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Category Archives: Appalachian Trail

I’ve created a new map to help Appalachian Trail hikers who aren’t up on their orienteering skills. This one sticks to the information hikers think of most: north/south, states, and town stops. You might want to bring along more detailed maps for individual sections.

Appalachian Trail Map

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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.

One Sunday morning not long ago I found myself in a situation rather uncommon for most people on a Sunday morning. I was sitting with spoon in hand, ready to eat a just opened carton of ice cream, peanut butter swirl. All of it. In one sitting. Years ago, some thru-hikers somehow decided it would be a good idea to eat a half gallon of ice cream to celebrate passing the halfway mark of the Appalachian Trail. To me, the reasoning seems pretty tenuous. It’s because they’re both halves? Why not eat half a pizza instead? Should we celebrate three quarters of the trail by building three sides of a house? After a few months on the trail, thru-hikers do tend to get some unusual ideas, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this one were the work of the guy who runs the Pine Grove Furnace State Park Camp Store. For several weeks a year, he does brisk business selling individual hikers $5.75 cartons of ice cream in flavors they don’t even like that much. It’s tradition. It’s a challenge.

And, at the time, it sounded like a great idea. I love ice cream. I don’t get to eat much of it on the trail. I’ve been craving sweet things. It’s hot out. And I’m pretty hungry. Thru-hikers are always hungry. We can’t carry enough calories to replace what we burn. Once the fat is burned off, and a lot of us didn’t start out with much to spare, the only way to avoid starvation is by gorging ourselves in town. At my first town stop I went to two all you can eat buffets in the same day–Chinese for lunch and the steakhouse for dinner. I’ve been to dinner with a hiker who had to convince the waitress he wasn’t joking when he ordered two full entrees. He had a late afternoon burger and a hot dog as well. One shelter in Virginia happens to be very close to a road, and happens to have a telephone available outside the nearby forest service office. It might not be immediately obvious to non-thru hikers, but thru-hikers know this means pizza delivery. One entire pizza per person is the norm. The shelter was spoken of with great anticipation for weeks. We’re very good at walking, but eating is where we really excel.

Besides being gluttons for punishment, it turns out we’re traditional gluttons as well. The combination of a constant calorie search, daily physical accomplishment, and living for days at a time in the wilderness means that indulgences are fair game at any opportunity. When you’ve hiked a hundred miles in the last five days with no shower, no climate control, one change of clothes, and a subsistence diet of peanuts and instant mashed potatoes, it’s tough to justify making yourself suffer any further at the dinner table. Whatever that thing is that you always want to eat but shouldn’t, or only allow yourself on special occasions, imagine never having to say no to it. You don’t have to decide between the fries and the milkshake. You don’t have to pass on the bacon. And if you’re still hungry for it, you don’t have to put the lid on the ice cream just yet.

In more ways than one, that Sunday morning  in front of the ice cream was a dream come true. Sitting across from me, also with a half gallon of peanut butter swirl, was August Rush. He was not content to merely complete the Half Gallon Challenge. He could have done that before the trail, he said. Instead, he wanted to set a speed record. 18 minutes was this year’s time to beat, according to the Pine Grove Furnace State Park Camp Store clerk. August Rush had skipped breakfast. He had pre-melted his ice cream by sitting it on top of the ice machine motor. He had his stop watch and his witness, me. He was ready to do the half gallon challenge and to do it better than anyone else.

It seems like once you’ve adjusted to walking 20 miles a day with all of your possessions on your back, you have to come up with new ways to push yourself. While eating dinner at a shelter one drizzly evening in Maryland, two hikers came in off the trail. The others began making some room for them to lie down for the night. “Oh we’re not staying here,” said Hardcore, one of the two new arrivals. “We’re just cooking dinner. We’re doing the Four State.”

The Four State Challenge is a hike that touches four states in a single day. To complete the challenge, camp in Virginia right next to the West Virginia border. In the morning, hike across this border and a few short miles to the Potomac River, the Maryland border. Cross into Maryland and hike until you cross the Mason Dixon line, then set up camp for the night in Pennsylvania. It’s about 44 trail miles to see four states. After spending a month and a half in Virginia, the temptation for some is great.

At the shelter, Hardcore and her co-challenger Zen were ten miles from their fourth state. The rest of us had been in Maryland for at least a day or two and treated our visitors like celebrities by barraging them with questions. Where did you tent? Did you stop at Harpers Ferry? How much are you eating? One of the hikers, Traveler, was going southbound. To a northbounder, southbounders are like fortune tellers. The know everything about the trail ahead of us. So Hardcore and Zen had a question for Traveller. When you came down from Pennsylvania, did you notice any good tent sites close to the border?

