Just what does it take to clean up graffiti at a shelter along the Appalachian Trail? Here’s a firsthand account from a shelter overseer who is not only attempting to clean up the mess, but also stop it permanently.
Modern day petroglyphs? Self-expression art? An expected rite of passage? Vandalism? The definition of graffiti depends on who you ask. Prehistoric men and women felt a need to mark caves with drawings of animals or to scrape signs and shapes on rocks. Were these messages for others traveling through the area, or were they sitting out a thunderstorm in a cave, bored? Today we can still see the overwhelming urge that humans have to leave their mark—even along the Appalachian Trail (A.T.).
Late last year I was asked by Susie McNelly, the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club overseer at Woods Hole Shelter, to help her haul wood chips. While we were at Woods Hole, she showed me how she was trying to remove the graffiti that was beginning to cover the shelter. As the co-overseer of Georgia’s Springer Mountain Shelter, I was very familiar with graffiti in both the carving and marker forms.
I began thinking that since most thru-hikes start at Springer, it is probably the first shelter new hikers see. If they see graffiti all over the shelter left by past hikers they probably assume this is an acceptable and almost expected way of announcing to the world that they were there and where they are going. It’s sort of like a wilderness version of Facebook or Twitter—only this “social media message board” is destructive, at times very vulgar and demeaning, and is in fact a criminal act.
I decided that this behavior was not conducive to an enjoyable experience for everyone and decided to try and change the graffiti permissive culture to one aligned with the principles of Leave No Trace. As with any cultural change, it will take education, diligence and most of all time. Thirty years ago smoking in office buildings, restaurants and even hospitals was a completely acceptable behavior, but today, you would not only be stared at and ridiculed but would be subject to a hefty fine. Peer pressure is a very powerful tool.
I discussed my graffiti eradication plans with my co-overseer Frank Wright, trail supervisor Marion Mclean and district leader David Stelts, and they all agreed it was a good idea. We wanted Springer to set the bar with hopes that if hikers stopped leaving their mark at Springer it would carry over up the Trail at other shelters. So with the help of my wife Patty, Frank and I waited for a day when the temperature was above 50 degrees and began our project.
We decided to first fill in all of the deep carvings with Elmer’s ProBond professional wood filler which is stainable and is approved for exterior use, and if it worked well, to return and take care of the less noticeable carvings. To remove Sharpie writings we used “Goof-Off” and sand paper. We waited a couple of days for the filler to dry (it normally takes 24 hours to dry, but with overnight temps in 20s it took longer) and I went to the tool shed and got a couple of gallons of the original stain used when the shelter was built.
We applied the original stain, but since it was transparent, the gray wood filler bled through and it looked worse than the graffiti! But after talking with a professional in the paint and stain department at Lowe’s, Patty and I were able to select a cover stain in a reddish brown color, enabling us to try and match the wood of the shelter and not be as noticeable.
Again we waited for a 50+ degree day and went back and sanded the original stain off of the wood filler and then applied the new cover stain. It worked! It not only covered the gray wood filler but was a very close match to the wood. The shelter was returned to her original glory—and instead of looking like an ogre in the woods, she had the warm welcoming glow of a Thomas Kincaid painting offering tired and sore hikers a dry, clean and graffiti-reduced haven.
I realize that every time I go to clean the shelter I will have to bring my can of cover stain and wood filler to remove new graffiti. But if we can begin to see a reduction in new graffiti within the first year of this project, it will be an investment that will pay big dividends in the future.
Robert J. Collins is the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club co-overseer of section 3.1 (Springer Mountain Summit to FS 42) and got his trail name “Psycho” after years of skydiving and BASE jumping.