If there is one thing that I’ve learned in my first three weeks on the trail, it’s that the people, terrain, and weather are constantly changing. I started in late March wearing a t-shirt and shorts throughout the first week of my trek through Georgia. When I entered North Carolina, however, my good fortune-and attire-quickly changed. A cold rain persisted for days, and I soon wore in every article of rain gear I owned.
On one particularly intense evening I found myself running uphill in a lightning storm trying my hardest to make it to the shelter before an electrical bolt made it to my metal frame pack. Upon arriving at the lean-to, I was relieved to find space for one more hiker in an otherwise dank and crowded hovel. Thinking I was safe from the storm, I proceeded to the outside of the shelter beneath the roof’s meager metal overhang to change into my dry clothes. In the midst of reaching up to wrestle the soaking wet synthetic material off my torso and over my head, I suddenly received the biggest shock of my life-literally! At the same instant I had reached up, lightning struck down against the metal roof and transversely conducted through my body to the ground. Pain, followed by fear, followed by relief, soon ensued. Now all that remains is the question of whether or not being struck by lightning and surviving has somehow given me supernatural power? (So far I haven’t been able to channel any, but I’m still working on it.)
As if the cold wet rain wasn’t enough, I soon encountered my first major snow of the trip, and what better place for it to transpire than at a 6,000-foot shelter in a remote portion of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I was balled up in my sleeping bag trying to keep warm, when the pitter-patter song of the tin roof suddenly silenced. Incorrectly assessing this as the end of the rainstorm, I soon fell asleep. However, what is hidden in darkness is brought forth in the light, and with the first morning rays I discovered a thick white cover blanketing the ground.
Filled with adrenaline, I quickly uncrunched my frozen shoelaces, fought with a frosted cable to retrieve my food bag, and headed down the mountain as quickly as possible. The snow was blinding and began to accumulate very quickly. In a little over an hour there was close to a foot and a half on the ground. Eventually, after descending about 2,000 ft, the snow turned into sleet. The small ice pellets cut my face and I was forced to shut my left eye and turn my head as I traveled along an exposed ridge. When I finally descended back into the forest, I was alarmed to discover that my eyelid had frozen shut. It wasn’t until after I removed the miniature icicles from my lashes that I once again regained vision. While partial ice blindness and breaking trail through waist-high snow drifts is in some way masochistically rewarding, it also has me yearning for the beautiful spring days that I took for granted at the beginning of my trip.
This week, I have decided to address your many questions by compiling a FAQ sheet:
What is the A.T? The Appalachian Trail is a continuously marked footpath spanning from Springer Mountain Georgia to Katahdin Maine. It follows the Appalachian Mountains through 14 states and covers over 2,170 miles of terrain.
How many people hike the A.T.? There are thousands of people, who every year set out on the AT for day or section hikes, but as far as a thru-hike… about 2000 people attempt to transverse the entire distance every year. Only about 500 people actually make it to the end.
Does everybody start at the same time? About 90% of thru-hikers attempt the trail going south to north. These hikers start in Georgia sometime between late February and early May. Another 8% start in Maine in the summer months and hike south. The remaining 2% ‘do a ‘flip-flop’: they start somewhere in the middle and hike to one end and then complete their hike by going back to their starting point and hiking in the opposite direction.
How long does it take to complete a thru-hike? An average thru-hike takes six months to complete. Right now, I am ahead of schedule, but I’m listening to my body and taking it one day at a time. At the rate I’m going I could be done before the end of the summer, but if I get hurt or sick then it could delay or slow my hike.
Where do you sleep? Most nights I stay in my tent. But the trail also offers you the option of staying in shelters (where available). Shelters are three-sided wooden buildings that basically resemble a shack. They can house anywhere from 4 to 10 people. Usually the shelters are about ten miles apart, but they can be situated as close as two miles apart and as far away as twenty. While I usually try to make it to a shelter if it is raining or snowing, I prefer my tent. Shelters tend to house two things that impair sleep: 1) mice, the food that hikers keep at shelters tends to attract several small critters; and 2) snoring men.
Don’t you get bored? I really expected that I would mentally have to overcome bouts of boredom and monotony, but honestly I have yet to be bored.
