Oct 05, 2018 12:00AM
● By Brian Saucedo
By Diana Love
The Appalachian Trail, the longest “hiking only” footpath in the world, stretches from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. In between these geographical points, the trail expands some 2,200 miles, meandering through 14 states and six national parks.
The Appalachian Trail, commonly referred to as “The AT,” was conceptualized in the 1920s but wasn’t completed until 1937. At that time, it was assumed that no one could or would complete a through-hike of the entire trail. Earl Shaffer disproved this notion in 1948. A World War II Veteran from Pennsylvania, he decided the trail would be ideal for walking off his wartime experience. Seventy years after Shaffer’s walk, it is still considered an incredible feat to complete the trail in full—especially in one season.
The AT’s tallest peak, Clingmans Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, tops out at 6,643 feet above sea level; Mount Katahdin’s summit is 5,269 feet. Peaks in between barely average 4,000 feet or less. And yet, as most through-hikers will tell you, the constant ascents and descents that add up to roughly 16 climbs of Mount Everest seem never-ending. To anyone who is not a long-distance hiker, and indeed even to those who are, the idea of walking this distance and this terrain is implausible. Inconceivable.
And yet, it is not. According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, in 2016 an estimated 3,377 hikers started out at Springer Mount Georgia, with fresh, healthy feet and high hopes. Maybe they felt the siren call of the wild. Maybe they were pulled toward remote places with names like Great Smoky Mountains, Blue Ridge, Shenandoah, The Presidents, and One Hundred Mile Wilderness. Interestingly but totally conceivably, that same year only one in five people, or 685 reported finishers walked their way into the exclusive 2,000 Milers club. Fewer people (about 497) walk from Maine to Georgia (the South Bound route, referred to as SoBo), with about the same rate of completion (89 percent reported).
Think on that: three-quarters of starters will drop out of the walk, most due to injury, illness, or fatigue. The latter two made worse by malnutrition, loneliness, and the demoralizing fact of walking every single day, through snow, mud, and rain as much or more as through those calm and temperate days that lovers of the great outdoors so relish.
As you can imagine when picturing 2,000 miles of rugged trail, positing a through-hike, or even a long section, of the Appalachian Trail is daunting. Most hikers take between five and seven months to complete their odyssey. The current record holder is Joe “String Bean” McConaughey, who ran the trail alone and unsupported in 45 days, 12 hours, and 15 minutes in August 2017. His record surpassed professional endurance runners Karl Meltzer’s 2016 record and Scott Jurek’s 2015 record. Both runners were augmented by an entire team of re-suppliers, supporters, and corporate sponsors. Men aren’t the only record holders. In 2011, Jennifer Pharr Davis set the unofficial record for the fastest through-hike of the AT with a time of 46 days, 11 hours, and 20 minutes, a feat she completed unsupported. This record beat her 2008 time, wherein she set the record for the fastest Appalachian Trail hike by a woman, in 57 days and eight hours.
How is this nearly unimaginable trek from one end of America to the other, at these speeds or frankly at any speed, even possible? The answer to that question is: only with a great deal of planning, fortitude, support, and introspection. And with a little bit of trail magic. At its most elemental, it is achieved by the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other. At it’s most complex it happens with a defined strategy involving complicated supply drops, fantastic gear, and a myriad of, what from the glow of my kitchen seem very unappetizing, freeze-dried foods.
Several Marylanders and Anne Arundel County residents in particular, are members of the 2,000 Miler club. Annapolitans Kim Crisman and Liz Wojcicki are former soccer teammates and best friends. They hiked the North Bound Route together in 2015. Wojcicki was 54 at the time and Crisman turned 50 on the trail. Jessie Oberright solo through-hiked from Georgia to Maine in 1999 at the age of 62.
