Interview with a Legend

– Post by Mary Bennett, Franklin’s A.T. Ambassador

This summer, I sat down with Don O’Neal, the Trail Crew Manager for the Nantahala Hiking Club based out of Franklin, NC to discuss what sort of activities a trail crew does, what skills are needed as a volunteer and what projects were underway.  Now Don has been the “Trail Boss” for 10 years, so he has years of experience – plus he is retired physician so if anyone is considering joining the crew they could not be in better hands!   Don told me there are about 8 – 16 people who show up on maintenance days.  Most of the volunteers are retirees who enjoy outdoor activities and have chosen Macon County as a retirement location.  The crew meets at the clubhouse every Wednesday at 9 A.M. to get the week’s assignment, check tools and coordinate carpooling.  When asked what skills are necessary to be on the trail crew, Don joked that “all one really needed was a strong back and weak mind”.  Most skills are taught on the trail and include the use of tools such as loppers, Pulaski, pick mattock or rock bar.

Due to the new A.T. shelter project at Long Branch, near Standing Indian Campground, a special “building crew” consisting of members with carpentry and construction skills (building forms, pouring concrete and prefab lumber work) has been working overtime.  This project is being accomplished in four phases: extending side trails to new privy location and water access, carrying water, setting piers in footers, pouring 2 tons of concrete; building the privy; post and beam construction; and final “dry –in”.  A local company, Goshen Timber Frame, generously donated cut logs for the project.

Back in June, I had the pleasure of joining the crew and got to experience the coordinated teamwork and hilarious comradery of the regular maintenance volunteers first-hand.  I packed my lunch, grabbed my water bottle, jumped in a volunteer’s truck and rode the bumpy old gated USFS access road to the A.T.  After sorting tools, buckets, and other equipment, we hauled the gear down to the work site.  I got to see the exquisite beauty of the new shelter- the rich cove forest and rushing stream featuring lush moss covered logs.  My task that day was to assist clearing and leveling spots for tent camping.  I saw how the crew worked together using logic and humor to problem solve.  After the day’s effort was complete and all the gear was packed back into the vehicles, a celebratory ale (or pop) was shared.  This simple tradition seems to seal the bonds between the crew members and contributes to looking forward to the next weeks assignment.

Recently, Don O’Neal resigned as Trail Manager and as evidence of his excellence in leadership the hiking club had to appoint three volunteers in order to fill his shoes!  He received an award from the Club for 10 years and 7000 hours of service.

Thank you, Don, for all you have accomplished for the NHC and ATC!

Macon County News Article on Don

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