What do you do to entertain yourself? The terrain keeps you fairly occupied. Lots of time I have to focus most of my attention on not tripping over rocks and roots. Other times I have to think about logistics like where I can get water, where I am going to sleep, how much food I have, how many miles I am doing, etc… There are several days when I hike with other people, and trust me, the people you meet on the trail keep you very entertained. While hiking by myself, I divide my time between solving world problems, figuring out what I am going to do with my life, thanking God for my amazing friends, praying, and singing-lots of singing… anything from hymns to rap, 80s love ballads to show tunes.
What do you eat? I started out cooking at least one meal a day. However, I soon found it to be a huge inconvenience to get water, cook, clean, etc. By the time my dinner was ready, I was often too tired or cold to eat a huge hot meal. So the night I accidentally dropped my stove in a pot of Velveeta shells and cheese, and somewhat broke it, I took it as a providential sign that I should switch over to 100% cold food. Now I eat lots of granola and power bars, cookies and candy bars, nuts and dried fruit, crackers and pop tarts, cheese and summer sausage, and lots and lots of peanut butter.
What’s the grossest thing you have eaten? I knew I had hit a new low when I started eating peanut butter on Slim Jims.
Have you lost a lot of weight? Maybe a few pounds but nothing drastic. I definitely lose weight while I am out hiking, but I work hard when I am in towns to replenish lost calories.
What was your biggest misconception of the trail? I definitely went into the trail thinking that I would have a lot of free time. I thought I would spend copious amounts of time reading and writing, but really the only thing that I spend large amounts of time doing is hiking. I usually start hiking around 7am, and although I take several small breaks during the day, I tend to continue hiking until 7:30 or 8 at night.
Do you ever get scared? Not really. Sometimes there are things that I get a little anxious about but I just say a prayer and keep walking.
What is the hardest part of the trail? Probably the combination of everything: the weather, the terrain, not having many amenities, being away from friends and family-when all of those things combine it makes for quite a challenge.
What is the best part of the trail? All of the things I just mentioned. The challenge is what makes the trail so great: pushing your body and mind to the limit, meeting new people, and seeing new places all combine to make the trail an amazing experience. Sometimes the things in life that challenge us the most are also the things that we love the most. Right, Mom?
Do you ever want to quit? Nope. I love it!
Are there many other girls on the trail? No! There are hardly any! Some guys I meet tell me that I am the only girl they have seen all week. The ratio has got to be like 8 to 10 guys for every one girl.
Any cute boys? Trust me, everyone is so dirty and smelly, including myself, that I’m really not looking.
How do you get food? Sometimes the trail will take you directly through a town, other times it will cross a road. When it crosses a road you can usually hitch-hike in to a close town where you can buy groceries and resupply. Most towns, however, are very small. Sometimes they only have a few stores and you are forced to resupply at a gas station. You can also mail supplies ahead when you know that you will stop by a town with a post office. I have prepared about eight boxes to be sent to post offices along the trail.
When people warned me about contracting parasites on the trail, they should have mentioned Jay.
I encountered Jay, a fellow thru-hiker and a self-described existential atheistic Quaker, on the trail in Southern Virginia. Seemingly friendly, Jay and I immediately struck up conversation, and intrigued by his distinct political and spiritual persuasions, I agreed to his proposal of camping together that evening.
The next morning I packed up early and headed along my way. A few hours later, however, my friend from the day before came running up behind me, upset that I had left without waking him. Obviously he hadn’t quite caught on to my one-night stand routine. Humoring him, I agreed to hike together for a little bit longer.
Collectively we soon encountered the wild ponies at Grayson Highlands as well as some great trail magic from a former thru-hiker named “Grey Fox”. Not only did Grey Fox feed us, but he also offered to “slack pack” us the following day. Slack packing is when someone else carries your gear to your end-point for the day while you hike pack-free. Knowing that Jay had stated moral objections to slack packing from our conversations the day before, I quickly accepted the offer. But to my surprise, Jay accepted as well. Apparently 24 hours had afforded Jay a change of heart and he was now willing to part with his pack and his principles, but not with me.
One day led to the next, and soon my daily routine repeatedly consisted of waking up early in an attempt to out-hike Jay, only to have him overtake and rejoin me by noon.
Longing for my independence and trying to be more blunt about the matter, I explained to Jay how much I enjoyed hiking by myself, how I loved making new friends, and how important it was to have variety along the trail. Unfortunately, although ambitious and sprightly, my young friend apparently lacked perception and never caught on. In fact, Jay now insisted that we hiked beside each other all day, and at night he set his tent right next to mine so he could hear me wake up, as to not fall behind in the early morning hours. Somehow I found myself in the middle of a vast wilderness, yet completely stifled.