The isn’t any good camping, Traveler said in his heavy Scottish accent. Instead, he recommended crossing the Pennsylvania border, then returning to a picnic pavilion back in Maryland to spend the night. Harcore and Zen considered this advice, clearly uncertain if returning to Maryland would invalidate their accomplishment. “And in fact,” Traveller went on, sensing their discomfort, “in 1987 when the four state challenge was first invented, that’s exactly what the hikers did. It was a man named Buffalo and myself.”

With that, the tone of the conversation suddenly shifted. We were in the presence of the guy who invented the four state challenge. A true trail legend. It started as a joke, he later explained. They never though it would stick around. In 1987 he and Buffalo had been slow through Virginia and needed to make up some time. They looked at the map and though that if they got up at midnight, they could get to Pennsylvania in one day. Why not? When they did, word got around, and the challenge was born. “Did you invent the half gallon challenge too?” Hardcore asked. “No,” said Traveller, “but I was the first person to eat three half gallons.”

Halfway through my own half gallon, the enormity of Travellers accomplishment was quite apparent. Overindulgence was beginning to turn a treat into a trial. I began having flashbacks to the unfortunate ending of my last binge. The Homeplace, a family style all you can eat Southern food restaurant with a khaki-clad clientele, is just off the trail in Catawba, Virginia. After polishing off entire serving bowls of fried chicken, roast beef, barbecue pork, mashed potatoes and gravy, re-fried beans, fried apples, green beans, and biscuits with tow other hikers, the waitress asked if there was anything we’d like some more of. We glanced at each other across the table and said, “All of it. Bring it all out again, please.” The second round turned painful. By the time cherry cobbler a la mode came out, I was sadly uninterested. After dutifully spooning through half of it, I excused myself to take a walk, then went outside and threw up behind the gazebo.

It was the ice cream that pushed me over the edge last time, my stomach reminded me as I struggled through my peanut butter swirl. I could no longer stand the sweetness, the coldness, the heaviness. August Rush was approaching the end on pace for the record. The hiker register at the camp store is filled with stories of failed attempts. In on unusual display of sanity, a hiker bragged that she “took the Resist Peer Pressure to Gorge Myself Challenge and won!” I envied her. I envied anyone who wasn’t eating ice cream.

August Rush finished in 16 minutes and 18 seconds, the new record. Green Light later sat down with the intention to beat this, but didn’t even finish. I finished my half gallon in under a half hour. That’s 3200 calories in one sitting. Over three days’ allowance of fat in less than 30 minutes. I thought of Traveller, who said after his third half gallon he was shaking and sweating uncontrollably all afternoon and into the night.

Why Traveller, August Rush, Hardcore, Zen or I took on the senseless challenges we did is anyone’s guess. But remember, walking from Georgia to Maine isn’t the most sensible thing to be doing in the first place. Other hikers have invented the One Night in Jersey Challenge (two consecutive 35 mile days) and the Connecticut in a Day Challenge (a 56 mile day). In the end it’s hard to disagree with the words of one hiker when asked if she would be doing the Four State Challenge. “I’m walking 2200 miles,” she said. “I think that’s a challenge enough.”

I can’t say I felt proud upon finishing that carton of ice cream, only relieved. To celebrate I bought the only thing that seemed remotely appetizing, a cup of hot, bitter coffee. “Cream and sugar?” the clerk asked. “No. Please, no.”

          -July 1, Deleware Water Gap, Penn.

For many people, a visit to a national park is a chance to experience nature and visit this country’s wilderness. For thru-hikers, visiting a national park is like going to the big city, full of modern conveniences, crowds of people, and bureaucratic regulations. About a hundred miles of the Appalachian Trail passes through Shenandoah National Park. For nearly that entire length, the trail follows the ridgeline. The park’s main road, Skyline Drive, follows the same ridge. The trail and the road cross each other dozens of times, so the thru-hiker never feels far from civilization. More importantly, the trail comes within close proximity of several camp stores, wayside snack bars, and restaurants. I never heard a thru-hiker complain about the lack of wilderness. Everyone was thrilled at the prospect of food that wasn’t added to a pot of boiling water.

The park is also a place where thru-hikers come into close contact with their civilian counterparts. People come out from the city for a few days of hiking and invariably cross paths with thru-hikers. At the crowded shelters, these two groups eye each other with suspicion.  I’m hardly roughing it at all, thinks the weekend camper. I’m more removed from civilization than I though, thinks the thru-hiker. Even more interesting are the encounters with people who visit the park without ever venturing far from their cars. (“I drove Skyline Drive” brags one sticker for sale at a gift shop.) Thru-hikers can hardly contain their disbelief that someone could go to the mountains without sleeping in the dirt. But deep down, we’re all a little jealous that they get daily showers.

