A Completed Trail
Avery and the ATC accepted Ozmer and Cole’s suggested route from Roanoke to the New River and in 1931, Avery worked out an arrangement with the U.S. Forest Service to have the trail climb up onto the Iron Mountain range near Byllesby Dam, where it then followed Iron Mountain all the way down to Damascus. In 1933, the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club, which had taken over responsibility for the trail from the Peaks of Otter to Bent Mountain, changed the northern end of the route so that it passed northwest of Roanoke along Catawba Mountain and past the legendary McAfee Knob. With these changes, the Appalachian Trail in Southwestern Virginia was completed.
Right away, the Appalachian Trail became an important part of the lives of the people living in Floyd, Patrick, Carroll, Grayson, and Washington Counties. Many local citizens volunteered to work on the trail, especially members of Boy Scout troops and 4-H clubs. But unlike elsewhere along the Appalachian Trail, no strong local trail club ever took root in Southwestern Virginia, largely because of the impact of the Great Depression that began just as the trail was coming to the area. People in these counties were often too busy surviving in those terrible economic times to also keep up a trail in the forest. As a result, much of the upkeep of the trail after its completion was carried out by volunteers from Roanoke, Lynchburg, or even Washington, D.C., who drove to the area when they could to keep the trail open and well-marked for hikers.
Despite the lack of a strong local organization, the Appalachian Trail in Southwestern Virginia drew hikers from many different states, including Georgia, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Ohio, Vermont, and Michigan, who brought with them stories of their home states and after 1945, tales of fighting in World War II. Sometimes they made local residents a little nervous due to their scruffy looks and sub-standard hygiene, but most of the time they provided exactly the kind of cultural exchange that Benton MacKaye had in mind when he first proposed the trail project.
For example in 1951, Gene Espy of Cordele, Georgia, became the second person to hike the entire trail in one year. When he arrived in downtown Galax that summer and went to the post office to check for mail from home, a reporter for the Galax Gazette went to interview “the walking man.” The reporter was particularly struck by Espy's beard, because in 1952, men with beards were a very uncommon site. Espy later wrote that people he met feared that because he had a beard he was either a hobo or a communist—either way someone to avoid. In fact, Espy was a Navy veteran of World War II, an engineering graduate of Georgia Tech University, and a devoted Christian who saw the glory of God in nature everywhere he went.
Espy told the sceptical reporter that he had, in fact, hiked all the way from Georgia and intended to hike all the way to Maine. Moreover, he explained, he was enjoying himself immensely, and had no fear of the wild animals he might meet along the way.