Skip navigation

Monthly Archives: August 2009

The End

Every week or so over the last several months, I have received maps in the mail. Each showed a line called the Appalachian Trail entering from one edge, winding across the paper, then continuing off the opposite edge. Until one day, last week, I opened a map with a line that did not run off the edge, but stopped in the middle of some concentric contour lines called Katahdin.

On Saturday, I walked to this place. Then, with nowhere else to go, I did something I had never done. I turned around and looked south on the Appalachian Trail.  I saw the ponds of the 100-Mile Wilderness and the peaks of the Mahoosucs. I saw 2,178 miles in the White Mountains and the Blue Ridge. 158 days through the New Jersey Highlands and the Great Smoky Mountains. Two pair of boots and countless granola bars across the Berkshires and the mountains of northern Georgia. I saw the same path that on March 25th from Springer Mountain lay before me, except now it was all behind me.


People I met along the way often asked if I was hiking alone. The answer was yes, but not really. The journey has been as much about people as about mountains, bears, or boots. No one hikes the Appalachian Trail alone.

And so, to the countless volunteers and trail clubs who route and dig new trail, maintain the existing path, build and renovate the shelters, campsites, privies, and signs; to the caretakers and ridge runners who keep it safe and minimize the impact; to the state and national parks and forests for preserving this public wilderness; and to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy for protecting the land and connecting the pieces;

To the local businesses, organizations, and individuals who have opened their doors to hikers or dedicated themselves making our journey easier, like Mountain Crossings at Neels Gap; Ron Haven in Franklin; the Nantahala Outdoor Center; Standing Bear Farm; Uncle Johnny’s; Bob Peoples and the Kincora Hiking Hostel; the First United Methodist Church and the entire town of Damascus; the Barn Restaurant; Father Prinelli and the Holy Family Catholic Church; the Homeplace Restaurant; the Dutch Haus; Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church; the Bears Den Hostel; the Blackburn Trail Center; the Outfitter at Harpers Ferry; the Pine Grove General Store; the Doyle Hotel; the town of Port Clinton; the Palmerton Country Harvest; the Presbyterian Church of the Mountain; Gyp’s Tavern; the Mayor; the Graymoor Spiritual Life Center; Native Landscapes and Garden Center; the Inn at Long Trail; Phi Tau at Dartmouth; C&A Pizza; the AMC huts; the White Birches Camping Park; the Stratton Motel; the Lake Shore House; and Shaw’s;

To local libraries and to the United States Postal Service;

To the dayhikers and locals who share a snack or a word or encouragement; to the (friendly, non-scary!) strangers who offered smelly hikers a ride; and to the trail angels big and small who give their time and money to making hikers’ days with an apple or a feast, especially at Neels Gap, at the Fontana Hilton; at Newfound Gap; in Hot Springs; Rainman and Ahab; Saw Man’s dad; Rock Dancer; and Sun Child;

To the AT Class of 2009, my many trail companions during a snack break or for weeks, for keeping me company, sharing stories, making me laugh, motivating me, and for generally making the Appalachian Trail one of the very best communities I am privileged to be a part of;

To the friends and family who have supported me with gear, mail, visits, meals, or a warm bed; including Margaret and Erin; Diane, Joel, and Sam; Rick; Aunt Mel, Uncle Jim, Katie and Tommy; Grandma, Aunt Suzy, and Uncle Lowell; Marie’s entire family; Freedom; the Lillys; the Kelleys; Hallie; Maura, Bridget, and Kate; Meghan, AJ, and LillyAnn; Laura, who drove me to the trailhead, sent treats, and hiked with me across Maryland;  Ann, Mark, and Jess, who hiked with me in Massachusetts; Marie, who sent magazines, made many trips to visit, and climbed with me up Katahdin;

And most of all, to my parents, who not only introduced me to the outdoors and taught me to challenge myself, but also tirelessly tackled a five-month logistical challenge from Georgia to Maine without once missing a mail drop or sending the wrong supplies;

To all of you and more, thank you. Thank you for hiking the Appalachian Trail with me. You turned a simple walk into something far more memorable, meaningful, magical.