After hiking a few miles one morning I came across a large lodge on the road. Leaving my pack outside, I went in and was seated in the dining room for breakfast. Cloth napkins, table service, a menu that extended far beyond instant oatmeal, I was set. Looking around at the cotton-wearing tourists around me, I was very pleased to have momentarily returned to human society. At the table behind me were some German visitors. “Excuse me, sir?” said the German woman in a heavy accent. “Yes?” I responded, expecting a polite question about hiking the trail, or living in America. “You have a small animal on your shirt.” She pointed to the back of my shoulder. I went to brush it off with my hand, then remembered my manners and used my napkin. The waiter hurried over to help me remove the hard-to-reach creature. Probably a caterpillar. So much for rejoining society.

Walking with two other thru-hikers past an RV campsite one evening I watched the campers watching us. We must be a strange sight, I thought. They probably didn’t even know there was a trail next to their picnic table. I thought it might be helpful for the park service to add thru-hikers to their informational signs. It would help hikers co-exist with city folk in our shared national park. Here is my proposed text:

WILDLIFE: THRU-HIKERS

Among the many natural wonders of Shenandoah National Park is its location on a major migration route for thru-hikers. If you are visiting in early summer, look carefully. You may see up to 30 thru-hikers a day heading north on the trail you see in front of you! Thru-hikers are closely related to the humans you are familiar with in your everyday life. Every year, hundreds of thru-hikers migrate through the Appalachian Mountains from Georgia to Maine. When they get there, most of them just get in an airplane and fly home. Since they don’t seem to be following comfortable weather, scientists are still not sure why thru-hikers make this journey. It’s just one of the many mysteries of nature to explore in the Shenandoah!

DID YOU KNOW?

  • Thru-hikers can carry up to one-third of their body weight.
  • Thru-hikers regularly walk up to twenty miles in one day. That’s more than their human relatives walk in two months!
  • Thru-hikers walk upright just like we do, but most walk with their arms as well using long “trekking poles.”
  • When they are not migrating, some thru-hikers are productive members of society. You may even have one as a neighbor!
  •  

    APPROACHING A THRU HIKER
    An encounter with a thru-hiker can be one of the most rewarding experiences of a visit to Shenandoah National Park. Keep these tips in mind to ensure you get the most out of your encounter.

    • You can easily identify a thru-hiker by its backpack and synthetic clothing.  Male thru-hikers can be identified by their large beards.
    • Tip: In places with poor visibility, you may smell a thru-hiker before you see it.
    • Thru-hikers are passive creatures that very rarely attack. In fact, park visitors are more of a threat to thru-hikers than thru-hikers are to visitors.
    • Thru-hikers are very friendly, but because of their lifestyle may not be used to social customs you practice every day. Keep your mind open to their unique customs.
    • Thru-hikers have unusual names, but don’t laugh when you hear one. Your name probably sounds strange to them too!
    • Ask thru-hikers questions and they may tell long stories about elevation gains, rodents, or ultra-light gear. It is polite to always act very impressed.
    • YES, it’s okay to feed the thru-hikers! Thru-hikers have very poor natural diets, and most seem to rely on humans giving them food for basic sustenance.
    • Do NOT touch the thru-hikers! They have very poor hygiene and may carry diseases. If you accidentally come into physical contact with a thru-hiker, immediately wash the affected area with warm soap and water. Seek medical attention if symptoms develop.

     

    -June 8, Harpers Ferry, W.Va.

    I’m a little bit angry at Virginia. I feel cheated. Lied to. Ripped off. From day one in Georgia, hikers have been talking about this state with great anticipation. Discouraged by the abuse your body is taking on countless steep climbs everyday? Don’t worry, in Virginia the trail is just a long flat ridgeline. Worried about making it to Maine when you only did seven miles today? Don’t worry, once you get to Virginia, you’ll be cranking out 20 mile days easy.  Enduring some mountain misery now will pay off in Virginia, they told us, where the trail gets easy and thru-hikers hit their stride.

    Like an Okie heading to California, the northbound thru-hiker starts to form a picture of this better place he knows only by hearsay. For my part, I envisioned a wide, well-worn trail free of rocks and roots. It passes through a lush green forest along the top of a level ridgeline, gently curving to allow views of more beckoning pathway to unfold. Its rises and falls are calm, like the chest of a slumbering giant. At the tops of its barely perceptible peaks, gaps in the foliage frame sweeping vistas across the rolling pastures of the valley below. Flowers in full bloom add splashes of color.  Bluebirds sing from the trees and deer scamper across the trail. It’s mostly sunny, about 71, light breeze. I knock out five miles before even fully waking up and 15 before lunch without breaking a sweat.

