I posted the first chapter of my next book about my Appalachian Trail thru-hike – Balancing on Blue, here a few weeks ago and promised that chapter 2 would come along as well.
I hope to have the book finished and available sometime in the autumn.
Here it is. Enjoy!
The Steaks are High
I was happy because I had stopped battling the desire and finally realised that wandering was what I was supposed to do. I didn’t need to fight it any more. I embraced my life.
“Sir, would you like anything for lunch? Can I offer you a menu?”
“You actually have menus?” I replied, scratching my head, perplexed.
She giggled sheepishly.
“Yes sir, we have menus.”
With that she handed me a leather-bound example and also a wine list. I couldn’t believe it, a wine list as well.
“An aperitif, perhaps?”
That was far too much and I started laughing nervously. I turned away, momentarily embarrassed and looked out the window at the Atlantic some 35,000 feet below.
“A gin and tonic would be smashing,” I said, smiling to dissipate any offence I might have caused.
I perused the options. Tender Fillet of Beef Steak, Dover Sole, Roast Chicken Breast and numerous other dishes were neatly presented, spaced evenly, with succinct descriptions on slightly marbled paper. I paused briefly as she returned with stainless steel cutlery cushioned in a navy blue napkin with ‘Delta Airways’ embroidered along one edge. She placed it delicately in front of me with a wine glass and my gin and tonic, ice clinking as it bobbed up and down.
“You have proper cutlery as well? None of that plastic stuff up front, huh? I’d like the steak please, thank you.”
Business class was a whole new world. An inner sanctum, an oasis in an aluminum cage, and something way beyond my previous experience. A good friend in the business had managed somehow to get me a discount ticket.
“Just ask for an upgrade when you check in,” she had told me. “They always have room in Business on that route. You’ll get it for sure.”
At one point, I just had to take a walk back to the Economy section. I gently pulled the curtain to one side and peeked round. There they all were, livestock in an overcrowded pen, knees under their chins, looking somewhat cramped and prodding their catering option with puzzled expressions. I coughed loudly and some of them looked up. Smiling somewhat mockingly, I nodded a silent hello, coupled with an expression that said, ‘I got a Business class seat, restaurant quality cuisine, a very quaffable Rioja, a better movie choice than the National Film Archive, a fully reclining option and more leg room than a ski lift’. Then I went back to my seat for a slice of chocolate cake.
In the spring of 1948, a 29-year-old carpenter called Earl Shaffer started hiking north from Mt Oglethorpe in Georgia, which was in those days the start of the Appalachian Trail, known as the ‘AT’ for short. One hundred and twenty four days later he became the first person to complete the entire trail in one attempt and unintentionally coined the term thru-hiking. His journey and subsequent book Walking with Spring have since inspired thousands of others to do the same.
Taking just over four months to complete the trail is an admirable time, even by today’s standards, but back then it was met with derision. Not solely because of the time itself but because someone had claimed to have hiked the entire trail in one attempt, it was unheard of. Even the Appalachian Trail Conservancy initially deemed his claim to be obviously fraudulent. His feat earned him the name The Crazy One.
Compared to the equipment we have today, his was sparse and inadequate. He carried no tent or shelter, no stove, wore simple boots that lasted until the end and an army rucksack. I sometimes wonder whether in 65 years’ time others will look back on the thru-hiking gear of today in similar disbelief.
Shaffer was born in York, Pennsylvania, on November 8th, 1918. His family moved to a small farm near the village of Shiloh when he was five years old. His mother died when he was a teenager but had instilled in him an appreciation of poetry and literature. He graduated from high school in 1935 and during the Depression found work on neighbouring farms. In the winter he hunted and trapped for furs before eventually becoming a carpenter.
With his close friend and regular hiking companion, Walter Winemiller, he discussed and subsequently planned a thru-hike of the AT before their idea was put on hold by the outbreak of World War Two. Shaffer enlisted in 1941 and served as a radioman in the South Pacific until well into 1945. Winemiller was killed in action during a beach landing at Iwo Jima, a small island south of Japan. Shaffer’s subsequent reasons to hike the trail stemmed from a desire to walk the army out of his system and to mitigate his feelings of sorrow at the loss of his friends who had died during the war.
The AT had been completed some 11 years before Shaffer’s attempt but, owing to labour shortages and other factors brought about by the war, it was overgrown and neglected in many sections. With trail guides not yet in existence, he had only road maps and a compass, meaning navigation and bushwhacking were the order of the day.
