Shutting Down Small-town Post Offices Could Make Things Tough For Appalachian Trail Thru-Hikers

Food drops are crucial for anyone planning to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. But a proposal to close four key rural post offices could force hikers to either go out far out of their way to resupply or carry much greater loads of food.

How far are you willing to go out of your way for a meal?

For Appalachian National Scenic Trail thru-hikers, that question could take on more relevance if the U.S. Postal Service closes down some of its smaller operations in a cost-saving move.

In a bid to offset its revenue woes, the Postal Service is proposing to close 3,600 Post Offices. At least four of those -- Fontana Dam, North Carolina, Montebello, Virginia, Glencliff, New Hampshire, and Caratunk, Maine -- have played a role as "General Delivery" drop points for thru-hikers looking to restock their pantries and, in some cases, either get new gear or send home gear they either don't, no longer, need.

While many thru-hikers prefer going into towns to restock -- it offers an opportunity to get fresh food, for one, and a hot shower and soft bed for a break for the trail -- many rely on post offices to serve as waystations where they can mail themselves packages of food and gear.

“That’s certainly an issue," Morgan Sommerville, the southern regional director for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, said when asked about the possible closings. "The ability to get to a Post Office is important to thru-hikers. At Fontana Dam, which is the one that is under consideration for closure in the region I work in, it is a concern.”

According to Conservancy officials, if the Fontana Dam post office were shut down, thru-hikers would have to make a detour of at least 24 miles away by road. While the Glencliff post office is just a half-mile off the trail, its closure would require a 10-mile hitchhike to reach the next closest post office.

Close the Caratunk, Maine, post office, and that would leave thru-hikers 7.5 miles from the next-closest post office -- at West Forks -- but it also has been mentioned for closure, the Conservancy notes.

If the Montbello post office were closed, thru-hikers would have to make a 6-mile trek -- one way -- to get supplies, according to Laurie Potteiger, information services manager for the Conservancy.

"The next-closest post office is Vesuvius, Virginia," she said. "It’s 6 miles away (according to Mapquest), which doesn’t sound that far, but the road is high in the mountains and very windy and hilly, with lots of 15-mph curves. Not one hiker in a hundred would walk 8 miles off the A.T. on a hilly backcountry road to another small town just to get a package. They would just send their package further up the Trail (the next town going north, Waynesboro, is 39 miles away). They’d just have to carry another 2-4 days’ worth of food.

"... Vesuvius is also on the list for closing," she added. "The next closest town after Vesuvius is Steele’s Tavern, another 2 miles away."

Looking at the Fontana Dam post office, Ms. Potteiger notes that "(H)iking north from Fontana Dam, the next town and next post office on the A.T. (Hot Springs, NC) is 107 miles north from Fontana Dam. (Yes, Gatlinburg and Cherokee are potential options in the middle of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but they are 15 and 18 miles away, respectively, and they aren’t even listed in the A.T. Data Book). And yes, there is a hostel in Davenport Gap (about 75 miles north of Fontana Dam) that holds packages, but hostels come and go.

"If the Fontana Dam P.O. were closed, the distance between the first (Suches, Georgia, 20 miles north of Springer, 2 miles off) and second post office (Hot Springs, North Carolina, right on the A.T. about 270 miles north of Springer) along the A.T. within walking distance would be more than 250 miles. In this stretch, there are a handful of post offices that are 9 or more miles from the A.T. (Helen, GA-9 miles, Hiawassee, GA—11 miles, and Franklin, NC—10 miles). And, there are a few establishments that currently hold hikers packages (Mountain Crossings/Walasi-Yi at Neels Gap, GA, on the A.T. 31 miles north of Springer and the Nantahala Outdoor Center, on the A.T. 135 miles north of Springer). But, the point is that Fontana Dam offers a very convenient and valuable service to hikers that enhances the A.T. experience."

In a letter to Ruth Goldway, the chair of the Postal Regulatory Commission, Conservancy Executive Director Dave Startzell stressed the importance of the four post offices closest to the A.T. that are being eyed for closure.

"With respect to at least three of those post offices (Caratunk, Glencliff, and Fontana Dam) there are no alternative post offices within a reasonable walking distance of the Trail, and there are few if any retail outlets that are capable of providing similar levels of service to the post offices in these rural communities," Mr. Startzell wrote. "We urge the United States Postal Service and the Postal Regulatory Commission to take into consideration the special needs of these transient customers."

Jack Tarlin, a seven-time thru-hiker who uses the handle “Baltimore Jack,” has written an article on resupplying tips for thru-hikers that is linked on the home page of WhiteBlaze.net (a hugely popular A.T. discussion forum with more than 30,000 registered users) as a guide for those who prefer to avoid maildrops and resupply along the way. In it he specifically mentions the value of using Fontana Dam as a resupply stop.