    Imagine my disappointment then when I crossed the Virginia state line to find, you guessed it, still more mountains to climb. The state’s tallest was on the second day. Virginia’s AT is known for is its length; at about 550 miles, it is over a quarter of the entire trail. So the effortless ridgeline hikes I’d been promised must be a little farther up, I reasoned. Well, I’m now well over halfway through this state, and I can tell you that I made plenty of panting climbs more days than not. When the trail has been on long ridgelines, they’re usually covered with boot-swallowing boulders. In one stretch the trail crossed rock slabs pitched like barn roofs. Then, just when you’ve hit your stride up on a decent ridge, the trail dives down the side of a mountain, crosses some pastureland, a creek, a road, and more pastures, then climbs straight up another mountain to a new, parallel ridgeline.

    Virginia may not be the cakewalk we were promised, but in truth the trail is easier here than farther south. To understand the challenge of the AT in Georgia and North Carolina, you have to understand the frustration of its routing. Many of the trails I’ve hiked in the Pacific Northwest, on the other hand, show exemplary routing over their mountains. From the trailhead, they follow a creek or small river upstream. As the trail gets higher, it follows smaller and smaller tributaries until it passes the water’s source. This may not be level terrain, but it is the most gradual ascent possible. From there, it aims for the lowest point in the ridgeline, the pass. Once it crosses over the ridge at the pass, it quickly finds a stream to follow downhill, just like the ascent but in reverse. Notice the smart line the trail follows, the path of least resistance across the obstacle of the mountains. The trail might not be easy, but like a high jumper clearing the bar, it wastes no effort.

    Compare this to the playful alpine acrobatics of the southern Appalachian Trail. The trail climbs up to nothing in particular only to dive right back down. It weaves in and out of hollows and valleys with no apparent sense of purpose. What’s called a pass in the West, the easiest place to cross a range and the highest point on a trail, is here called a gap and is invariably a low point as the trail dances over and around and through the mountains. These heights may not be as formidable as those of the Cascades, but a steep climb hurts at any altitude. It hurts even more when you were just at the same elevation two miles ago.

    Figuring out why the Appalachian Trail takes the course it does is no simple proposition. Virtually all of the area it covers had been populated, farmed, or logged before the trail was built. The trail might follow existing footpaths, or old logging roads, or creeks. Its wandering is sometimes because it was easier to connect existing routes than to build a more direct one from scratch. Through Tennessee it often zigzagged around private property. Often it’s  routed through the land least suitable for growing crops or grazing livestock–the ridgeline. Since the Appalachian range generally consists of long mountains running southwest-northeast, walking this line keeps us moving in the right direction. The ridges are not flat though, and spending a day walking up and down its every viewless summit is exhausting.

    The exaggeration that the trail through Virginia is easy turns out to be just a convenience of description. State lines mean very little in the wilderness; they’re often not even marked. Still, thru-hikers think of the trail in terms of the reputations the states’ sections have developed. Virginina is easy, Pennsylvania is rocky, New Jersey has bears, New Hampshire is cold, Maine has river fords. There is surely some truth to all of these, but for the thru-hiker the experience is not so easily separated. The trail is one continuous path, 2,176 mile after miles of ups and downs, rocks and streams, views and valleys, fields and forests, from one white blaze to the next.

    The white blazes are the dots that the AT connects. These two by six inch vertical white rectangles on trees and rocks are what make a route the Appalachian Trail and not just some other footpath. The purist thru-hiker attempts to cover every inch of the trail and pass every white blaze. Side trails, usually leading to a shelter or water or viewpoint, are marked with blue blazes. “Blue-blazing” is a term referring to the practice of taking blue-blazed parallel side trails to cut out large portions of the true AT. The purist white-blazer frowns upon the blue-blazers. Also discouraged are “yellow-blazing” (driving a highway to skip sections of the trail) and “aqua-blazing” (canoeing the Shenandoah River instead of hiking the trail in northern Virginina). “Pink-blazing” (when a gentleman hiker hikes unusually fast or slow in pursuit of a lady hiker) is considered within the boundaries of a purist thru-hike.

    More than one thru-hiker has made it his mission to count each and every white blaze along the trail, tens of thousands of them. Even if they remember to click their counter for each and every one, the grand total will be inaccurate by the time they’re done. The AT is constantly changing. Sections are rerouted for any number of reasons. New trail circumvents old trail that has been overused or eroded. New trail eliminates white-blazed highway, roadwalks that used to plague hikers much more frequently. Most frequently, new trail routed gradually up a mountain replaces a steeper grade. I have it on good authority that trail builders don’t do this to spare hikers’ legs. They do it because water washes steep trails away more quickly than gently sloped trails. Most hikers think trail builders are sadists.