In 1965 he thru-hiked again, this time starting from Mt Katahdin, the northern terminus, and travelled south to Springer Mountain, which had replaced Mt. Oglethorpe as the official southern start point. He became the first person to complete the hike in both directions. In 1998 he made another successful northbound hike at the age of 79, at the time the oldest person to do so. He succumbed to cancer and died on May 5th, 2002. To this day, Earl Shaffer remains a hero and an inspiration to many.
Atlanta is the nearest major airport to Springer Mountain, but Delta flight 261 was bound for Miami. An hour or so south of the city lies a small town called Homestead, where I had spent three months volunteering on an organic farm some years before. I had kept in touch with the owner, Gabriele, who had kindly agreed to act as base HQ for my adventure. Essentially this meant somewhere where I could leave gear that might be needed at some point, along with food supplies and other requirements to be mailed out should I need them. For example, the weather can still be cold when most start their AT hike, late March or early April. A warmer sleeping bag is required until the weather warms and spring takes hold. A cooler bag would then be needed during the summer months. Food requirements vary for everyone; for me, most was procured from stores along the way. However, some items I bought in bulk because they were cheaper or hard to obtain, in my case several kilos of my favourite chocolate protein powder.
A good HQ and someone who is willing to give a little of their time to help you out are invaluable when thru-hiking. I was also able to mail some new gear from American companies to Gabriele which saved on postage costs, as opposed to shipping them to England. In the coming months. I was to appreciate just how good a job Gabriele performed.
Amicalola Falls State Park is where most thru-hikers start their journey, following a nine-mile approach trail that links up to the actual start point of the AT on Springer Mountain. Getting to Amicalola Falls from Homestead involved a 15 hour Greyhound trip to Atlanta, the prospect of which I wasn’t exactly relishing. To tie up a few loose ends in Atlanta such as last-minute gear supplies, accommodation and a ride to the trailhead, I had emailed a thru-hiker distress call to friends I knew from my previous hiking adventures in the States. Hiker hospitality is amazing; American hiker hospitality is legendary. Within a couple of days of sending out my plea, I had offers of everything I’d asked for.
Keith ‘Hiker X’ Baitsell and his girlfriend Sarah ‘Sami’ Van Vliet both lived and worked in Atlanta. Keith had the 2,640-odd miles of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) already under his boots and understood the importance of offering assistance to hikers, especially those from a foreign country. My call for help had been forwarded to them via Kathryn ‘Dinosaur’ Herndon, also a PCT hiker whom I had met during my time on that trail, and they offered me somewhere to stay for a couple of days to get myself sorted. The delectable Lauren ‘Swiss Miss’ Moran volunteered as an excellent taxi service for the errands and a ride to the trailhead.
Nicknames such as ‘Hiker X’ and ‘Dinosaur’ are known as trail names. Not many use their real names on a thru-hike; most go by their trail name and often we still refer to one another by this name after the hike has finished. If you don’t have a trail name, you can think of one yourself, but, more often than not, it is bestowed on you by another hiker. The name usually refers to your appearance, mannerisms or behaviour, and it is generally understood that if someone offers to name you, you have to accept it. However, this is not always so. My trail name, Fozzie, loosely derived from my surname, I had used since school.
I stepped off the Greyhound in Atlanta at 3.30 in the morning and looked around. I was hungry and secretly hoping to spot the neon lights of a roadside diner but it was not to be. A few passengers stood outside the terminal sucking on cigarettes, and warm air from the exhausts of a shallow queue of taxis rose up to meet the chill of late winter. A street light flickered annoyingly, revealing brief glimpses in the shadows of two men lurking underneath, occasionally glancing over in my direction.
“Downtown Atlanta at that time of the morning is not somewhere you should hang about,” Hiker X had warned me a few days earlier. “Get a cab, come here and knock on the door. Don’t screw around down there, it can be dangerous.”
“But the Greyhound arrives at 3.30. I don’t want to be knocking on your door at 4.00 in the morning!” I had replied, not wanting to impose even further.
“It’s fine, I’ll hear the door. I don’t mind.”
I walked over as the cab window slid smoothly down.
“You need a ride somewhere?” asked the driver, who bore an uncanny likeness to James Brown. I opened the door, got in and started humming Living in America.
