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Notes On the History of the Stonewall Brigade


The Early Days


We asked Mark Nelson, who was rumored to have been instrumental in naming the crew, if he could shed some light on its early days. Here is his reply.

"In the interest of truth, and fun, I'll clearly (well, hopefully) distinguish between fact, speculation/fog-shrouded memory, and mirthfully created fiction.

In June of 1990, while sitting on a log along the Tuscarora (then Big Blue) about .4 mile in from the gate at Cedar Creek, just above Van Buren Furnace, Dan Martin (then District Manager for Big Blue South: Hawk Camp to Matthews Arm SNP) and I, lunching with 14 other trail volunteers, discussed the need to formalize the group in order to facilitate recruiting and planning. We were trying to think of a name with enough irony and humor that it would catch folks attention. At one point Dan asked, " wait, wasn't there a lot of Civil War action near here?... wasn't there a Battle of Cedar Creek....wasn't that part of Stonewall Jackson's Valley Campaign?" "Brigade" came along as the idea of a light infantry tactical group made up of specialists from a variety of backgrounds, able to assemble and deploy quickly, making lightning strikes on kudzu, prickers and pokeweed, before fading, ghostlike, into the mist (cue in the music from Sommersby or Gone with the Wind). Well, yes, a little humor there, but those are the facts.

But a bit of historical context helps. Why were 16 folks out working on a section of the Big Blue? Today in PATC circles that question would not occur. We have a dedicated trail crew in nearly every district. But prior to 1991-92, the only semblance of a "crew" was probably George Walters' seasonal theme group trips in northern SNP, and if I remember correctly, "Hoodlums" had yet to be thought of. The "traditional" overseer/district manager/supervisor of trails model was deeply entrenched, and working well. I don't remember who was Supervisor of Trails. I had run a trail project for REI on Little North Mountain in April of 1989 to prepare the section of Big Blue from Cedar Creek to Fetzer Gap for the Dogwood Half Hundred. In preparation for that, I had scouted the trail for 2 months in the winter and had found it so vague that it took 4 trips to locate and re-flag 3 miles of trail. We got it cleared and blazed, and I was asked to take on the position of Trails Manager - Western Region. That was the District Manager position that took care of North Massanutten, South Massanutten AND Great North Mountain, a vast area with 30-odd overseers for 94 miles of trail. Luckily, the western side of the Massanutten Ring was not there, or the trail mileage would have been more like 150-160. It seemed too much for one manager to administer, so I suggested that the area be split into its obvious 3 sub-areas, and took on the Great North Mountain portion, which then had 24 miles of trail listed for PATC maintenance.

Perhaps the most important facts and motivators in the trails community are the non-human factors: the peak of gypsy moth devastation of the Appalachian oak forests occurred in western Virginia from 1987-1993. Gypsy moth are partial to oak. Oaks made up 65-70% of forest trees. Winds blew in mating swarms and splattered them along a ridge in concentrated areas a mile or so long and from 100 -500 yards wide. When the larva hatched out, they ate every leaf. The trees often sent out new leaves a couple of extra times a year, but with summer dry spells and the use of all their energy reserves, they usually died by the 2nd year. With canopy wiped out over vast areas, sunlight reached the understory and it exploded. The standing dead timber rained limbs and fell to form perfect structure for vines to race for the sun. Miles of trail were overgrown to a depth of 5-7 feet and obliterated in as little as the 6 weeks from May 1 to June 15. As the trees died, the bark fell off, taking the blazes with it, or the whole tree fell. Overseers came out in April and clipped a mile or so in from the trail head. When they arrived in May, planning to walk in that mile-or-so and start clipping on the next section, they had to start from scratch. Some overseers got some friends and worked every weekend for a couple of months to get their sections open and keep them open until hard frost. Some were overwhelmed and gave up. Other sections were more or less "vacant". Treadway work became a dream as trails were cleared or lost for a time.