    I recently spent two days with the Tennessee Eastman Hiking and Canoeing Club, the maintainers of over 130 miles of the AT through North Carolina and Tennessee, on a trail building project. Our goal was to reroute a climb I had tackled a few weeks before. The old trail went straight up the steep spine of a mountain. The new trail was to be zigzagged in switchbacks up its side. My fellow volunteers and I just needed to dig that new trail out of the mountain.

    What I learned in my two days as a trail builder is that these paths don’t spring up spontaneously from the forest floor. They take a lot of manpower and a lot of sweat. About two feet of the mountain’s slope must be leveled so that from side to side the trail is close to flat. This is done with hand tools by digging into the mountainside one bit at a time. Digging reveals roots to be cut and rocks to be moved. Small trees are sawed down, their roots dug out to prevent tripping. The work involving rocks is done by a dedicated rock crew. Small retention walls are built with rocks. Water routes are channeled with rocks. Steps are created with rocks. The rock crew counts among its ranks the most powerful lifters, the smartest trail engineers, the best of the best. In building a small stone staircase, they might spend half an hour digging out a boulder, moving it to the location, placing it in the right direction, and cradling it with smaller rocks dirt.  Moving earth is an act of dominance against the terrain. Moving rock is an exercise in humility.

    The final path must be resistant to erosion, somewhat smooth, and at a somewhat consistent grade. “Is this a trail that you would want to walk on?” was the question to determine if a section was finished. In one day we finished 2,250 feet of new trail. That took about 600 volunteer hours, less than four feet of trail per hour. Late in the afternoon, a man walks the nearly-completed trail,  scrapes a patch of bark off a tree, and asks who wants to paint the white blaze. Everyone wants to paint a white blaze. They carefully make the outline, then carefully fill it in, then stand proudly next to their blaze for a photo. After months of following other people’s blazes, now everyone else will follow theirs. The blazes on the old trail are painted over with black, and their entrances are blocked with piles of branches. Suddenly the trail I hiked a few weeks ago looks abandoned, as it is. And a place that was this morning just another piece of the forest is now the Appalachian Trail. Because we dug a trail and painted some blazes, hikers will walk there, meet each other there, stop for a snack there,  curse their boots there. The first thru-hiker on the new trail came through before we brought our tools down.

    While we added 2,250 feet of trail, we subtracted less old trail. We added mileage to the A.T. A more gradual climb takes a longer distance. This happens all the time as the trail is rerouted. When people say the length of the trail changes every year, they mean it gets longer. As the crow flies, it’s only about 1100 miles from Springer Mountain to Mount Katahdin. The AT manages to almost double that. It’s probably an easier route than the most direct one, but hiking extra miles can be frustrating. Then again, if a thru-hiker isn’t complaining about long miles, he’s probably complaining about steep climbs. And if he’s not complaining about steep climbs, he’s probably complaining about rocks. But the complaints are only half serious. If he wanted to get to Maine faster, he’d book a flight. He’s out here for those rocks, those climbs, those miles of pointless meandering trail. Even in Virginia.

    -May 30, Waynesboro, Va.

    If you’re going to hike the A.T., you need a trail name. Meeting a thru-hiker without one is just uncomfortable, like meeting someone at a costume party in regular clothes. Couscous just got her name a few days ago, after a whole five weeks of hiking, but just about everyone else has had theirs for a while now. So you know you need one, but how do you get it? You could show up at Springer having given yourself a trail name already. The more interesting ones have a story behind them though.

    If you do wait for a name to happen to you, timing is key. Take Moose for example. I don’t know how Moose got his name, but since he got it so early, he missed a chance for a much better one. Moose hikes with a group of four. This group happens to have a name itself. The slowest hiker leads, and the other three follow closely behind, forming a single hiking mass. They all carry trekking poles. Several people watching this have independently given this ensemble the same name – the Centipede. Anyway, the Centipede’s members like to play jokes on one another, so one day leaving a little store for a long climb, they managed to sneak a two pound can into Moose’s pack. “Hey Moose, how’s your pack feeling today?” they chuckled up the mountain. “Great, it even feels light!” Once he got to camp, he was quite surprised to find two pounds of spinach at the bottom of his sleeping bag. His trail name should obviously have been Popeye. But it was too late, he was already Moose.

    Here’s how some other hikers got the trail  names they’ve kept.