Finally, one night he asked me if I thought ‘hiking buddies’ could cuddle. I knew that something drastic had to be done. So the next morning I played my ace: I explained to him that I was having ‘female problems’, that it was impossible for him to empathize, and that I simply needed time to myself. Resilient as ever, he explained that he was willing to slow down and go my pace and wait if he needed. I told him that this was unnecessary and that I really just needed to be by myself. Finally, after I agreed to meet him at a hostel that night for a rest and resupply, Jay reluctantly moved on.
Knowing full well that I didn’t intend on spending the night at a hostel with Jay, I sped through the rest of my hike and caught a quick hitch into town so that I could resupply and be back on the trail by nightfall. Unfortunately amid my haste, I ended up forgetting my hiking pole in the back of the pick-up truck that had taken me to town. I drudged along the road in search of supplies and consolation.
It was then, in my darkest hour, that the ‘Magic Mart’ appeared, tucked back in a run-down strip mall. I quickly ran inside to see what I could find. They didn’t have much in the realm of athletic equipment, but they did have cleaning supplies, and I soon decided that a mop shaft would work just as well as a $90 Leki pole. Thus, I proceeded to check-out with a week’s worth of food and a $3 mop.
Pleased with my ingenuity and loaded down food bag, I headed back to the trail a liberated woman with a yellow mop-stick.
In lieu of a letter, here is a list of my five most memorable encounters of the past few weeks.
After walking all day without encountering wildlife, companionship, or a view, I was pleased to look down and discover a small black pouch that someone had dropped along the side of the trail. Inside I discovered a beautiful ceramic pipe and what appeared to be a “plant by-product” inside. Not wanting to leave it, smoke it, carry it, turn it in, or send it home, I found myself at an impasse.
Just then a young man came scrambling down the trail towards me. His face told me everything I need to know. I anxiously discarded my new discovery, he thankfully acquired a lost possession, and we both made a new friend.
It was that same friend later pointed out that within a span of 15 minutes I had transgressed through the comprehensive stages of discovering, possessing, and trafficking illegal substances.
Thus far the only trail affiliate who I like better than my friend “Running Moon” is his Mom, Mrs. C. Having driven to Shenandoah in order to visit her son during his thru-hike, Mrs. C soon became responsible for the best piece of trial magic I could ever have hoped to encounter. She found me, fed me, cleaned me up, boarded me in her hotel room, and repeated the process for three days in a row. Her visit made me realize how vital moms were, even to dirty, smelly thru-hikers.
Hippie Long Stockings
“Hippie” was so enamored with her northbound thru-hike last spring that she decided to turn it into a “yo-yo” and hike southbound in the fall. Not wanting to quit when winter came she headed further south to hike the Florida Trail. But, as soon as the seasons changed, she decided to return to Georgia and begin the A.T. once more. At this point she has been hiking for 15 months and from the looks of it probably hasn’t shaved her legs since she started. When asked, she said she wasn’t going to stop her hike until her entire life-savings was gone.
It was a cold, wet, spring morning and I was struggling to descend a steep mountain when suddenly a gazelle of a man ran past me uphill. Worried about directions, I called out to him to confirm my path. He not only stopped and reassured me, but delivered kind words of encouragement and affirmation as well. It was only after we had parted that he yelled back a belated introduction that included his name: a name equated with multiple ultra trail-marathons, a former A.T. speed record, and the present PCT course title. Much to my disbelief, I had just met the Michael Jordan of trail running, I had just met David Horton.
After completing my first 30-mile day, I was delighted to find an empty bunkroom in a $3 hostel. Utterly exhausted, I was laying down to sleep when I heard the front door slam followed by heavy footprints headed towards my room. All of a sudden, this extremely large, extremely rugged, middle-aged man entered my room. He was soaking wet, smeared with dirt, and had a nappy black beard that reached to his belly. He took one look at me and said, “Arrrrrrr… I’m Pirate.” And from the looks of him, I believed it. I came to find out that ‘Pirate’ had lived on the trail for the past 15 years. He came complete with a pirate mascot doll, a Nalgene bottle that served as a flask, and a hiking business card that doubled as a beer bottle identification tag. And although rather brash, Pirate was probably the most colorful, yet endearing, bunkmate that I have ever had.
