I had a direct flight to Pittsburgh on Southwest but somehow managed to be the very last person in line, in the dreaded "C" group. Seating choices were limited but I did find a middle chair near the front. And being one of those people who tries to meet his neighbors in the plane aisle instead of immediately pulling out a book, I turned and introduced myself to both the women next to me. We got to talking about the reasons for our trips to Pittsburgh and, wouldn't you know it, the woman I was sitting next to just happened to work on the Appalachian Trial in the past, and now works on trails in the state of Oregon. Her name is Haley Miller and she is an insanely cool person with a career to match. So I asked if she'd let me interview her for the blog.
You have a pretty interesting & unique career. What's your title and what sort of things do you do over a typical day at the WTA?
My official title with WTA is Southwest District Crew Leader. My week is usually split between planning and organizing the logistics for our volunteer work parties and then being the in-field staff that leads them. On any given week, I am in the field 2-3 days a week, and in the office the rest of the time. I work directly with land managers to plan trail maintenance and construction projects and I recruit volunteers for our events. It’s a wonderful mix of working independently and with others, and I love the opportunity to spend a lot of my time working in the field.
How did you first get involved in working on the AT, & later, the Washington Trails Association?
When I graduated college in 2007, I started working for the Student Conservation Association (SCA). With them, I worked in various National Parks and on Forest Service land across the county. That fall, I worked on the AT in Virginia in the Mt. Rogers area. It was one of my more technical work projects; we were building a lot of structures with rocks we quarried from the area. The work was fascinating, and the Mt. Rogers area was spectacular. I was working there in September so the leaves were just starting to change, and on our hike from camp to work we would pass through fields of blueberry bushes filled with wild ponies. And I’m not kidding. My job allowed me to eat blueberries while petting wild ponies. It was the best. For the next few years I traveled the country with SCA. I worked on sections of the AT in the Delaware Water Gap in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and in the Great Smokey Mountains. I moved out to Oregon in the winter of 2010 after finishing a season with SCA in northern California. I volunteered for a Trails Skills College program my first spring here, and was hired on with WTA the next season. I have been working for them for two years and have been loving every minute of it!
What is the best experience you've had working with trails? The worst?
My first few years working trails, I was leading groups of high school students for summer-long programs. One summer, I had a 15 year-old boy who had never spent any time away from home. We were working in the backcountry of Colorado at about 12,000 feet. The first day, the boy came to me and told me that he wanted to go home. After a long discussion, I asked him to try and stick it out for a few more days, and if he was still feeling homesick, we would hike him out. The time frame passed, and he didn't approach me about going home. I didn't say anything to him, and the rest of the summer passed. He adjusted to the unfamiliar conditions and appeared to have a great time. When the season was over and we were at the airport, he asked me if I thought his parents would think he looked different. I asked him why, and he said “Well, I just feel really different.” It's things that like that make me really love what I do. It's not so much the building of a particular stair case, or the clearing of a particular trail, but seeing the impact that working outside can have on people. It can be really transformative, and I’m constantly inspired by people who put themselves out of their comfort zones to do good for someone else.
As far as the worst? Well, I do live in the Pacific North West. Working in the cold rain can get pretty old.
What advice would you give someone who wanted to first get into backpacking?
Do it! Do it, do it, do it! I know it can seem intimidating, but it’s really simple. Start with something easy. A simple 10 mile hike around a lake you can split up over 2 or 3 days. You won’t have too much mileage to cover each day, you’ll have one simple trail to follow, and you’ll get the reward of swimming each day! It’s supposed to be fun, and I think sometimes people push themselves to cover too much distance. And don’t skimp on food. People worry about weight and always stress about “ultralight” but I find that having some good, hot food at the end of the day is totally worth the extra weight.
I was really interested in the idea you talked about with clothing: cost per wear. As this is a personal finance blog, can you talk a bit about that concept and how you apply it to some of your purchasing decisions?
Haha, yes, the PPW (price per wear). I can be extremely frugal, and have a hard time buying things. But if I come across some gear that I really like, I break it down on how much it costs each time I’ll use it. So if there is a really nice, lightweight jacket that I think is too expensive, I’ll think about how many times I’ll wear it, and break down the cost from there. So while I may be spending $200 upfront, after 30 wears the jacket really only cost about $7, which isn’t too bad at all!
Can you talk a bit about your favorite hike?
Oh, I’m terrible at picking favorites. Can I just say all of them?
Yes, you can definitely say all of them! What tips might you offer for making hiking a more frugal or cost effective activity?
I think I would have to say try not to skimp too much upfront. If you really want to enjoy hiking, you need semi-decent gear. You want your feet to be comfortable and dry. This doesn’t mean that you need to buy the most expensive pair of boots out there, but also, if you spend a little more upfront, you’ll get a good pair of boots that could last you a really long time. But you also don’t need to go to really fancy stores to buy your gear. Army-Navy surplus stores usually have good options, and some of my favorite websites to find cheap gear are steepandcheap.com and Sierra Trading post.
