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Highlights of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Biennial Conference

Waterfall on the Creeper trail

Waterfall on the Virginia Creeper Trail, off the A.T. Author on the Bristol Speedway embankment. First photo by Danny Bernstein. Second photo by bystander.

The 38th Appalachian Trail Conservancy Biennial Conference was held at Emory and Henry College at the beginning of July. More than 930 people came to hike, attend workshops, and go on excursions.

An ATC Conference, like the A.T. itself, depends on volunteers. Some work four hours at the registration desk, while others have volunteered countless hours for the last two years.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) works with federal, state, and local agencies, and the Appalachian Trail maintaining clubs in the cooperative management of the Appalachian Trail (A.T.). The trail itself is maintained by members of trail-maintaining clubs up and down the length of the A.T.

My first hike was advertised as a loop hike on the A.T. and the Virginia Creeper Trail. "Virginia Creeper," that's all I had to hear. I signed up for an 11-mile hike, which turned out to be over 13 miles. With only four hikers, we really moved.

We started at Bear Tree Lake in the Jefferson National Forest and quickly got on the A.T. The trail was lined with Rosebay rhododendrons. White and red bee balms bloomed in profusion. I was looking forward to the Virginia Creeper Trail. I had heard so much about this 33.4-mile trail as a famous bicycle trail, but it's a multi-use trail - hiking, biking, and horses.

We reached the Creeper Trail about 11:30 a.m. at The Creeper Cafe in the small community of Taylor Valley. We ate an early lunch, bought some great ice cream, and started walking up the Virginia Creeper Trail. By then, hordes of bikers were coming the other way.

The Virginia Creeper was the site of a logging railroad that opened before 1900 from Abington to Damascus. It was then extended to the Virginia/North Carolina border. The last train ran in 1977.

The trail has lots of trestles and bridges; some have been affected by the tornado that dropped in the area this past April. The "creeper" could refer to the pace of the train as it climbed up the mountain or the five-leafed vine, called Virginia creeper, which climbs up trees. The path followed Laurel Creek and passed a small waterfall at the top. Our hike took us back to the A.T. and to Bear Tree Trail to close the loop.

I attended a workshop on Nature Writing, led by Jim Harrison, head of the Outdoor Leadership Program at Emory and Henry College. The college has a program called Semester on the Trail where students hike the A.T. for 12 credits. Well, it's not as easy as that. They have to journal and process the experience as well.

Then Johnny Molloy talked about his career as a writer of outdoor guides. He's written more than 40 guides and spends more than 186 days a year sleeping outdoors. He was a backpacking bum who got his first break by writing a hiking guide. "There's no such thing as writer's block," Molloy said. "That just means you don't feel like writing."

My second workshop was about the A.T.'s unique role in Climate Change Research. The A.T. by going from Georgia to Maine can show the upward migration of animals, and sometimes, plants. Lenny, my husband, talked about climate modeling. Though he didn't want to use the word, "predict," the models showed that the A.T. will have a rise of 3-to-6 degrees Fahrenheit during the summer in the 2041 to 2060 time frame. Worse, there will be less rain on the Southern Appalachians and water sources on the A.T. will dry up.

Elizabeth Crisfield, a Ph.D. student, described two ways nature might adapt to this change: genetic evolution or migration. With a hotter climate, a native plant can become invasive. Crisfield pointed out that higher carbon dioxide levels will help poison ivy and make the toxins more potent.

I presented A Hike through the Cultural History of the Carolina Mountains along the A.T. It emphasized the hiking resources in the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area.

Excursions are any outings other than hikes. That includes rafting and biking and cultural sites, special to the area.

Bluegrass music and the Bristol Motor Speedway are emblematic of southwest Virginia. I signed up for a tour of the speedway, even though I'd never been to a race or watched one on TV. I just wanted an infusion of NASCAR culture without having to go to a race.

Our tour guide first took us to the drag strip, a quarter-mile straight-away ending in a sand pit. The noise generated gives it its name Thunder Valley.