    • Hiker converses with other hikers at shelter one morning. Others go ahead, then at the end of the day, find hiker waiting for them at next shelter, even though they never saw her pass them. The same thing happens the next day. Trail name: Houdini.
    • It starts raining. While others put on their GoreTex jackets, hiker approaches down the hill carrying an umbrella. Trail name: Poppins.
    • Hiker looks like he just walked out of a bus station. He carries a black luggage-style backpack with a sleeping bag tied on. Across his chest, he carries a black duffel bag. When asked “Why are you carrying that extra bag?” hiker replies, “it’s for the stuff that won’t fit in the backpack.” Trailname: Two Pack.
    • It is very cold one evening. People at shelter are complaining about the probable need to get up and use the forest restroom in the middle of the night. Hiker offers suggestion. “Just keep an empty Gatorade bottle in your bag,” he holds his up as an example. “When you need to go, you can just stay in your bag and pee into it. Then, here’s the bonus – it’ll keep your bag warm. Just make sure the lid is on tight.” Trail name: 32-Ounce Gatorade.
    • In a crowded shelter, hiker has dream that he is mugged. Still asleep, he punches Peanut Butter, who is sleeping next to him, in the stomach. Peanut Butter wakes up and yells, but hiker keeps fighting in his sleep. Spotlight turns on his headlamp in the commotion to find hiker, now awake, on top of Peanut Butter, both staring dumbfounded at the light. Hiker rejects the trail name Jelly. Trail name: Night Fight.
    • Hiker is walking on Mollie’s Ridge in a storm when he is knocked to the ground by a bolt of lightning, which exits his left arm. Apart from a few minutes of ringing ears, he is okay. Trail name: Sparky.

     

    -April 30, Damascus, Va.

    It’s just after 4:00 and I’ve been at the Flint Mountain Shelter for over an hour. My hike today was relatively short, about twelve and a half miles, so I was able to get to the shelter early. There’s been a constant drizzle all day. When it’s wet out, setting up the tent becomes very unpleasant. Even if everything inside my tent somehow stays dry, the tent itself will get soaked, and there’s no dry place to cook. So on rainy days, everyone heads for the shelters. There’s a friendly saying on the trail – “The shelter always has room for one more person in a rain storm.” I’ve seen this maxim tested, and can assure you that at a certain point, it no longer holds tue. In a snowsotrm we fit eleven people in a shelter designed for six. I heard of 22 people and a dog crammed in to a shelter just a bit bigger, but two of those crawled underneath the platform to sleep. By then, the leaws of physics says there is no more room, and the latest arrivals are sent out in the rain to tent. The rules are first come first serve, and that’s why I’m glad I got here early today and I know I’ll have space.

    It’s not always like today. take the Spence Field Shelter I stayed at a few weeks ago in the Smokies. The sky had been clear all day, but there was a half foot of snow on the ground from the day before. In places alond the ridgeline, the trail went through thigh-high snow drifts. In the morning, the trail was icy, then by afternoon it turned to sloppy slush and mud slides. The going was slow and frustrating, not to mention cold and wet. On that sort of day, hikers often arrive at a shetler around lunchtime and are not inclined to push on to the next one. So they stay around for the rest of the day and try again tomorrow.

    So when I arrived at about five o’clock, the scene was not welcoming. After spending the last few hours in peaceful solitude, I pulled back the tarp covering the front of the shelter to find a shocking density of unhappy humanity. People with foggy breath bundled in winter hats filled every corner–standing on the small dirt floor, huddled over small pots of ramen, catatonic in their sleeping bags. No one smiled or said hello as I dodged around them; I was just another body to fit in. Their gear had exploded everywhere. Backpacks and food bags hung like pinatas from the ceiling and the flood was littered with boots and trekking poles. Clotheslines stung from the rafters hung all manner of rain jackets, pack coveres, and tents up to dry like some strange decorative curtains. On one side was a fireplace with a crowd of four men tending a twig fire, above which hung a line of wet Smartwool socks. The whole scene was Dickensian, with the chimney straight out of Bob Cratchet’s house on Christmas Eve. I looked around for a spot. “Hey, do you think you could make some room right in there?” I pointed to a sliver of bare wood I had discovered between sleeping bags. A man who looked asleep said “I don’t really know who’s there, hey Tin Man, is that a spot between you and Snake Eyes?” Thankfully, they made some rom for me. I felt like I was in a refugee camp. Four more people fit into Spence Field Shelter before the end of the night.

    But when the alternative is setting up a tent in the snow, it really doesn’t seem so bad. And most days, it’s a much more pleasant place. This particular shelter is a pretty decent one. Right now it’s nearly empty, but soon it will be covered in people who arrive with equipment and energy like a circus in town for one night. The structure is simple. It’s built of logs, with most of the cracks filled in. These form three complete walls, and a little on either side of the fourth. The roof is a slanted frame of two-by-fours covered in tin, which seems to be keeping everything dry. On either side of the interior are two plywood sleeping platforms raised about chair-height from the dirt floor. There are a couple of good nails for hanging up packs, and someone has even strung up a clothesline. Just outside are a picnic table and a fire ring, and around the corner are cables for hanging up food away from bears. There’s not much to it, but on the trail it has all we need.

