This month, I set down my pack and trail runners and donned business wear for the 7th Annual Leaders in Conservation Awards Gala in Washington, DC. Emceed by former Appalachian Trail overall speed record holder (and current women’s supported speed record holder) Jennifer Pharr Davis, the event highlighted those in the business and non-profit community who have fought for the longevity of the Appalachian Trail and stressed the importance of the AT in changing lives.
The evening was filled with stories by hikers from all walks of life. A 90 year old man spoke of his AT hike that happened almost 40 years ago as if it were yesterday. A hip and urban bartender from New York talked about his transition from city boy to hiker. A middle aged woman talked about her enthusiasm for sharing the trail with her friends. A writer for the Washington Post spoke of her 6 month journey last year and all that it had taught her.
But we were gathered on the 7th floor of a legal firm’s building to do more than swap trail tales: the folks who were in the room were there because we know that trails—like highways—are engineering masterpieces meant to stand up to erosion, water damage, and sloppy hikers. The elements—especially East Coast vegetation—are constantly encroaching on the little path that goes from Georgia to Maine. It takes more than volunteers to keep the AT from washing away and becoming overgrown. It takes training, education, tools, vans, food, and a lot of service to get the job done safely and right.
Preserving the view around the AT is even harder. As a grungy hiker, it’s hard for me to imagine the importance of all the folks in suits who draft legalese to make sure that a Walmart isn’t built within sight of the Shenandoah. While the AT may be a long, skinny greenway that at times seems pitifully insufficient compared to the vistas and swaths of land in the West, it is the last vestige of a wildlife corridor on the East Coast. Heck, it’s the last refuge for humans, too. While humans have always been changing the East Coast landscape, the AT is among the last reminders of what that open land looked like before strip malls. And that emerald strip of open lands is worth saving– -even (I grudgingly admit) if it takes folks in suits.
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s Awards Gala honors politicians who believe in the legacy of the Appalachian Trail—of all trails, really—to improve lives. Not just the lives of hikers, but the lives of students who spend a summer building trails, and the lives of those who have businesses near the trail. Caring about the AT and trails isn’t a partisan idea, either. I was present to see Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO) become this year’s congressional honorees—proving that the AT can be the ultimate symbol of America’s greatness across party lines.
Both Senators are championing the 21 st Century Conservation Service Corps (21CSC), which provides training, education, and service opportunities for young folk who want to help protect places like the AT. If a 90-year old man is still telling AT stories from 40 years ago, then each of those kids on the 21 st Century Conservation Service Corps can look forward to a trail tale to tell their grandkids. I’ve always loved hiking because it lets me walk through the past—the old homesteads, old railroad lines, the Civil War battlefields. With this new program, the trail will give us a way to connect to the future, too.
America’s long distance hiking trails have improved my life and I believe are an important part of what makes America great. I may have put on a nice dress and heels for this event, but I left the party with my trail-worn Gossamer daypack slung over my shoulder, hiker through and through.
Thanks to Gossamer Gear and Sawyer for their support on making this event happen for me!
Liz Thomas held the women’s unassisted speed record for the Appalachian Trail from 2011-2015. She has 15,000 miles of long distance hiking under her shoes including the Triple Crown (the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and Continental Divide Trail) and is a pioneer of urban long distance hiking. While not hiking, Liz serves as Vice President of the American Long Distance Hiking Association-West and as an ambassador for the American Hiking Society. She is the instructor for Backpacker Magazine’s 6-week online course, Thru-hiking 101 and author of the newly released The Best Hikes on the Continental Divide Trail: Colorado.