Tag Archives: THRU: An Appalachian Trail Love Story

Idle musings for 2019 thru-hikers

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!

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“the 2180” tells the AT story podcast style

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.

Stealth Thru-hikers Up and Running!

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.

 

 

Dropping Down to Erwin

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.

Early Bird at the Hike Inn

On the educational tour at the Len Foote Hike Inn, I show off the worm beds. For two decades, the Hike Inn has used worms to dispose of waste paper and food waste.

The worms do three things: Eat, defecate and copulate. I joke that worm activity is similar to what goes on at most college campuses. But when you think about it, the worms provide a useful service. They keep waste out of landfills by eating it and  converting it into feces which we euphemistically call “worm castings.” The castings resemble black soil, a material rich in nitrogen and useful as fertilizer on our native plants. I delight in teaching Hike Inn guests these simple lessons.

The Hike Inn is a back country lodge. I am privileged to serve as president of the board of directors. To get there guests hike 5 miles from Amicalola Falls State Park. The trail winds through oak and hickory forest, over crystalline streams and underneath laurel and rhododendron tunnels. Delicious meals, hot showers and linens are provided — a great overnight wilderness experience for people of all ages. Check http://www.hike-inn.com for details.

Remember, read THRU, stay vertical and keep walkin’!

THRU’s a Black Friday Natural!

8175LT3PJ6L._SL1360_.jpgHiking 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’!

 

No sheep jokes please!

Before I turn the page on the adventure in Wales, I need to display this photo taken by hiking pal Susie McNeely (triple crowner, i.e. CDT, PCT and AT). We had just climbed through morning mist out of the town of Knighton where the Offa’s Dyke Path HQ is located. It was a steep, relatively short climb to the grassy ridge where we came to the spot in the photo which had a sort of Mediterranean look to it. The inquisitive sheep added whimsy to the moment.

My friend Jay Dement who will soon be prez of the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club observed that the Welsh word for Richard is “BAAAAAAA.” Clearly, I command little respect among my companions, nor do I give a sheep’s butt if I do. Jay and I spent several days swapping sheep jokes before we exhausted our repertoire. Wandering along the Wales/England border certainly provides a sheep jokester with plenty of inspiration.

I am moved to note that the agricultural element of the British Isles is a big part of the joy of the experience. We hiked through fields of corn, sugar beets and all manner of other cultivated vegetation. At other times we hiked through dark forests and across windswept moors covered in purple blooming heather. In other words, there was variety of experience. Each day stood out as an individual memory.

At the end of each daily hike, we bent over — testing our aging, aching vertebrae — and scraped mud and sheep/cow/goat excrement from our boots and trail runners. It’s just what you do there, and it isn’t as bad as it sounds. I’ve experienced the same thing in Ireland, the Balkans, South Africa, Nepal and myriad other adventure venues. Sheep and other livestock — even yaks — are part of the deal. You enjoy their curious countenances and live in the moment. Stay vertical, you all, read THRU: An Appalachian Trail Love Story, and keep walkin’!

 

 

The End of the World in Wales

This photo taken one recent morning was in a part of Wales known as The End of the World. The path we followed tracked along cliffs and escarpments with views of sheep grazing in pastures, hedgerows, forests, streams and ancient dwellings.

My trip lasted three weeks starting in Chepstow in Wales and hiking north about 180 miles to Prestatyn on the Irish Sea. We followed long ridges topped with blooming heather cloud-walking with beautiful pastoral tableaus on either side of us. At times we dropped into the heart of the countryside traversing hardwood forests, across grazing land, past castle ruins and centuries-old houses, up incredibly steep ascents and down the inevitable precipitous descents. We kept score on falls, and I was tied on the last day with one of my companions with a total of three. She managed one last fall on the final downhill to Prestatyn, so I was spared the ignominy of being championship stumbler.

We followed an established trail known as Offa’s Dyke, a large berm and moat construction thought to date back to the eighth century A.D. A ruler named Offa required landowners under his domain to build the dyke as a way to establish a boundary and perhaps to fortify the territory. No one seems to know for sure. Regardless, at times, we actually followed a path directly on top of or beside the dyke.

Each night we dropped into a valley to a village, town or settlement and stayed in a local hotel or B&B. We feasted on pub food or whatever was considered best in the area for supper. At least three times I opted for fish and chips accompanied by a local lager. For breakfast we had a choice of any combination of the so-called full English breakfast which can include cereal, toast, coffee, tea, juice, black pudding, baked beans, stewed tomatoes, sautéed mushrooms, two eggs any style, sausage and bacon. Obviously, the full monte was a bit much, so we picked what we wanted and were never disappointed.