Then we went to the upper floors to the owner's suite. Bruton Smith, a car dealer in Charlotte, owns the Bristol Speedway and several others around the country. His suite was a large room, consisting of a dining room, living room, and kitchen. The men's toilet had a TV, placed in the correct position so that Smith doesn't miss a second of the race. Behind a glass wall were about 50 seats where we got the best view of the 160,000 spectator coliseum, the largest coliseum in the world.

There are only two NASCAR weekends a year, one in March and one in August, and a couple of other events on the main track. The guide emphasized that the races are an economic engine for an area 100 miles around Bristol.

We were driven to the track itself. It's only a half-mile, so we asked if we could speed-walk it. After all, we're hikers, but the guide regretfully said "no." Cars can come out of several entrances and not expect walkers on the track.

She let us climb the 36-degree-grade embankment. We also could go into the stands and look out. This was truly the casual and friendly South. Most other tours would have cited security issues and just kept us on the bus.

The tour doesn't make me want to go to a race, but I got a better appreciation of what NASCAR is all about. The best four dollars I've spent in a long time. The next day was back to hiking.

By Day 6 of the conference, many people had gone home, and the ones staying were hiking. I joined a group of 19 hikers on a stretch from Fox Creek to Dickey Gap. If you're on a long-distance hike, it may not be a memorable section but on a dayhike, you really look and find lots of interesting features that never make it into the trail guide.

Besides blooming Rosebay rhododendrons, we saw one lonely Turks-cap lily. Did it really look like the hats worn by Turkish people? Hemlocks had been attacked by the hemlock wooly adelgid, a sucking insect which looks like white cotton. The adelgid has been working its way South for several decades. It has been in the Smokies for a few years now.

We went up to Hurricane Mountain Shelter for a snack. It was a modern design, which doesn't follow the standards of a rustic shelter, but this is what the local A.T. club wanted to build. Did they have the freedom to build the kind of shelter they pictured?

The last highlight was Comers Creek Falls, a small waterfall, hard to photograph in the noon-day sun. We had a late lunch and many of us put our feet in the water.

Any section of the A.T. is fascinating if you really look. The truly iconic places on the A.T. like Clingmans Dome, Max Patch, and Mount Washington, are easy to get to. It's the small waterfalls and fungus on the underside of rocks that make the trail the experience it is.

On my last day at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Biennial meeting, I led a hike from Massie Gap to Elk Garden. It's a wilderness area so we couldn't have more than ten people. We went southbound with seven hardy, enthusiastic hikers.

I had scouted the hike a few weeks ago but I felt I had to check out the trailhead again the day before. Because it was a key swap hike, we split the southbound and northbound groups about evenly. We drove out to the trailhead with a car from the other group. The idea was that we'd meet them on the trail, and get our keys back. Our car would be ready for us at the end.

We climbed Mt. Rogers, the highest point in Virginia, and the skies opened up. We had lunch at the wooded summit as rain poured into our packs and everything else. And who was Rogers? William Bartram Rogers (1804-1882) is considered the father of modern geology. He also helped to found MIT and became its first president. The sun shone by the time we got to Elk Gardens and our cars.

But an ATC Conference is more than the sum of its activities. It's about connecting with hikers from previous Biennials and making new friends. To many, it's more than a vacation or an avocation. To some, the A.T. is really a vocation, as in the religious sense. The conversation always seems to include: Where have you gone? What hiking challenges are you working on? What's next for you?

Many had completed the A.T. and wrote in their trail name on their name tags: Hamlet, Sweet Willie, Left behind, Windtalker and Mom, Happy Feet. Some had left good career jobs to hike the A.T. in their middle years - no waiting for retirement for them. They thought they would bounce back and be able to "find something" when they came off the trail and they did.

Pam Underhill, park manager of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, equivalent to a park superintendent, presented certificates to volunteers who have worked on the A.T. for 25 and 50 years. This demonstrates that sustained volunteerism is not just for retired people. If all goes well, we'll get our 25-year pin in 2013.

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