Each season members of the Piedmont Appalachian Trail Hikers club take up arms against ever-encroaching enemies on their 50-mile section of the mountain trail.
Their weapons: chain saws, string trimmers and hand tools.Their enemies: brush, weeds and fallen trees.
Their mission: to keep their part of the trail clear and open to hikers.
It's an arduous task which last fall became gargantuan, thanks to Hurricane Hugo.
Initially PATH members didn't suspect how bad the situation was after the hurricane. But when they planned a work session shortly after the Friday storm passed, they got a jolt from the U.S. Forest Service.
``The Forest Service called Monday and said, 'You might want to come and look at your section of the trail. You've got some blowdowns. But I'd wait 'til Wednesday so we can get the roads cleared,' ' said Danny Booker of Reidsville, PATH's president.
As it turned out, Hugo had gone straight across the Appalachian Trail.
When PATH volunteers were finally able to get to their section of the trail, which lies within the Jefferson National Forest in Virginia, they were confronted with a scene of incredible destruction. Fallen trees obstructed the trail virtually everywhere.
``As somebody said, when you got to the mountains it looked like a pile of pick-up sticks before the game starts,' said Booker. ``It was unreal.'
``There were so many trees down, we could walk across the trees instead of the ground,' said Ken Rose, trail supervisor for PATH.
After their first visit to the ravaged area, members realized how awesome the task of clearing the trail would be.
``The Forest Service gave us a walkie-talkie, put us out and let us walk a few miles on the trail,' said Rose, a 62-year-old Greensboro resident. ``We were going to walk back to our vehicles. We cut four hours and didn't even cut one mile, the trees were so thick. We all got skinned legs.'
There were so many large trees blown across the trail that the volunteers merely cut blocks out of them rather than trying to move entire trees out of the way, Rose explained.
``It was so bad with trees hanging - leaners, we call them - that we had to cut a passage 4 by 6 feet,' he said.
``In one section of a half mile, you may have a big tree across the trail every 10 to 15 yards,' said Booker. ``You cut through and go on to the next. It's best to work in groups of three so one person can work the chain saw and the other two can pull branches and limbs out of the way.'
Keeping open the Appalachian Trail, a path which stretches 2,100 miles from Mount Katahdin, Maine, to Springer Mountain, Ga., is PATH's reason for being. The club has been doing just that for 25 years.
Booker, 38, describes the club as a diverse group, with about 250 members from all walks of life.
``What we have in common is an enjoyment of the outdoors and an interest in volunteering,' he said.
Members range in age from early 20s to 80s, and live in an area from Winston-Salem to Raleigh and from Rockingham County to Salisbury. A few, like 66-year-old Hazel Monroe of Wadesboro, are through-hikers, as those who have hiked the entire Appalachian Trail are known. Most have hiked parts of the path, 235 miles of which wind through the Great Smoky Mountains of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee.
Booker takes to the trail every summer.
``I vacation on a different section of the trail every year. I try to do at least 100 miles a year,' said Booker, who has hiked from the southernmost point of the trail to New York state. ``This year I'll start at Mount Katahdin.'
Booker, who runs a dental lab in Reidsville, joined PATH in 1977 when he quit smoking and got back into healthier pursuits such as hiking, canoeing, backpacking and rock climbing. Now he's such an avid Appalachian Trail enthusiast that his license plate reads ``AT HOBO.'
``When you come into small towns after being on the trail, people look at you like you're a hobo coming out of the woods,' he explained.
Rose and Booker say people come from all over the world to hike the Appalachian Trail, the longest marked foot trail in the world.
``I met a boy from England who had come for two weeks just to hike the trail,' said Rose.
Others come to learn from the Appalachian Trail Conference, an umbrella organization for the trail clubs, how to build trails and organize volunteer clubs.
PATH is not unique. There are 31 similar clubs with 4,000 members who maintain other sections of the Appalachian trail.
The mountainous trail was the brainchild of Benton MacKaye, a regional planner and forester, who in the 1920s envisioned a recreational facility and retreat from civilization for urban Americans. By linking existing trails and adding new ones, the Appalachian Trail, which runs through 14 states, was completed in 1937.
Today MacKaye's dream of a trail accessible to all is a reality: nearly two-thirds of the U.S. population lives within a day's drive of the hiking path.
The Appalachian Trail is a special place to those who choose to spend their free hours keeping it in good shape for others. PATH members proved their dedication following Hurricane Hugo when they spent four days a week throughout October clearing their section of the trail.
``We had members who would get up at 5 a.m. in Charlotte and drive up to work on the trail all day,' Booker said. ``People are doing it out of their hearts, not for any recognition other than a big thank you.'
PATH's post-Hugo clean-up efforts were halted only by hunting season and winter weather.
``We didn't continue because of hunting season. None of us had bullet-proof jackets,' joked Rose, who is retired from Western Electric.
This year's early spring enabled PATH members to return to clearing their section of the Appalachian Trail sooner than they expected. The first two weekends in March found the naturelovers wielding chainsaws and brush cutters along the previously uncleared sections of the trail. Work weekends are also planned for late March, May and June.
``We've been trying to negotiate which blowdowns to cut and which to leave or thin out,' said Booker. ``But the trail is passable now. Everything's looking good.'
March 18, 1990