GATLINBURG, Tenn. - The graffiti begins at the entrance to the trail shelter where sweethearts have carved their names in the wooden posts as symbols of their everlasting love.
The horizontal boards beneath the shelter's overhanging roof reveal the handiwork of a half-dozen hikers who have signed their trail names along with the date of their arrival. Inside the shelter, the sleeping platforms are covered with more names, numerals, and random doodlings, some scrawled in marker, some whittled by knife.
All this graffiti can be found at the Icewater Springs shelter, one of 12 shelters along the 72-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. While graffiti is nothing new, trail managers say the problem has reached new heights over the past two years. A special concern is that unlike in the past when graffiti was concentrated along accessible portions of the trail, more and more graffiti now is showing up in the remote backcountry, including the trail shelters in the Smokies.
"We have a consistent issue with graffiti at historical structures throughout the park, especially in Cades Cove," said Christine Hoyer, backcountry specialist for the Smokies. "What we've seen recently is a rise of graffiti along the Appalachian Trail. The challenge is how to deal with it. If we remove it, are we just providing another canvas?"
Graffiti anywhere in the Smokies is illegal because it amounts to defacing government property. The same law applies where the trail crosses national forest lands. Enforcement is a challenge, and, as of now, the park has not caught and fined anyone for leaving graffiti along the Appalachian Trail. A rare case where someone was cited occurred in 2012 when a member of the Carolina Mountain Club observed graffiti at multiple sites on Bluff Mountain in the Pisgah National Forest and reported it to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy's southern regional office. They knew they were dealing with a thru-hiker (someone who hikes the entire trail from Georgia to Maine) because the person had written his trail name followed by "2012 GA to ME."
Camera phone images of the graffiti were sent to the Appalachian National Scenic Trail office in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., and eventually the perpetrator was identified and fined.
Graffiti is as old as antiquity. Law enforcement and land managers are reluctant to attach an explanation to the upsurge in backcountry graffiti -- less awareness of the "leave no trace" ethic among backcountry travelers is one hypothesis -- but they agree that most of the long-distance hikers who deface the trail shelters aren't acting maliciously.
"It's kind of a snowball effect," said John Odell, resource management coordinator for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy's southern regional office. "If people see graffiti in one spot, they think it's OK. One thing we've discussed is the need for volunteers or anyone along the A.T. to remove the graffiti as soon as it shows up. That at least sends the message that graffiti is not condoned, that we're trying to get rid of it."
An estimated 2.5 million people hike some portion of the Appalachian Trail each year. In the spring, about 2,300 thru-hikers set out from Springer Mountain in Georgia with the goal of making it all the way to Mount Katahdin in central Maine. The trail crosses 14 states and passes through eight national forests, six national parks, and numerous state forests as it traverses one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world.
The trail is a unit of the National Park Service, and is managed through a unique partnership with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the nonprofit that helps coordinate the 31 volunteer trail clubs that maintain the trail over its 2,189 miles. In the Smokies, the trail is maintained by the Knoxville-based Smoky Mountains Hiking Club. The club was nationally recognized in 2012 for its outstanding volunteer service, including its 15-year effort to rebuild and upgrade all the trail shelters in the park.
Todd Remaley, the National Park Service's chief ranger along the Appalachian Trail, said trail clubs, along with the "ridgerunners" hired by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, are on the front lines for reporting graffiti in the backcountry.
"We have roughly 7,000 volunteers spread across the A.T.," Remaley said. "They're often the first to report it, and most of the time, they're the ones who have to clean it up."
Remaley said that depending on the surface, the graffiti may have to be removed with chemicals and a wire brush, or painted over.
"One thing we have to watch is that the medicine isn't worse than the disease," he said.
In recent years law enforcement has dealt with dozens of graffiti cases along the A.T. -- some involving one site, others involving multiple cases of graffiti left on trail signs and shelters by the same backpacker. Camera phones and social media have made it easier for law enforcers to identify the culprits, but at the same time, networking sites like Facebook may also exacerbate the problem by providing a platform for graffiti artists to show off their handiwork.
The punishment for leaving graffiti along the trail varies. Typically there's a basic fine, coupled with a restitution fee to cover the cost of removing the defacement. Violators may be required to help with the clean up, or perform educational outreach. In some cases, federal judges have temporarily barred guilty individuals from federal lands.
"I've dealt with this problem a fair amount over the last couple of years, and one thing I'm sure of after interviewing hikers is that graffiti still is unacceptable in the distance-hiking community," said Remaley. "I was glad to hear that."
In 1993, three years after he thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, Remaley became a seasonal backcountry ranger with the Smokies. While working for the park he received word that someone had scrawled graffiti up and down the trail. On his day off, Remaley carried a video recorder into the backcountry to document the evidence. The hiker had used two different colors of marker to write his initials on 23 sites, including trail shelters, trees and even rocks. Much of the graffiti consisted of messages intended for his hiking companion, who was following him on the trail.
After checking backcountry permits and interviewing other hikers, the park's law enforcement was able to trace the hiker to his home in New York. The penalty was just less that $1,000.
"Back then, graffiti seemed rare," Remaley said. "Now, it's more pervasive, particularly among folks that are traveling long distances on the A.T. The A.T. sees the same problems as the rest of society. People think parks are immune to the broader culture, but unfortunately, that's not the case."
Contact Morgan Simmons at firstname.lastname@example.org or 865-342-6321.