Atlantans is a first-person account of the familiar strangers who make the city tick. This month’s is park ranger, hiker, and author Jonah McDonald, as told to Thomas Wheatley.
In 2002, I was in my early 20s. I’d graduated college and was living in Portland, Oregon. It didn’t feel like home. I grew up in Memphis. I wanted to be around the diversity of spaces and people again—the food, the music. At the same time I wanted to live in a place that felt like the world. What better place to find that than in Atlanta?
I wanted to make my community and my world a better place. But my brain told me I couldn’t take any major steps in my life if I didn’t know what the final outcome would be. I decided that hiking the Appalachian Trail would give me the answers. I took a plane, train, and car to Maine and started hiking the trail to Atlanta, my new home.
After six months and around 2,000 miles of hiking, I arrived in Georgia and my mindset had changed. I realized that we need to take one step, and then look around and see what’s unfolding in our lives, and then take the next step. That became my mantra: Take one step, then wait for guidance. Take another step, wait for guidance.
After I moved here in 2003, I got a job teaching history and social studies. The school’s director found out I had hiked the Appalachian Trail and asked me to start a wilderness program. I ended up quitting teaching and starting my own business running nature programs for independent schools across metro Atlanta. After some long school bus rides to North Georgia, I started looking around intown for places that felt like “real nature,” whatever that is. I would just go through Google Maps and look for the green areas. Then, I’d drive or ride a bicycle to the green area on the map and kind of poke around. I asked other folks about their favorite places. There were a few places that were incredibly amazing and barely had an entryway sign.
I discovered that Atlanta had all of these hidden forests and pockets of nature—over 90 hidden forests that were all a short drive from my house. I started compiling them into a book, Hiking Atlanta’s Hidden Forests: Intown and Out.
I’m somebody who’s hiked this big long adventure. The real adventure for me is finding these pockets of nature and a connection to nature so close to home and then watching these pockets cycle through the seasons. A tree that I used to love falls. I mourn it and realize that the root ball sticking up is now a habitat for animals. Suddenly, there’s sunlight touching the forest floor, and I see the new saplings grow. That brings me even more appreciation for the environment around me—more than that giant hike that took six months.
Today, I am a ranger at Mason Mill Park in DeKalb. I get to be in one of these intown forests every single day. Every day, when I walk around this park, I learn something new. Even on weekends when I’m not working, I bring my family here. When I’m giving kids tours, I like to take them “bushwhacking” off the trail. I bring them to a wreck of an automobile, hidden in the middle of the woods, surrounded by privet, wisteria, and loblolly pine. It’s been there since at least the 1960s. The kids feel like they’ve gone on a giant adventure. Kids have sparkles in their eyes, and we could learn from them.
Sometimes, we miss what’s right in front of us because we’re busy or just don’t have enough information about what we’re seeing. A few years ago, my friend Eli Dickerson, the ecologist at Fernbank Museum of Natural History, showed me what a pawpaw is. Now I see them everywhere. Recently, I wrote a book called Secret Atlanta: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure. I didn’t know there was a sandy beach in the tiny town of Pine Lake in DeKalb—20 minutes from my house. We can live in a city for as long as we do and still find new and exciting things every day. I think secrets are things we often think of as impediments to friendship and to connection. But sharing the secrets that we know with each other can break down those boundaries. We can build a connection with somebody and make this town a place that’s for all of us.
This article appears in our November 2021 issue.