"I started my ridgerunner season this year on February 26 at Cosby Shelter," Billy Jones tells me. "It was 4 degrees."
From Wednesday through Sunday, he walks from Spence Field to Davenport Gap, where the A.T. leaves the Smokies, heading north. The next week, he hikes southbound.
Fletcher Meadema, another ridgerunner, has the same route, but going the opposite way. A third ridgerunner, Carl Goodman, walks from Fontana Dam, where the A.T. enters the park from the south, to Spence Field. Carl, who's 73 years old, has been doing this for 13 years, still using an old-fashioned external frame pack.
After May 15, considered the end of the thru-hiking season in the Smokies, Jones is the only ridgerunner in the park. He works through October and has the longest season of any ridgerunner on the A.T.
"I go from shelter to shelter during the thru-hiking season, which is usually the second week in March to May 15. A.T. hikers have been starting earlier and earlier. In mid-March, I met 44 thru-hikers in the park," he says. "Then you have the college students who start on Springer Mountain in mid-May and feel they can race through the whole A.T. in three months and be back at school in September."
A Simpler, More Enjoyable Life
The 53-year-old Jones grew up in middle Georgia. He graduated from Auburn University with a degree in industrial management, and had a career in medical insurance. In 2006, finding himself 'downsized,' he used this opportunity to thru-hike the A.T. In the back of his mind, he kept asking to himself, 'What is a ridgerunner?"
After reaching Mount Katahdin, Maine, he went back to work for a while to make sure his two daughters would have enough money for college. Once they graduated and dropped off his payroll, Jones' thoughts returned to being a ridgerunner.
His friends said, 'You're going to do what? You're crazy.'
But ridgerunning is his dream job.
'There are no guarantees in life. If you have the means, go and do that thru-hike now. Don't wait until you retire," he says, explaining that a thru-hike keeps in focus what's important.
'I had a friend with MS who gave me a bandanna for my A.T. hike," Jones says. "I carried that bandanna the whole way. When I was having a 'pity party,' looking at another uphill slog or a rainy day on the trail, I would look at the bandanna and remember how lucky I am.'
When he got home, he "downsized very deliberately."
What Does A Ridgerunner Actually Do?
"Ridgerunner." Those who wear that title are, in effect, A.T. concierges.
"I stop and talk with all hikers on the A.T., whether backpackers or day hikers. I check their backcountry shelter permits; I can give out shelter permits on the spot, if they forgot to get one in advance but I don't handle money," explains Jones. "Hikers have 72 hours to pay for their permit after they leave the park. Basically, I'm a steward and an ambassador for the trail."
And he's also a maintenance man.
"I take out a lot of trash out of shelters. Hikers leave food and clothing in shelters, thinking someone might be able to use the stuff but it's all trash that I have to take out," says Jones. "In the park, there's little trash actually on the trail."
At the start of his five-day stint, Jones carries 28 pounds on his back. But his pack might grow to 35 pounds when he finishes because of all the trash he picks up. "I may be the only hiker whose pack is heavier at the end of my backpacking trip than at the beginning," he jokes.
And those outhouses you encounter along the trail? Someone has to service them.
"I also do what's called privy management," says Jones, explaining that he cleans the seat, sweeps the floor, and fills a bag with mulch, a cup or two of which is to be tossed into the privy after each use to help break the waste down.
Jones also disperses the cone of mulch, "cone deposition," as it's delicately called, that tends to build up. Each privy has a long-handled shovel used to remix the waste matter.
"Some shelters still don't have privies and it's disgusting. I'm on a campaign to have a privy at every shelter." When a shelter doesn't have a privy to concentrate human waste, backpackers use whatever spot they can find.
Jones also finds himself occasionally instructing hikers on how to use the 'bear cables' that have been funded by Friends of the Smokies to enable backpackers to hoist their packs out of reach of the park's black bears.
At shelters, he sometimes helps people go through their packs. Many inexperienced backpackers bring industrial-sized toiletries, huge boxes of talcum powders or family sized tubes of toothpaste. "They also like to look inside my pack to see what I carry."
Ridgerunners do their best to teach Leave No Trace principles and ethics to the hikers they meet without seeming as if they're lecturing to them. "Most hikers listen and try to comply, but it's a constant battle, which is one of the reasons we're out here," says Jones.
To handle the crowds that often show up at backcountry shelters, Jones tries to reach a shelter no later than 3 p.m. "On a nasty day, everyone wants to be in a shelter," he says. "Once I had 42 people at Tri-Corner shelter, a place meant for 12 people. The rest slept on the floor around the shelter."
Sometimes, though, personalities flare up among hikers looking for shelter. A.T. thru-hikers are given preference for the handful of spots.
"I'm not law enforcement but I do have a radio," Jones says when asked about bickering that an arise between the thru-hikers and those simply out to enjoy a few days in the Smokies. "Thru-hikers have to stay in a shelter if there's room."
One major headache occurred a couple of years ago when it rained heavily. Thru-hikers wanted to stay in the shelter another night.
"When I got to the shelter, I told them that a new group of thru-hikers was coming. 'You'll have to move along.' "
The hikers weren't budging and gave him grief.
"I called the law enforcement ranger, who said that they had to leave. The hikers cursed me out. I told them that if a law enforcement ranger had to walk three miles in the rain to talk to them, he wasn't going to be happy. They got the message and got back on the trail.
Leanna Joyner, trail resources manager for the Southern Regional Office of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, works with the ridgerunners.
"Billy is an amazing asset to the A.T. in the Smokies," she says. "He's exceptional at engaging with everyone he meets, freely sharing his knowledge, assisting hikers, and supporting the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club and ATC in the care and maintenance of trail and shelters."
What Do You Eat On The Trail?
"When it's cold, I don't like to mess with a stove. Instead, I buy a huge sub sandwich, cut it up, and make a few dinners out of that. I buy single servings of fruit like mandarin oranges and a dessert, usually a granola bar," says Jones.
Jones is a real Southerner. He'll have an oatmeal cream pie like a Moon Pie and a granola bar for breakfast. He also loves Willy Wonka sweet tart jellybeans and stocks up on them after Easter for the rest of the season. When it's warmer, he carries a stove to boil water and rehydrates a meal in a zip-lock bag.
On days off, ridgerunners can stay at the Soak Ash Creek House, close to Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The house, donated by Friends of the Smokies to the park, is comfortable and has a washer and dryer. There, Jones will write his report outlining what he encountered on the trail, go through his email, clean up, and rest.
FOTS has supported the ridgerunner program since 2004, at least. The park requested $37,600 on their 2014 Needs List to support the program, which includes the long-season position, Billy's job, and the two short-season positions. The Friends group provides funding to the park that in turn, passes the money to ATC to hire the ridgerunners and pay their salaries. The ATC ridgerunner program started in the Northeast in 1970, and in the Smokies in 1992.
And yes, there are and have been women ridgerunners. Susan Powell was the long-season ridge runner in the Smokies in 2009.
Though spending so much time in the mountains hiking might seem odd for someone who had a well-paying career, Jones takes delight in his life.
"When I got my finances in order, I asked why I wanted to slave away at a desk. I eliminated clutter and do what I want to do. So many people are scared to do what they want to do."
Interested in becoming a ridgerunner next year? The application form is eight pages long and explains the details.