By Sandi Marra, President & CEO of the ATC

A Love Letter to the Trail

February 11, 2022

Below is a preview article from the Winter 2022 edition of A.T. Journeys, the official membership magazine of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Feature photo: Sandi and her husband Chris on the Trail near Bears Den in Virginia.

The below-the-fold headlines of The Washington Post on Saturday, September 18, 2004, read: “Ivan Leaves its Mark on Nine States,” “Tornadoes Pound Washington Region.” Not exactly the best weather for an outdoor wedding ceremony along the Appalachian Trail.

Miraculously, that Saturday morning still dawned crystal clear, the world scrubbed to a high shine after the Friday deluge. Like with so many of our A.T. adventures before, and after, we just had better stories to tell, thanks to Mother Nature.

This is the story of a romance between me and my husband, Chris Brunton, that started and is continuing along the A.T. While for some couples the wedding marks the beginning of a life together after a relatively brief courtship, our relationship was long in the making with the wedding just the midpoint of the journey. And, the love we have with each other is mingled with the love we have for the Trail and all that it entails — physical challenges, personal rewards, and valued community.

Sandi and Chris embrace at their wedding ceremony at Blackburn Trail Center in Virginia

My Beginnings

Sandi and Chris (a.k.a. “Trailboss”) doing Trail work at Blackburn Trail Center in the ‘90s.

My start with the Appalachian Trail was one of those serendipitous events. I had moved to the Washington, D.C. area in 1983 and began working for a nonprofit called the National Women’s Education Fund. There I met a woman named Lynn Olson, who happened to be an active member with the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC). She invited me out one weekend to a “cabin” she was working on called the Blackburn Trail Center. I did not grow up in a camping or hiking family, so I had no experiences or notions of what it meant to be out in the woods or on the Trail. For some reason, something just clicked for me that weekend. I found myself enjoying the people, the atmosphere of the cabin, and the walks along the Trail. I also found myself fascinated with the idea of the A.T.

Even though I was from a Trail state (New Jersey), prior to this first trip I had no idea that this long, continuous trail even existed. As I learned that it was a national park built, managed, and maintained by volunteers, I became more enamored. I also fell in love with the community that surrounded the Trail. From volunteers to hikers, all came with a story and a unifying thread that helped a young twenty-five-year-old start, for the first time as an adult, to build a chosen family.

My Trail beginnings were as a volunteer instead of a hiker. I joined the PATC’s shelter construction crew and worked first on building the Rod Hollow Shelter. I also learned how to prefab the buildings that sit over box privy holes, a skill that is surprisingly transferable to other types of building projects. My hiking experience began with short jaunts back from work sites or trips up the blue-blazed trail at Blackburn to the view overlooking the Shenandoah Valley. Eventually, I learned how to backpack as well as take on more leadership and management roles with the PATC and, eventually, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC).

It is hard to summarize thirty-six years…lots of day-to-day living as the relationship moves from chemical-reaction romance to deeper understanding and respect, to one day realizing that this person next to you is half your breath. The fact that our relationship arose around the context of a broader commitment, dedication, and, yes, love, for this place that we call the Appalachian Trail has only made the time together richer and more rewarding.

His Beginnings

Chris’s A.T. story also has elements of serendipity. His two sons were active in Boy Scouts, and he was approached by some of the dads who posited that, since Chris was a runner, he was the ideal person to help the boys earn their hiking badge. While Chris had walked as a child in England, growing up on the edge of the moorlands that eventually became Exmoor National Park, he really had no experience in hiking or backpacking. So, he went looking for gear and advice and ended up at a store in Oakton, Virginia, called Appalachian Outfitters. It just so happened that one of the parttime employees there was a man named Ed Garvey.

Ed was a leading volunteer with both the PATC and the ATC, as well as a strong advocate for the A.T. and the Trail experience. He thru-hiked the A.T. in 1970, taking copious notes along the way. His initial data collection, called the Mileage Sheet, became the foundation for the Appalachian Trail Data Book. In addition, he penned a combination memoir and the first real “howto-thru-hike” book, Appalachian Hiker: Adventure of a Lifetime. Not many people can say, “I met the person who literally wrote the book on how to hike the A.T.,” but Chris, through the simple act of looking to buy backpacks for his sons, can make that statement.

Like me, he was enamored with both the reality and the idea of this long trail from Georgia to Maine. In fact, in his later years, he completed the entire A.T. as a section-hiker with his final stretch through the 100 Mile Wilderness. In the beginning, it was through Ed that Chris became involved in all the activities offered by the PATC – hikes, trail trips and, eventually, the shelter construction crew and work on the Blackburn Trail Center.

Our Beginning

And so, this is where we found ourselves in the mid-1980s. I can’t pinpoint exactly when I became aware of him, but there was always this red-headed Englishman hovering in the background. He was hard to miss, due to his incredibly high energy, strong hiking, and  enthusiastic story telling. I also noticed that, while the crew was busy hammering and sawing, he would go off with loppers and disappear for hours down the Trail. Somehow or another, I found myself going along with him more and more on these jaunts. He was finishing up the flagging and building of what has become well known as the Roller Coaster section of the A.T., and he would take me out on Trail-siting trips. I also started to learn from him how high and wide you want to clip back weeds to keep the treadway clear. Somedays, we would hike for the pure enjoyment of  it, which led to longer backpacking trips and, before I knew it, I was one half of an A.T. couple.

The Love Story

It is hard to summarize thirty-six years of a relationship in a few paragraphs. Super highs, and a few super lows, lots of day-to-day living as the relationship moves from chemical-reaction romance to deeper understanding and respect, to one day realizing that this person next to you is half your breath. The fact that our relationship arose around the context of a broader commitment, dedication, and, yes, love, for this place that we call the Appalachian Trail has only made the time together richer and more rewarding.

Chris and I both realize that it is rare to be able to share the same interest and values around something that has provided us with such joy, fulfillment, and personal and professional growth. In a way, it is the “family business.” He is out on the Trail, digging in the dirt, as he likes to say, while I work to help the organizations that manage the Trail thrive and meet their goals of stewarding and protecting it.

More than anything, the stories of our relationship and the stories of our life on and with the A.T. are like differently colored threads that, when woven together, form this tapestry that is our life.

The couple near Bears Den in 2018 – Photo by Chris Gallaway/Horizonline Pictures.

On the afternoon of September 18, 2004, we stood together at the top of the stairs on the lawn below the Blackburn Trail Center. The view east was clear and cloud-free, and the breeze, following the roaring winds of the night before, was warm and gentle. Family and friends witnessed our commitment to each other – all of whom either walked with us on our Trail journey or had heard the stories and knew of our passion for it. Choosing this location for that ritual spoke to our commitment to this place, this community and this experience that is called the Appalachian Trail. Our lives are richer for it, and we hope, in turn, it will be richer as well from our lives spent working on it.

A.T. Journeys is the quarterly magazine highlighting stories from the Appalachian Trail and the ATC’s work to protect, manage, and advocate for its one-of-a-kind experience. Become a member to subscribe today!