Just under a year ago, I published a post entitled Challenge Accepted. It chronicled my thought process in what I now know to be the ill-advised decision to embark on the Rachel Carson Trail Challenge this year. Today, after weeks of stress, frustration, pain, soreness, etc., I’m publishing this post: Challenge Aborted. And I’m going to tell you why.
When I conceived of this post, I was super angry, and I was going to name names and be as bitchy as I could be (folks who know me know, that can be pretty damn bitchy.) But I’ve come around a bit and intend to keep the pettiness to a minimum. I’m only going to name names when it’s positive. And I’m going to be straight up and honest in taking responsibility for my actions that contributed to this mostly negative experience coming to a close.
I think it’s utterly amazing that a 35-mile point to point trail exists in Allegheny County, a major metropolitan area. But, I never want to set foot on it again.
- I have learned to remember how much I love being outdoors and hiking. But not all hiking is created equal, and RCT hiking is not the kind of hiking that fills my soul with joy. At times, it made me think I hated the outdoors and that hiking was stupid. And that’s just not worth it. See below.
- In that post a year ago, I said, “So I’m going to try to be smart and responsible with this training. And I’ll write about my progress here!” I did not follow through on that commitment. I did not do what I suspected needed to be done actually to be able to physically complete this challenge.
- I did not do enough research. I read the website and took the adjectives brutal and torturous with a grain of salt. I read the line “the better hiker you are, the better you will do on the Challenge” and assumed “oh, but you don’t have to be an amazing and super fit hiker to do it.”
- I could have gone and seen sections of the trail well before registration. I didn’t do that. It honestly never occurred to me. In hindsight, I absolutely should have.
- Aside from some deeply seated guilt I have around quitting things that I set out to do, I’m feeling particularly angsty about the fact that I scheduled a massage for myself after the Challenge to reward myself for not dying. I keep thinking I should cancel that and save the money because I don’t deserve it now. Ugh.
- The RCT is a primitive trail with no switchbacks, lots of loose gravel, poison ivy (thanks to Nate for always pointing it out to me!), water crossings, etc. I don’t particularly mind any of this, although I wouldn’t turn my nose up to a switchback once in a while.
- The RCT is a trail that, to continue uninterrupted through Allegheny County, goes through a lot of private property. Over the years (2016 is the 20th anniversary of the Challenge,) many property owners have changed their minds, deciding that they don’t want hikers on their property anymore. This leads to rerouting the trail more and more to power line easements, logging roads, gas line easements, and roads. This is a necessary evil of keeping the trail alive, and I don’t fault the organization for doing what they need to do. BUT, the mission of the RCT Conservancy is about introducing people to nature and the beauty of our region. It’s just this one woman’s opinion that hiking along a road with little to no berm is not beautiful, it’s dangerous; hiking along power line easements is ugly; hiking along gas line easements is stinky; and struggling up an epically steep hill to be rewarded by a view of Route 28 is…disappointing. Of the approximately 24 miles that we hiked over the course four hikes, I’d estimate 3-4 miles total were quite lovely. The picture above is in one of those brief sections.
- The RCT is maintained by volunteer trail stewards. Despite it being a primitive trail, maintenance needs to be done to keep back weeds, keep blazes up to date, etc. It is beyond clear as you traverse different sections of the trail that some trail stewards take their responsibility way more seriously than others.
- Michelle Parolini is a trail steward and led our first training hike. She was informative, helpful, and encouraging. She also showed genuine concern for my struggles and my well-being even after that training hike. She and Duane (last name unknown) are the kinds of people who care about the trail, the people, and are doing an excellent service to their organization.
- Multiple volunteers run the RCT Facebook page, and clearly have zero strategy in place as to how to use it as a communication tool. After a hike where Nate and I encountered out of control knotweed taking over the trail, I sent a private message to let them know- the trail in this section is entirely obfuscated and I couldn’t see where to place my foot. I received a kind message back citing a shortage of volunteers and trail stewards and stating that there would be more thorough trail maintenance done in the weeks leading up to the Challenge. Cool, I thought, that’s fair. But then, a full 3 days later, someone else jumped on and said “Also this is what is referred to as some charming qualities of the ‘muddy, bloody Rachel.’ Some people prefer it like this.” Not only was this a totally unnecessary message, but this was the first I’d heard of the trail being referred to as “bloody.” I shot back about the fact that my reporting the trail condition clearly indicated that I’m not someone who prefers it this way, and got a response suggesting that I must not be a “primitive” trail person. When I told Nate (who is, by the way, a much more serious and experienced hiker than I am) about this, he said “Fuck that. Primitive does not mean unmaintained. That knotweed left unchecked will destroy that part of the trail. I mean, it’s called knotweed.” I eventually received an apology from a third person on the page that was fraught with excuses about how hard it is to do all these things in a volunteer-run organization AND deal with people complaining endlessly. (Here’re two thoughts: It’s completely inefficient to have multiple people answering messages for no reason. If people are complaining endlessly, perhaps consider addressing the problem.)