Stephen Vilsack is another solo through-hiker. Diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a hereditary disease that causes degeneration of the peripheral vision, he did it legally blind. En route, he got lost innumerable times, broke his wrist in Georgia, suffered a severe ankle sprain, and then several broken ribs in Maine, a result of falling into a hole amongst the infamously devilish section of trail known as Mahoosuc Notch. He understandably kissed the ground when he hit the finish. Others like Rick Marsalek and his brother Rob, Joel Stenzel, and Jack Cary have hiked long sections of the trail; Cary to within 100 miles of Katahdin, and Marsalek and Stenzel more recreationally in the Smokies, Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania.
When I, as a person who grew up in the outdoors and who has romanticized the idea of heading off onto the trail and into the great unknown for much of my life, hear the stories of these brave people—these intrepid walkers—a series of questions sprint through my mind. Not settling for a simple account of why one would ever leave the comfort of their safe and familiar home for the rigors of the trail, I want to know how.
How do you walk 10 to 20 or more miles nearly every day for let’s say six months over trails defined by twisting roots, sharp rocks, precipitous drops, and an endless tunnel of deep greenness so dark it might seem to swallow you whole?
Not to mention how do you do this with full knowledge of the bears, boars, rattlesnakes, copperheads, purported catamounts, and possibly an occasional charging moose? Actually, how do you do this knowing you will be sleeping with strangers best characterized as stinky in three-sided huts on the sides of mountains, knowing that this humble abode (which is usually invaded by mice and other disease carrying vermin) is your only home until you wake up to face these dangers again the next day?
Let’s be real: how do you do this when you wake up knowing that your destination is very far and your next shower is a significant fraction of that distance?
Beyond these hows, and beyond the whys that make hikers start out in the first place, I want to know what they brought, how that worked out, what happened along the way, where they ended up, and if the experience changed their lives.
Universally, serious hikers carry the trail with them when they return home in ways that weekend warriors do not. There is an education in patience and endurance, in finding simplicity, in discovering a sense of place in the world in relation to nature, in developing a deep sense of fortitude and independence, which people who haven’t faced such an immense challenge could never understand. These lessons are not romantic. Admittedly though, they are appealing, even worth the immense effort.
If you’re thinking of hiking the trail, the following are some lessons you might want to ponder. If you are the sort that only thinks of the trail in terms of an interesting line down a map of the Eastern Seaboard, keep reading: there are lessons for you, too.
Lesson 1: The P Principal
Have you heard of it? Poor Planning Predicts Poor Performance. This adage is nowhere proven to be truer than when hiking 2,000 miles for six months with 30 or more pounds on your back. Training methods for hiking the AT, whether as a through-hiker or in sections, differ.
Crisman and Wojcicki, who frequently did overnight hikes in New Hampshire, a small but mountainous state where the AT doesn’t so much as switchback along the Presidential Range of the White Mountains as go straight up and over them, were already familiar with the stamina and strength necessary for long hikes. They intentionally stepped up their fitness regimen to include calorie burning spin classes, weight workouts with lots of lunges and squats, and running stadium stairs at the Anne Arundel Community College sports stadium.
Cary took a similar approach. He hiked with weights in his pack, started jogging more and focused on getting his trail legs going. Marsalek and his brother Rob were seasoned hikers and cross-country runners who simply upped time on their feet. Stenzel takes a similar approach but maintains his cardio capacity by occasionally cycling and his strength by lifting weights.
Vilsack, always competitively athletic, didn’t train especially for his through-hike, but says that if you show up unprepared, your feet and legs will fail you. Jessie Oberright agrees, noting that consciously planning to let her body acclimate to the hike by walking a slower-than-average (10 miles daily) but steady pace in the beginning of her trek was instrumental in keeping her healthy. “An intentionally slow start allowed me to get up to 27-mile days without a problem,” Oberright says.
Whether you have a focused training regimen in mind, or whether you have a specific strategy you are considering, there’s nothing like time in the saddle to work out the physical demands of walking mountains for days on end. “No matter what you do, unless you are already hiking six to eight hours every day, with a pack, nothing will break you in like being out and seeing what the day-to-day grind does to your body” Cary says. “At about four to five weeks, most hikers find their trail legs.”
