Tribune Print Share Text

The adventurous life of a trailblazer

Ashby Ponds resident is outdoors pretty much all year

Created date

September 22nd, 2014
man in front of a fireplace

“Spending time outdoors is both refreshing and satisfying,” says Benjamin (Ben) FitzGerald. “There’s a quiet peace you can’t find anywhere else.” 

A lifelong nature lover, hiker, and photographer, Ben, who lives at Ponds, an Erickson Living community in Ashburn, Va., currently enjoys volunteering his time as a trail manager with the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC). 

The PATC, along with 30 other regional trail clubs, maintains sections of the 2,175-mile historic Appalachian Trail extending from Mount Katahdin, Maine, to Springer Mountain, Georgia. The 240-mile segment of the trail managed by the PATC begins at Pine Grove Furnace, Pennsylvania, and ends at Rockfish Gap, the southern end of Shenandoah Park in Virginia. 

Ben, along with two other trail managers, is responsible for a 2.5-mile portion of the trail in Fauquier County, near Linden, Va.

“As a hiker, I recognize what makes a trail safe and beautiful,” says Ben. “There is no greater satisfaction than receiving compliments from hikers as they travel along our piece of the trail. Often, they stop and chit-chat with us as we work, telling us that we maintain the best section of trails.” 

Date with destiny

After retiring from a distinguished 23-year career with the Army, and 19 additional years working within the private sector, Ben began taking full advantage of his newfound freedom spending time in the great outdoors.

“While raising two children, my wife Arlene and I enjoyed an occasional distance hike, but we didn’t have the time to devote to it like we do now,” says Ben. 

Since his retirement, Ben has hiked all 42 miles of the Cross County Trail in Fairfax County, extending from Great Falls to Lorton.  As a member of the Knights of Columbus, he met a number of men who also enjoyed hiking and volunteered their time as trail managers.

“They asked me if I’d like to join them and I said, ‘Sure!’ It was something I never had time for prior to retiring,” he says.

In 2004, Ben and one of his fellow trail managers completed the 192-mile Coast-to-Coast Trail in England, traveling from the Irish Sea to the North Sea, over 12 days.

And he and Arlene continue to spend vacations walking and hiking throughout Ireland, England, and France.  

Hard at work

“The decision to begin working as a trail manager was an easy one,” says Ben. “I love to hike and it’s a job that requires as much time as you are able to give.”

Typical maintenance work on the trail includes cleaning debris, cutting weeds, trimming branches, removing downed trees, building natural steps, water bars, and check dams.  

“If there’s a particularly bad winter, as the one we had this past year, we visit the trail more often,” says Ben.

A majority of trail maintenance occurs during the early spring as Ben and his fellow trail managers prepare for the large number of hikers reaching the Virginia portion of the Appalachian Trail at the end of May or early June. 

“Most hikers begin their hike of the Appalachian Trail in February or March from the trail’s beginning in Georgia,” says Ben. “We take great care to be ready for their arrival.”

Ben also makes time for participating in trail work camps in the Shenandoah National Park in the fall.  

“Over the course of a week, six to eight volunteers come together to work on the side trails and whatever else the park rangers need,” says Ben. 

More than just work

In addition to hiking and performing trail maintenance, Ben enjoys studying plants and photography, hobbies he enjoyed while traveling extensively over the course of his career.

“Since my time in Vietnam, I travel with a camera, capturing images of my surroundings,” says Ben. “Each spring, we enjoy watching the trillium flowers bloom in great profusion around the portion of the trail that we maintain.”

Both Ben and Arlene are members of the Virginia Native Plant Society. They enjoy taking part in annual weeklong trips with the society to view some of nature’s most remarkable plant life. 

“Last year, while hiking in the Smoky Mountains, Arlene and I saw seven of the nine trillium varieties found in the area,” says Ben. “A few years ago, we traveled to the Bruce Peninsula in Ontario, Canada, where you can still see glacial plants. The peninsula is a repository for plants that don’t exist anywhere else in the world.”

Coming indoors

Ben’s time on the trails also energizes him for the wide variety of activities that fill his busy calendar. Since moving to Ashby Ponds in 2012, he’s joined the woodworking club, serving as the group’s treasurer, and is a member of the Resident Council’s elections committee.

Recently, he performed the role of the detective in the Ashby Ponds Players performance of Murder and Cookies.

“I never did anything like that before and it was a lot of fun,” he says.

Ben also travels to INOVA Fairfax Hospital each Wednesday to volunteer at the Heart Center and the Main Tower Building. 

And with the crisp, fall weather approaching, he will be spending more time on the trail, preparing for the winter. 

“I always look forward to getting the exercise, and being able to observe nature and be part of it,” says Ben. “I would recommend it to everyone.”