Along the way we chuckled at the Welsh use of multiple consonants and minimal vowels in city names. We thrilled to the beauty of Welsh and English accents and wit as we meandered along the England/Wales border. We scraped all manner of mud and assorted livestock turds from our shoes at the end of each day. And we reveled at the shimmering beauty, clear sky, magnificent pastoral scenery and delightful culture we encountered — seemingly at every turn of the trail. Each day had its individual charms.

Setting up the trip for us was Will Ainsley of Discovery Travel. I don’t do plugs in this blog, but this guy became a friend for sure, and I would recommend him to anyone who wants to enjoy a trip thoroughly. Email them at info@discoverytravel.co.uk

Wales is not a wilderness. Still, the trip did provide a magical feeling of remoteness. At other times, we had the feeling of walking back in time, exploring ancient sites and wondering if much had changed since laborers more than a millennium ago toiled at building the earthen mound we followed for weeks. If you’re thinking of doing this, don’t let me discourage you. I still can’t quit thinking about it.

THRU: A Pacific Crest Trail Love Story

starcrunch.jpgHere’s a fine looking pair of healthy American youths. To the left is Andrew, a former naturalist at the Len Foote Hike Inn. To the right is Leigh (trail name Starcrunch after the tasty Hostess brand snack), another former LFHI employee who is also an AT thru-hiker. They are shown near the halfway point as they head NOBO on the Pacific Crest Trail. Since that photo was taken, they have made great progress and actually passed the Columbia River which means they are well into their final state — Washington.

A couple of thoughts about these two:  First, they appear trim and fit but not emaciated. Hikers in the 21st century are more fully aware of nutrition. They can carry food that packs far more into their stash — ounce for ounce — than was once the case. When I hiked the AT 44 years ago, I grabbed what was cheap in whatever grocery store I could hitchhike to. I did not know a fat from a protein from a carb. I snatched boxes of store brand mac & cheese and whatever else looked inexpensive, light and flavorful. I ended up looking like a scarecrow at the end of my trip. Fortunately for me, a 21-year-old body is forgiving. I felt fine even though my family doctor told me I was medically malnourished.

As for point number two, this hiking duo look fit, properly fed, svelte and very happy. I suspect some of the happiness is derived from being together and experiencing the kind of loving partnership many experience on the trail. They are living much of what I described in THRU: An Appalachian Trail Love Story. I hiked mostly alone in 1973. There were few young women thru-hiking in those days. When Starcrunch was working at the Hike Inn and we discussed thru-hiking, I used to kid her saying, “where were girls like you when I was out hiking?”

I was talking to Andrew a month or two before he embarked on his PCT trip. He was saying that his original plan was to hike the AT, but Leigh had talked him into hiking the PCT with her. He seemed a bit conflicted about his decision.

Being the wise old sage that I think I am, I said to Andrew, “Let me get this straight. You have two choices. Hike the AT alone or hike the PCT with Starcrunch. I’m having trouble seeing the problem.”

Andrew smiled sheepishly and replied, “Yeah, it really is a pretty easy decision.”

Duh, Andrew!

 

 

In the Eclipse Groove!

21032688_10154626056056097_4138275308027879275_n.jpgMany of you checked out the eclipse, so the photo above may match your experience. I chose to go to the Len Foote Hike Inn, a few miles out of the zone of totality but still a fine place to take it all in. Rachel, one of the Hike Inn naturalists, brought a colander out of the kitchen, and we saw a multitude of tiny bright circles with moon shadow crescents in them. A nice Kiwi lady (a New Zealander for those of you wondering) provided me with a spare set of protective specs. You can see me in the middle of this photo — the guy with the green Hike Inn blaze on his shirt — gawking away at the celestial display with all the other Hike Inn guests.

These are stressful times we live in. Sometimes we need to witness a massive visual extravaganza in the heavens, something totally out of our control and much larger than we are, to remember that the quibbling of nearly seven billion souls is but a small squeak in the cosmos. I believe human beings are a great miracle — perhaps unique in all creation. Nonetheless, there is power far greater and intellect far deeper than ours. A little dalliance between the sun and the moon are a good reminder of all that.

So, stay vertical, keep walkin’ and remember that nature is what brings you back to equilibrium, almost every time.