To get ready for the trail, hike as much as you can beforehand, strengthen your core to improve balance, up your cardio workouts so you can maximize your heart’s ability to handle the uphill loads, and start working your hips, quads, hamstrings, and calves so they can handle miles of inclines and equally steep declines. Keep in mind the lesson of patience as it applies to all things physical: strength and endurance come in time, usually accompanied by a degree of pain. “It doesn’t matter how hard you train, how long you walk: it always hurts to walk uphill with a pack,” Wojciki says.
Lesson 2: Live with Less
Beyond planning for the physicality of the trail, you also need to plan for food and shelter. This then, leads us to a discussion of just what you’ll need to get by. Opinions vary, but they all come down to preparing items you can stuff in or hang from one large backpack.
Most importantly, you need to consider that whatever items you choose will be carried for miles, every day, on your back. While there are people who jump onto the trail with little more than food and water, it is more typical to consider basic creature comforts. You will need at a minimum: θ
Really good heavy-duty boots or trail shoes • A heavy duty but lightweight pack • Trekking poles • Shelter (a tent or covered hammock)• Sleep gear (sleeping bag and pad) • Rain gear (pants and jacket) • Tarp or raincover for your pack • Plastic garbage bags to keep things dry • Warm and cold weather hiking clothes (temperatures can change rapidly and without warning) • Water tablets and a water filter • Water bottle(s) • Pot for cooking and eating from, as well as a spork • Bags for carrying out according to the Leave No Trace code of wilderness ethics • Food to last until your next stop • A first aid kit • Insecticide • Your mobile phone and backup batteries loaded with GPS apps like Guthook
Items you might think of as small luxuries, like a camp shovel or pick axe, camp stove, small mess kit, utensils, baby wipes, YakTraks, and paper maps might seem like manna from heaven after just a short time on the trail. While you need to pack as light as possible, you also need to pack smart. For example, your feet are your primary mode of locomotion. You need to take care of them. You’ll need fresh socks, files for removing callouses, powder for keeping them dry and fungus free, and pyrethrum to keep away ticks and mosquitos. Faced with the gravity of something like Lyme’s Disease, a can of DEET seems worth the weight.
You can find many lists of things you will need online and in guidebooks. Most folks pack too heavy and jettison what they find they don’t need. When Cary’s girlfriend decided, after covering 700 miles from Georgia to Virginia, that she wanted to go home, he was faced with trekking solo. He immediately got rid of his tent, camp stove, gas cartridges, and cozy winter gear. If you do need to let go of extra belongings, leave them in the closest hiker box or shelter for another hiker to acquire. If you need additional gear, you can arrange to have it sent to a post office, store, or hostel along the way.
Lesson 3: Eat Well, and Often
As you think about what to put in your pack, especially the weight of all that gear, don’t forget to consider food and water. You need about two pounds of food per day, and you need enough to get to your next resupply point. You will need more water than you think and refills are streams you find along the way, not water fountains on every block.
The diet of through-hikers is notoriously poor, composed mostly of lightweight, calorie (but not nutritionally) dense foods. Bill Bryson in his book Into the Woods eloquently describes what it’s like to live on Snickers, soda, raisins, ramen, and
Slim Jims. This is no exaggeration. But it’s also no way to put your body through the sort of physical and biological challenge the AT will bring your way and expect it to perform.
Vilsack is the perfect example of what happens to the body under such conditions. “I lost a ton of weight on the first half of the trail,” he says. “I wasn’t eating enough food because I didn’t want to carry it. I was living on noodles, rice, tuna, and oatmeal. I got to Harpers Ferry and looked in the mirror and didn’t even recognize myself. I was worried I would get to a point where I couldn’t do the trail.” Crisman and Wojcicki did not have this problem. Wojcicki was in charge of shopping for food. She chose a variety of freeze dried meats and vegetables, which they tested ahead of their hike, in addition to powdered protein. Smart hikers rely on advances in food science by carrying bars, powders, and vitamin supplements to support their body’s need for fat and protein, not just carbs.
