Outdoors: This outdoor life

Not all Gen-Xers take years to figure out what they want to do with their lives. Tobias Miller, now 36, has known since high school that he wanted to work outdoors. As South District maintenance-worker supervisor for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Miller got his wish. He’s responsible for the entire North Carolina side of the park—400 miles of trails and 69 cemeteries containing 2,011 gravesites.

Trail meister: Tobias Miller supervises the maintenance of 400 miles of trails and numerous old cemeteries in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Photo by Danny Bernstein

As a teen in San Antonio, Texas, Miller volunteered with the Student Conservation Association, a nonprofit that “gives you a taste of the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service,” he says. Through the association, Miller spent six weeks as a volunteer on the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail in Colorado.

“In college, I worked for the Forest Service, first fighting fires, but there was too much sitting around waiting for fires, so I moved to the trail crew,” he explains. After graduation, Miller interned as a trail-crew leader for the Appalachian Trail in Maine and briefly worked for Delta Airlines.

From there, he moved up to part-time, temporary Park Service work, first at Big Bend National Park in Texas, then at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. To make extra money, he worked on historic-cabin preservation during the off-season. “There is a downside to this outdoor life,” notes Miller. “It takes a long time to score a full-time, permanent position.”

Eventually, however, he nabbed the Smokies job. Miller’s parents were living in Atlanta by then, so the post was near perfect. “This is my first Eastern park and first permanent job,” he reveals.

Trail maintenance is Miller’s top priority, despite budget constraints. “Trails always seem the easiest place to cut money,” he says. “Other maintenance tasks can’t be ignored: You have to clean bathrooms.”

But a new funding initiative—Smokies Trails Forever—has spurred trail-maintenance projects in the park (see “Outdoors: Trails Forever,” April 8 Xpress). “Right now, we have a great volunteer crew on Forney Creek Trail,” Miller reports, though they initially needed some educating about the realities of trail work. “When we first started this program, some people brought their small children with them.”

Miller also deals with a variety of trail users, including bloggers who complain, “I don’t walk at Cataloochee because of the horse s**t.” But the chief ranger’s response was: “These trails are in the backcountry. They’re supposed to be primitive.” As he also points out, while hikers may not be a particularly vocal group, horse enthusiasts seem to be outspoken, well-organized and well-connected when it comes to their favorite trails.

All told, the park now has almost 800 miles of maintained, public trails. Can Miller envision adding new ones? “No. We don’t have the resources to maintain and patrol the trails we have.”

Besides, his duties don’t stop there.

For those who wish to visit cemeteries where their ancestors are buried, the Park Service provides free boat transportation across Fontana Lake and a ride as close as vehicles can get. The ones on North Shore Road and in Cataloochee are the most visited, says Miller, but his crew doesn’t play favorites. “We maintain all cemeteries at the same level even if no one goes to them. If you miss cleaning up a cemetery, there’s hell to pay,” he notes.

But since Miller works where others play, what does he do for fun? In fact, he says, he gets to spend a mere 25 percent of his work time outdoors, due to shrinking budgets that put more administrative tasks on his plate.

Nonetheless, says Miller, “I want to pass on my love of the outdoors to my boys.” Combining work and play, he adds, “We’ve adopted the Richland Balsam Trail off the Blue Ridge Parkway: We go out and talk about animals and plants as I clear the trail.” He also finds time to mountain bike. And then there’s a little project close to home in Sylva: the 1,100-acre Pinnacle Park, owned by the town but managed under a conservation easement by the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee.

“I’m helping them develop a trail system and campsites,” says Miller, adding, “I never get bored.”

[Hike leader and outdoors writer Danny Bernstein is the author of Hiking North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Heritage. She can be reached at danny@hikertohiker.com.]

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