    These shelters were a part of the A.T.’s original visions when it was conceived and built in the 1930s. No only were they to provide ovenight lodging, but they were intended to be part of education and work programs, where city dwellers would go to learn avobout nature or participate in organized programs. This part of the plan never really panned out, but the legacy of the vision is that hikers have a place that feels like home out in the woods. Some shelters on the tail date from the original construction, but most have been built or rennovated by various hiking clubs since then. Now, there are over 250 shelters spread out over the trail, about one every eight and a half miles.

    They share the same basic structure – roof, three walls, raised sleeping platform – but each is a little bit different, and these variations make some shelters much better or worse than others. Some have a second or third sleeping platform in a loft, anywhere from 3 to 6 feet high. They can be built from logs, or lumber, or stones, or even cinderblock. One is a giant converted barn. Most don’t leak, but some are draftier than others. Some are designed for just five people, while the Fontana Dam Shelter, dubbed the Fontana Hilton, comfortably sleeps 24. Here are some of the features that make a great shelter:

    • Skylights.
    • A tarp to keep the weather out from the open fourth wall.
    • Fireplace and chimney. So far, only the Smokies shelters have these.
    • Without a fireplace, a good fire ring.
    • A broom for tidying up.
    • Covered cooking area. In the Nantahala, the southern part of North Carolina, the shelter roof extends well in front of the sleeping platform over a table, providing plenty of dry space to cook. Having almost two rooms felt luxurious.
    • Plenty of hooks or pegs for hanging packs and gear.
    • Tables or shelves for cooking.
    • Bear cables. It’s much easier to use the hook and pully system than to throw a rope over a tree limb.
    • Without bear cables, there should at least be mouse hangers. These ropes hang from the ceiling with a stick tied to the end to hand up a food bag. An empty tuna can with a hole threaded upside down higher up the rope keeps mice from climbing down.
    • Nearby privy.
    • Nearby spring, on the other side of the ridgeline from the privy.

     

    It usually takes a moment of thought for the thru-hiker to realize that by any standard other than a one-person backpacking tent, these places are dumps. They all have mice. Even homeless shelters have mattresses, in a heated building with showers. One shelter with two short sleeping platforms and marked body-width slots looked uncomfortably like a slave ship. There’s always someone who snores. But really, they’re all we need. And besides, shelters have a purpose beyond providing shelter from the storm. They are the place for socialization on the trail. Most people hike alone or in pairs all day long, so the shelters are where they congregate to talk about the weather or share gossip. Every shelter has a register. These notebooks are filled with notes from the people who have passed through before, and so they serve as the trail’snewspaper. Each night, the shelter houses a makeshift family that will move on in the morning. Many people say they come to the trail for the sense of community. It’s these spaces, and some occasional rain, that make that community.

    -Cherokee National Forest, April 19

    Much of the Appalachian Trail experience isn’t even in the woods. Before I left, people seemed surprised by this when I told them. There’s a common perception that hiking the trail means six months of solitude in remote wilderness. But even if a hiker could somehow avoid his hundreds of fellow thru-hikers, he’d still have to come back to civilization once in a while to get food. The trail does of course goes through wilderness, but it’s never too far from a town with all the comforts of home. It even passes right through some of them. After all, it would be pretty difficult to draw a 2,000 mile line through the eastern U.S. without emerging from the wilderness once in a while. These towns and stops along the A.T., and the characters that inhabit them, are every bit a part of the trail itself.

    The first time the thru-hiker emerges from the woods to once again see the clean, dry, cotton-wearing inhabitants of the real world is at Neels Gap, about three days from the start. After crossing the road, the trail passes directly through the breezeway of a stone building that houses Mountain Crossings Outfitter. It’s important to note here that there is no official training video for A.T. thru-hikers. There is no information packet with a packing list, “Before You Arrive” checklist, or F.A.Q.s. Hikers are on their own to figure it out. After 31 miles with the wrong boots, too many pots, or a malfunctioning rain jacket, Mountain Crossings is the place that gets the thru-hiker properly equipped and ready to get back on the trail.

    The store is entirely devoted to hiking, with a particular focus on A.T. thru-hikes. They could easily outfit a thru-hiker from nothing, but more often they add to or replace what hikers thought they needed. I picked up a waterproof stuff sack and a pack cover. After three days of rain, stock was running low. One popular service, advertised on flyers all around, is the “Gear Shakedown – Lose 10 Pounds, Guaranteed!” On the floor in scattered corners of the store, hikers lay out all of their gear. A staff member goes through it all and says keep it, replace it, or send it home, not unlike a reality TV show, as the thru-hiker quietly accepts it. Mountain Crossings has the boxes and stamps to send a lot of hiker gear back home. And if your boots don’t fit, or your pack has the wrong straps, they have every major equipment manufacturer and retailer on speed dial to negotiate a speedy exchange or refund. As I was walking around the store in my flip flops, an employee saw the holes through three layers of skin on my heels. Without me even asking, he told me the problem with my boot fit. He got me some new insoles, cut to fit, and now the heels have healed. “I’m not trying to sell you anything,” he told me, “I’m just trying to get you to Maine.”