“Fontana Dam is one of the handful of places where it makes sense to send yourself a food mail drop. You’ll absolutely need some sort of major re-supply here before entering Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and while there is a small market in Fontana Village, the selection is (sparse), especially if you arrive late in the afternoon and discover that the 15 hikers just ahead of you pillaged the place," writes Baltimore Jack. "A short walk from the market is the Village’s Outfitter, which also has a small food selection.

"In all likelihood, tho, you’ll want to get food sent here; how much you send depends whether or not you plan to hike all the way thru the National Park, or re-supply in Gatlinburg. If you plan to hike straight thru, you’ll need 6-7 days worth of food; if you’re going to Gatlinburg, bring 3-4. If you’re hiking earlier in the season and will be more likely to encounter rough weather, delays, and slower mileage, you might want to bring a bit extra.”

Comments

This would great an opportunity for the private sector to fill in the gap. I became weary of picking up food drops during my thru-hike and prefered to "forage" in trail towns. Without the post office in Fontana it will create a higher demand for food purchases in Fontana Village and I would expect the business to meet that increased demand.
Also if I owned a business there or maybe even a home near the trail, I would consider offering a package drop/storage service or shuttle service for hikers. As romantic as USPS postal drops sound, if they close these tiny offices down it will open a space for private citizens in depressed rural areas to make some income. Win-win.
As far as hiking straight through the Smokies carrying six days of food...I see that as a way to maintain some of the wilderness character/challenge of thru-hiking the AT.

GA-ME 99

As a former thru-hiker (GA-ME 2002), I would say accomodating thru-hikers is hardly a good reason to keep open a money losing post office. First, the numbers (of hikers) just aren't that large. Only a couple of thousand people start a hike and a third are gone before they hit Fontana Dam, 20% more by Harper's Ferry and when you get to Maine your down to a few hundred people. Do we really want to spend thousands of dollars to keep open a PO for a few hundred hikers? Second, as Andrea noted, there is plenty of opportunity for private enterprise to step in. And third, on a personal note, I would say the biggest mistake I made on my hike was over planning- especially sending too many resupply boxes. There is little you need sent from home that can't be purchased - when and where needed- along the trail. Any town that has a PO is going to have a store to buy food and other necessary items. Sommerville's lament appears to be another case of the selfcentered thinking that prevents us from adequately addressing our country's debt issues.

The US Post Office has been a study in corporate failure for several decades at least.
Their over-paid upper-level managers have been among the worse as their own selected better employees will confirm. A number of their window clerks are unfriendly and create
a negative atmosphere. At many small PO Offices, theIR window hours are shortened
which makes it inconvenient for someone hiking to receive their parcels. At one
Oregon national park, the small Office is managed by contract and has a very
difficult negatively-focused woman meeting international visitors and park staff.
She should have been fired decades ago. So, Focus on the Positive:
This may be an opportunity for UPS to open additional mailbox
outlets since they are far more efficient with an excellent tracking system and
very helpful drivers.

I agree, most towns with a post office will have a merchant of some kind. However, I would not depend on UPS or any other carrier to step in to replace these offices. The Postal Service has been tasked with providing mail service to every citizen at the lowest price and for the same cost regardless of distance. With congressional oversight and the Postal Rate Commission on it's back, problems won't go away until this changes. Oh yes, I was one of those "overpaid" managers and anyone outside the post office has no idea the workloads every employee is saddled with. Happily, I just retired in April after 34 years of Federal Service of which I logged 16 years with the USPS.

Will the NPS Become as Mismanaged at the USPS ? with a reduced staff, wrong people
selected for Top Management (Peter Principle: promoting people to their highest Level of
Incompetence) apathy toward Science and Natural Resource Issues and solutions
in favored bias toward Homeland Security,
Law Enforcement & Search & Rescue, spending $ millions on searching-rescuing visitors
without Safety Common Sense, but expecting the General Taxpayer to Pay, etc. rant, rant...

http://money.cnn.com/2011/08/11/news/economy/postal_service_layoffs/index.htm?iid=HP_Highlight

Poor rich hikers are losing a subsidy. Wah wah wah.

I thru-hiked the AT last year and didn't use a post office the entire time. I'm not sure what all the fuss is about. The general store at Fontana Dam has everything you need to go the 3 days it takes to get to Newfound Gap where you can go into Gatlinburg. Those who still want to mail themselves food can send packages to hotels, hostels, and other businesses along the trail. The Northern Outdoors Center in Caratunk accepts packages as does the Hikers Welcome Hostel in Glencliff. There are also tons of resupply options around Montebello. Much ado about nothing. It's not fair to tax-payers to keep PO's open when it doesn't make sense to keep them open.