Thanks too to the readers of this blog. I hope you’ve enjoyed following me. I leave you now with 2,000 miles of trail wisdom distilled into three points:

  • Never take for granted the joy of a clean sock day.
  • Be nice to the trees. They have us greatly outnumbered.
  • Hike your own hike.

Good luck on your own journeys, wherever they may lead.

-Atlanta, August 31


The origin of the modern marathon’s distance is a little-known bit of trivia. Many people can tell you that it comes from the distance between the plains of Marathon and Athens that Pheidippides ran to deliver news of a battle victory. But that’s actually only about 25 miles, short of the 26.2 miles marathoners run today. That extra distance came at the 1908 London Olympics. The finish line was set at the Olympic Stadium, but King Edward VII wanted to watch the start from Windsor Castle, 26.2 miles away. The route was extended to accommodate the king, and the distance has stood since.

I have run marathons, and in the delirious last few minutes I have cursed King Edward VII under my panting breath for adding a very painful mile and change to what seemed like a long enough run already. Now, having walked to Maine from Georgia on the Appalachian Trail I feel the same way. After more than 2,000 miles, I’m not done yet. The reason I’m not done is that Myron Avery, the man credited with bringing the trail from concept to reality, insisted that the trail end at the highest point of his home state, Maine. Originally, the northern terminus was set at Mount Washington, which I summited weeks ago. Now I’m hiking the extra 330 miles added just so Avery could get home.

The last fifth or so of the trail also happens to be some of the hardest miles. It has many of the trail’s superlatives–the toughest mile (the boulder obstacle course of the Mahoosuc Notch), the biggest climb (Mount Katahdin), the hardest section (the White Mountains), the worst weather (Mount Washington), the most remote state (Maine), and the longest stretch between re-supply points (the 100-Mile Wilderness). The section also introduces a new challenge, the river ford. From the beginning, these obstacles have loomed in our future. In the south, trail guide descriptions like “this is the last climb above 6,000 feet until New Hampshire,” and “the toughest rock scramble south of New Hampshire” never let the northbound thru-hiker forget that the hiking will get harder.

All this comes after a thousand miles of hiking that’s mostly as easy as just walking. From northern Virginia to Massachusetts, the trail can hardly find any mountains to climb. It rolls over some hills and across long flat ridges, a long green tunnel with only occasional minor obstacles. The miles are fast and the town stops frequent as it passes through the backyards of the mid-Atlantic metropolises. For thru-hikers who have built their mountain legs over the first few hundred miles in the southern Appalachians and have made the daily tasks of camping a second-nature routine, this middle stretch turns into a sort of extended vacation. No longer completely preoccupied with concerns about food, shelter, and basic survival, hikers start to relax and even, at times, have fun.

For two months here a thru-hiker could almost get into a town for a burger every day if he really wanted to. Hikers come and go as they meet up with friends and family or take a bus into a real city. The weather gets warmer and the sun stays up longer. The packs get lighter as we drop our winter gear and carry fewer days worth of food. The viewpoints are of not just mountains and forests, but farms, highways, power lines, and towns. As we go from shelter to shelter and town to town, it begins to feel more like a backpacking trip across Europe with a rail pass than a backpacking trip through the wilderness.

Accordingly, campsites can start to feel like an Amsterdam youth hostel. Large groups of hikers began to clump together into portable parties of five or 15 people rolling into camp at once or taking over hostels. Hikers have always formed friendships and groups of hiking buddies on the trail, but many hostels and businesses in town seem to think that the groups have been bigger and more common this year. My guess is that 2009 is the year when hiker use of cell phones and Facebook reached a tipping point. No longer dependent on shelter registers to communicate with each other, hikers have more freedom to speed up or slow down to stay with their trail friends. I won’t say it’s a bad thing. But this little thru-hiker sub culture felt very different in the long flat middle miles.