“We felt like we were starving all the time. We like to eat, and there is only so much freeze dried chicken you can take”—Rick Marsalek
A side note, constipation is notorious on the trail. Some people just don’t like to poop in the woods, something I guess they would have to get over pretty quickly. Constipation can be caused by a diet devoid of fresh fruits and vegetables, low on fiber and heavy on starches. Be prepared for this by drinking as much water as possible, by incorporating dried fruits into your meal plans, and by stocking up on fresh foods at resupply points.
Conversely, viruses, waterborne pathogens, Norovirus, bacterial infections, and food poisoning are not uncommon and statistically affect 50 percent of hikers at some point. The one thing these afflictions have in common? Diarrhea. It would be prudent to have a backup system for making your water truly potable as well as some medical remedies in your first aid kit.
Lesson 4: Fight Your Fears
Certainly, you can’t imagine the odd, the weird, the otherworldly, or even
the downright scary things that will occur during your time on the trail.
Practically speaking, a little fear is healthy. Bad things do happen to good people on the trail. In 1986, two young lovers were brutally killed in Shenandoah National Park. In 1990, another couple was killed in Pennsylvania. There are numerous instances of death by slipping off precipices and drowning in rivers and lakes. There is the sad and famous case of Geraldine Largay, who in 2013, got off the trail to use the bathroom only to become lost. Despite searching for high ground to send texts and desperately trying to find the trail, she died.
But death on the trail is no nearer to you than anywhere else; in fact, it’s comparatively rare. Think of the millions of people who use the AT each year and who go home sunburnt or soggy and very happy.
Maybe you aren’t afraid of death, but like me, you squirm at the idea of certain wild animals. Imagine Vilsack, alone in the woods, bedding down for the night. As he hangs his hammock, he hears that singular, distinctive rattle and knows there is a snake nearby. And yet, because of his blindness, he can’t see it. Imagine Crisman and Wojcicki, just returned from filling their water bottles in a mountain stream only to find themselves face-to-face with a large and aggressive bear. The bear paces back-and-forth and despite their yelling, their wild waving of arms, and energetic blowing on safety whistles, won’t back away. What do you do?
Maybe you don’t encounter a single animal. Maybe, like Vilsack, you develop an ingrown toenail so painful as to make you seriously consider ripping it out yourself only to stop when you think of what a serious infection can mean when you are days away from medical help.
Maybe like both Cary and Vilsack, your hiking partner decides the trail life isn’t for them, and you suddenly find yourself quite alone in the woods.
You might have sprained or broken bones, furious blisters, terrible flus, nightmares from the mice and rats that haunt the shelters. You will be surrounded by wilderness. If you are new to the trail, you will be walking through literally the great unknown. And so, you will, quite naturally, have moments of deep fear. But embrace that feeling. Make it your friend. Oberright through-hiked the trail alone in her mid-20s. In her 30s, she got married and had a child. Sadly, her husband died. Faced with supporting her daughter as a single mom and widow, Oberright recalled her deepest fears from the trail. “I feel like the strength I developed on the trail has helped me overcome a lot,” she says “I told myself ‘I’m a through-hiker, dammit. I can deal with this.’”
Balance any fear with a hefty dose of good preparation and common sense. Take a deep breath. Be logical. Your fear is natural and is just one facet of a multi-pronged plot line that will make your story much more colorful in the telling.
Lesson 5: There is Happiness in Simplicity
That moment when your diet goes from dry ramen and turkey jerky to hot pizza and cold beer, or maybe even just a piece of fresh and juicy fruit…that time when you exchange a sleeping bag for a clean hotel bed…. or the instant you emerge from the dark tunnel of forest to find a setting so preternaturally beautiful that it becomes emotional…these are the moments that will make you realize that you really don’t need much to be happy. “One thing that I will never forget,” Cary says. “is a morning when I was sitting having a snack in the crisp fall air, on a random mountain in Maine, watching ravens float above the dark red leaves of the valley below. [It’s] very difficult to capture the feeling of experiencing such beauty, alone for miles in all directions, sharing the same freedom as a bird in the wind.”
