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Stopping graffiti at Springer Mtn.

This three-sided shelter atop Springer Mountain serves as a resting place for hikers on the Appalachian Trail. (Contributed photo)
by Whitney Crouch

In a recent blog for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, Robert Collins described how graffiti is seen in many different lights ranging from self-expression art to a rite of passage to vandalism. 

Just as prehistoric people left drawings in caves, “Today we can still see the overwhelming urge that humans have to leave their mark,” he observed.  

Collins went on to describe how graffiti has become an accepted element of the hiking culture on the Appalachian Trail and outlined his efforts to try to change that mindset. 

Changing the perception of what is acceptable

Having earned the trail name Psycho for his years of skydiving and BASE jumping exploits, Collins currently serves as co-overseer of the section of the Appalachian Trail (AT) between its southern terminus at Springer Mountain in eastern Gilmer County and Forest Service Road 42. Stretching from Georgia to Maine, the AT covers about 2,180 miles and is one of the world’s longest continually marked footpaths. 

Recently, Collins saw the need for a shift in hikers’ attitudes regarding the practice of leaving their mark on the world as he was helping fellow AT volunteer Susie McNelly haul wood chips to the Woods Hole Shelter. 

“While we were there, she showed me how she was trying to remove the graffiti that was beginning to cover the shelter. As the co-overseer of the Springer Mountain Shelter, I was very familiar with graffiti in both the carving and marker forms,” he recalled. 

Each spring, thousands of people set out to hike all or a portion of the AT. Those who attempt to cover the entire distance in a single season are known as thru-hikers. The majority of these walkers start their AT journey at the Georgia end of the trail and hike northward. As a result, Collins’ section of the footpath is the first stretch many people encounter. 

“I began thinking that since most thru-hikes  start at Springer it is probably the first shelter new hikers see,” Collins mused. “If they see graffiti all over the shelter (atop Springer Mountain) left by past hikers they probably assume this is an acceptable and almost expected way of announcing to the world that they were there and where they are going. Sort of like a wilderness version of Facebook or Twitter. Only this ‘social media message board’ is destructive, at times very vulgar and demeaning, and is in fact a criminal act.”

From ‘ogre in the woods’ to ‘a Thomas Kincaid painting’

Inspired by the backcountry philosophy of Leave No Trace, a set of outdoor ethics guidelines that encourage people to be respectful about the marks they leave on the natural world, Collins set out to help trail visitors start the 2015 hiking season on Springer Mountain with a literal clean slate. 

“I decided that this behavior was not conducive to an enjoyable experience for everyone and decided to try and change the graffiti permissive culture,” he explained. 

After developing a plan for how to remove and cover up the written and carved messages marring the Springer shelter, Collins, accompanied by his wife, Patty, and fellow trail section overseer Frank Wright, set to work making repairs. 

The team filled carvings with a stainable wood filler and used cleaning products and sand paper to remove messages written in marker. They then repainted the shelter with a russet colored cover stain. 

“The shelter was returned to her original glory,” Collins observed. “Instead of looking like an ogre in the woods, she had the warm welcoming glow of a Thomas Kincaid painting offering tired and sore hikers a dry, clean and graffiti-reduced haven.”

Although he is hopeful the Springer Mountain Shelter will “set the bar” and that the no-graffiti practice will spread up the AT, Collins admits changing the trail culture will be an ongoing process. 

“I realize that every time I go to clean the shelter I will have to bring my can of cover stain and wood filler to remove new graffiti,” he concluded, “(but) if we can begin to see a reduction in new graffiti within the first year of this project it will be an investment that will pay big dividends in the future ... as with any cultural change, it will take education, diligence and most of all — time,” he observed. “Thirty years ago smoking in office buildings, restaurants and even hospitals was a completely acceptable behavior, but today you would not only be stared at and ridiculed but would be subject to a hefty fine. Peer pressure is a very powerful tool.”
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