This hiker vacation culminated in late July at Manchester Center, Vermont. Two hikers from the area, just a few miles off the trail, hosted a two day “X-travaganza” of hiker socializing, movies, games, and copious amounts of food. Over 60 hikers found their way to this event, easily the largest gathering of hikers on the trail besides the annual Trail Days festival held each May. Only on my second night there did I realize just how far from the trail I really was. This was basically a giant slumber party, and we were a big group of extended friends. Hiking wasn’t why we were there, it was just something we all happened to have in common. The Appalachian Trail was almost secondary to our community.

Not so a week later. After Hanover, on the Vermont-New Hampshire border, we were kicked out of civilization and thrust back into the mountains. Gone were the daily road crossings with their pizza temptations. Those 25 mile days became a distant memory. Cruising speed dropped from three miles per hour to two. Hiker versus nature made an unmistakable return as the trail’s predominant theme. The trail was not sitting in the background any more.

Nowhere was this clearer than in the White Mountains. They are  known by their reputation as the most difficult sections of the entire trail. They are known for long stretches above treeline exposed to the elements, steep and slippery descents, and hand-over-hand climbs. They are known for bringing seasoned northbound thru-hikers with 1800 miles under their belt whimpering to their knees. The sign welcoming hikers to the White Mountain National Forest is within sight of the Oliverian Brook, an unbridged crossing that seems to function as a moat for the Whites. It’s the first ford on the trail, and I came to it after ten hours of trudging through the rain. After a moment of staring at the white blaze on the opposite bank, I quit hesitating and took the plunge. The current, running high in the rain, nearly knocked me sideways. I fought it, took small steps, and emerged alive on the other side. After four months on the trail, there are still new challenges. Welcome to the Whites, I thought as I emptied the Oliverian Brook from my pack.

The most ominous of the White Mountains is Mount Washington, the highest point in the northeast. The peak is in the Presediential Range, on which A.T. hikers spend some 12 miles above treeline. The traverse offers unparalleled 360 degree views, or a tour of the inside of a cloud, or possibly, within ten minutes, both. The weather station on the top of Mount Washington proudly boasts “the worst weather in the world,” and few disagree. Sitting higher than anything else within hundreds of miles, the peak also happens to be located at the intersection of three major North American weather systems and several other minor ones. This is a recipe for powerful, often unpredictable weather. The highest wind speed ever recorded on land, 231 mph, was on Mt. Washington. It experiences hurricane force winds an average of two days a week. Over a year, the average temperature is 27 degrees. Snow has been recorded at least once on every day of the year. I’m told that until the 1990s, more people had died on Mt. Washington than on Everest. This is a far cry from the farm walks of Pennsylvania. The A.T. goes directly over the summit.

The most bizarre part of the Mt. Washington climb is reaching the top of this inhospitable rock pile to find several buildings housing a snack bar, museum, a post office, and two gift shops. For those who don’t care for the hike, the summit can be reached by the Mount Washington Auto Road or by cog railway. These provide a steady stream of children, jeans, and fanny packs to the mountain. Actually, most of the trail through the Whites is shared with day hikers and weekenders. Many of them stay at the huts, large hike-in lodges with solar power, well water, and a full-time crew to cook dinner and breakfast. The confusion between subalpine backcountry and suburban backyard can be disorienting.

Nevertheless, the Whites don’t let you forget for long that nature is in charge. With winds usually below 50 mph and visibility rarely less than 20 feet, my traverse of the Presidential range was relatively mild. It’s easy to lose the trail here, with no trees to mark its boundaries, so the route across the ridge is marked with cairns, tall piles of rock. In the fog, just finding the next cairn can be a challenge. I hiked through the same weather above treeline on nearby Franconia Ridge, except with rain, sleet, and gusts of wind strong enough to lift the 40-pound pack off my back. At first, the conditions were startling. I struggled to keep my footing and keep moving in the right direction. Unlike the previous mountains, which might have been only exhausting or uncomfortable, this was actually a bit frightening. Four months after starting my hike, I was out of my element.

