned in this episode:

About Andrew Downs

Volunteer with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy  

ATC Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

Granite Gear groundskeepers

Get all of the Walking Distance Podcast episodes.

About Alison Young

Alison Young, aka Blissful Hiker, is a former host and producer at American Public Media and professional flutist. She’s thru-hiked New Zealand’s Te Araroa and the Pacific Crest Trail, as well as long trails in South America, South Africa, Europe, Pakistan and all over the US. In her podcast The Pee Rag she shares personal essays from the trail along with collected sound. Her goal in life is to hike until she drops.

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