    Perhaps more important than the gear, Mountain Crossings gives hikers a much needed psychological boost. The staff are all friends of the trail. Some have been fixtures of the trail community for years. Once is a contributing editor to the trail guide I’m using. Most have thru-hiked at least once. Hanging from the ceiling are dozens of old packs and boots from successful thru-hikers. In box by the wall is a stack of photo albums with pictures of thru-hikers who have passed through over the last two decades. Trail lore fills every corner of the store. The rookie hiker, who started three days ago with no instruction book and has gotten soaked and blistered with more confused rookies since then, suddenly realizes that this has been done before, and there’s a whole community of people who are part of it. Leaving Neels Gap feels like starting the trail all over again, this time for real.

     It was also around this time that rumors of the first trail party started circulating. “Every year around, Ron Haven throws an April Fools’ Day party for hikers in Franklin,” was the word from the staff at Mountain Crossings. “And you’re in luck, because that’s a week from now, and you’re about a seven day walk from Franklin.” I hadn’t quite realized that there would be events to plan around on this trip. It seemed pretty straightforward at first, the idea was to just keep walking until I get to Maine. But now there was a reason to walk somewhere much closer.

    The most interesting thing about the Franklin hiker bash is how news spread about it. Most of its target attendees are semi-nomadic mountain dwellers. So the party had no website. We didn’t receive an e-vite. There were no flyers posted around town, no ad in the local paper. Everything anybody knew about the party was by word of mouth. And it came up in just about every hiker conversation for the week before. “Is it Friday too or just Saturday?” “I don’t know where it’s going to be, but I figure if you show up in Franklin you can figure it out.” “Is there going to be camping?” “I know there’s food, but I don’t know if it’s all you can eat.” “I heard there’s going to be an Elvis impersonator.” “Oh yeah, and wasn’t there something about a book-signing by Elvis’ manager or something?”

    The best rumors, which swelled to almost legendary proportions, were about the party’s host, Ron Haven. “Ron Haven is a true friend of the trail,” said the people who worked at Mountain Crossings. “Man, I get to Winding Stair Gap, and I’m standing there with my thumb out, about to start walking down the hill, when this guy shows up in a short bus and says he’s taking hikers to town. That guy is a character,” said a previous thru-hiker. “That guy will take care of you, no matter what.” “Ron Haven has single-handedly made Franklin a great trail town. He’s convinced the people that hikers are a little smelly but they’re mostly good people and are happy to spend money in town.” “He owns the Sapphire Inn, the Budget Inn, and one other I think?” “Yeah I was talking to him one day and he said if I was looking to buy some property in town, he’s a licensed real estate agent and could help me out. I think he owns an antique store or something too.”

    A section of the trail was jammed up for days with people timing their hike to get into Franklin for the weekend. I was not going to miss the legendary Ron Haven’s hiker party. But I was going to pass Franklin a couple days ahead of the weekend and didn’t want to slow down for it. When I got to Winding Stair Gap, the highway into Franklin, the short bus pulled up as expected and a burly beaded man got out to help hikers in. The man, the legend, Ron Haven. He will take care of me, no matter what, I remembered being told. So I asked, “I’m hiking on but want to get back for your party. Are you running shuttles from the Nantahala?” He shook my hand with a smile. “I tell you what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna send a limousine to pick up you hikers, now I ain’t kidding. I run a limousine service, and what you need to do,” he fished a card out of his wallet, “is call this number and tell them where you’re gonna be. If you can get ten people, it’s just ten dollars a person. We want to make sure we can get all y’all in here to celebrate at the party, not gonna leave anyone out.”

    I got back to Franklin, not in a limo, to see what the party was all about. There was a bluegrass band. There was a lot of food. There was camping on the lawn in front of the Sapphire Inn. But most of all, there were a lot of hikers. Not just the ones on the trail I had been meeting, but dozens of hikers and others who had been fixtures of the A.T. community for years. People who have thru-hiked several times, people who have helped build sections of the trail, people who run some of the much-loved hiker hostels. Over the evening I met some of these characters, and heard some stories, and watched old hiker buddies reunite. They are a diverse cast of characters, united by this long footpath. We weren’t in the woods, and most of us were pretty clean. But it was a quintessential Appalachian Trail experience. And there’s lots more of it to come.

    -April 17, Hot Springs, NC