- I’ve seen pleas for donations and volunteers on their page that essentially amount to whining. “We are in serious need of more volunteers to keep the trail alive and the Challenge moving forward. The Conservancy and the Challenge are COMPLETELY volunteer operated. There is not one paid staff member, unlike most non-profits. If you believe in the trail, the Challenge and introducing future generations to the great outdoors, please seriously consider volunteering. We don’t want the Challenge or the trail to die.” How dire sounding. I get what they are trying to say but would never put out the message in this way as it swings so negative. And a personal pet peeve is the unlike most non-profits bit. Yes, I work for a non-profit organization that has a paid staff, but I also volunteer for an organization that is 100% volunteer run. I write grants for that organization and always remark about how it’s 100% volunteer run- that shows how committed community members are to the cause. But, saying unlike most non-profits suggests that somehow organizations with a paid staff are less virtuous and deserving of contributions. And I don’t have any solid numbers here, but I’d be willing to bet it’s just a straight up false statement. There are so many non-profits in Allegheny County and beyond that don’t have any paid staff. And plenty of those volunteers do their work without whining about it, probably because they recognize the fact that, as volunteers, they are choosing to be there.
The Last Straw:
- After dealing with annoying people, and a trail that I’ve fallen, slipped, cried, and screamed on, I was still committed to getting out there on June 18 to do the best damn job I could, knowing full well that finishing wasn’t in the cards. Then just two weeks before the Challenge, I got an email with a link in it that talked about cutoff times. For the uninitiated, like myself, cutoff times are where you need to make it to each of four checkpoints by a given time or be forced to drop out. The cutoff times shared in this participant information link were only suitable for people who were keeping a consistent pace to finish. It immediately sunk in for Nate and me that we wouldn’t even make the first cutoff. I emailed to ask if “forced to drop out” meant physically barred from the trail or simply that our times wouldn’t count and was told that we’d have to turn in our badges and be completely on our own (no water, no snacks, no rides, no support.)
- Let me be clear that the concept of cutoff times is not my beef because I get that they only have so many volunteers and keeping checkpoints open for a full 15 hours isn’t reasonable. I do take some issue with the times being so aggressive in an endurance challenge not intended to be a race. My primary issue is that the first time I heard about them was two weeks before the Challenge day. I communicated my issues to the dude who responds to emails, and he was largely very dismissive. He said a lot of “you should have” as though it was my job to know all the things that were not clearly laid out on their atrocious web 2.0 website. And my favorite line was “We would have told you this if you had asked.” For an organization that is loudly and consistently crying about having a shortage of volunteers and how much those volunteers have to do, it makes NO SENSE not to just put information out there. It is a huge waste of volunteer time to have them answer potentially the same question from 50+ different people. Not to mention the fact that this strategy presumes that other new people or I have any idea what questions to ask to get the information we need. I thought about screenshotting the emails from this douchekayak and sharing them here but decided not to as part of that whole “be less petty” proclamation. That proclamation apparently didn’t extend to not calling him a douchekayak.
- This whole communication process/strategy screamed to me “You aren’t one of us. If you were, you’d know how all of this works. And despite the fact that we’re in dire need of donors, new volunteers, and people to take an interest in this trail/organization, we don’t give two tears in a bucket about cultivating you as an outsider.” And so we dropped out and were graciously awarded 50% of our money back. Interestingly, they were super clear up front about the refund percentages and timelines. If only they had been so forthright with other information about the experience.
- If you want to be an insider organization and challenge and essentially give the finger to any new people, I mean, that doesn’t strike me as a great strategy, but go ahead. Just be upfront about it. Own your cliquey elitism. I recently looked up a shorter challenge on the Hyner Trail. Quite literally the first thing I found on Google was a page titled “Before Signing Up–Please Read.” And it’s a no holds barred if you are not prepared for X or don’t like Y, do not sign up manifesto. And I love it. It’s raw, it’s honest, and it’s transparent. The RCT could benefit from a similar FAQ or Things To Know Before You Sign Up approach.
- Even after I had decided just to do my best on the Challenge but never try again, I had thought in my mind that I could be a donor or volunteer for a work day here and there to help maintain the trail. The way I have been treated and spoken to by the volunteers that run that organization has made absolutely certain that neither of those things will ever happen now. And that’s really a damn shame.
So after weeks of whining on Facebook, I’ve vented the last of what I have to say, mostly for my own catharsis. I may respond to comments on this post for a couple of days, but in the interest of moving the fuck on, I’m going to quickly put this experience and this post behind me.
THANK YOU to everyone who encouraged me, supported me (in continuing and in quitting,) and just plain put up with me and my kvetching.