But gradually on that narrow ridge, something changed. I began to feel that simply by surviving, I was winning. I had climbed that mountain, and I would not be blown off the top of it. We were coexisting. I didn’t exactly start to get overconfident, but I did begin to revel in my situation. It was invigorating. I danced across the rocks, I sang louder than the wind, I reminded the mountain that I was higher than it.

Today all that stands between me and the end of this trail is a hundred miles of roadless wilderness and a 5,000 foot climb. I feel like I’ve seen it all, like it’s just more of the same for one more week. But the trail continues to surprise me. It’s not over until Katahdin.

-August 22, Monson, Maine

About a ten minute walk off the trail in New Jersey, across the state line, is the village of Unionville, New York. According to my guide book, the town permits hikers to pitch a tent in the town park. With this in mind, I hiked big miles late into the evening and arrived at the small park exhausted and hungry around 8:00. A sign at the Village Hall confirmed that camping was allowed. It also mentioned that the former mayor, a man named Dick, sometimes allows hikers to shower at his house, please call ahead.

“You hiking the trail?” An energetic local had walked up and asked that most obvious of questions. Normally I’m happy to talk trail with townsfolk, but this night I only wanted to eat my noodles and rest. “You know,” he went on, “I think the mayor has hikers over a lot, well, he’s not the mayor anymore, but you should call him, do you have a phone? Here, I’ll call.”

Before I knew what was happening, I had a phone in my hand with the Mayor on the other end. “Hi, um,” I started, trying to figure out what I was trying to do here. “I’m a hiker, and, uh, I was just wondering what my camping options were in town?” This seemed like a good lead-in. I wasn’t going to ask to come over and use his shower, but he could invite me now if he wanted to.

“Your camping options,” he said in a tenor that can only be described as mayoral, “are unlimited. Now, where are you?” I told him. “Okay. I’m going to give you to Butch. He’s a man who helps me out.” Then, before passing the phone, “And you’d better get your ass up here fast.”

Now I’m totally clueless and talking to someone else. We start all over again. “Hello?” “Uh, yes, I’m hiking the Appalachian Trail, and was just trying to find out about camping in town?” “Where are you?” “I’m at the village hall.” “Okay someone will be there to pick you up. You’re almost late.”

There is something very relaxing about going with the flow without knowing just what will happen next. The trail provides many opportunities for this. Every step I take north is someplace I have never been before. Every morning when I wake up, I don’t know for sure where I will go to sleep that night. Hikers learn that there are things you can control, like putting one foot in front of the other, and things you can’t, like the weather. It is both this empowerment and surrender that make the trail experience. In Unionville, I didn’t know what would happen next, and I didn’t try to guess. I just waited.

In a few minutes, a middle-aged man in a Prius pulled up, stepped out, and opened the trunk. You can tell the people who driver hikers around a lot by the rubber mats they line their trunks with. This was the Mayor, no longer mayor of Unionville, but forever “the Mayor” on the Appalachian Trail. “Dinner’s almost ready,” he told me, and we drove a few blocks away to his modest gray house.

After seeing hardly any other thru-hikers all day, I opened the door to find no less than 20 of them crowding every corner of the house. Hikers waiting for showers, doing laundry, watching TV, setting up tents in the backyard, drinking beers on the deck. Two men were scurrying about the kitchen preparing a dinner of hot dogs, hamburgers, corn on the cob, and salad. It looked like a hiker hostel, except that it was someone’s house, and it isn’t listed in any trail guide. I felt like I had stumbled upon a secret, like a nightclub so hip and exclusive it doesn’t have a sign, and I was cooler just for being there.

“You just got here, right?” A tall, well-built man in a baseball cap asked me in the kitchen. This was Butch. He and an older gentleman Bill were the Mayor’s full-time assistants running this operation. “Okay, here’s the deal. Burgers are almost ready. You’re not a vegetarian are you? Are you a drinker? Beers are in the cooler. First one is free, second third and fourth are a quarter each.”

“No,” the Mayor interrupted, “no fourth beer. Three’s the limit.”

