Far be it from this writer to assume my opinion is worth listening to. But I have hiked the AT a couple of times, and I do have some gentle advice. After talking to hundreds of Katahdin aspirants over the years, I have learned what the fictional Springer Mtn. caretaker in my book, THRU: An Appalachian Trail Love Story, realized: “the only certainly in his mind was the uncertainty of eventual outcomes.”
In other words, as you watch the traveling circus move north, good luck if you think you can keep an accurate scorecard.
So, for what it’s worth, here are a few nuggets of advice if you are considering taking the last great American adventure in 2019 or beyond:
- Before you take a first step, get serious about what is essential in your pack. Do you really need a hunting knife in a leather sheath? Do you need a bulky, multi-piece cookset? Is your pack one of those nine-pound super-padded numbers with so many surplus cubic inches that you can’t resist filling them with electronics and food that will take you days past your next resupply point? Remember the scene in the movie Wild where Reese Witherspoon puts on her pack for the first time and has trouble standing up? Don’t let that be you. Good grief, I met a man recently who was about to take his first steps on the Approach Trail with 160 pounds of gear including a one-liter bottle of vanilla extract.
- Stay hydrated. If you start your day with a liter and a half, that is the smartest weight you will carry. And you can reduce the weight quickly by drinking — even if you are not particularly thirsty. Do not wait to hit camp to rehydrate. Some of the worst trail days I have endured were due to not taking my own %$#@ advice and getting dehydrated.
- Take care of your feet. On the first day of your hike, promise me that you are wearing trail runners or boots that you have broken in with up-and-down trail-weight hiking. Otherwise, you are walking into unknown territory which may include grotesquely damaged feet. In THRU, my Captain Stupid character says this about his feet: “FEMA should be called in for this, plus the Air National Guard and a MASH unit of podiatrists and surgeons and EMTs. I cry when I look at what just two days have done. Blisters began on the Approach Trail to Springer. They demanded immediate attention, but I was so overwhelmed that instead of giving them first aid, I just kept slogging along and hoped for the best.” The Captain got help and survived, but his experience was not typical. Treat your feet better than any other part of yourself.
- Stay dry. A pack cover will not keep the contents of your pack dry if you hike through a blinding rain storm that switches on and off for a couple of days. Anything you really want to keep dry should be in ziplock bags which weigh practically nothing and can save your sanity.
- Leave No Trace. If you’re out there, you’ve heard the LNT pitch. If you are a human being, you leave urine and feces in your wake. Remember that nobody — at least nobody normal — wants to see any of that. Bury crap off-trail at least 200 feet away from water sources and camping areas. Also, pack out hand-wipes, uneaten food and general trash. I know most of you don’t need to hear this, but problems still exist.
- Give it time! If the first couple of days out there are the worst days of your entire life, don’t stop. Give it a couple of weeks. It will get better. You will finally reach a moment of joy that will transport you to levels of transcendence you never dreamed possible. Just be patient.
As I say, I have done the AT a couple of times and I’ve hiked all over the world. I am an ordinary guy with average physical gifts. If I could do it, so can you. Have fun!
Trail pal Georgia Peach who thru-hiked the AT in 1991 has told me she will help me fulfill my ambition to see an actual, genuine, in-the-flesh yellow lady slipper. Ever since I heard the legendary Georgia wildflower expert Len Foote actually got the route of the Richard Russell Scenic Highway altered when he found a profusion of the rare orchids, I have been determined to see one myself.
So, Georgia Peach got me all optimistic recently when she told me she thought she could take me to see some. Unfortunately, she was unable to locate them. My hopes were dashed.
Then, just yesterday, she sends me this lovely photo of a YLS in all its yellow glory. Turns out she found some. Unfortunately, my plans will not allow me to join her for a look this year. She promises she’ll take me to them next year.
Meanwhile, the old Peregrine must patiently wait to fulfill his years-long ambition to soak in all that sunlit lady slipper glory. At least I can take some solace in knowing that just yesterday I was up close and personally involved with some perfect pink lady slippers.
Stay vertical and keep walkin’!
I have seen Katahdin from Abol Bridge a few times. Each time I try to put myself in the hiking shoes of a NOBO who gets that gasp-inducing view from the bridge before trudging into Baxter State Park — bound for Katahdin Stream and that last big energy surge to Baxter Peak.
