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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!
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    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

    When fair April with his showers sweet,
    Has pierced the drought of March to the root’s feet
    And bathed each vein in liquid of such power,
    Its strength creates the newly springing flower;

    Then nature stirs them up to such a pitch
    That folk all long to go on pilgrimage

    -Chaucer

    The two thousand or so hikers who come to Springer mountain every year don’t wait for great weather. In the north Georgia mountains it will be pleasantly warm with flowers in full bloom about two months later. But in March and April when they arrive, no leaves have bud, there’s plenty of rain, and it’s still cold enough for snow to be a constant possibility. But the hikers have to start now to have enough time to walk to Maine before winter starts again. They aren’t just here to enjoy the scenery. They are trying to get somewhere.

    Chaucer’s pilgrims were going to Canterbury’s cathedral. The Mayflower’s pilgrims were going to a new world free of persecution. The Appalachian Trail pilgrims are going to a rocky, isolated mountain in the middle of a lonely, isolated state. And why, exactly? Okay, so maybe it’s more about the journey than the destination. But as they climb muddy trails in the cold March rain with a giant pack pulling down their backs, the Appalachian pilgrims raise some serious questions. Who are you anyway? And what are you doing out here?

    The characters on this trail come from many places. Many are young, but there are plenty in middle age as well. Most are in good shape, but not all. Usually they have spent some of their lives enjoying the outdoors, but a few have never hiked before. What unites all these people, bringing them out of warm dry homes with hot meals for the cold wet Georgia mountains? A love of long walks? A taste for granola? A yearning to find peace in the wilderness?

    Actually, the only thing these people have in common is a lot of time on their hands. When you ask them why they are hiking, they say “I retired,” or “My business went under with the economy,” or “I finished school.” They give reasons for having six months of free time, but never think to explain why they are here instead of, say, golfing, or learning French, or traveling to every major league baseball park. For some reason, it just seems natural to some people.

    Many of them are a lot like me. Twenty-something men who quit their jobs or just finished college, they figured that they wouldn’t have many other opportunities to live in the woods for six months. But some also have wives staying at home, or jobs they are hoping to return to, or mortgages, or other real-world reasons it might be a hard trip to make. Some seem well-off, with all the latest high tech gear, and some have scrapped together some cheap equipment and see the trip as a economical way to pass a summer. Some come in pairs, and some come alone. Some hike far and fast, and some enjoy one step at a time. Some of the older hikers are retired, or on a leave of absence from their careers, and are experiencing something that they dreamed of and planned for for years. Other seem to more or less live in the woods, with no discernible life off of the trail. In the real world, these people would be businessmen and hippies, yuppies and rednecks, college kids and parents. But in the mountains, when it’s raining and they are sharing a few square feet in a rustic mountain shelter, they are just fellow hikers.

    Part of their distinction from the real-world happens with the use of trail names. Every thru-hiker has one. There’s Damascus, Firefly, Western, Ramble On, Houdini, Hopscotch. Some choose their own trail names, and some have trail names thrust upon them. I hardly know anyone’s real name, and it doesn’t really matter. To me, they’re just other thru-hikers, people to share some time with as we go on our way.

    Virtually all of them share two characteristics. They are independent, and they are friendly. People who come out here know how to take care of themselves. They cook their own food, they know where they’re going, and of course, they carry their own packs. You can’t be a follow-the-leader type and suddenly find yourself out here. But far from being loners, or cutthroat competitors, they are also very friendly. It makes sense, since the trial is basically just a small town stretched out over a long line, that people show some of that small-town friendliness. At shelters and campsites every night is an instant community. No one passes on the trail without saying hello or stopping to chat. And help from a fellow hiker is never far away. Even though it’s an individual pursuit, there’s a sense that we’re all in this together.

    Why exactly we’re all out here, I can’t really say. We’re all trying to go north, to see where this trail ends. But I think just as importantly, we’re all here to see each other, to live in a sort of parallel world while we tell each other our stories. One nice thing about their world is that we’re all here by choice. Everyone is happy to be here, and that positive attitude rubs off. So even when it’s cold and raining and spring eels like it’s late, we pilgrims still have the company of strangers, and the promise of a big rocky mountain at the end of the trail.

    – April 5, Natahala National Forest

    It was dusk on Tuesday night and I had just been dropped off at Amicalola Falls State Park. Like a little boy on the night before his first day of school, I had my bag all packed with shiny new supplies, carefully organized in just the right pockets. Also like that boy, I’m nervous. I don’t quite know what will happen in the morning. I keep thinking there’s some preparation I forgot. But my ride has left, so there’s no turning back now.

