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Meet Billy Jones, Appalachian Trail Ridgerunner In Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Billy Jones, A.T. ridge runner - 1

Billy Jones on the trail. Both photos supplied by Friends of the Smokies

"I started my ridgerunner season this year on February 26 at Cosby Shelter," Billy Jones tells me. "It was 4 degrees."

This is Jones' third year as a ridgerunner on the Appalachian Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

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." 

Alternate Text
Jones with a young friend he met in a shelter.

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. 

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Time to move on down the road....shutting this one down.

Any bets on who will win this pissing contest? Rick B. has it right.

Guys, by this time it doesn't matter if we agree with you or not, the splash from the bilateral bladder evacuations is hitting all of us.

Yeah, i'm bored.  Your hatred and negativity will be your downfall.  You are already destined to fail, and heck, you seem seasoned at it.

Well, if I'm boring you so much, feel free to go away.  Meanwhile the SFW lawsuit moves forward despite your false allegations that the majority of it were dismissed.  Nice try by the obfuscation patrol.  Have fun up there on Ace Gap.  I can see why you are so aligned with the bureaucrats, you share the same set of values.


YAWWNNNNNN...  You're boring me Johnny boy.  I'm not tied in with lamar, i'm not a NPS employee.  I'm just anti-you.  You're an egotist that is highly annoying.  You obviously, have no clue what a National Park is.  You think it should just be mere USFS wilderness.  Yawnnn...  you're lame.

Wow.  Talk about a personality disorder.  Methinks this lawsuit against the fee is striking a little close to someone's home that abuts the park..... he he he.   I would be worried too when the political patronage piece comes into full view and disclosure about the homeowners and their coziness with the NPS is exposed.  There is gonna be a lot of gnashing of teeth when documents come to light soon.  And your angst and the rest of you folks up there on Ace Gap will be having to cover some tracks. It isn't your personal backyard playground and now we are reclaiming it.  Wait till the real news about why they closed some backcountry sites in your backyard get some air time, It won't just be a former TN governor in the hot seat who owns land that was given to him by the NPS, it will be his crony Senator friend as well.   Grab your popcorn folks, this lawsuit is gonna be even more fun.  



Saying that the they were lying from just that document is a very subjective view, and I am willing to bet you and your band of merry old clive bundy types will not win this in court.  You always scream that everyone is a liar, and that everyone is out to take something from you.  The park service job is to protect the mountains, the forests, the wildlife, and the habitat, and to foster it and pass it off to next generations in the same, or better conditions than it is now.  That's their job.  I think they are doing a good job, considering at one time, 3/4ths of the park was clearcut, and today, many of the parks backcountry looks rather healthy.  They also have returned species that were killed off.

The only thing in the original stipulation when they created the park was that they could not put a toll on what is currently highway 441.  They never said anything about camping fees or backcountry fees.  It was only about taxes collected on the road.  Back then, that road was a major corridor to take goods back and forth between TN and NC.  That was before highway 40 was built, which is now the major corridor for shippping.

From what I read from you Johnny, you just want anarchy.  You don't want rules, or laws, because they impose restrictions on you that you think is below you.  Your tiring old philiosophy is exactly what the park service should, and must fight against.  The National Parks are not and should never be a place for anarachists to do what they want to do them.  If that happens, they truly will fall to the tragedy of the commons.

It's the weekend, why aren't you in the backcountry?  I took the time to go today.  Where were you?  Like, I said, i'm in the backcountry a lot.  Probably way more than you and your crowd of misguided anarchists.

I've used the backcountry system quite a bit, and never had any issue.  Always got my permit, always printed it off, and it was always in my email box.  It's pretty freaking simple to use.  A freaking 2 year old could do it. You whine a lot and repeat the same thing over and over and over.  Ditmanson retired.  Get over your hate of him.  You just sound like a little kid with a vendetta that holds onto grudges for eternity.  It was funny at first, but it's just old and tiring, and very annoying to everyone on these forums.  You've been banned on countless forums, because of your attacks on people.  I'm on a lot of local news sites, and every time there is anything about the Smokies, there you were, whining away about the same 3 or 4 talking points.  You don't like anyone to hold a different opinion, and when they do, you attack them.  So, take a dose of your own medicine, killjoy. 

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