Last Saturday, I listened to one fine conservationist after another sharing stories about my dad Dave Richie, and a pivotal era for the Appalachian Trail from the mid-1970s to late 1980s. Thanks to that period of bold vision, the 2,186-mile longest, contiguously marked footpath for hikers is a trail with a soul and a body.
The soul is the collective power of the volunteers who step up every day to protect, manage, and serve as the guardians of the Appalachian Trail. The body is the Trail itself as a protected public land corridor from Georgia to Maine. The idea of a trail with soul and body came from Appalachian Trail founder Benton Mackaye (1879-1975) whose words of advice before his death strongly influenced my dad, as well as Dave Sherman (longtime A.T. advocate). Together, they listened to his warning in 1975 that the Trail had been a soul without a body, and he hoped that under federal management it would not become a body without a soul.
The story today could be far different without Dave Richie and a whole cadre of people with vision who were “the right people in the right place at the right time,” as Sherman said. My dad had a knack for hiring people not for their resumes, but for something else he saw in them– strength, resolve, intelligence, creativity, and passion.
There in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy new Tribute Garden, Dave Startzell (ATC retired executive director) spoke about my dad’s role as Appalachian Trail Project Manager for the National Park Service, fondly remembering him as an anti-bureaucrat, a revolutionary, and even an anarchist as defined by someone who doesn’t believe in a hierarchy. Afterwards, many former colleagues and friends gathered nearby at the home of Pam Underhill (retired A.T. park manager and longtime Trail champion).
Legacy is about remembering, honoring, and passing on to the next generation. Four of my dad’s grandchildren, including my son Ian, listened, too. I’m happy they can know more about their grandfather who died in 2002 when they were young. I hope they also gained insight from the speakers who were not always highly successful. When they were young in their early 20s, most (if not all) of them felt inadequate to the task at hand, which was a monumental quest to achieve the unthinkable. Consider that back in 1978, a whopping 45 percent of the Trail was on private land or on roads. Development threats were high. Dad and the people who worked with him learned from every stumble, and it wasn’t easy. In fact, it took about 30 years to succeed.
“I quit a half dozen times and Dave would never let me quit,” recalled Karen Wade, who went on to become a National Park Service leader, carrying the cooperative spirit of the Appalachian Trail to her positions as superintendent and on to regional director. “And we still don’t quit!” she added.
When my dad retired, he didn’t quit either, as my mother Cate Richie reminded the group of dad’s continuing efforts in North Carolina with the Coastal Land Trust that led to protecting places like Bird Island. My brother Rob Richie and his wife Cynthia Terrell (attending with their three fine offspring) are like my dad as they persevere to change our voting system and empower women to win office (see FairVote and RepresentWomen)
It’s hard to pick one story to share from the celebratory reunion. I could tell Boyd Sponaugle’s tale of dad’s fast pitch in a baseball game and the “Semper fi” exchange between two marines (Dave was a marine jet pilot in his early days). Or there’s Bob Proudman’s anecdote of Dave questioning throwing an apple core out the car window, years before “leave no trace.” Or Doug Blaze recounting hiking the 40-mile Maryland section of the A.T. in one day, a challenge that appealed to my dad right away. Or Pam Underhill’s first letter-writing assignment working for Dave. Or stories, too, of my mom Cate providing amazing food, comfort, lodging, and welcome over the years. Those included recalling my dad’s sweet devotion to the family–my mom, two brothers (David and Rob), and me.
So I won’t pick one. Instead, I’ll choose three messages (in addition to the importance of picking the right people for the right job at the right time) and encourage those who are curious about the many historic details I’ve left out about the Trail’s protection to look at this ATC chronology.
First, humility and cooperation were important themes. That’s appropriate. My dad was humble. He was happiest when everyone else took credit. If he were at Pam’s home last Saturday, he would have shone the light on Steve Golden, Pam Underhill, Chris Brown, Dave Startzell, Judy Jenner, Karen Wade, Doug Blaze, Dave Sherman, Ron Tipton, Joann Dolan, Larry Van Meter, Boyd Sponaugle, Bob Proudman, Bob and Carol Leone, Rita Hennessy, and the list goes on…(many more were there last Saturday).
Second, volunteer leadership, grassroots stewardship and advocacy, and managing the Trail from the bottom up are hallmarks of the Appalachian Trail that are no accident. It took thinking big, challenging the system, weathering criticism, and being tough. Throughout the gathering, people quipped about my dad’s effective and unusual personality: the gentle Quaker side that was cooperative, nurturing, mentoring, and collaborative, and the jet pilot side that was competitive, highly strategic, and focused on permanent protection as the goal.
Third? I’ll choose field experience, a willingness to wander off trail, and ultimately love. Dave Richie hiked the entire Appalachian Trail in pieces. He was an avid runner, backpacker, a birdwatcher, and a sucker for waterfalls, vistas, and wildflowers. He often veered off the path and bushwhacked up slopes for a view or to check out a new relocation, as I can attest from my 115-mile backpack accompanying him on his final stretch from Monson to Mt Katahdin, Maine. The lesson? Like bushwhacking, be willing to explore a new idea that could be visionary or slightly crazy, but you don’t know until you check it out.
It all comes down to love of the Appalachian Trail and of the family of people who care about it. Love of our home is a magnificent force. For every one of us dedicated to saving the earth in these dark times, my final message of inspiration is this. Refuel as often as possible outdoors in wild places and recharge in the company of like-minded people. Unwind, laugh, cut loose, and maybe even jump off a quarry ledge into the deep waters below ( one of the side activities at Pam’s home for a few of the Richies–Becca, Lucas and Rob).
(I also wrote about my dad in a blog called Marathon Milestone: Yes I’m my Father’s Daughter: here)