Projects: Technology on the Trail Class Projects Spring 2017

The Spring 2017 school term provided the opportunity for senior grad students across multiple disciplines to help shape Virginia Tech’s approach to the study of technology on the trail. This group had the added motivation that they had the opportunity to interact with attendees at the Technology on the Trail Workshop at Virginia Tech, including invited guests Alan Dix, Allison Druin, Ellie Harmon, and Norman Su. Below is a summary of the projects that they undertook.

NOTE: most of the students continued their work on the projects, and many resulted in papers, theses, and dissertations. This post has been and will continue to be updated with links to new papers.

  • Identities and Values Reflected in Tweets Regarding America’s Triple Crown Hiking Trails. Master’s student Abigail Bartolome applied topic analysis to collections of tweets pertaining to three distinct American trails–the Appalachian Trail (AT), the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), and the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) to see differences in topic models across the three hiking communities. This research compared the most popular topics from each community with their respective mission statements and values. Abigail featured this work in her M.S. thesis, advised by Edward Fox with committee members Scott McCrickard and Jeff Marion. Abigail is now working on a Ph.D. at Dartmouth University.
  • Would you rather – Probing Tradeoffs with Technology in Hiking and Outdoors Settings Identities and Values Reflected in Tweets Regarding America’s Triple Crown Hiking Trails. Grad students Navya Kondur and Jagath Iyer collected opinions through a “Would you Rather” cultural probe to understand perceptions of humans toward technology in hiking and outdoor settings. This work was continued by Navya toward her M.S. thesis.
  • Augmented Reality for Outdoor Navigation. Wallace Lages investigated how augmented reality can be used to support the creation of new routes on the trail, crafting the design, implementation, and early evaluation of a system for defining waypoints using the Microsoft Hololens. This research describes and compares two techniques for marking, one based on triangulation and another based on perceptual depth judgment. Initial evaluation shows that both techniques offer similar accuracy in long distances and small baselines, and that triangulation can be better for wide baselines. Wallace completed his Ph.D. at Virginia Tech and has taken a faculty position in Virginia Tech’s School of Visual Arts.
  • AwareSpace: Supporting Co-located Document Exploration with Touch, Text-mining and Visualization. Shuo Niu used surface technologies, a tabletop computer, and a vertical large display to support dynamic explorations of textual data—with a focus on social media data like blogs and tweets. The displays highlight hints on possible knowledge of interest, often surprising the authors of the blog. Shuo featured the tool at the Technology on the Trail workshop, surprising workshop invited guests Alan Dix and Ellie Harmon with insights about their own blogs. Shuo featured this work in his Ph.D., which he completed in 2019. Shuo is now an Assistant Professor at Clark University.
  • Zen and the Art of Forest Bathing. Colin Shea-Blymeyer sought to determine if mindful hikers get more out of hiking, and to develop an application to promote mindfulness on the trail. He catalogued a personal experience that demonstrated the scientific and emotional possibilities for this line of research. Colin completed his M.S. degree from Virginia Tech with Ben Jantzen in philosophy.
  • Hiking the Appalachian Trail with Technology. Tim Stelter was my only student who took me up on the challenge to hike 100 miles noting tech experiences along the way for an automatic “A” in the class. (I was joking, but I assumed anyone who did this would earn that grade.) Tim accrued over a dozen different pieces of technology and recruited his father to go with him on a portion of the Appalachian Trail. He took notes and made audio recordings along the way. His attempt attracted the attention of the Roanoke Times, which featured a story about his journey, along with other parts of our workshop. Tim submitted a diary-style writeup for the course. Since the course ended, he has generated 3 position papers at workshops based on his hike, and he is looking to incorporate the lessons learned from the hike into a thesis or dissertation.
  • Modeling Hiking Trails in 3D using GPS Tracks. Phillip Summers crafted visualizations of hiking trails in a 3D interactive environment using geographic information from users traveling the Tour du Mont Blanc who uploaded their data to Wikiloc. The project cleaned raw GPS data, aggregated points on a continuous space disconnected from streets and waypoints. Mont Blanc was chosen because, at the time, it was known for many people uploading GPS data for public use.

Reading Reflection: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, died yesterday. His book is one of the historically great Technology on the Trail books, balancing tech issues of maintaining a motorcycle with the experiences afforded by a road trip through small towns with his son. I’ve read it previously and picked it up again after hearing of Pirsig’s death—it’s interesting to reconnect with his journey after recently reading and hearing about the journeys identified in preparation for our Technology on the Trail initiative.

