LYNN NEARY, host:
In Lebanon, the tourism industry has been trying to bounce back from the effects of this summer's war with Israel. Prior to the start of the war, Lebanon had been anticipating its best tourist season ever. Optimism was so high that a team of three representatives from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy arrived in Beirut just six days before the war broke out. Their mission? To advise the Lebanese on creating their own national hiking trail, the Lebanon mountain trail. Their trip and the project itself is funded by U.S. Agency for International Development, also known as USAID.
Marianne Skeen has been a volunteer with the Appalachian Trail for 28 years. She was among those who traveled to Lebanon and she joins us now from WABE in Atlanta. Thanks so much for being with us, Marianne.
Ms. MARIANNE SKEEN (Appalachian Trail Volunteer): Thank you for having me.
NEARY: Can you explain exactly what your mission was in Lebanon? What did you go there to do?
Ms. SKEEN: Well, our mission was to just work with them, talk about things ranging from trail-building, trail design, to setting up an organization that would help sustain this effort in coming years. And it would be based on our model with the Appalachian Trail here.
NEARY: What was the effort though? What kind of trail did they want to build?
Ms. SKEEN: Their idea is to connect the villages in the rural parts of Lebanon. There are a number of ecological reserves, mostly surrounding the ancient cedar trees that are in Lebanon. And they have nature trails there. And those will form sort of the, you know, a framework for this longer trail. And there will be pieces that will connect that - agricultural roads and shepherds paths, things like that that will be used as sort of a latticework.
NEARY: As we mentioned, you arrived there six days before the war broke out. At that time, were there any worries about security along this trail?
Ms. SKEEN: Not really. In fact, we were working under the auspices of USAID. And so, in order for us to go, there was, you know, some formalities with the embassy and so forth. And just the amazing thing was that we were so taken with the optimism of the people when we were there, that this was going to be their best tourist season and people were actually moving back, some of the Diaspora was returning, and all the summer concerts were sold out. And so it was a great time of, you know, feeling of optimism.
NEARY: What were you doing when you got the news that war had broken out? And where were you?
Ms. SKEEN: Well, I happened to be in the north with one of the coordinators there. We were in this beautiful gorge, looking down toward an ancient monastery that was carved into the hillside. And so we were there. I was looking down at this wonderful monastery, and my cell phone rang and they said, you need to bring her back to Beirut because there's been a little incident.
NEARY: Did you experience any of the bombing attacks? Were you near any of them?
Ms. SKEEN: We weren't far, and we could hear the bombs, but it really was not personally traumatic in terms of personal safety. It was more traumatic just to see what was happening to these people who had become our friends. All of a sudden their lives were being shattered, and this great feeling of optimism was suddenly turned to disaster.
NEARY: And you actually had to be airlifted out.
Ms. SKEEN: We did. We actually were on the Marine helicopter - troop-carrying helicopter carried us out and took us to Cyprus.
NEARY: Did you have any idea, when you left Lebanon, any sense of the future of this trail that you had gone there to advise the Lebanese people about?
Ms. SKEEN: Well, we were really concerned about that, you know, especially since it is tied to tourism and economic development. But soon after we got back, we e-mailed our hosts and said, you know, we're back, we made it safely, thank you for helping us. And the response was, well, we're still having our staff meetings and as soon as the ceasefire comes, we're going to be back out in the field. And they are moving ahead. And they have events this fall. And they are optimistic about the future and hopeful that this funding will continue through USAID.
NEARY: Any idea what shape this Lebanon mountain trail will be in for next summer's tourist season?
Ms. SKEEN: I think they'll be ready; not the whole trail, but they're actually doing - they had a hike a couple weekends ago on one section of the trail, near the Shouf Cedar Reserve. They're doing training kinds of events for people. They'll teach them how to build a trail. And people are very much into this.
NEARY: Well, Marianne, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Ms. SKEEN: Well, Lynn, thank you for having me.
NEARY: Marianne Skeen is a longtime volunteer with the Appalachian Trial Conservancy, and a retired member of the Immunology Department at Emory University in Atlanta.
For more on the Lebanon Mountain Trail Project, go to npr.org.
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