Meet Shannon Matzke, a sophomore Coastal Environmental Science major at LSU. Shannon has been involved as a CHANGE Break: Georgia 2015 Team Leader, Tiger Remedy Secretary, Research Assistant in the Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences throughout her college career!
Before spring break, I had never climbed a mountain, used an axe, or gone for a week without running water. Well, CHANGE Break: Georgia 2015 changed that. Over spring break, a group of 8 LSU students and 2 advisors traveled to northern, rural Georgia to do maintenance on the Appalachian Trail. I am lucky to have been part of an amazing group of people and to have gone on such an unforgettable trip.
My CHANGE Break journey began in late fall of 2014 when I received an email from Campus Life about participating in an environmental service trip over spring break. Being a tree hugger, I was immediately enticed. I had recently changed my major to Coastal Environmental Science and thought that the experience would be a good introduction into my new career path. I went to the interview and was not only accepted for the trip, but I was also chosen as a team leader. And so I began working with members of campus life and my co-leader to prepare for the far-off trip to Georgia. The first meeting with the full group came and went. We learned each other’s names, discussed the meaning of service, and participated in Geaux Big together. In the usual way of things, before we knew it, we were packing up a 15 passenger van at 4 am the day after Easter about to embark on an experience that we knew little about with a group that we were just getting to know. We were all there for different reasons. I was there because I love the environment and will do anything I can to help it, some were avid hikers, some were looking for an alternative to the usual beach trip, and some were looking to pad their resumes. We pulled away from LSU vowing to leave our fears, reservations, and nerves behind. We spent the next 10 hours sleeping, changing the radio station, and watching the flat land change into hills and eventually the Appalachian Mountains.
When we arrived in Suches, Georgia, we were more than ready to finally get out and stretch our legs, but the final miles were not what we expected. The sun was just beginning to set, and we were driving into some of the thickest fog that I had ever seen. As we drove up the winding mountains, sometimes right on the edge of a thousand foot drip, I could not help but close my eyes and hope that our advisor who was driving had some sort of experience driving in the mountains. We slowly made our way, and when we finally pulled up to our cabin, we were tired and carsick but also ready to check out the place that we would call home for the next week. We were greeted by Pat and David, two members of the Georgia Appalachian Trial Club who had been married for over 50 years and would soon impact our trip more than we could have imagined. They told us about themselves, their children, their jobs and all about the Appalachian Trail. When Marion, the GATC (Georgia Appalachian Trail Club) trail supervisor arrived, we entered the cabin and were pleasantly surprised and especially happy to learn that we had a fridge to use. We went to bed early that night (which became our routine for the whole trip) and were all excitedly wondering what the next day would bring.
Getting ready for the day with 9 other people is no easy task when there is only one small bathroom to change in, but we made it work and at 8:30 Marion was at knocking on our door ready to lead us to our first work site. We followed him in our van up a mountain trying to keep up and quickly learned that most of the GATC members were fearless when it came to driving on the mountains. We parked at the base of a mountain, split into groups, grabbed our hard hats and tools (that we had no idea how to use) and set off. I was in a group with Pat, David and Marion along with two other LSU students. We hiked a short distance and jumped right into our tasks. Well I should say that we were ready to jump in, but in reality we had no idea what we were doing. We watched Marion dig out “dips” in the trail which were indentions in the soil to allow water to drain off of the trail instead of pooling up. We listened as David explained to us how to use a Pulaski, fire rake, and Pickmatic. We saw Pat work harder and longer than any man out there. By the time lunch rolled around, we were getting the hang of the work, even though we had only completed one or two dips. We followed the GATC members along the trail and headed up to Preacher Mountain to eat with the rest of the team. I will never forget that lunch because that was the first time that I had climbed a mountain and the first time that I had ever been so nervous that someone would fall off of a mountain once we reached the top. When we got to our lunch spot, we met up with our friends who were all sitting on this boulder-like area on the side of Preacher. We had an amazing view, and I thoroughly enjoyed our lunch except for the times that people dropped phones and hard hats and sprinted to the edge of the rock to grab them. We all survived that lunch and soon were back on the trail getting more proficient with the tools and starting to understand how the work we were doing would impact the AT (Appalachian Trail). When we were though, we headed out to the parking lot to enjoy Pat’s famous homemade cookies and chat with the GATC members. One of my favorite parts of the trip was learning about the members. The GATC consists of mostly retired men (and a few amazing women like Pat) who for the most part over 60. The men we worked with were all about 70 years old, and we struggled to keep up with their hiking pace and work ethic. I think that we all decided that the key to eternal youth is to do trail work after retirement.
