Former AmeriCorps service member Travis Bordley stepped into our Roan Naturalist boots this summer. Travis spent the majority of his time from May to August on the Appalachian Trail between Carvers Gap and 19 E, recording data, educating hikers, and helping manage negative impacts to the Roan’s fragile, globally important ecosystems.
In total, he observed over 12,600 hikers in the Roan, and had interpretive, educational discussions with more than 4,000 people.
“There were days where I couldn’t believe my eyes at the steady stream of people pouring onto the trail,” says Travis. “These moments made me fear for the sensitive habitat in the area. There were also slow days when visitor usage was low, and I was able to genuinely connect with people.”
Travis spoke with visitors about Leave No Trace principles and cleaned up the Roan High Knob, Stan Murray and Overmountain Victory Shelters. Hikers during the peak months of summer concentrate in the area of Carvers Gap, Round Bald, Engine Gap and Jane Bald, sometimes causing “traffic jams” along short sections of the Trail. Off-trail hikers in these areas can jeopardize sensitive bald habitat.
Perspective: Field Journal by Travis Bordley
“To cast out on the Appalachian Trail, for six months or even two hours, is an exhilarating experience. To set your feet on the AT is to join a 2,200-mile-long hiking community that shares a similar interest, a common bond.
Hikers you meet are quick to remind you that the AT is a community experience — it is a social trail. This summer I commiserated with dirty thru hikers that were tired but determined to hike from Georgia to Maine. I chatted with college students studying for classes out in the field. I picked blueberries with children that were hiking for the first time and listened to grandparents who claimed they were hiking for the last time.
I laughed with strangers and watched as the positivity of being outside coursed through skeptical visitors. These are your teammates on the trail and they come by the thousands to the Roan each summer.
While people make the AT possible, it was my time alone that defined how I feel about the Roan — and I had no shortage of alone time. I spent seemingly endless hours in solitude on the Trail, hiking or gazing out at scenic vistas. After completing my term as Roan Naturalist, these are the memories I recall most vividly.
What I remember is this: rain storms that tried to drown me while standing up. The way the evening light strikes flakes of quartz embedded in granite along far-off Linville Gorge and Grandfather mountain for about ten minutes on a perfectly clear day. How in July, white moths spring from the Mountain Oat Grass as you stride across the balds. The way Dark Eyed Juncos jovially chase insects. Rolling blooms of wildflowers throughout the summer — just as one wildflower faded for the season, a new bright replacement moved in.
I remember the electricity of a lighting bolt striking at eye level. The swirling fog that took from me references of space and time. The excitement of a colorful sunrise that would replace a need for morning coffee. Believe it or not, all of these observations could take place in one day in the Roan Highlands.
Unfortunately I also discovered negative impacts to the area. Not everyone who visited the Roan had the best concepts of trail ethics or land stewardship. I spent a lot of time this summer picking up trash, cleaning up abandoned clothing at shelters, and advising people to stay on the trail.
Throughout my time as the Roan Naturalist, my connection to the area has grown even greater than I thought possible. Simultaneously, I watched thousands of visitors to the area experience this same joy. The Roan, with it’s sweeping vistas and wondrous ecology, inspires a sense of connection with the earth which is hard to find elsewhere in the world. It was a blessing to spend my summer in a place where people are improving their lives by getting out into nature. And, I hope I was able to make a positive impact by instilling conservation and trail ethics in many who will continue to care for the land for generations to come.”