In August of 1989 I went out one Saturday, alone, to clip out the section of Big Blue on Little North Mountain from Fetzer Gap to Cedar Creek. I was lucky enough to meet a Big Blue through-hiker (a rarity then), John Vincent, who was hiking north. He agreed to help clip in exchange for being guided through, as he'd heard it was a really overgrown section. I'd been working steadily, one day every other weekend the entire summer, with hand tools, just to clear 3 miles of trail that had been open, clear and blazed in late April. I'd been continually losing ground. John and I were able to walk in about 1/2 mile before we had to start clipping. In another quarter mile we were hacking open a jungle path. By the time we were a mile from the car, one of us would stand by the last blaze while the other searched for the next one. We just flagged the blazed trees, or the nearest tree to a fallen blaze, intent only on defining the trail route to Cedar Creek. About 4:30 PM we both ran out of water. It was perhaps unwise to have been working hard on what turned out to be the hottest day of the year, and we both began to feel nauseous, so we found the deepest shade we could, and laid down until 6:30. The sky had hazed a bit and cooled a few degrees. We found our way down to the saddle between Little North and Tea Mountain, then down past the view point to the spring, where we both consumed a lot of water before walking down to Cedar Creek. At the creek, at 8:00 PM John set up camp, and I said thanks and goodbye and began the long walk back to my car. about 8:45 I saw lights and TV in a trailer along the road and knocked on the door to ask if I could make a collect call home. Jack Starry, an Alexandria fish market owner on vacation, invited me in and gave me a cold drink and let me use his phone. He heard me describing my day and my probable time of arrival home to my wife, and when I ended my call, he volunteered to drive me the 6 miles back to my car at Fetzer Gap.

Well, I've digressed, but you've got the context. Dan Martin and I began leading as many large group trips as possible, first to open the Big Blue, then the other trails. I assembled a calling list, and we began to train and (between Dan and I) rate our volunteer group. We began to plan and prioritize our work, and compose rather absurd, sometimes cryptic, recruiting messages for the PA Forecast each month. Between those messages and my world class talent for telephone-solicitation (I spent a summer making appointments for realty agents to visit folks and sell them vacation/investment property in Arizona,Texas and New Mexico - in October of 1969 that company was forbidden to operate in several mid-western states...hmm) the group of regulars grew large enough to split into A and B crews, and we jumped from 12 to about 20 trips annually for about a year during 1991-2.

The trail crew concept was, strangely enough, quite controversial at PATC. From 1990 through '91 it was a hot-button topic at meetings: the great work accomplished vs. the death of the overseer system... a lot like the idea of welfare killing the incentive to work...."well, I'd really like to go take care of my trail, but it might rain, and I'll miss that stock car race on TV, and, what the heck, the crew will take care of it, anyway...." Well, okay, it wasn't that bad. No one I knew then was a stock car fan except my mom. Curiously, in thinking about creating and running trail crews, Dan Martin and I had visited the PATC archives and read the accounts of all the early PATC crew efforts on the AT from 1927 on, and especially during and after World War II, when gas rationing made group transportation necessary. We saw two things that were obvious: more work, and more challenging work got done, and those accomplishments created pride, morale and incentive to do more; and groups working together tend to bind together - the worktrip becomes a social and recreational institution in these peoples' lives. They find friends, romance, life partners, the meaning of life (well, maybe not).

But away from PATC HQ, out on the trails, there was no debate: George Walters tagged his group the Hoodlums; Annaliese Ring and partner put together the Blue & White Crew; Don White and company created the Cadillac Crew, and later that spun off the Acme Treadway Crew; Rick Canter created the South Mountaineers; Wil Kohlbrenner, and others, put together the Massanutten Crew. In Pennsylvania, crews were formed to rehab the Tuscarora, and downtown in Rock Creek Park a crew developed, and there are more.

And, of course, the Shelter Crew was a great model all along.