I checked the piece of paper on which I had written Hiker X and Sami’s address and repeated it to him. The cab lurched forward and we journeyed through empty streets that were barely contemplating waking up. He slowed to read the house numbers in a dim light and pulled over, offering a weak, “It’s around here somewhere.”
It was quieter away from the centre. I sat down on the doorstep and lit a cigarette, trying to delay knocking on the door to assuage my guilt. Bare trees were outlined starkly against a bright moon. A cat ran past, startling me, closely pursued by another. Finally I knocked gently on the door. No answer. I looked up; there were no signs of life. I knocked harder and then heard footsteps coming down the stairs and saw the hall light illuminate.
“Hiker X?” I asked, tentatively.
“Fozzie, come in.”
“Look, I’m really sorry. I feel bad for getting you up. I really appreciate you doing this.”
“It’s fine, really. Sami is still asleep. Do you want a drink or maybe you wanna catch a couple of hours’ sleep?”
“I could do with some shut-eye.”
“OK, there’s just the couch, I’m afraid, but it’s very comfortable. You still want that breakfast?”
I’m a sucker for a good breakfast and nowhere delivers breakfast better than America. I had mentioned this to Hiker X in an email and was pleased he had remembered.
“Oh hell, yeah,” I answered, no doubt with a greedy glint in my eye.
I slept for three hours, waking briefly as I found myself running through a planning list and final logistics. After a few minutes, the practicalities faded away and my mind settled, as it always did, on one, very simple question: why?
It is the standard query from people who don’t understand the lure of thru-hiking. The stock answer you will get from most thru-hikers investing many months of their time, a few thousand dollars of their money and several thousand miles of walking is something along the lines of enjoying hiking and the freedom the outdoors bestows. Others may go into a little more depth but, to be honest, we tire of answering because one answer merely invites more questions.
Most people cannot relate to spending around six months eating crap food, getting filthy, being too hot or too cold and smelling like an overburdened trash bin two weeks past a collection date in the heat of mid-summer. Despite all of this, we live for it.
I spent many years trying to solve this question and it wasn’t until I was writing this book that a definitive answer suddenly surfaced. Of course I love hiking and to be in the great outdoors is wonderfully nourishing. It is a time-out from a conventional lifestyle that I don’t particularly enjoy. I revel both in the solitude and the company on the trail and always return refreshed, recharged and energised.
However, when I really went into my reasons in depth, I discovered that I had felt the same need for escape many years before my first thru-hike, which was a thousand mile walk on El Camino de Santiago in 2002. But the appeal wasn’t found in thru-hiking as such; this was just the means to try and placate a wanderlust. Even in my teens, I had a yearning, a deep-rooted desire to wander, to be nomadic. At first I thought there was something wrong with me. All my friends were concentrating on school, choosing a college or career path, debating where they would live and, later, in their early twenties, their thoughts turned to marriage and kids. All I wanted to do was get the hell out. I wasn’t comfortable living conventionally and I’m still not.
I battled with it for years. I fought it, argued with it and became frustrated. Why was I different? Why couldn’t I just get a decent job, find a house, make trips to IKEA, buy a better car than next door, get married and watch the wife pop out a couple of kids?
I finished education, dropped out of the extra year at school I had committed to and bounced around a series of jobs, none of which I enjoyed. I went into sales because I thought the meaning of success was having an office job. Back in the 1980s, if you had a white shirt with a silk paisley tie, a Prince of Wales check suit and a briefcase (even if it did only contain a round of sandwiches), everyone thought you had arrived. Appearance was everything. Surely if you looked successful, then that was the whole point, wasn’t it? I was trying to conform, to fit in with a lifestyle that apparently we were supposed to follow because I didn’t know any different or ask any questions.
In my mid-twenties during a stint as a financial advisor offering minimally shrewd advice to a lot of very boring people, I began seriously questioning my life route. Moreover, I was miserable and exhausted, constantly fighting my desires to travel and wander because they weren’t accepted by the mainstream. I’d been led to believe that travelling was wrong, or at least spending more time travelling than working. Although travel was experiencing an upsurge, it was frowned upon as a way of life.
I loved praise, enjoyed being told I had done a good job, like a dog that comes when it is called, wagging its tail, and thrived on pleasing people and winning their approval. However, I also began to understand that receiving recognition for performing a meaningless job was a waste of life. Surely, to go wandering without praise must be more rewarding than doing something I hated.