“Alright. Second and third beer are a quarter. Shower is around the corner, laundry is right there. If you need anything, just ask. But do not come into this kitchen and ask if you can help, do you understand? And don’t you dare call me sir.”

I opened my complimentary beverage and caught up with some hikers on the deck. Some of them I hadn’t seen in a month or two. This secret spot had some strange gravity that seemed to pull every thru-hiker on the trail in New Jersey together. Some had already been there a night. A few had already been there two. The Mayor came outside and, as is his habit, commanded our attention. “None of you out here are vegetarians, right?” A hiker timidly raised his hand. “Oh [expletive]. Butch!” he shouted to the kitchen. “We’ve got another one!”

Soon enough, burgers and burger substitutes were making the rounds. “This,” said one hiker, “is the best trail magic ever.”

Every hiker on the A.T. knows about a phenomenon called trail magic. In its original meaning, the term was used to describe the way circumstances seem come together, as if by magic, for the best. The clouds lift just as you reach a viewpoint. You catch a glimpse of a bobcat. The first car stops to give you a ride. A local buys you breakfast. Now, instead of expressing an optimism about life on the trail or a pseudo-spiritual reading of coincidences, “trail magic” refers almost exclusively to feeding hikers.

The best trail magic stories have a legendary quality to them. “I was walking on a long ridge in Pennsylvania when all of a sudden there’s a guy with lawn chairs and a little charcoal grill. He hands me a beer and says ‘How would you like your steak cooked?” Or, “We were tenting on top of Beauty Spot one misty night, when out of the fog, this guy suddenly appeared with three pizzas. ‘Here you go guys, enjoy,’ he said, then left the pies and disappeared back into the darkness.” Stories like these are almost pornographic when told to hungry hikers in the woods.

Most thru-hikers get from Georgia to Maine without ever encountering such dramatic magic. More commonly, a trail angel, as the doers of trail magic are called, parks at a trailhead on a Saturday and passes out fruit and sodas to hikers who come through. And even more often than that, a someone carries a cooler of snacks and drinks in from the road. The sight of a cooler gets every thru-hiker’s heart jumping. The problem is, some trail angels forget to come restock or remove their trail magic. In my experience, it’s more likely than not that the cooler I was so excited to see turns out to be a box of candy bar wrappers, smelly soda cans, and rotting orange peels.

Trail magic has also turned into more of an expectation than a surprise. It’s not that hikers know exactly where it will happen, but they expect it to happen with some frequency. There are stories of ungrateful hikers who demand “You got any juice?” before they say hello or thank you. People who came to the trail supposedly to live self-sufficiently in the wilderness will be caught saying things like “Man, New York sucked. All I got for trail magic was one warm Coke.” For these reason, the official stance of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy on trail magic is mixed. Yes, unexpected kindness to hikers is nice, but keep it small and discreet. Remember the spirit of trail magic, to help others along on their journey. And clean up after yourself.

Small and discreet is not really fashionable for trail magic these days. Nor is unexpected. When I entered the Smokies in the beginning of April, a hiker told me to be at Newfound Gap on Friday for his friends’ “killer trail magic man. I’m talking hot dogs hot chocolate potato chips soda homemade cookies eighty dollars worth of candy bars fresh pies…” As the list went on I started salivating. So I made sure I was at the right place at the right time, and, over the next three days, all of the other hikers in the Smokies did too. In New Jersey I overheard some hikers on a cell phone coordinating with their would-be trail angel, a hiker friend who lived nearby. They picked a time and place that fit with their schedule to do a big lunch feed, then set about promoting the event by word of mouth and in shelter registers. It seems to me that when it’s organized by your friends and you’ve marked your calendar, it’s not really trail magic. It’s just a party.

The Mayor’s house is somewhere between a hostel, a party, trail magic. It meets the key trail magic criteria of pleasant surprise and food. But the Mayor goes above and beyond trail magic. He didn’t just provide a snack, he cooked a full dinner and a full breakfast. He opened the doors of his home all season long. Not only were his extensive hiker services provided free of charge, he had no apparent way to make donations.

