I asked my wife and kids why they think I volunteer as a trail maintainer:
“Because you care.”
“To get outside the house.”
“Because you like hiking.”
I nodded. All are true. But the reasons I wanted to become a trail maintainer - and why I’m passionate about it - run a bit deeper.
For most of my life, the idea of hiking was not appealing to me. I can remember being on vacation, thinking of hiking as “exercise,” and wondering why anyone would want to do something strenuous when we were there to relax.
Years passed as a non-hiker, but I remember where I eventually caught the bug: In the Sierra Nevada. Granite canyons, alpine lakes, snow-capped peaks. The dramatic scenery drew me in. Any amount of effort and exertion was worth it. I came back year after year.
One hiking thing led to another and I was hooked. Soon, I was day hiking or backpacking almost every weekend anywhere within driving distance. I got my hands on maps from the NY-NJ Trail Conference – “Made by the People Who Build the Trails” – they each note on top, and I used them to find new places to explore every weekend.
I thought I knew what New Jersey was about, but my eyes were opened to the ruggedness of the state’s Appalachian Trail section, the views and heart-pounding hikes in the Wyanokies, the solitude of the Pequannock Watershed, the dramatic cliffs of the Palisades, and the countless under-the-radar state and county parks rich with interesting scenery, wildlife, and history. Wherever I’d hike, I wanted to learn about the history of the land, and I grew to appreciate the conservation efforts by those before us that made it possible to enjoy the trails we walk today.
My friends would increasingly turn to me for hiking advice. Eventually, that led me to create a hiking website – intentionally focused on pretty pictures to try to entice people into the outdoors – to share what I’ve learned and serve as a resource for people new to hiking.
But then things got more interesting. Over time I noticed a pattern. My most stressful work weeks seemed to follow the weekends when I didn’t hike. On the flip side, I noticed that my most creative (often work-related) ideas came to me unexpectedly while hiking alone, when my mind would finally have a chance to just wander, free from the distractions that constantly bombard us.
I had stumbled upon what scientists have long known: beyond the many physical benefits, being active outdoors provides vast cognitive and mental wellness benefits including reduced stress and anxiety and increased focus and creativity.
It occurred to me that hiking wasn’t just a fun thing to do to see nice places and maybe get a workout in the process. For me, it had become an indispensably valuable part of finding balance in our high-paced, overstimulated world.
If only someone could figure out how to bioengineer these amazing benefits into a pill, they’d be rich. And yet I get to enjoy all these miraculous benefits by just…walking…in the woods. It almost seems too good to be true.
And yet every week, I’m also reminded by my trail map that those trails don’t maintain themselves. It’s the people of the volunteer-based NY-NJ Trail Conference who build and maintain 2,000 miles of trails in the New York-New Jersey region - the trails that I walk and that have given me so much.
So yes. My kids and wife are right (for the record, she always is). I care. I want to get out of the house. And I like hiking.
But this is why I decided to volunteer with the NY-NJ Trail Conference as a trail maintainer. I’ve benefited so much from the countless volunteers who build and maintain the trails. I’ve experienced the benefits that the outdoors provides, and I want to do my part to give back so others can experience it too. That is why I’m a trail maintainer.
As an aside, I feel fortunate that I got to adopt the section of the Appalachian Trail in the Kittatinnies just north of Sunfish Pond, which includes one of my favorite places in the state, the scenic Raccoon Ridge (Mount Mohican) overlooking the Delaware River. Volunteer work really doesn’t feel like work at all when you’re spending time in one of your favorite spots.
And one final note on behalf of all trail maintainers: Please make our jobs a little easier by remembering to follow the seven principles of Leave No Trace – or even the CliffsNotes three-principles version of LNT as my kids know it: “Leave only footprints, Take only pictures, Kill only time.”
If you’re interested in adopting a section of a trail as a trail maintainer or looking for something with a little less commitment, visit nynjtc.org/volunteer to learn about volunteer opportunities with the NY-NJ Trail Conference. If you are interesting in following more of Juan's adventures, you can check him out on IG @jmelli or @takeahike.nj.