Disillusioned with trying to forge any career at all, I became angry with society, lost any interest with fitting in and instead I rebelled. I started smoking, drinking and chasing women to distract me from the urge to travel because, first, I didn’t know how to escape the system and, second, I was scared that people would chastise me for being different.
To begin feeding my peripatetic desires while at the same time maintaining a semblance of being in the workforce, I joined employment agencies because I could work one job for a few months until the contract ran out and then escape somewhere. Being a temp didn’t affect my CV (not that I really cared) and it was completely acceptable to work many jobs without any thought of future advancement. I made my first, tentative escape to Greece, where I spent a few months hopping round the islands by boat, testing my resolve. Even there, the drifter in me demanded further gratification by not staying in one place too long. A couple of days here, a short layover there, then move on, feed the craving, go somewhere new, anywhere. Keep moving, you must keep moving.
For the first time in my life, I felt peace during those times in Greece. I was happy because I was doing what I loved, roaming, but, more importantly, I was happy because I had stopped battling the desire and finally realised that wandering was what I was supposed to do. I didn’t need to fight it any more. I embraced my life.
Dromomania, from the Latin dromas (runner) and mania (excessive or unreasonable desire, even insanity) is an uncontrollable impulse to wander, the kind that is appeased often at the expense of careers, relationships and maintains a blithe disregard for mortgages and pensions. When I first saw the word, though it sounded somewhat like an ailment, it struck a chord with me.
In extreme cases, a dromomaniac may have no memory of his travels. One such was Jean-Albert Dadas, a Frenchman from Bordeaux, who would suddenly start walking and find himself far from home in cities such as Moscow. The fact that mania is tagged on the end of this word is unfair. Let’s face it: most of us consider anyone with a mania to have something wrong with them. And yet, indulging dromomania, far from being frowned upon, should be embraced.
I don’t care about the reasons for my wandering. I’m not one for understanding the mechanics of anything. I expect my car to start when I turn the key and I care as much about the periodic table as to why these letters appear as I type. Now, I cherish it. It is the one aspect of my life that takes precedence over pretty much everything. I deal with being stationary because most of the time I must, but I’m only truly happy when I indulge, and thru-hiking is my chosen method. The world is a wonderful place when experienced at walking pace.
Some say our desire to wander goes back thousands of years to when we had little choice in the matter. Seasonal changes drove us to the cooler mountains in the summer and back down to the plains in winter. We searched for more hospitable environments to live in. If food became scarce in one area, we moved on to where it was plentiful. In the Ice Age we fled south to escape; in times of drought we moved on in search of water. Cook, Magellan, Columbus and others were not perhaps so much mapping a new world as indulging their appetites to move ever onwards.
As far as romantic relationships go, forget them. My history of getting involved with women is not a happy one. It’s not something that bothers me. I have come to accept it easily because, again, relationships don’t fit with wandering instincts. I occasionally meet someone I like and I’m upfront about my lifestyle. If it’s a night of pleasure or a week of fun, I’m grateful but then I move on.
Most of my friends have accepted my way and many admit to being a little envious, while others treat it with confusion or derision. Some people even become confrontational and demand to know why I should get six months out at a time. It’s just not fair that I should be seeing this marvellous world when they are staring at a computer screen for eight hours a day.
Such reactions do puzzle me. I wouldn’t aggressively challenge anyone who works a nine-to-five job. I struggle with their choice but respect those who have consciously made it.
For many it all boils down to fear. The standard life charter is comfortable for most, although an increasing number are beginning to cast it aside. We’re an intelligent race but, for some reason, we choose to work for 48 weeks of the year and accept four weeks’ holiday. Some, especially in America, don’t even get that and are made to feel guilty for even asking for time out.
Many of you out there have dreams, a desire to do something different, but are perhaps hesitant to follow them because they are a little dangerous, perhaps risky. OK, some dreams fail, but I would urge you to at least attempt whatever it is you dream about. Persistence and desire can conquer any gaps in skill, knowledge and qualifications. If you want something strongly enough and are prepared to chase it as you’ve never chased anything before in your life, you can succeed in doing what you truly want to do. Whether that choice is hiking a few thousand miles in the wilderness or forging a career as a graphic designer, it makes no difference.
There is another reason I thru-hike or as I mentioned before, use thru-hiking as a means of escape. During my second walk on El Camino de Santiago, I met a French hiker called Pierre. He travelled with his delightful dog, and as we talked, the inevitable question of why we were walking naturally cropped up. One evening I ate dinner with Pierre and Patrick, from Belgium, whom I was walking with at the time and who translated for us.
