And how—before, during and after the ascent—the movie production company and its personnel showed respect for the overused trail section and interest in plans to increase stewardship and responsibility along the Appalachian Trail.
Here at the Roanoke offices of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the trail’s most iconic vista seems a lot closer than just six crow-fly miles. The hooked summit of McAfee Knob dominates the view outside, but management challenges combine with all those advertisements featuring the diving-board-like rock to make the mountain loom a lot larger than that six miles would seem to allow.
That’s why, when I got the call in early 2014 that filming of Bill Bryson’s book “A Walk in the Woods” was back on track, I was more than a little nervous. I figured the production studio would irresponsibly splash the image of a hiker on McAfee Knob across every flat surface possible and then retreat back to Hollywood. And in doing so, encourage every trash-carrying and unprepared future twisted-ankle victim to park dangerously alongside Va. 311 and then amble (without water) toward the summit of the mountain while tossing Snickers wrappers aside a la Bryson’s comedic anti-hero Katz.
I thought about my friend David Jones, who for many years has spent too much of his time making sure this section of the trail is as beautiful as it should be, as the volunteer trail supervisor of the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club.
Thinking about David, my fist clenched and I thought: “We’ve got to stop the movie.” Just like an open-pit quarry, this exploitation constituted a threat to the trail experience which our volunteers might not be able to overcome. AT management clubs have been short staffed since the 1980s and 90s when the heart of the trail-construction era was underway. Hiking in general has been growing in popularity, hitting a spike for us after the “Walk” book was published in 1998.
This has meant that over the decades since, there was simply more work for fewer people. Mulling over this thought, my thinking evolved: I would support the film only if I felt confident the studio could help bring the importance of volunteer leadership back into the outdoor communities’ collective focus, even for a second.
And who better to work with on this, after all, than Robert Redford?
The next day, a call with the leadership of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and the National Park Service addressed possible support of the movie. The call was unique in that everyone was present and on time.
Positions were passionately held, and extremely divided, with more than a few heated exchanges:
• On the one hand, there was no doubt visitation would dramatically increase after the film at places like McAfee, which is already pushed to its limits. Any increase without a corresponding increase in volunteer stewardship and improvements to hikers’ behavior might push us past our breaking point into some unpopular management choices. The AT is a trail for those who seek fellowship with the wilderness, not for those who want to capitalize on it to make a movie.
• On the other hand, use is growing anyway, and current trajectory might push us past the breaking point even if the movie doesn’t happen. If we ever had an opportunity to take a bold step toward getting a new generation interested in the trail and in trail stewardship, this was it.
In the end, it was this position that won the day. We would support the film’s distribution team; express our concerns and work collaboratively to make the film a long-term success for the Appalachian Trail experience. ATC Executive Director Ron Tipton made the final call and we opened a close relationship with distribution company Broad Green Studios.
In the back of my mind, however, I couldn’t help but wonder if we’d just been seduced by a handsome face and a little Hollywood flash.
My role at that point was to coordinate location scouting with Broad Green and assist them in getting in and out from their shoot locations without the type of fuss that leaves the trail looking like crap.
And hey, how often do you get the opportunity to get paid for hiking.
My contact, Paul Davis, had a type of gung-ho and fast-talking business gumption I had associated with your standard hedge-fund manager. But there was a quality about him that I didn’t expect and couldn’t really put my finger on. In our initial conversations about McAfee he had gotten it in his head that he could save time scouting the location if he drove up the fire “road.” I assured him that while driving up was a possibility, his definition of road and mine were a bit different.
I expected him to push back, but to my surprise, he hiked up, and few weeks later I waited in the rain at 311 to take the filming crew up to the knob. We’d try the fire road this time since we’d be carrying heavy equipment and there would be about 20 of us (including a security detail).
When I saw the fleet of black Suburbans pull uniformly into the parking lot, it looked like the presidential motorcade, but it made sense. When I said that the road required high-clearance four-wheel drive, they had taken it seriously. After meeting everyone, including two folks who looked remarkably like Robert Redford and Nick Nolte, I figured we’d scrap the day due to rain, but the group was game to give it a try. We consolidated vehicles and I offered to drive my trusty Jeep, which perfectly held the drone that would be used to film a few aerial shots (we had worked with them to obtain the necessary special use permit in advance).
Arriving at the turn-around just below the knob, where we would park the fleet and walk the last mile, I went through a basic safety talk: Don’t get lost; this is what to do if you do get lost; does everyone have water; don’t fall off; etc., etc. Sometimes even volunteers roll their eyes at these tailgate safety sessions, but I had the crew’s complete attention.
That afternoon, the crew got numerous shots at McAfee, many of which you will see in the film, including some impressive aerial footage.
The defining moment of the experience for me came when I stopped filming to remove a blown down tree that might have made the trail look unkempt —only to have Paul Davis and Ken Kwapis, the director, drop what they were doing to give me a hand.
Pandering to the tour guide? Perhaps, but this type of relationship seemed to exemplify all ATC’s work with the filming team. It made me think about that unexpected quality of Davis’s which had eluded me previously: These guys listened. When we had expressed concern that the movie might cause excessive damage to the trail, they were also concerned. When we said that volunteers spend decades taking care of the AT because they love it, they took it to heart.
It’s this understanding that has really made the relationship positive for the ATC. The distribution company has brought a number of opportunities to the table coordinated primarily by our executive director, and as a result, even if a slightly out-of-proportion McAfee Knob is on the movie poster, website and plenty of the advertisements, I’m hopeful that the lasting visibility that “A Walk in the Woods” brings won’t just make folks want to go for a hike, but will connect people to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and the clubs that make the trail the greatest testament to volunteerism in America.