But I think that the Stonewall Brigade, the Virginia 33rd, was really the first of the "new era" PATC trail crews, and the model for the rest of those that developed in the 90's. Along the way, we had at least 2 couples meet and get married, participated in the rescue of a woman who fell off Big Schloss, had confrontations with mountain bikers, confrontations with naked mountainbikers, rescued our own folks who over-extended themselves, learned tolerance, and diversity (if someone volunteers, you can't turn them away), and at one time held the record for venomous snake close encounters on consecutive worktrips: 5

There is, of course, the "Official Story of How the Stonewall Brigade Got Its Name", which is a bit shorter, and, almost, but not quite totally fictional. As it's getting late, I'll put that off til next time. Meanwhile, below are writ large, as they say, the names that I can remember of those early, stalwart ghosts in butternut and crimson:

  • Dan Martin - District Mgr - Big Blue South 88 - 92
  • Dave Hicks - a longtime force in Stonewall and annual Massanutten West Crew - retired
  • Jon Wright - a good man with a chain saw
  • Jackie Marcus - small women can move huge boulders - last seen in southwest Utah
  • Randy Skierik - a great conversationalist and regular on Tulip Tree Cabin Crew
  • Christine Saur (Sp?) She and Randy met on one cold February trip up the Peer Trail
  • Jon and Jenny Prahasto - great geologists and navigators - married and living in Idaho
  • Odell Dehart - out in all weather - later a valuable man on Shelter Crew (leader?)
  • David and Tresa Moulton - Alas, retired and gone to Steamboat Springs
  • Paul - whose last name won't recall now - a real work horse and problem-solver - off to Denver
  • Andrea Dollar - Took over as crew leader/Dist mgr in 1994 - out in all weather and a lot of fun
  • Wil Kohlbrenner - appeared one day in 1993, and never missed a trip; took over crew leader in 1995, and just went on from there - lost. I wish I knew what happened.

And then a lot of folks and situations I remember but can't recall names: The famous plant toxicologist who baked great cakes and brought cakes and lemonade for afterwork snacks, and worked up the mountain with determination, but had to be helped downhill.

The young man with a neurological problem who talked in hours' long run-on sentences until his medication lagged, at which time he would go temporarily catatonic. He rarely missed for 3-4 years.

The young man recovering from his mother's death, whose body was too large for him to walk uphill and work, too, but who refused to give up.

The 5 college guys, huddled around their injured friend who had fallen while trying to scramble up a wide crack on the west side of Big Schloss - the looks of relief and gratitude on their faces that they could finally do something, anything to help when they were handed tools and partnered with Brigaders to cut a litter trail down to the Mill Mountain Trail. She fell at 3:30 PM on a day in mid-October. Because a doctor from Bethesda was enjoying the view on top and heard her scream, and had a cell phone, in 1994, first responders reached the site by 4:15 (2.2 miles and 675 feet up from Wolf Gap) on ATV's. Helicopter rescue was ruled out for lack of rotor space to land on top, upper air turbulence, and not enough daylight to get her up to the top. The entire valley community, rescuers, their wives and kids hiked up with a litter and hand carried her off the mountain. She made the hospital in Woodstock about 11:00 PM: broken right femur, and right side of pelvis, other injuries to wrists, internal bleeding. Without the doctor with the cell phone, she'd have spent the night up there, and perhaps died.

Obviously, there are other names, and other adventures that elude me right at the moment, but I think you've got the idea. Trail folk, and perhaps especially the Brigade back then, form units that are unique and more than the sum of their parts; these are people who, after a great deal of research have determined that "Olympic Linear Gardening" is the most highly evolved form of outdoor, muscle-powered recreation ever developed by the human race.

Thanks for asking, and enduring this digressive recollection. Incidentally, Dan Martin called me recently, with the idea of having a Stonewall reunion at Wolf Gap; tracking down everyone still alive and able and luring them there with promises of food, the opportunity to see how long in the tooth everyone else has grown, share historically (in)accurate yarns and lies, and perhaps engage in a bit of work.

Let me know what you think, and thanks again. Mark