Rumors circulated about his motivations. Someone had asked him directly, and he alluded to beginning to host hikers just after his wife passed away a few years ago. He then choked up a bit, and regained composure with some good-natured mumbling about us “stupid [expletive] hikers.” There’s a similar place in Dalton, Massachusetts. It’s not listed in any guide, but you can find it by walking into the Shell station and asking for Rob. You’ll be directed to the Birdcage, the house of a man who has taken it upon himself to care for the strange hobos passing through. The consensus among thru-hikers is that these men have grown lonely in their late middle age, so they open their doors up for the company.

I don’t think the Mayor is so simple. He seems to be on a mission. The main category of trail angels besides hikers, either former thru-hikers or those who wish they could, is churches. Churches in towns too small to have homeless shelters have figured that opening a hiker hostel isn’t that different. Instead of running a soup kitchen, they feed hikers trail snacks. One much-appreciated dinner in North Carolina was the work of men who drive every year from their church in the plains of Indiana just to serve thru-hikers ham sandwiches and potato salad for a week. None of these churches have been heavy into preaching. They’re just feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless. We’re like a charity case; I think people feel sorry for us. Never mind that we have all chosen this lifestyle. I suppose there is something biblical about walking long distances with few possessions that resonates with these churches.

“Alright if I can have everyone’s attention please,” the Mayor said calmly at dinner. Two dozen hikers were silent. He welcomed us to this makeshift hostel and went over some sleeping arrangements and noise level rules. “You are all guests in my home. You are eating dinner prepared by Butch, and Bill, and myself. You will be sleeping in my basement and in my yard. And in return, I ask only one thing. This is mandatory. Are you listening?” We were, somewhat uncomfortably, listening. “It is required, let me repeat, required that you watch two short videos after dinner. They are videos that have been very meaningful to many hikers who have come through this house, and they may be to you too.”

This is it, I thought as I picked corn from between my teeth, we’ve been trapped. We’re going to get the sermon. There’s no such thing as a free dinner, breakfast, shower, laundry, and floor to sleep on.

“Now for the sermon,” the Mayor said with a slight chuckle once we had squeezed into his living room. What followed, however, was not about God, or a shadowy cult, or an exciting timeshare opportunity. Instead, it was a heartfelt talk about our journey, our challenge. It seems a little sappy in retrospect, but at the time we hung on every word like children at story time. “For some crazy reason, you all got the absolutely ridiculous idea to walk from Georgia to Maine. Some of you are probably certifiably insane. I will never understand you.” He knows how to appeal to his audience. He told us his hope that our stay with him, a brief stopover on our journey, would give us not just rest and nourishment, but some inspiration to go out and conquer this completely bizarre challenge.

The first video was clips from “Britain’s Got Talent” showing the rags-to-riches story of Paul Potts, the mobile phone salesman who wanted to sing opera and realized his dream before an awe-struck national audience with the blessings of Simon Cowell. The second was a slide show of an ’08 thru-hiker who climbed Katahdin on his 60th birthday.

The videos probably served their motivational purpose, but what every hiker took back to the trail with them were the words of the Mayor as he introduced the Puccini aria Potts sang. The aria finishes with the word vincerò, “I will win,” sung three times, each with a different tone. The first, the Mayor explained, is a wish: “I hope I win.” The second is a realization: “I can actually win this thing.” And the final vincerò is sheer, unstoppable determination: “I will win.”

“If that last vincerò doesn’t get your heart racing, if it doesn’t make you clench your fists, if you don’t feel it in your bones, then quit now. You’re in the wrong place. You’ll never make it.” The Mayor must give this speech every night, but it was convincing. We clenched our fists. We felt it in our bones.

I remembered hiking through Georgia when people would ask where I was headed. “Maine?” I timidly replied. “Well that’s the plan anyway.”

Somewhere in the middle of Virginia, I realized that I could actually finish this thing. It was possible, doable, I could make it happen.

Leaving Unionville, New York, there was no doubt left in my mind. Vincerò.

-July 29, Hanover, N.H.