Pierre said that he walked often and preferred to camp or sleep rough, partly because of limited funds and partly because of how he looked. The sides of his head were shaved and his appearance, which most would call scruffy, attracted the attention of the police. He had been arrested for sleeping in a park a year before with his previous dog, which, wanting to protect him, began barking and growling at the police when Pierre was placed in handcuffs. Much to his anguish, they shot his dog. Even now, a year later, his eyes welled up as he spoke and he pulled his dog closer.
He went on to explain in his lack of faith in how we are governed, controlled, taxed and how he is treated unfairly by the police because of his appearance. His words resonated with me. Here was a man following a life he loved. Like me, he worked to earn some money and, when he had enough, he would take his devoted dog for a long hike, sometimes for months. Occasionally he slept under a bridge, discreetly, or camped out of view. He would perhaps stay in a cheap hotel once a week, get cleaned up and do some laundry. His appearance suffered, as does a thru-hiker’s.
He disliked rules, regulations and hated being told what to do. He didn’t understand why we need insurance and mortgages, why everyone’s voice isn’t heard; why the government doesn’t really consult us, despite many people believing it does. He thinks we have lost our freedom and he hikes to escape.
Patrick stopped the translation. It was clear to us all that this dishevelled, wiry little Frenchman’s thoughts had connected with me.
Was I an anarchist, as Pierre claimed to be? Do thru-hikers and other adventurers undertake their long trips to escape the system?
I consulted the dictionary:
1 – State of disorder due to absence or non-recognition of authority or other controlling systems:
2 – Absence of government and absolute freedom of the individual, regarded as a political ideal.
I wouldn’t want a state of disorder but to have absolute freedom as an individual, if that is indeed possible in our society, is an idea I do relish. Perhaps there is a little of the anarchist in me. Perhaps there is a little of the anarchist in all of us?
Having finally understood and embraced my roaming ways, I turned from Greece to other destinations. After El Camino de Santiago, I began looking for longer hikes in remoter regions, in pristine wilderness, where it would be possible to walk further without seeing anything manmade. I also wanted to experience solitude more. Solitude is a great leveller and I love it. Not that I don’t enjoy company, but being on my own feeds the nomad.
My attention turned to America because they have an enviable collection of ridiculously long trails in remote regions. The three main routes are the Appalachian Trail (2,184 miles), running vertically through the eastern states, the Pacific Crest Trail (2,640 miles), which runs, again vertically, through the western states and the Continental Divide Trail (distances vary as it is not yet fully complete, but the average is around 3,000 miles), following the Continental Divide along the Rocky Mountains and also south to north or vice versa, depending on your inclination. The AT is by far the most popular virgin hike, mainly because it is the shortest; it passes through many towns for re-supply and there is safety in numbers. It also has many shelters, usually simple, three-sided wooden constructions, sleeping on average around eight hikers, conveniently located near water sources and spaced along the length of the AT so you would normally pass perhaps three each day. Having completed a successful thru-hike of the AT, most turn their attention to the PCT and finally the CDT. Hike all three and you earn yourself the accolade of a ‘Triple Crowner’.
Every autumn, the ALDHA West (American Long Distance Hiking Association) honours those who have walked the 8,000 or so miles to complete all three. As of October 2012, only 174 people had been successful.
Not one for conformity, I discounted the AT as a first choice, mainly because at the time, I thought I might get the chance to do only one of the big three and the other two appealed more. The AT has a reputation for being wet. It clings to the Appalachian chain of mountains, which receive more than their fair share of rainfall. Being English and familiar, if not necessarily comfortable, with being damp on hiking trips, my attention turned to either the PCT or the CDT. The CDT is a serious undertaking for which I wasn’t ready: it’s the longest, the most remote, has fewer chances of regular re-supply and skillful navigation is a must, as some of the trail is not yet complete. By elimination, the PCT was the obvious choice. It had a fantastic reputation, encompassed a variety of geographical areas such as desert, high alpine mountains and dense forest. Moreover, it boasted a fantastic climate.
I completed the PCT in 2010, albeit taking slightly longer than I had planned for and developed an incurable case of the thru-hiking bug in the process. The AT was still in the back of my mind, along with the CDT, and in January of 2012, I had the possibility of taking on the AT that March, which is exactly what I did.