As a SOBO, I saw this view the second day of my thru-hike. I have seen it since a few times and always think, “What must this feel like for a NOBO? How much emotion can one heart take after coming nearly 22 centuries of miles to get here?”
I took this admittedly mediocre pic on my phone a couple of years ago while accompanying my buddy, Tortilla Tosser, as he wrapped up the 100-mile Wilderness, close to finishing his four-decade-long section hike. What a glorious spot to pause a little over long and contemplate MacKaye’s vision. How lucky all of us are — those who love wilderness — that this place clings to its sacred character.
Andrew Iden is a CNN producer by day and a podcaster in his spare time. He approached me recently about an interview for his new AT-focused podcast titled “the 2180.” I have no fear of talking — if you know me, please don’t scoff — and was delighted to sit with Andrew and expound on my experiences over the last half century as a long-distance hiker.
After our chat, Andrew cherrypicked the pithiest parts, added sound effects and music and magically transformed our chat into a wonderfully professional exposition of how an old guy’s world has been transformed by his connection with the AT and all the people, places and experiences associated with it.
Probably the best way to get my “world view” of the AT is to read THRU: An Appalachian Trail Love Story. But to learn much of what matters to me about the AT, a 20-minute investment in the 2180 accomplishes much the same thing. It has vignettes about people I met, my struggle with the death of a comrade and how the AT has embraced my family and friends.
Go to http://www.the2180.com to experience the podcast. There will be great ones upcoming, including a session with my triple crown chum, Susie McNeely.
Meanwhile, stay vertical and keep walkin’! There’s plenty of the world left unseen.
Forgive me for emoting a little, but I appreciate so little of what the government does without my asking that when it does something wonderful — I want to point it out.
Lyndon Johnson signed a groundbreaking piece of bipartisan legislation 53 years ago called the Wilderness Act giving Congress the right to decree tracts of federal land as wilderness. I have visited a number of wilderness areas in the last half century and am a better man for it. I spent a career in the oil business and watched the Kabuki dance that went on between bureaucrats, politicians, businessmen, environmental groups and public citizens about how “wilderness” would be established and where.
This year we celebrate another major half-century milestone, the National Trails Act which gave government incentives and funding to recognize and promote maintenance, development and protection of a number of trails including the PCT, the AT, the CDT and the Florida Trail.
I wonder if any of this would had happened if Benton MacKaye — the ultimate hiker’s hero — had not (1) Conceived of the AT and (2) Cofounded the Wilderness Society. Let’s just be glad he existed so we won’t have to find out. Stay vertical and keep walkin’!
This little piece of plastic is a common sight hanging off thru-hikers packs as they head up the Approach Trail from Amicalola Falls State Park. Again this year, I am participating with paid ridge runners and volunteer trail ambassadors to talk to aspiring thru-starters at the park visitors center ready to walk through the stone arch and head up 604 steps to the top of Amicalola Falls.
Part of my job is to sign them up and hand them the little hang tag pictured above. The tag is a way of saying they registered with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and that they agree to follow Leave No Trace rules such as bury your poop, camp on durable surfaces and keep your food away from critters — particularly bears.
I am seeing every type of age, nationality, race, gender and preparation level as we talk to people and send them off. Most of them are eager to sit down and listen to a brief talk about equipment, water treatment, Leave No Trace and common trail courtesy. What I love most is the demeanor of the hikers just as they are ready to take their first step — a combination of grim game face/eager anticipation/”What the %$#@ have I gotten myself into?”
In THRU: An Appalachian Trail Love Story I describe thru-starters who pass over Springer Mtn. as “starry-eyed Alices going through a white-blazed looking glass bound for a dream they don’t understand with shiny new gear, fresh faces and resolve in their eyes.” Since I wrote that, nothing much has changed — just the volume of hikers.
This year more than 4,000 hikers have registered with the ATC, and there is no way to calculate how many will actually be out there. Let’s hope clueless dolts are at a minimum. Most of the hikers are genuinely nice folks who join a supportive and congenial trail culture. Leave No Trace was never so important if we are to keep ourselves from loving the beloved AT to death.
When I was a kid, there was a Smoky the Bear PSA on TV showing an animated forest fire. Smoky — in his characteristic deep bearlike voice — shouted, “Fire! Fire! Run for your lives!” And all the little forest animals went dashing through the woods attempting to beat the flames.