Crisman and Wojcicki laugh when they think about the things that could have made their lives happier on the trail. They struggle for an answer to the question. “I know,” Wojcicki says. “A light, inflatable pillow.” When you can live so lightly that all you need in the world is a pillow, you are doing well. Although I too would want a pillow on the trail, there is only so long I could go without other creature comforts. An example: through-hikers notoriously smell. Stenzel delicately calls trail stench a “miasma,” and it’s the perfect characterization of a scent that only days of sweat, adrenaline, mud, wood smoke, bug spray, and
Lord only knows what else can bring. “You get used to it and eventually develop pride in your special hiker smell,” he says. “After a while, you can’t even get the funk out of your clothes and gear so you just embrace it. I developed a new respect for modern conveniences like running water, air conditioning, soap, and shampoo.”
Another simple source of great happiness for any hiker is walking into town to find a care package. In fact, just the idea that someone out there in the world is expecting news from you, knows to look for you should things go sideways, is a great comfort. News from home, or even better a visit, is worth its weight in gold. Cary remembers a particularly hot, sweaty, humid day in Pennsylvania. He had already hiked 20-plus miles. Head to the ground, eyes on his steps, intent on putting one foot in front of the other, he looked up to see his father on the trail, walking toward him. They found a picnic spot, ate ice cream, caught up for a couple of hours before Cary had to go back to the trail and his father had to return home. “He simply wanted to surprise me and wish me luck in the second half of my journey. This was one of the most important moments of my hike and one of the most memorable experiences I ever had with my father.”
Vilsack remembers the unwavering support of his sister, Dawn, who sent him food, clothes, and new boots and who met him to hike particular sections. His brother-in-law met him at the base of Katahdin for the summit and end of his journey. Crisman’s husband was also a great support, meeting her and Wojcicki to take them to spas, mailing them packages, making sure they had the maps, weather information, and supplies they would need as they progressed. The lesson here is not only that these small gestures of kindness reap great happiness, but also that you should build a reliable support network in advance of your journey.
Lesson 6: Be Open to New Experiences
From the comfort of your couch, it’s easy to imagine the empowering, tranquil, and happy moments you will have on the trail: the sense of self-accomplishment, the sheer joy garnished from life’s simplest pleasures, the camaraderie of a shared experience.
It’s less easy to consider being wedged into a small, three-sided shelter crammed full of other hikers. Hitchhiking alone along back roads. Accepting a total stranger’s gracious invitation of a clean bed and hot meal. These things might seem not just improbable, but something you would never even consider. But if you want to overnight or through-hike, you will.
Walking the trail isn’t only about putting one foot in front of the other, although you will of course be doing just that. “Hiking the trail is like this,” Vilsack says. “You look at your map, you plan your day, you look at the terrain, and you set a goal with the larger goal of getting to a destination to resupply. You do this day to week, then week to month until you are finally there.” Surely no one wants to do this, on repeat and ad nauseum, for six months.
But maybe they should. Maybe they should at least be open to the challenge. Cary told me “Comfort is the enemy of growth.” And he’s right. Hiking the trail is about the adventure. About immersing yourself in the experience. To walk without fear, to seek shelter from the storm, to overcome whatever challenges the trail will throw your way. To do this, you must be open to embracing unfamiliar places, complete strangers, and uncomfortable situations. You will be vastly rewarded with a newfound sense of freedom, the undeniable satisfaction of having overcome incredible obstacles, with friendships that might just last you a lifetime.
Lesson 7: Hike Your Own Hike
The miracle of being on the AT is that you’ve taken time from your real life to investigate a different kind of life. What you find is ultimately up to you.