From 1936 to 1969, only 59 completions were recorded for the AT. The numbers gradually increased during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. More completions were recorded in 2000 than in all of the previous 40 years combined. Figures for 2013 show that 2,700 hikers left Georgia on a northbound thru-hike, of whom 1,130 reached Harpers Ferry, generally regarded as the halfway point. Those that actually managed to finish the hike in Maine dropped to only 385, a success rate of just 14%. In the same year, of those who south-bounded, 336 left Maine, 163 reached Harpers Ferry and 23 reached Georgia, a completion rate of just under 7%.
Of the total hike completions reported, women make up around 25%. Age statistics show that a small proportion were children hiking with their parents. Only 25 people aged 70 or over have registered a completion (source: Appalachian Trail Conservancy).
In 2013, the Pacific Crest Trail Association issued 1,043 permits for thru-hikers; 216 completed thru-hikes were registered, of which about 10 were equestrians, a success rate of just under 20%, or about one in five hikers (source: Pacific Crest Trail Association).
On the Continental Divide Trail, the success rate is around 65%. The high rate of completion is thought to be because most thru-hikers have already completed the AT and PCT and are fully experienced, strong both physically and psychologically and aware of what to expect. However, it is an indication of how difficult the CDT is that in 2013, only around 130 attempted a full thru-hike, of whom 84 finished (source: Continental Divide Trail Coalition).
In 2013, Reed ‘Sunshine’ Gjonnes became the youngest person ever to complete the CDT, celebrating her 13th birthday on trail, and subsequently became the youngest person to gain the Triple Crown. She knocked off the PCT in 2011 aged 11 and the AT in 2012 aged 12. I met her in Hot Springs, about 275 miles into the AT. I was sitting outside the launderette waiting for clothes to dry and she came over with her father, Eric ‘Balls’ Gjonnes, with whom she walked and who was also chasing his Triple Crown. We talked a little and it was hard not to notice a little glint in her eyes and a bursting enthusiasm, which I’d guess was where the nickname came from. Despite having another 1,900 miles to do on the AT, and the CDT still even to begin, from that glint I think she already knew she would do it.
Long-distance trails are a life-changing event. However, they’re not easy. The impression most have of us thru-hikers is that we get a vastly extended holiday, eat only sweet treats, do lots of sunbathing, drink a lot, go wild swimming, smell terrible and generally muck around in the woods. Admittedly some of this is true but make no mistake: it is a huge physical effort and is about as far from easy as you can get.
If you attempt a long-distance hike, the chances are heavily stacked against you and there is a very real chance that you will fail. Most quit in the first month. They were not as fit as they thought, new gear is chafing everywhere, red-raw blisters make walking excruciating or it’s too cold, too hot, too dry or too wet, sometimes for days on end. I always say push through that first month and if you come out the other side, chances are you will become a thru-hiker. Above everything else, you have to be single-minded and totally fixed on your goal to succeed. If you are mentally strong, can persuade yourself that you’re not in pain and can push another mile out, that your hunger and thirst are imaginary, that it really isn’t the seventh straight day of being wet and the fact that you badly misjudged your food supply doesn’t really matter, then you just may succeed.
The AT forges a path through 14 states: Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. Just the prospect of walking through so many states may be enough to deter you, but a thru-hiker views this with a glass-half-full approach, seeing the crossing of 13 state lines as an indication of progress. On the PCT you cross just two.
Currently around 2,700 prospective thru-hikers set out to conquer the route each year, in addition to section hikers. These walk a piece of the trail each year, or perhaps may miss a year and take several years to complete a thru-hike. Then there are the day hikers, or weekenders, who make regular visits to the AT, usually living in the vicinity of it. Some day hikers will accumulate more trail mileage in their lifetimes than most thru-hikers. In fact some 2 to 3 million visit the trail each year. Virginia boasts the longest section, at 550 miles, whereas the trail in West Virginia just clips the state corner and is a mere four miles long. Maryland and West Virginia are considered the easiest sections, New Hampshire and Maine the hardest.
By the time a successful thru-hiker stands on top of Mt Katahdin (or Springer Mountain for a south bounder), he or she will have gained the equivalent altitude of climbing Mount Everest 16 times, consumed around 900,000 calories and drunk approximately 600 litres of water. Most will have camped for more nights than in their entire life to date, and probably more than they ever will again. Some will have worn out just one pair of shoes; others will be finishing off their sixth. Many will have spent as little as $1,000, others $8,000 or more. A small proportion will be injured and some, sadly, may even die.