My AT Section Hike - a Quick Story...with Pictures!
Day 1:We get into Harpers Ferry late due to four, count 'em, four pee breaks on the way down to West Virginia. I won't name names, but it wasn't my doing. I am in control of my bladder. Still, we don't get onto the trail until noon with over twelve miles to hike and, as we started so late, temperatures are in the nineties with high humidity. We gain a lot of elevation this day, too, so are were sweaty & beat by the time we make it into Blackburn Trail Center. Luckily, this is the Taj Mahal of campsites, complete with a screened in backpacker's cabin, water from a tap we can drink without purification, a solar shower, and even a couple of volunteers who stay at a house on site. We do notice a sign indicating that this area has a resident bear, so we are sure to hang our food bags.
During the night I have to head up to the privy, and on the way back I nearly step on a snake without realizing it. Only after my buddy tells me to watch out do I realize I have gently kicked a brown snake that we think might be a copperhead (but that is unlikely as they're not nocturnal). Anyway, it is good enough for a scare.
Day 2:We wake up to find that some little creature has climbed the pole & gotten into our hung food bags, eating all our oatmeal (i.e. - all our breakfasts), half our trail mix, and bits of other stuff. There is also a slimy residue on the bags that we suspect is raccoon saliva, so we segregate anything that's been drooled on into our trash bags, in the rare event the critter has some sort of disease. This is not the way we wanted to start the day. We take an inventory and find that we can split our remaining lunches into small breakfasts & lunches. We'll be a bit hungry for the next few days, but no big deal.
Off to the hardest section of our hike: the aptly named Roller Coaster. We again get a late start due to the raccoon, and the temperature is hotter today with the same humidity. All day we are heading up and down eleven miles of ridges with rocky footing, and we are hurting. We stumble into Sam Moore Shelter at dusk, make a quick meal, sweep some gnarly spiders out of the shelter, and collapse into our sleeping bags. Not a great day. I contemplate giving up & hiking out. Luckily my best friend is there to get my mind right and convinces me to keep going.
Day 3:More Roller Coaster today, and we realize immediately that we are not going to make the 15 miles we thought we would today. We instead decide to finish the Roller Coaster, camp at the end of it, and try to make up time on the next couple days which will be on much easier footing. Finally, we have a good day as it's much shorter, the hardest bit is behind us, and we actually use the little tent we've brought and make a fire, which makes for a better camping experience. We meet some cool through hikers at camp who heard of another guy at Blackburn who'd had his food bag broken into by a raccoon, so at least we're not the only ones.
Day 4:Thirteen miles today, and I'm getting the dreaded hammer toe. I make a mental note to buy different (bigger) boots. We run out of jerky and are moving onto the last of our trail mix. No matter, we are getting near the end and making good time. The scenery changes as the trail occasionally moves through open fields & meadows. It feels great to walk on grass for a while. We also get to see a primitive campsite that was apparently used by confederate Colonel Mosby as a base in the Civil War.
Day 5:We trek the final fifteen miles over beautiful, manageable terrain. At the end of the day we crest a mountain into Shenandoah National Park and are rewarded with not only a great view, but the final mile down to the car. We change clothes & try to wipe ourselves clean as best we can behind my buddy's Honda on the side of the road. We slap a high five, and drive into town for burgers & fries at Spelunkers, where they grind their chuck on site. We each order the double cavern burger, with over a half pound of beef...and of course decide to add bacon because, well, we can. As expected, they are the best burgers of our lives.
This is running long so I'll just close with some parallels I found between the hike and personal finance:
Your Possessions Cost You - Not just a financial cost, but the burden they put on you. Lugging around my thirty plus pounds, I realized that you pay a penance for having too many possessions. We do this in our normal lives, too. The cost for having too much stuff is realized each time we move to a new residence or in the daily stress of mess & clutter. On the journey of life, travel light.
Gut It Out - There was a twenty four hour stretch on the hike where, like the fifteen year old in Haley's story, I just wanted to quit & hike out. Giving up sounds like a good option on some days in our financial lives, too, as paying off debt, working side hustles after our normal jobs, or just another day of frugality can become a grind. When you want to quit, do like Haley suggested and try to gut it out for a couple more days. Chances are that things will seem easier if you can push through the low point.
Every Once in a While, Look Up - Like Ferris says, life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you might miss it. Yes, you have to pay attention to the terrain to make sure you don't trip over a stray rock. But don't get caught looking at the three feet in front of you all the time. Stop for a second and look around. You might be missing out on a great view.
Thanks for reading through the long post & have a great week.