Oberright started her hike slow but steady. Vilsack started his ambitiously. Crisman and Wojcicki hiked straight through, while Stenzel and Marsalek have hiked in sections. Cary hiked diligently until, sick and tired, he stopped before the finish. “My greatest challenge was deciding to leave the trail and it was because I didn’t want to fail. But some point I was out there hiking for other people and not for myself,” he said. “It took me until after I stopped to realize that the joy of the AT has nothing to do with being on the physical trail. It’s the side excursions, the strangers who hitchhike with you, who take you into your house. It’s not about however many miles you did.”
Cary admits he is a planner. He is an engineer, after all, and was intent on having his strategies and goals well laid out. Vilsack similarly made an organized design before he got on the trail. He used a spreadsheet to anticipate mileage, resupply days, and points, zeros, and rendezvous. The thing is: the schedule never works. It gets chucked with the other weighty items in the pack. Weather may waylay you. Injury might, too. The very fact that you can lie drowsy in your sleeping bag, enjoying the morning sun soaking into your bones without the urgent need to do anything more than just that might set you back a couple of hours. The hike is yours. The journey is yours. You set the pace and the tone.
Life is definitely happier along the trail when you can stop for a zero; that is when you can skip a day or two or three. In fact, many through-hikers take off a month or more. There are numerous interesting towns, monuments, and places of notes along the AT, most notably the Atlantic Beaches, New York City, Boston, and any place with a decent massage in between. Make sure to incorporate time and money into your budget for side excursions. As you ponder whether or not to visit that nudist colony in Pennsylvania, to maybe throw some dice in Connecticut, or splurge on a spa day, consider that your hike is yours and you can’t get back from the universe what you don’t put out.
Lesson 8: When Things Look Dark, Pray for Trail Magic
A Trail Angel is someone who provides hikers with a little bit of something special to make their day or their experience a little brighter. Trail
Magic is a serendipitous occurrence, like randomly finding a stray pocketknife just as you need to cut something. It’s Vilsack, leaving a trail of Snickers for hungry folks behind him. It’s Marsalek, who maintains the Bear Fence Hut shelter as a volunteer for the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club in Shenandoah and who frequently shows up with a cooler full of grillables and beer that he generously shares. “The hospitality of trail angels restores your faith in humanity,” Marsalek says. Cary adds: “Magic can be daily random acts of kindness or it can be the motivating factor that gets you down the trail. When a SoBo hiker says there’s free, cold beer left in the river ahead, I’m going faster.”
It goes without saying that we get what we give. We can be angels or devils. And a little Trail Magic will go a long way whether you are on a mountain trail or a city sidewalk.
To an outsider—that is, to someone outside the 2,000 Miler club—nearly everything about the AT sounds magical. I particularly admire the tribalism that seems to come just from being a member of that group of people who have braved the AT. Consider trail names, a common way to identify people who might rather stay anonymous or whose personal quirks bear pointing out. Vilsack is “Wye Knot,” in honor of the Wye Oak, although he sometimes referred to himself as Sir Lost A Lot. Crisman is “Moxie,” a name given to her because of her penchant for standing up to others much bigger than her, which is pretty much most everyone, since she is diminutive in stature but large in spirit. Wojcicki is “Maps,” a reflection of her affection for maps—the contours of elevation, the icons marking geographical formations, the lines denoting distance, the colors conveying shades of green for forest, blue for water. Marsalek goes by “Midnight Guider” because he loves to hike at night. To my mind, these names invoke a little something we could all use in our daily life: humor, camaraderie, sensibility, practicality, and curiosity.
The natural elements, the friends made, the conquering of perceived limitations, the journey on the AT itself all seem unrealistic and unattainable when viewed through the lens of the average person. Obviously, we’ve learned here that it is possible and it is magical. If you can connect with other folks on the trail, allow yourself to find your own hike, to put aside your fears, to indulge in moments of happiness, you too can find what makes the AT journey so appealing. This can happen whether you are hiking for a day, or hiking for a month. When you return to real life, at which point you most likely will be a much stronger, braver, more appreciative human, make sure to bring back what you’ve learned and to spread a little of your own trail magic too.