    Just behind the visitors’ center is a stone archway marking the beginning of the trail that leads to the trail that leads to Maine. It’s a little bit cruel, but the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail is on the top of Springer Mountain, an 8.8 mile hike from the nearest paved road. For many people, that’s a full day’s walk before they even officially start the trail. I call it the prologue.

    But I wouldn’t start that until the next day. On Tuesday night I walked just a few steps on this approach trail to a shelter specifically for people like me  planning to start on the A.T. in the morning. I had packed all my gear. I had counted my daily caloric intake. I had planned my schedule and resupply points. I was as ready as I could be. Two other hikers were waiting for me. My new trail friends, I thought, this will be great! After making a little small talk, I laid out my sleeping bag and tried to fall asleep.

    “Hey,” said one of my shelter-mates, who goes by the tail name Spider. “Do you guys know where the next place we can get food is?” I couldn’t even believe he was asking. I had studied the trail guide for so long before getting there that it took me a minute to realize that he actually didn’t know. 

    “Well, the first store is at Neel’s Gap about 31 miles in, but it’s not a big one. Then after that, you can hitch into Helen at 51 miles or Hiawassee at 68 miles for a bigger grocery store. Why, how much food do you have?”

    “Oh, I don’t really know, I just threw some stuff together. Two days? A week? I don’t know. Hey, so there’s no store on the hike tomorrow?”

    “Well, no, there’s no store at all for three days at least.”

    “That’s good, I probably won’t spend any money then. I budgeted myself $25 for every day of this hike, and already after tomorrow I’ll have saved some money.”

    “Yeah but, aren’t you just going to need to buy several days of food at once when you’re in town?”

    “Oh, yeah. Maybe you’re right.”

    You might think that I was concerned for poor Spider, worried about him starving in the woods, no knowing what state he was in or which direction to walk. But in reality, all I was thinking at this moment was that maybe I knew more than I thought I did.

    “Man, we are going to learn so much out here,” Spider said, after the other two of us in the shelter had almost gone to sleep. “There are just so many people who know so much stuff. Like, I was talking to someone about knots, and he was saying there’s this good knot for tying a bear bag line to a tree, it’s like, you make a loop, and then go through it, and then around and back through or something? It’s called, like, a bowline? Or, I don’t know.”

    Yes, that’s a bowline, but no, it would not be a good knot to tie on a taut line. No one responded to Spider’s attempt at knot conversation, and I fell asleep feeling ready to go.

    Since then has been four days of rain, followed by one day of cold. Not the most pleasant introduction to the trail, but I guess there’s no better way to start. I am still getting the hang of things, and my feet especially are still learning the ways of the trail. But for the most part, I’m off to a good start. And hey, they sun is out today.

    More to come, but in summary:

    • Zero bear sightings
    • At least one mouse has run across my face
    • Already bought $90 in new gear
    • No hunger issues
    • Two giant heel blisters
    • No heart attacks on climbs
    • My trailname: Stone Brown

     

    Keep in touch!

    -March 30, Hiawassee, GA

    One Saturday when I was just a kid, my dad and I were visiting a state park in the northern Georgia mountains. There was a big waterfall, and a pretty lodge, and some trails looping around, and it was all very nice, but mostly I was thinking about getting back to Atlanta to see my friend. One bit of the park did catch my attention though. The trail we walked a few miles on, I learned, continued all the way to Maine. This was most unusual. All the way to Maine? The path I was standing on just kept going, and going, and going until it was on the complete other side of the country?

    Growing up hiking and camping near my home in Atlanta, I learned more about the Appalachian Trail. It is over 2,100 miles, passing through 14 states. Along the way are rustic shelters for hikers to spend the night. Many people hike the entire trail over the course of a long summer. I began to form the idea that thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail might be a fun thing to do someday.

    Someday, it turns out, is tomorrow. My backpack is loaded and ready to go. After a short drive to the trailhead at Amicalola Falls State Park, I’ll be setting out from the A.T.’s official beginning at Springer Mountain with the bizarre idea that I’ll keep walking until I get to Maine’s Mount Katahdin in September. I don’t have the proper certifications to examine just what thoughts or motivations would possess someone to attempt this, but suffice it to say, it’s an unusual urge.

    After having the idea in the back of my mind for a decade, I began planning the hike last fall and spent the better part of every day over the last week making preparations. As you might imagine, there are lots of details to work out. There’s the boots, clothing, shelter, cookware. There’s the maps and schedules. There’s the nutrition and hydration. What seems like it should be a simple walk in the woods turns out to be a lot of work to get ready for.

