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Hard to the Core

Hard Core trail maintenance. I'm wearing helmet while breaking rocks with sledgehammer.
Breaking rocks to make a new trail on the AT

Overdrive and I say our goodbyes to Peach, and promise to catch up with her when we return from Bob Peoples’ trail maintenance project called Hard Core. We urge her to come along, but she fears the work will expose her to a potential injury that may prevent her from completing her thru-hike. I understand and part of me is apprehensive as well, but I can’t resist a chance to be a part of repairing and building new trails on the AT. Plus, they’re looking for volunteer hikers, not experienced workers. How Hard Core can it be – right?

On Friday morning Overdrive and I signed up at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy booth where they, along with other vendors, were set up at Town Park. Bob Peoples was standing behind a long table with two large poster boards, used for the AT work experience sign up. He anticipates 200 volunteer hikers; 100 thru-hikers from past hikes and 100 from this year’s thru-hike, making it the largest hiker maintenance project. 

Overdrive and I met Bob Peoples back when the Moving Village stayed at Kincora, his hostel in Tennessee. I knew little about the hostel owner, but Overdrive was beyond star struck.

“Bob Peoples, you’re a legend, I’ve seen you in documentaries. I can’t believe you’re here. You don’t understand…” he would jabber on.

It was amusing and I believe there’s probably less devoted praises from teenage girls at a boy band concert than what I witnessed from my hiking buddy. My elated thru-brotha went on and on while Bob just smiled a big smile under a thick white mustache that if placed on a different face, would have concealed all facial expressions. 

Bob is a small guy, he’s five-foot-nothing, with a smile that seemed to be frozen on his face; it’s a mixture of adorable and disconcerting at first glance, like the difference between a happy, balloon-blowing clown and a crazed, knife-holding clown, who appears in your scariest dreams. However, to me he seems to have a friendly face, well at least I hope it is.

Adding to his appeal is his array of one-liner jokes that he delivers with comedic timing and after each punch line he gives a great laugh as if it was the first time he has ever heard the joke. Even if the joke is a cheesy one, you can’t resist laughing along with such a jolly fella. This is one of those guys you cannot help, but like. 

Like the Chuck Norris facts, there are satirical factoids about Bob Peoples. Written on the walls of a shelter, North of Kincora, we see:

Bob Peoples gives his boots blisters.

Also:

When Bob Peoples stays here the mice bring him food. 

I decide on adding my own fact: 

A zombie once bit Bob Peoples. The next day the zombie became human


After signing up for Hard Core and enjoying Trail Days weekend, we head over on Sunday morning to the designated place in Damascus, Virginia for a ride to our first work destination at Pond Mountain, Tennessee. Overdrive and I drive with former thru-hikers, Ma and her husband Pa. 

“I hope I don’t break a nail,” I say to the three in the car. “Oh, and heavy lifting is a no-no for me. Also, I need a 15-minute break every 15 minutes. Who’s the union rep here?” 

We arrive an hour later, and I’m carrying a heavy cutter mattock, a fire rake and loppers hooked to the back of my daypack. 

We are separated into groups of ten, with each group taking a different section of an unfinished switchback from last year’s trail maintenance. Bam Coleman, who was my only company when I was separated from the Moving Village on my first week on the trail, joins Overdrive and I, along with a hodgepodge of other thru-hikers.

“HARD CORE!” I hear someone chant, followed by another from Bam Coleman and Overdrive. I catch myself yelling the rally call as well. We are all hyped to get some serious trail work done.

With my new group of Hard Core workers, I climb up Pond Mountain. It’s a long hike that gets longer still as our supervisor begins to stop to catch his breath every 5 minutes. Other groups pass us and I begin to sense my group’s impatience. Bam Coleman is noticeably annoyed and dying to get working on the trail. Sweaty and out of breath, our supervisor finally gets us to our work area. Bam Coleman is feeding our restlessness with his irritability… everyone is ready to get their Hard Core on. But, first our patience is further tested as safety tips are given to us by our out-of-shape supervisor, along with how not to use the tools we just carried up with us. Some more instructions were given on what needs to be done before we are finally allowed to start.

“Psst, what’s duff?” I whispered to Overdrive while our supervisor continues to go over our duties.

“It’s plant matter that has not completely decomposed into the soil,” he explains.

‘Oh yeah, that’s what I thought,” I express, yet fooling no one with my cluelessness.

Moments before what I imagined was Bam Coleman’s breaking point, our supervisor finishes, and we jump right in and begin digging away duff and clearing the trail of rocks, roots and branches. 

I stop for a moment to watch Overdrive, who is in his element. He has cleared twice as much of the trail as anyone else. He is hard to the core. I continue to watch and observe the rest of my fellow hikers. They are putting much zeal and energy into this project. I begin to sense a unity among us. We quickly finish our section, and being the first group to do so, we move on to an area in need of our assistance.

