HIKING THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL (THE REAL ONE)
At the unpleasant hour of 4:16 a.m. one Monday, I woke up with the mostly pleasant realization that I would never walk the entire Appalachian Trail in one calendar year.
This monkey was now off my back. I was, however, upset that I would not have the opportunity to fail.
First, it’s big. The Appalachian Trail, or AT, is a near 2,200-mile-long footpath that links Maine’s Mount Katahdin to Georgia’s Springer Mountain. Most of its narrow corridor lies on public land in the series of mountains that run from Alabama to the Atlantic Ocean off Newfoundland. Volunteers maintain the trails and shelters in 14 states.
Over the years, I’ve walked Trail sections in New Hampshire, Virginia and North Carolina. I’ve been rained on, snowed on and sniffed up in my tent at night by a gregarious bear who had dedicated his life to greeting campers bearing Snickers and “gorp,” a trail mix made of peanuts, raisins and M&Ms. I’ve also napped on a 5,000-foot-high bald in an early spring’s sun.
Now, a five-to-ten-mile AT hike is usually fun. There’s enough sweat generated to make the nice views feel earned and the calories of no consequence.
But walking the entire Trail is a test of both fitness and character. I’ve always thought that it would be more mental than physical, a matter of willing yourself to push through endless, plodding drudgery. Bill Bryson, who spent parts of a year completing about 40 percent of the Trail, described it in A Walk in the Woods (1997) as the hardest thing he has ever done.
Much of the Trail’s hiking is through dense woods with limited views. Some of the up-down is very steep and treacherous. Weather will range from 100 degrees to way below freezing with wind storms. Thru-hikers can count on snow in the spring and fall at each end. Rain will settle in for three or four days straight. Biting bugs cloud up around your head in the north woods; deer ticks carry Lyme Disease; mice infest the shelters. Some sections are dangerous—knife-edge ridges, rock-face scrambles, water crossings and ball-bearings for footing.
Water has to be filtered or treated. As for food, carried items tends to be dull and heavy toward sugar and fat calories. It’s common for hikers to crave civilization’s junk food—pizzas, ice cream, fries and other grease.
When I came out of four or five days in the Presidential Range years ago, I gulped seven chocolate sodas (14 scoops of chocolate ice cream, and this was back when scoops were scoops not teaspoons with inflated egos) at a drug-store counter in Randolph, New Hampshire. The owner who fixed me up understood.
(Side note: If you’re looking to get lost or otherwise go on the lam, the most remote AT section is the 100-Mile Wilderness in Maine. For ease, here in Virginia it’s the least hilly).
Often, the written accounts of thru-hikers are framed in misery and deprivation—accepted as the norm. Writers emphasize the occasional life-threatening mishap; weird characters that appear and disappear; squabbles with companions; rank body odors; off-trail runs for showers; and encounters with strangers (some of whom are genuinely strange, like the family of a tax-resister who hiked through knee-deep snow as the mother nursed her baby).
There is an addictive aspect to trail trudging. Trudging focuses your life on repeatedly getting one foot safely in front of the other, on making your daily miles, on eating calories and drinking water, on staying dry, and on finishing something through sustained, uncomfortable individual effort.
Perhaps AT trudging starts to fill a psychological hole, a need. Some think that it works as religions do, showing a way to something better through belief and participation. Trail sweat becomes purification. Others think it’s not unlike serving time and, one hopes, coming out the better for it. And having said all of that, most serious hikers feel that any day on the Trail is a better day than anywhere else that comes to mind.
Still, some thru-hikers think themselves morally flawed if they stop for a time or quit altogether. Bryson and his friend, Stephen Katz, left the Trail in the 100-Mile Wilderness. But they concluded with a sense that they had accomplished a lot – or enough –even though they had not finished as they had planned.
Sisters Lucy and Susan Letcher completed the trip from North to South barefoot, except in snow. This choice, they write, was simply a matter of feeling better without boots than with. (The Barefoot Sisters Southbound, 2009.) Yet their miseries seem to have been no greater than those, like me, who swear by Peter Limmer boots, which are built like battleships and weigh about the same. At Trail’s end in Georgia, the sisters talked about yo-yoing—turning around immediately and hiking back to Maine.
Whether hiking the trail does or does not make sense of some kind for me, I realized early in the pre-dawn darkness that, for starters, my knees and feet would not put up with the pounding. A 40-pound pack would stress this infrastructure even more. It’s not the discomfort or drudgery of the task that would get to me. It’s the fear of being irreparably hobbled.
Now, I don’t like feeling that I’m too old to take a crack at things. And I love the stories about one-legged, 90-year-old guys with bad hearts hopping from Maine to Georgia in three months, doing 25 miles a day in a penny loafer.
But that ain’t me, babe.
Curtis Seltzer is a writer and land consultant who lives on a cattle-and-timber farm in Blue Grass, Va. He is the author of How To Be A Dirt-Smart Buyer of Country Property and four collections of his columns at www.curtis-seltzer.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.