    Feeding myself over the next few months is the biggest challenge. Hikers don’t really like to carry more than five or six days of food with them at a time, so walking for several months without starving means lots of resupply points. Fortunately, the trail passes through or near towns every few days on average. I will be able to either buy groceries at the local store, or send a pre-made box of food to myself for pickup at the post office. Not only do the post office food drops require good logistics and careful planning, they require someone back in civilization to send me the food. For this task I volunteered my parents, and before they could say no, the dining room was covered with trail mixes and ziploc bags.

    It’s tough to eat well while backpacking. I’m shooting for around 4000 calories a day to replace what I’ll burning carrying my pack many miles up and down mountains. The trick is, it shouldn’t weigh much more than two pounds. After a lifetime of ignoring nutrition labels, I’ve spent a lot of time in the last week studying them in grocery stores. It turns out that packing 125 calories into an ounce is really hard. Every time I saw a food I liked, I would check the nutrition facts and see…no! not enough calories! They even have foods now where they take out calories. It makes my job pretty hard.

    What I ended up with is a bag full of peanut butter, nuts, oatmeal, pastas and soup mixes. How long until I get sick of these hiker staples, I’m not sure, but the important thing is that I’ll be able to improvise on the trail. No one does a thru-hike of the A.T. without a good deal of flexibility. If I’ve had it with oatmeal, I can switch to granola. I have a rough calendar planned out all the way to Maine, but I know full well that if I’m feeling great one week, I might move a little faster. If I find the perfect swimming hole, I might move a little slower. You can only plan so much, and I’m at the point now where I am ready to get out in the mountains and start walking.

    Tracking me down me may not be easy, but I will try my best to keep in touch with my friends and put some updates here as I’m able. Click on the “Appalachian Trail Page” for info. Even though I won’t be connected all the time, I’d love to hear from you on the way, either in email, voicemail, or old-fashoined stamp mail. And over these next months remember–while you’re stuck in traffic, I’ll be strolling through the forest, and while you’re dining on grilled meats and fresh vegetables, I’ll be eating instant rice and dehydrated chicken.

    NOTE: This post will not be updated. Check here for (somewhat) current info.

    Are you going to be in any of these lovely places while I’m in town? Stop by and say hello! (Bring leavened bread and leafy greens.) Or, send mail to any of the bold locations.

    All dates and locations subject to change, often!

    3/25 Springer Mountain, GA
    3/29 Hiawasee, GA 30546
    4/4 Bryson City, NC 28713
    4/11 Cherokee, NC
    4/17 Hot Springs, NC 28743
    4/22 Erwin, TN
    4/28 Hampton, TN 37658
    5/1 Damascus, VA
    5/8 Atkins, VA
    5/13 Pearisburg, VA 24134
    5/20 Daleville, VA
    5/26 Buena Vista, VA 24416
    5/31 Waynesboro, VA
    6/6 Luray, VA
    6/11 Harper’s Ferry, WV 25425
    6/16 Fayetteville, PA
    6/21 Duncannon, PA 17020
    7/2 Delaware Water Gap, PA 18327
    7/7 Vernon, NJ
    7/14 Kent, CT 06757
    7/21 Dalton, MA 01226
    7/24 North Adams, MA
    7/29 Wallingford, VT
    8/2 Hanover, NH
    8/7 North Woodstock, NH 03262
    8/14 Gorham, NH
    8/17 Andover, ME 04216
    8/22 Stratton, ME
    8/27 Monson, ME 04464
    9/4 Abol Bridge, ME
    9/6 Mount Katadhin, ME

    SCENE: Exterior, riverside restaurant. Rosario, Argentina. 10:30 PM. Table and chairs. DINERS converse quitely nearby. FRIEND and ME have sat down for dinner. Both are tired from a day of traveling from Buenos Aires.

    ME: Welcome to Argentina! I know it was a long flight, but it’s worth it. The food in this country is amazing.

    FRIEND: I sure hope so, I’m starving. Why couldn’t we eat any earlier than this?

    ME [matter-of-factly]: It’s just what they do.

    FRIEND: I don’t care what they do, I’m about to gnaw a finger off. [nibbles a bit on a pinky]

    ME: No no, it’s cool, don’t worry about it. You’re lucky we’re eating this early. They’re so provincial out here, this would not be fashionable in the city.

    FRIEND: I’m not even listening to you. I can only think about steak.

    [Enter WAITER. WAITER wears a vest and bowtie and looks like your uncle. Dialogue with WAITER is translated from the Spanish.]

    WAITER [politely]: Good evening.

    ME: Good afternoons.