Fire was dangerous in those days half a century ago, and it’s dangerous now. At least most of the time it is. But as you can see from the photo above taken in the Chattahoochee National Forest, experts who know what they are doing can start and control fires to burn underbrush, sticks, logs and stumps in an effort to reduce fuel and mitigate the severity of future unplanned fires in the risky fire season months. At the same time, the residue of fire leaves healthy minerals behind to nourish plants that will emerge from the forest floor in early spring.
In the 80s I was on a family vacation in Yellowstone Park when the uncontrolled forest fires ravaged the western woods. Fire had been suppressed for so long in the park that fuel had piled up. The result was utter conflagration. We watched from Yellowstone Lake as trees on the other side literally exploded in a cloud of sparks and smoke.
I returned to Yellowstone a few years ago to backpack into the wilderness. Even three decades later, there were still signs of the fire I had witnessed long before. Yellowstone is a patient place, and it will recover. But I am pleased to see that we now do a better job of taking care of our forests so that hiking, camping and backpacking remain safe and enjoyable ways to visit the woods.
As sure as night follows day, another AT thru-hike season is gearing up. I plan to spend a few days working the Visitors Center at Amicalola Falls working as a Trail Ambassador for the lucky crowd showing up to get their AT hangtag and start on the Approach Trail toward Springer Mtn.
I will also be a speaker at the Amicalola Falls Annual AT Kickoff gathering on March 3-4 at the Amicalola Falls State Park lodge. If you are planning a thru-hike — or just dreaming about one — stop by and say hello. I will, of course, be happy to sign a copy of THRU: An Appalachian Trail Love Story for you. There is so much to learn at the Kickoff as well as a chance to meet legends such as Gene Espy, the dean of thru-hikers.
Then, on March 5, the Len Foote Hike Inn will feature an after-dinner program celebrating the beginning of the 2018 thru-hike season. Hike Inn employees Diane Duffard and Gayle Edgar will join me to talk about the heritage of the trail and the thrill of a modern-day thru-hike. Thru-hikers share an almost evangelistic fervor about their adventures, so I imagine the three of us will generate some fun and energy.
The next morning, Diane will lead guests out to the Approach Trail and up Frosty Mountain as they head back toward the trailhead at Amicalola Falls, a great way to wrap up a Hike Inn trip.
If you want to join us, go to http://www.hike-inn.com to make an on-line reservation. You can also call 1-800-581-8032. As the Beatles once said: “A splendid time is guaranteed for all.”
When I thru-hiked the AT in 1973, my parents visited me where the trail crossed the Nolichucky River near Erwin, TN. I recall that the bridge was an old trestle affair in those medieval days, but my Medicare-eligible brain may be fuzzy. What I most cherish about the visit was the steak I scarfed down that night in Johnson City.
The next day I headed up out of the river valley on a steady series of switchbacks that seemed to keep me hanging out over the river — sort of a lovers leap sensation. Years later — when I was working on a 15-year section hike — I came from the other direction headed north and descending to the river. That’s the spot where Uncle Johnny’s hostel is now, not as desolate as it once was. Lots of hiking and rafting in the area, not to mention good smallmouth bass angling.
My hiking chums Stoneheart and Trailbeard went through there this past fall and captured the heart-in-your-throat view down into the river. (Thanks to Stoneheart for the pic.) A northbounder has plenty of thrills ahead over the next few days heading toward Roan Mountain and the gorgeous balds north of there. Many AT lovers consider this region among their favorites.
Get out and hike this winter. Cold weather gets the juices flowing. Stay vertical, keep walkin’ and use your Christmas money to buy a copy of THRU: An Appalachian Trail Love Story.
Hiking pals, it’s Black Friday, time to consider multiple purchases of THRU: An Appalachian Trail Love Story for holiday gift giving. Anyone who loves the outdoors will enjoy this gritty — sometimes wacky — novel about a group of Katahdin aspirants who encounter each other early in their 2,000-mile odyssey. THRU captures the day-to-day texture of life on a long-distance hike and answers the question asked by thru-hikers: “What have I gotten myself into?”
All proceeds go to the nonprofit publisher, the Appalachian Trail Museum. The humble author receives no monetary remuneration, but he sure has fun on the ride. Make your shopping easy and boost a good cause. Stay vertical and keep walkin’!