Worth a look if you’re not familiar with it, and worth a look if you haven’t looked in a while.  Good luck finding a copy…I suspect there will be a run on the copies for a while.

Reading Group Summary: Harmon, the PCT, and Communication


Ellie Harmon explore how technology can lead to stress. It will be up to our group to explore implications about the findings about technology on trail-based activities. (Ambitious people can track down Ellie’s dissertation, which talks about technology and her PCT experience.)


  • Brief revisit of reading group and introductions of anyone new
    • Attendance: 5 people (1 professor, 3 graduate students, 1 undergraduate student)
  • Summarize papers
  • Discuss papers


This was our first paper for the reading group which was not expressly connected to trails, so we all connected the messages and tension of disconnection to the context of hiking in our own ways. Earlier that week, Dr. McCrickard and I (Gracie) had spoken with Ellie Harmon over Skype to pick her brain about Technology on the Trail and ask questions related to her hike of the Pacific Crest Trial (which she discusses in her dissertation), so we had some extra insight to bring to the table.

The group first discussed the differences between technologies that are fads (like the Hololens and Pokemon Go) and technologies that integrate themselves into our lives (like smartphones and laptops). We also revisited several times the ways in which we as a society view the past with rose-colored lenses. We have a picture of America in the 50s where families ate together lovingly every day, but there have always been distractions even before smartphones.

One group member suggested that instead of having a false binary or even a continuum to portray disconnection and integration, we might instead strive for a metaphorical tapestry that weaves together threads from both sides to create the ideal situation. We could consciously choose when to experience integration with technology and where we can disintegrate, such as when needing concentrated time for studying.

We also touched on how people feel vs how they appear. Someone might view themself as being one of the two positive images, but that’s never wholly true. We also intentionally wield technology to portray an image, such as pulling out a phone to appear busy even if you’re looking at a blank screen. Even then, outsiders might believe they’re playing a game rather than working. We also talked about how some people see technology use as antisocial and negative even though they’d see something like reading a book as intellectual and admirable. The person on the phone could in fact be reading a book, but it still has a far different connotation.

Touching on early adopters again, we talked about why people are so interested in being on the first (often expensive) wave of technology users. There are hikers who are excited about trying the latest gadgets out on trails. We talked about the social status is brings for being “first” or even “best” at technology, but we also talked about how the new experience itself is a nice bonus. One group member brought up the luddite image by suggesting there might be an adoption curve of sorts which starts with early adopters, rises into general use, and hits a plateau upon which anyone who isn’t using it appears to be out of touch with technology.

One member brought up the effect of having constant stimulus from technology and whether this creates a lack of boredom in our culture. They brought up a cub scout troop which, as they got older, went on their first camping for an extended period of time, and many of the young boys were unused to long periods with nothing to do (and they had a no technology rule in the troop). Technology has the potential to provide constant stimulus in our daily lives, and some members felt this could be an addiction.

We also discussed the enabling effect of technology for working from home or otherwise remotely. Many trails even have satellite or cell signal now. One member felt that being physically disconnected from work when leaving for camping or other remote experiences created more thorough preparation before leaving. That is, if you wanted to accomplish work while camping, you had to be entirely sure to pack it and all relevant files beforehand because there was no way to remotely access your workplace.

We finished by musing on the effect of being able to take thousands of photos because we’re not longer limited by film. One member talked about how they valued selfies from a particular distant friend because said friend rarely took any selfies at all, so the low volume made each one more special. We also brought up Dr. Harmon’s anecdote from the phone conversation about limiting herself to one photograph uploaded to Instagram daily during her PCT hike, and this made the set of photos far more appealing after the fact. Some members also felt that technology like smartphone cameras can interrupt or detract from experiences of the outdoors.

Reading Reflection: She Walks These Hills

Julia with a copy of McCrumb’s book.

With ancestry members dating back a hundred years ago as circuit preachers in North Carolina’s Smokey Mountains, author Sharyn McCrumb has inherited her ancestors’ love for the mountains has extended to the Appalachian Mountains. The nature of the Appalachians and its surrounding community is clearly shown through her fictional novel, She Walks These Hills. The novel not only depicts the juxtaposition of past and present and inexperienced hikers from experienced hikers on the Appalachian Trail but also the Trail’s lasting effect on nearby communities.

Viewpoints of the Trail, Novice and Experienced

As the novel shifts viewpoints, we are able to experience varying perspectives of the Appalachian trail. First time hiker and historian, Jeremy Cobb is backpacking through the Appalachian Trail in hopes of understanding the journey of Katie Wyler, a woman back in 1779 who was kidnapped by the local Indian Tribe but escaped and traveled through the mountains to get back home. Jeremy views the trail as parts that are necessary in order for him to reach his final destination.