    WAITER: Welcome to Don Ferro. Here are your menus. [suspiciously] If you prefer, I can bring menus in English?

    ME [proudly]: No no, they don’t necessitate menus English. I reads menus small Spanish good.

    WAITER: Very well. The special tonight is a salmon quiche, it’s exquisite. I’ll be back in a moment.

    [Exit WAITER]

    FRIEND: Wow, you’ve done alright with the Spanish here.

    ME: Well, I have been here a month and a half, I should hope I’m able to handle dinner in Spanish by now. And don’t forget, I’ve taken over thirty hours of Spanish classes.

    FRIEND: Well can you tell me where on this menu the big plate of meat is?

    ME: Oh, that would be great, do you want to split one?

    [Enter WAITER]

    WAITER: Are you ready to order? Can I bring you that salmon quiche?

    ME: Is it possible for a mixed grill of two people to exist?

    WAITER [straining]: A mixed grill for two people?

    ME: A mixed grill for two people.

    WAITER [thinks for a moment]: Of course, but it’s actually a bit larger, for three. It includes ribs, sausage, blood sausage, intestines, tripe, glands, liver, and brain.

    FRIEND: What did he say?

    ME: He said they have it. Something about ribs and sausage and some other meats, I didn’t quite catch all of the names.

    FRIEND: Yes! That sounds perfect. Oh I’m so hungry. Should we get a salad too?

    ME [to WAITER]: Mixed salad also.

    WAITER: Would you like our salad of fresh arugula, walnuts and goat cheese in a raspberry vinaigrette?

    ME: [pause] What?

    WAITER: We have an arugula salad, it includes a delicious goat cheese, is tossed with chopped walnuts, and lightly coated with a raspberry vinaigrette.

    FRIEND: Did you catch that?

    ME: Not exactly. [to WAITER] Please salad mixed. Lettuces, tomato, onion?

    WAITER: Lettuce salad, very well. Would you like me to bring you the salmon quiche as well? It’s very good.

    ME [to FRIEND, impatiently]: He’s really pushing this salmon quiche. Do you want any?

    FRIEND [also impatiently, but with additional hunger]: Don’t we have enough food? I though we were getting the meat plate for two.

    ME [to WAITER]: The mixed grill, is of two people?

    WAITER: Well no, it’s actually for three, but I suppose if you are really hungry for glands and brain, it would be good for two people. Otherwise, I would strongly recommend the salmon quiche.

    ME: He says it’s good for two people.

    FRIEND: Perfect.

    ME: No quiche. Want only salad and mixed grill.

    WAITER: Salad and mixed grill, right away sir.

    [exit WATIER]

    FRIEND: I am impressed, you got through that very nicely. I had no idea how quickly you can learn a language.

    ME: I didn’t either. It’s just important to be immersed in it, you know? I mean, I’m practically dreaming in Spanish now.

    FRIEND: That’s great. Not as great as this dinner is going to be though. All of that thick juicy steak, I have been waiting so long for this!

    [Later]
    A platter of assorted animal parts has arrived at the table, served atop a small coal grill.

    ME: What do you think this one is?

    FRIEND [not amused]: It looks like something else that is not steak.

    ME: I think it’s kidney. Do they eat kidney?

    FRIEND: They might, but I don’t.

    ME: What’s in blood sausage anyway? Actually, nevermind. [pokes at something with a fork] I definitely don’t recognize this one. [turns it over] Oh look, it’s brain!

    FRIEND: I bet there’s a reason we usually throw that out. [shuffles through a large pile of shredded lettuce on her plate without interest] And what’s with the salads here? This is incredibly boring.

    ME: Yeah, I know. That’s just how they do it here. No one told them how to make a good salad I guess.

    FRIEND: And this plate of intestines, is that also just how they do it here?

    ME: Oh no, I haven’t had anything like this before. I usually just get a steak.

    FRIEND: Well thanks for treating me to your experiment. Do you actually like this?

    ME: I don’t like this liver very much. Did you notice how it’s pretty dry and hard? I think it was sitting on that grill for too long and got overcooked.

    FRIEND: I did notice that. That’s why I stopped eating it.

    ME [with mouth full]: Interesting point. You don’t think you should have gotten the quiche, do you?

    FRIEND: I think I should have gotten the English menu.

    [CURTAIN]

    And so began my final week in Argentina. The food only improved from there, I promise. I learned a lot in that strange foreign land, but apparently, not that much. I have now safely returned to the US, where the steak is much more expensive, but much easier to order. While this concludes the Argentina portion of the blog, I hope you will stay tuned for further adventures. Hasta luego!