New York was a great place for a date. The trail and I had a lovely time together in Connecticut as well. We spent time together watching sunrises and sunsets, we had picnics together in fields full of wildflowers, we even took time away from the mountains and meandered along scenic riverbanks.
It was a fine time for us, but unfortunately by the time we reached Massachusetts things were beginning to change. I was, admittedly, bored with the trail. I began to ignore him and take his presence for granted. I scoffed at the gifts he offered and became preoccupied with other things.
The trail, in turn, became rather upset with my disassociation and tried in several ways to regain my attention. He tried to make his existence known by becoming more challenging: putting more roots, rocks, and mountains in my way. When that didn’t work, he resorted to pestilence and sent his myriads of mosquitoes to attack me.
As a result of his retaliation, I began spending more time in towns and less with the trail. Moreover, when the two of us were together it was more of a business agreement than a relationship.
Finally, after several promiscuous nights of leaving the trail in the afternoon and not returning until early the next morning, the trail became infuriated and unleashed his anger.
I found myself immersed in his literal storm.
Bright white lightning bolts illuminated the sky, deafening thunder shook the ground below, and marble size hail assailed my skin. I was left exposed and had no choice but to weather him out.
After releasing his rage, the anger subsided and we were left alone. I was humbled, he was forgiving, and together we shared the most phenomenal sunset that I have ever seen.
It was at that point that I reassessed our relationship. I realized how fortunate I was to be in this environment and to have these experiences. I made a promise to the trail that I would stop trying to rush through. I realized that it wasn’t about how far I could go (after all, I’m just not that type of girl), but rather about enjoying quality time together, focusing on the present.
Yes, the trail and I are falling in love all over again. I can honestly say that I want him to be the first thing I look at when I open my eyes in the morning and the last thing I see as I fall asleep at night. And although corny, it’s true: the trail really does seem to grow more and more beautiful with every passing day.
My nights in the heart of Maine have been spent camping by the waterfront, swimming with friends, watching the sunset, skipping rocks, catching leeches, and of course fending off blackflies. For the greater part of Maine, I had been traveling about the same pace as “Jukebox” and “Running Moon.” Examining our plans for the 100-mile wilderness, we decided that we would try to stay close together over the next week so that we could summit together as friends and share our last day as thru-hikers together. We had become rather close throughout the past two states and even I, Ms. Independent, was verbally appreciative for their companionship and support.
Having thus far had a very individual trail experience, it was good for me to work together and compromise within a group for the last remaining weeks. When Running Moon contracted giardia, we all hitched to a local hospital with him and all took time off to see him get better. When Jukebox took his habitual spills into trees, onto rocks, and down hills, Running Moon and I were there to bandage him up. And the guys were even sympathetic when I broke out with a mysterious rash all over the bottom half of my body (don’t worry-it went away).
Besides confirming our dependency, these respective bouts also led us to the conclusion that, according to our bodies, it was time for this trip to be over. We had traveled over 2,100 trail miles, not to mention the miles we walked in towns, on side trails, on paths that we thought were on the A.T., or on the A.T. but in the wrong direction (yes, I made the mistake of hiking south for two miles one day… what was I thinking?).
Yet, while our bodies were tired and broken, our hearts and minds really didn’t know what to think. Personally, the A.T. had become a way of life, for the past four months it had been my home. Certainly there were aspects of modern society that I missed, but there was something so simple and alluring about the AT… that a part of me didn’t want to leave.
It was with mixed emotions that I arrived at Baxter State Park on July 14th, and a sense of uncertainty accompanied the beginning of my ascent of Katahdin the next morning. It was hard to truly grasp all that I had experienced over the past four months. And now that I was within a few miles of attaining my goal, I was at an utter loss at how to express or summate my emotions. How could I possibly synthesize something that at times was wonderful, yet, at times horrible… constantly hard… and always changing?
By the time I was in sight of the rickety brown sign that symbolized the apex of Katahdin as well as my journey, all I knew for sure was that I had just experienced the most powerfully inspiring and emotionally intense four months of my life. And at the end I was more tired, yet more alive, than I had ever been before.
Jennifer Pharr is tackling the Pacific Crest Trail in 2006 to raise money for Habitat for Humanity. If you are interested in making a small tax-deductible donation to Habitat for Humanity in return for weekly e-mail updates from her on the PCT this summer, please write firstname.lastname@example.org.</em>