Three years ago, Michael Applegate—known as Apple to friends— was biking the trails of Laurel Hill Park when he found several blocks along the pathway that hindered his ability to continue. Overgrown shrubbery, tick-filled grass, mud-covered potholes—there was work to be done.
“The next day, I came back with a mower and other tools and started to clear things up,” says Applegate, who lives with his wife a few miles up the road in Fairfax County. “I retired in 2016 from the Marine Corps to really do this full-time. Now I get to come out and play every day.”
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The grounds were once home to part of the Lorton Reformatory in the 1900s, giving inmates the chance to practice a trade in the gardens and surrounding forestry. But when the Fairfax County Park Authority took over as caretakers of the 12-mile park following the closure of the facility, maintaining upkeep was a challenge.
“The county has great parks, but they have too many of them and don’t have the budget to take care of them all,” says Applegate.
No matter the season, you can find Applegate outside tending to the grounds. Since he started volunteering full-time, Applegate has dedicated about 1,200 hours every year (or 30 hours a week) to solely Laurel Hill Park, singlehandedly benefiting the surrounding community that utilizes the grounds on a regular basis.
In 2018, Applegate was honored by the Fairfax County Park Authority with the Elly Doyle Volunteer Service Award, as well as by the National Association of County Park and Recreation Officials for being an outstanding volunteer. And even with the recognition, he continues to take his John Deere Gator out on the trails from Monday through Friday.
While he has no professional experience with horticulture, fixing storm damage or improving the physical surface of a landscape, his 30-plus years in the Marine Corps enabled him to learn as he goes. Now his daily tasks consist of cutting vines from trees to enable growth, maintaining safety measures along the land for the equestrians and families who wander the pathways, and even molding slopes for bikers that have a dual function of reducing storm runoff.
“They reduce runoff from rain on the trails, but they’re also just fun as hell for bikers,” says Applegate.
Applegate receives no payment for his labor, yet is given complete freedom and responsibility over the grounds. In fact, as of January of last year, the Fairfax County Park Authority had provided him with over 240 tons of material to maintain the property, as well as his very own John Deere to get from place to place each day.
As for his favorite part of the work? Bringing new life to the local trails by trimming and growing trees, hoping to eventually plant enough maple and cherry trees to one day enclose the majority of the pathways with forestry.
And despite checking in with the Fairfax County Park Authority to receive more supplies or an update on the landscape, Applegate can reach that goal with a plan of his own.
“There are no more meetings for me,” Applegate says with a smile in reference to his schedule. “I just figure out what I need to do and enjoy the freedom I have to do it.”