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Everyday Heroes: Shad Baker blazing trails, quite literally, along Pine Mountain range

This story about Shad Baker and the Pine Mountain State Scenic Trail is taken from Steve Flairty’s 2008 book, Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes. As of July, the trail has 58 miles of marked trails. Baker is hopeful of completing the project within five years. Go to the Facebook page, Pine Mountain Trail Conference, for more information.

By Steve Flairty
KyForward columnist

In 1996, Jenkins resident Shad Baker and his backpacking friends waited out a rainstorm under a roof-leaking shelter in the Great Smokey Mountains. They were in the midst of a seven-day excursion, and nearly every day had been wet and foggy, with very little promised “beautiful scenery” visible.

Shad Baker (Photo provided)

Shad Baker (Photo provided)

Frustrated, someone in the group said, “You know, we’ve driven all these hours down here to see nothing. We live in the mountains back home. Why don’t we do this back home?” The group brainstormed a little while. They agreed that the familiar Pine Mountain range, where they lived, would be well suited to a long-distance trail.

The aggravation of the rain break turned into a good luck charm. Starting with that conversation, Kentucky is now well on its way to possessing a 120-mile hiking route along the Pine Mountains that stretches from Breaks Interstate Park, outside Elkhorn City, to Cumberland Gap, near Middlesboro.

The first official meeting of the hiking activists, now known as the Pine Mountain Trail Conference, was held in Ross Keegan’s coal company office in 1997. An action plan developed quite quickly because of two main factors. First, Shad Baker became the Letcher County‘s Cooperative Extension Agent for Agriculture and Natural Resourses, and “community development” was a viable part of his job description.

Keegan had some connections in place with his experiences working with agencies on mountain issues. National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service and interested individuals from Virginia soon joined in investigating the possibilities.  

At first, the group received a series of relatively small but helpful grants to start the project. One significant development happened with the aid of former Gov. Paul Patton. The Pine Mountain Trail gained official recognition by receiving a government sponsored Millennium Legacy grant. That act designated the trail as one which represents the past, present and future of the state, making the project eligible for a greater range of grants.

Still, Baker and Keegan began doing manual labor out on the trail “with only three volunteers, and some people didn’t think the whole idea would ever amount to anything,” said Baker. “Thinking piecemeal,” the term Baker used to describe his mindset when the project started, soon changed to something more grandiose when a county extension related trip to Washington, D.C., resulted in some unexpected but positive news.

“We were sitting in Congressman Hal Roger’s office and an aide asked us if there’s anything they could do for us back home,” Baker noted.

Several months later, with the words of the aide nearly forgotten, Baker was sitting in his Whitesburg office and received a phone call of congratulations. “The caller had read in the local paper that our project had been awarded a 1 million dollar grant through Hal Roger’s work. We had no idea that it was going to happen. It was almost like ‘divine appointment,’” Baker remarked, “and now, we could start thinking big.”

Baker quickly went about the business of working with the government to gain private property easements for the trail or to buy property outright, an arduous but absolutely necessary task. He received much support from his area extension director, David Adams. Baker also embarked upon a busy schedule of speaking to individuals and groups regarding the project, where “good people were fearful about losing their land and would get upset.”

In those cases, Baker used his easy-going, sincere nature, plus his regional roots to cultivate relationships and quell misunderstandings. It worked, and momentum for the endeavor increased.

Aided by enthusiastic involvement from the American Hiking Society, the volunteer force began to grow quickly. The organization committed to send groups of 15 a week for five weeks a year over a five-year period, allowing Baker‘s plans to solidify for the foreseeable future. Some of the individuals involved desired to come back on their own to do more, and Boy Scouts and similar groups became part of the force.

As publicity for the trail project grew, more and more individuals stepped forward, including people with passionate political views – both conservative and liberal. “We have had volunteers who worked together even though they wore their politics on their sleeves,” grinned Baker.

Hot discussions along the trail became, and still are, common, yet real progress continued in making the Pine Mountain Trail passable for all hikers. Kegan explained a reason for the unusual marriage of the two groups that has seemed to work well. “People have different reasons for wanting to be helping on the trail,” he said. “Some are strong environmentalists and others love being outdoors and active.”

From humble beginnings, the Pine Mountain Trail project is now functioning like a well-oiled machine. Recently, it has received groups of volunteers from the University of Wisconsin. To date, Baker noted that “over a thousand volunteers have taken part in the project, and it is hard work.” At this time, at least 45 miles of the 120 are marked and ready for humans to navigate by foot – and taste deliciously of Kentucky’s natural mountain beauty. It is hoped that the trail will someday be part of a coordinated series of connected trails from the Florida Keys to Lake Champlain in upstate New York.

While Baker is quick to point out the importance of his friend Kegan’s contributions to the project, Kegan is profuse in his praise of Baker. “Shad is a doggedly determined guy,” said Kegan. “He’s very organized and systematic and a good problem solver. He is 99% responsible for the success of Pine Mountain Trail project.”

Baker and Kegan share a common Christian faith, and Baker thinks it has been an influence on what has happened. “Ross and I committed this project to continual prayer, and we think God has had His hand in it all along the way.”

Baker’s tenacious and effective leadership, ignited when he realized that his own state of Kentucky offered nearby what he and friends had sought many miles away, has been the difference in the development of the Pine Mountain Trail to this juncture. The project promises to provide today’s and future generations a treasured look at the state’s inspiring beauty and will provide increased recreational opportunities that will out-of-state tourists. Shad Baker can take satisfaction in knowing that his vision will make Kentucky an even better place to live.


Steve Flairty is a lifelong Kentuckian, teacher, public speaker and author of five books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and four in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series. All of Steve’s books are available around the state or from the author, including his most recent, Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #3. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly as well as being a weekly KyForward contributor. Watch his KyForward columns for excerpts from all his books. He will soon be a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council’s Speakers Bureau. Contact Steve at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or “friend” him on Facebook. (Steve’s photo by Ernie Stamper)

For more from Steve Flairty, click here.

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