Most hikers start the AT in Georgia and head north. They are known as north-bounders, or Nobos. A small percentage start later in the season after the snows have subsided further north and head south from Maine. These are the south-bounders, or Sobos. North-bounding is by far the most popular, thanks to a thru-hikers’ eagerness to begin earlier.
An average hike in either direction takes around five to six months, and in that time it is possible to experience all four seasons. Most start in March or April, just after the tail end of winter, and continue through spring and summer, finishing in autumn.
Spring is the logical start time; it makes best use of the impending finer weather. But a hike starting late March or early April means the seasons are not just times of the year, but an experience. Instead of getting out in the woods every weekend, or, worse, not at all, we lived the seasons, which revealed themselves in ways we could never hope to see. We shared the changing face of the year every single day. We saw the trees change from emaciated skeletons to bearers of tiny leaves. We noticed those leaves become more abundant as time rolled on, watched them burst from their buds and unfold, splaying outward to catch the light, changing from a translucent pale green to an opaque depth, becoming the best they would ever be. And then we saw them attain middle age and decline to old age. Deep greens gradually lost their sheen and resignedly faded to yellows, reds and browns, clinging to their twilight years far from gracefully but more in a final, riotous flourish of an artist’s palette. Then they died, fell and fed the children of the following season.
I felt privileged to encounter not just the leaves but the whole gift that the woods offered me. During the early stages of my hike, I would often stop at high points and look down. Up there it was still stark winter but witnessing the blossoming of spring in the valleys below and watching its slow creep up the hillside was a season’s tease. However dark and unfriendly my immediate surroundings, the energy of the changing season below me was abundant and unstoppable. Every day, as it grew warmer, that energy crept uphill to meet me and every day, I would look down and urge it ever upwards. I was completely in awe.
I watched creeks, streams and rivers burst from the snow melt and, as the summer strode on, raging torrents weakened to calmer waters, rivers slowed to a more sedate pace, streams become shallower and creeks turned to mere trickles. Ponds and lakes receded, their banks becoming dry and crusty, emaciated weeds strewn on their shores.
I saw a damp, cocoa-coloured trail lighten to beige as a warming sun drew out the moisture. I saw snakes hesitantly checking the temperature to see if it was warm enough and then glissade back through dry leaves, unexpectedly silent.
I observed storms raging miles distant, gliding along the horizon casting rain shadows. Lightning forks cracked and struck the ground, followed by ominous rumbles. I felt the wind on my face to gauge its direction and sat, even longer, counting seconds between enraged flashes and angry claps. Holding up a dry leaf and letting it go, I watched it fall as the wind caught it. Sometimes I wished the storm would come to me so I could experience the anger right above.
I walked in downpours, snow, the unbearable heat of summer and sapping humidity. The roar of rain on foliage behind me at times startled me, and I would flee through the woods trying to outrun the torrent, giggling like a child at the craziness of it all. Paths became wetter until puddles formed, which in turn overflowed until trickles tumbled over tree roots and matured to streams themselves, soaking my feet.
I stood in silent forests late at night, trying to catch teasing glimpses of stars through branches. I strained my ears to hear nothing but absolute silence, waiting for a wind to travel up the west side of the Appalachian Mountains and censor the calm. Sometimes it merely stroked my face or ruffled my tent wall; at other times I would struggle to hold myself upright against it. Its energy was invigorating, so intense I felt as though it was filling me.
I sat on rock shelves, legs dangling over precipices, and peered down, feeling my stomach clench. Over a hundred sunsets made sapphire skies melt into brilliant ambers, touched by rose pinks. And at dawn too, the sun first peeked shyly over distant hills, then worked a route through the trees around me until I felt its warmth on my grateful face.
I sat on logs around campfires with others who shared the love of this trail, and as we talked, their faces flickered in an orange glow, bright one second, dark the next. They spoke animatedly of their lives and what the trail meant to them, with moving honesty and authenticity.
I walked with children, the retired and every age in between. I befriended soldiers, conversed with teachers, laughed alongside builders, shared food with writers, drank in the company of artists, sang along next to musicians, enjoyed the scenery with truck drivers and camped in the company of forest rangers.
Dromomania. That’s what I have, and if you’re reading this, it’s very possible that you do too.
Don’t fight it . . .