Heroes: Bob Peoples, 68

This tireless trail angel is firing up a new generation of backcountry stewards.
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This tireless trail angel is firing up a new generation of backcountry stewards.

Northbound hikers on the Appalachian Trail start to see them as soon as they leave the Smokies. Scrawled across shelter walls and in trail registers, “Most Interesting Man In The World”-style jokes tout the virtues of a hostel owner and trail maintainer living near Hampton, Tennessee. “Bears hang Bob Peoples' food bag for him,” reads one. Another: “When Bob Peoples builds a switchback, an angel gets its wings.”

There's good reason that the AT faithful see Peoplesas a superhero. First, there's his generosity as a host at Kincora Hikers' Hostel, his rustic lodge 414 trail miles from Georgia's Springer Mountain. A mere $5 donation buys a bed, shower, laundry, kitchen, and shuttles into town. Thank-you postcards plaster the walls. 

Then there's Peoples' tireless work as a trail steward. He's logged 7,000 hours of maintenance since 1988 (an average of 300 a year), and every May, he gathers 100 current and past thru-hikers for an intensive two-day trailwork bonanza he calls “Hardcore Kincora.” In 2006, he and his Hardcore trail crew erected the 14-person-capacity, two-story Mountaineer Falls Shelter in a day and a half. At the May 2013 event, Peoples will lead the crew in building new switchbacks on Roan High Knob, the third highest peak on the AT. 

“It's inspiring to see how devoted Bob is to the trail,” says John Carpenter, a 2011 thru-hiker who took part in Hardcore during his northbound trek. “Working with him convinced me to do trailwork in the Tetons.”

Peoples became engulfed in thru-hiking subculture after retiring from the Air Force in 1988. He helped maintain Vermont's Long Trail for the Green Mountain Club while in transition to civilian life. “The trail offers the same fast friendships as the military, but also grants you solitude,” he says. 

In 1994, he decided to open a hikers' hostel, partly to stay close to trails himself. He spent weeks scouring backroads along the AT, looking for a plot of land within a mile of the path. Near Hampton, Tennessee, he purchased a country home and, in 1997, opened Kincora. Since then, he's welcomed more than 19,000 guests and played an instrumental part in creating the AT's culture of camaraderie and solidarity.

Peoples only admits he's doing more than just enjoying his retirement when he talks about spreading his commitment to trail maintenance. As Hardcore Kincora ends every year, Peoples has each volunteerpaint a blaze along the AT. The crew members, mostly thru-hikers who'll pass more than 80,000 blazes between Georgia and Maine, sometimes get emotional about this symbol of their connection to the trail. “Do we over-blaze in a few places? Sure,” Peoples says. “But we're also creating the next-generation of AT stewards.”

Take it from me...

» Get involved. Trail work is the most direct way to support your favorite path. Plus, hiking a section that I’ve maintained is a great feeling. Agencies often organize projects (like for National Trails Day, June 1 this year), but don’t wait for a special occasion.

»Cash counts. If you can’t volunteer your time, consider donating money to a group that maintains the paths in your area. Visit americantrails.org/resources/statetrails for state-by-state listings.

»Time thru-hikes around life transitions. If you really want to find six months to thru-hike, you’ll make it happen. But also look toward graduations, job transitions, and retirement—natural times for a break.

»On long treks, cook simply. I see a lot of thru-hikers with a single cookpot and an alcohol stove built from a cat-food can. These stoves weigh almost nothing, are nearly indestructible, and can still easily boil enough water for a solo hiker. 

»Ditch weight. In the first 30 to 50 miles, be merciless about cutting weight from your pack. If you haven’t used it after the first week or so, you probably won’t need it. 

»Splurge on sturdy hiking poles. Long-trail trekking means tough, ever-changing conditions. Poles will save your knees from torture and prevent falls.