The days continued with much of the same events as the first. We drove on a mountain, hiked, worked, and went to sleep around 9 pm. We met new GATC members, all with new stories to tell and things to teach us, hiked new mountains, and did different kinds of trail work. One day, we went up Springer Mountain, the start of the AT, and did rock work. We used sledgehammers to crush rocks to fill in gaps in the trail, and we used ropes to maneuver rocks that weighed hundreds of pounds into the right positions to build steps in the trail for hikers. We got to saw and chop roots, and at the end of the day we were able to see a visible difference in the trail. After our work, the GATC members were very excited to take us down the trail to see the privy and shelter where hikers can stay the night. We got to hear about the members’ hiking experiences. We learned who had hiked the whole trail and who had only done sections, who liked to use walking sticks and who thought they were for amateurs, and who stayed in shelter and who used tents. We also received lots of tips and tricks, mostly given to us at the expense of other hikers. When someone hiked by with a pack that was too big, the members pointed him out, and there was always an eye roll when the rare barefoot hiker would come through. They told us that the AT is 2100 miles and that only 20% of the hikers who intend on going all the way to Maine actually make it. Learning about the trail itself made us appreciate the GATC members and the work that they do even more.
We spent a total of three days doing trail work. We were given one planned off day and took another day off when it was raining. On our first off day, we took the scariest drive yet to a beautiful swinging bridge and had lunch there and did some exploring. We left and went to dinner with Bev and Olin, two GATC members. Bev and Olin have been opening their home to students working over spring break for 14 years. We were able to shower, for which we could not thank them enough, and Bev made spaghetti for us. They shared stories about their work on the trial, their family, and their travels. I loved hearing about all of the places they had been. Years ago, they decided that they wanted to visit every US national park in the country. There are over 50 parks, and they have less than 10 left. Olin is an avid photographer, so when it was time to leave, he brought out his camera and tripod for a group picture. When he saw the selfie stick that we had brought with us, we could tell that he preferred his tried and true tripod method. We all laughed along with Bev as Olin reluctantly joined in the selfie stick picture after we had taken one with his camera. We left Bev and Olin’s feeling clean and full and went to sleep late that night (late being around 10pm)
When it finally came time to leave Sunday morning, we all had to typical end of trip feelings. We felt like we had been in Georgia forever and also like we had just gotten there, and we joked that we were ready to “get back to civilization” but also were not ready to leave our mountain paradise. As we drove away, I couldn’t help but feel sad to leave the GATC members who had become our friends and the serene mountain life that I had grown to love. We all did a lot of reflecting during the experience and really thought about the meaning of service and how our view of service had changed after this trip. We came to the realization that, while we were doing worthwhile work that will make a difference in the environment, we were really the ones who were being served. Our interactions with the GATC and our time in the mountains helped us to conquer any fears that we had and to leave behind our insecurities. After climbing Blood Mountain, the highest peak on the AT in Georgia at 4000 ft, moving boulders, and crushing rocks into smithereens, you gain self-confidence that you did not have before you conquered these things. We returned to Baton Rouge after a drive that seemed to fly by, and we all went our separate ways. We recently had our last team meeting which was filled with laughter, reminiscing, and homemade king cake. Although we all signed up for CHANGE Break for different reasons, every one of us finished the journey with an unforgettable experience thatcan only be understood by the other members of the group, a group which has formed a bond of friendship that will transcend the week that we spent together in Georgia.