It’s 4 p.m. and this section of the trail is still not open to hikers until we finish painting trail markers. The rule in making a white blaze is that when standing by a tree with a painted white blaze on it, one should be able to see the next white blaze farther down the trail. Yet, from my two-month experience on the AT, that isn’t always the case. In fact, during my thru-hike, I’ve gone some time without seeing a blaze on the trail. At times, I would stop and wonder if I was even on the Appalachian Trail. A fear would begin to creep into my over-exaggerated mind. I’m lost! Oh wait, there it is, I’m quickly relieved just before I would begin to wonder about the location of the next white blaze.

Mainly, the trail is fairly easy to follow. What may turn a hiker around are the other trails connecting onto the AT… and that’s where the white blazes come in. Not surprisingly, blazes are not in sight for us all the time. After all, there are nearly 2,200 miles of Appalachian Trail to cover. 

Someone asks for a dollar bill to use for a measurement comparison, which happens to be the same size as a white blaze.

“Here you go, but don’t play around, that dollar represents a Snickers,” I say, as I hand over my bill. 

The next day we work on Roan Mountain. This mountain was a bitch to climb when I hiked it last month, I could have used the switchbacks then. 

I’m back in the same group of guys I worked with yesterday; as it often happens on the trail, a bond is quickly made among members of our crew. 

“HARD CORE!” Bam gets us going. 

We jump right to work. There are many buried rocks we have to deal with, but we use those same rocks to fill in gaps from large exposed roots.  

“How does our trail look?” I ask a supervisor.

“You’re a thru-hiker, how do you think it looks? Would you be happy if you were hiking it?”

Ah, that’s some ancient philosophical teaching right there. Okay… ‘nuff said

“Oh, got it,” I reply.

By midday, after digging out rocks, covering holes, making steps and shaping a trail, we finish our section and spread out to other sections that need additional manpower. I start on two switchbacks with a few veteran volunteers. We move dead trees and rake the ground clean of loose rocks and duff. When we finish leveling the ground, the supervisor looks over our work, then decides that once we paint the white blazes on the trees, the trail will be ready for hikers to use.

I didn’t get a chance to make the special mark yesterday, so I’m eager to do so today. This time, instead of using a dollar bill for our blaze measurement, we use a grey sponge paintbrush. A white blaze is 2×6 inches. The width of the paint bush we are using is two inches, so we mark with the brush once for the width of the blaze and three times for the length, then we fill it in with white paint and there you have it, a 2×6 white blaze. 

There’s something about making a white blaze that elates hikers. Here’s this marker that all thru-hikers rely on to get all the way from one end of the AT to the other. Without a white blaze, there’s no Appalachian Trail to follow. 

“When I painted my first white blaze,” begins an old volunteer and former thru-hiker, “I had a picture taken of me painting the blaze and one of it completed. I then framed them both with the date and where I made it.”

“That’s a great idea,” I say. 

After painting what I feel is a near-perfect white blaze, I take many pictures of it. Surely I’ll find a photo that will be good enough to hang in my home.

All finished. 

Hard Core 2012 trail maintenance has come to an end and we now head back to our rides carrying sledgehammers, loppers and pulaskis through the woods. When we finally make it to Bob Peoples’ hostel, we eat like it’s the end of the world, as we know it. 

“HARD CORE!” I hear someone call, yet this time sounding more like a cheer.

Volunteers cooked a big meal for us field volunteers. A hiker named Impulse, apparently overslept this morning and missed the ride to Roan Mountain. He was assigned to kitchen duty, which left him open to jokes from the rest of us hard working trail workers. 

“Traded in a hard hat for an apron, huh?” was a jest. 

Although cooking for so many people is hard work in itself, but we were sure that his assistance in the kitchen was of little to no help. Yet, his account of the ordeal was a bit exaggerated with sweat, tears and now aches.

Our last night together was full of hiker stories and jokes. Every thru-hiker has a story to tell about their AT experience; from lost gear to wrong trails taken and plenty of poop stories in between. Stories that will bring a smile to your face, even if it’s a slipped fart while eating with a group. Never happened to me, but still a good story.

The next morning, we chant a final, “HARD CORE!” 

This time it’s more of a farewell call.

Overdrive, Impulse and I get a ride back to where we left off on the AT. After dropping off Impulse, several miles south, Overdrive and I arrive at Four Pines Hostel in Catawba, Virginia. It begins to rain, so we make the hard decision to stay the night at the garage turned hostel and return to the trail tomorrow. Besides lugging heavy tools up and down the mountains we worked on, we had five days without hiking toward our Mount Katahdin destination, and it now has us revved up to get back into the swing of hiking every day, yet that will have to wait until morning.

Trail Days and Hard Core were incredible experiences; it brought me close to hikers I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of meeting if I had continued hiking north on the Appalachian Trail. Still, I’m ready to get back on the AT and continue this epic journey. 


You want more? Check out my travel memoir, The Unlikely Thru-Hiker.

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