Besides his unfortunate experiences with the weather and lack of survival knowledge for the wild, Jeremy simply tracks his progress through the mountains as a scholar, quantifying distances and describing his location based on map locations. In the beginning of his hike, his focus towards reaching his goal is shown with his descriptions of where he needs to walk such as,

The Bridge leading to the Iron Mountain Trail was within sight of the road, giving him a feeling of trail mastery that was perhaps unwarranted, but was reassuring nonetheless.” 

This gives insight on how individuals might have changed their perspective while on the trail; to go hiking to reach a destination with an end goal and not to hike simply for the pure enjoyment of it.

In contrast to the first-time hiker, Harm Sorely, an escaped convict with memory loss, travels the Appalachian Trail with a destination in mind but often becoming distracted by the changes in wildlife he observes in addition to forgetting what he was doing moments before. His description of the trail can be described as that of a man returning home after a long period of absence. Unlike Jeremy, Harm is unafraid of possible challenges that he could encounter and simply relies on his knowledgeable experiences from the past and luck from God. As an escaped convict, he has no map or supplies and simply uses instinct and general intuition as to where he needs to walk to get back home.

Harm is described as the last true renegade of his time, where he simply didn’t commit crimes as an act of malice but more as a form of entertainment or justice. He represents the way the Appalachian was in the past: primitive and uncivilized but also displays an area of familiarity and refuge for those willing to encounter it. As he travels through the trail, he travels as a hiker of the past: without maps or superfluous amounts of supplies. On the other hand, Jeremy represents the present as he walks through the Trail with maps, books, solar showers, tons of canned foods and more.

Inexperienced vs Experienced Hikers

Through the various journeys of the different characters, we are able to view and observe the difference between an experienced and inexperienced hiker.

Jeremy, a scholar who has never hiked before, enters the Trail ambitious. He views himself as, “an educated man, planning to hike in a “wilderness” dotted with villages”. For his journey, he initially carries

a wool blanket; candy bars; a water purification kit; a camp stove and extra fuel; some used paperbacks; and field guides to birds, flowers, minerals, and reptiles so that he could better understand his journey”.

By the end of the novel, he has either discarded or lost all of his items and is in such a poor physical condition that he is almost unable to walk and in need of medical assistance.

Since Harm escaped from the prison he was in, Harm entered the trail empty-handed. However, as a country native, he was able to successfully survive his journey without facing many of the hardships that Jeremy faced. His walk through the trail is seen as a calming and dazed (since he can’t remember anything in the present) experience. He takes his journey one step at a time, often relying on his knowledge of the Trail and God to supply him with what he needs. Somehow, even with his jaded memory he is able to successfully reach his destination as if it were a stroll in the park instead of a hike through the Appalachian Trail.

With the juxtaposition of an inexperienced and experienced hiker, it makes us reflect on what’s important when hiking: supplies or experience. This can be relevant for Technology on the Trail as there can be a combination of the two which can be used to enhance the experience of the hiker while not hindering the hiker’s connection with nature.

Effect on Community

Since She Walks These Hills was published in 1994, certain aspects of the novel have changed significantly. The most distinct difference is the way people communicated and spread information with each other. Unlike today, where people can easily communicate with each other by email, text, phone, or social media, the town in which the novel takes place communicates primarily through word of mouth, stories, and by hearing information on the radio.

Information is spread through the whole community by listening to the radio host, Hank the Yank. As Hank the Yank is investigating the escape of Harm, he tries to gain information about the escaped convict. While he attempts to research the topic by going to the library and looking at old newspaper articles, the best information he receives is through hearing the local gossip and the stories that the locals tell him when the call in. He realizes this while he is talking to a librarian worker when the worker tells Hank,

See, in small towns people don’t find things out from reading the newspaper… Gossip takes care of most of the local news long before the paper comes out, and certain topics never make it into print at all”.

This take on communication is relevant to Technology on the Trail since it reconsiders how to allow people to communicate on the Trail. While maps and GPS will help a hiker reach their destination, could they also gain information from local/experienced hikers to find a quicker/less dangerous route to reach their destination?

Overall, Sharon McCrumb’s novel, She Walks These Hills, was an insightful novel. Not only did it have a great story comprised of a bunch of separate stories that merged and connected at the very end, but it also made me realize that in order for Technology on the Trail to be successful, it must find a way to seamlessly merge technology with experience in order to help and enhance a hiker’s journey through the wilderness.