Gimme Shelter: A Walk on The Appalachian Trail
An Enchanted Summer on the Appalachian Trail
Too often I would hear men boast of the miles covered that day, rarely of
what they had seen. -Louis L'Amour
The bear was big, really big, maybe 350lbs.
And he approached me with the swagger of a street thug, fully comfortable with his position at the top of the food chain and unafraid of what he might encounter in his home, the Great Smoky Mountains.
I had just stopped for lunch and was leaning against a tree, noshing on a stale peanut bar, calculating how much further I could go before my water and swollen feet gave out for the day. I saw him first and froze; but for my wits and hiking poles, which were ten feet behind me, I was unarmed. Moments before I had seen a sign posted about a “problem bear” in the area, and I supposed this was him.
For 72 days I had been on the Appalachian Trail and almost everyday I had read, seen, and heard reminders that bear encounters were a real possibility, and that they could attack if they felt threatened; and I had carefully practiced in my head what I would do when (if) it happened.
So I started to hyperventilate and choked up the candy bar. No, that’s not what you’re supposed to do, but the bear stopped, looked at me with disdain, snorted, and reversed course.
Such is life on America’s original footpath, the 2,174 mile National Scenic Trail that runs from Maine to Georgia. Day by day you march onward through this enormous linear national park, just another animal in need of the same things that the other animals need: food, water, shelter.
I have never had a more humbling experience in my life. For the first time I lost sleep because of a lack of food, water, or the uneasy feeling of being so far in the wilderness and so much on my own; no doubt, I had reached the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. A joke I heard a lot from other hikers went like this: what’s the difference between an AT hiker and a homeless guy? The homeless guy eats better and sleeps in nicer places.
The original plan had been to meet my brother Dan in Nyack, NY, get dropped at the trail in New Jersey and the two of us would hike, unassisted, and emerge at the trail’s southern terminus in northern Georgia some 90-days and 1,310 miles later.
But like a bad sitcom the first day produced every form of misery the imagination could muster: constant rain, blisters, clumsy falls, equipment failure, gnats-in-the-face, gypsy moths, and I burned my boots in the fire. Not only did I hold no rancor towards him when he made the call for his wife to come get him, I was seriously thinking about getting in the car.
But in for a penny, in for a pounding. We said our farewells at Delaware Water Gap and off I went into the rocky trails of Pennsylvania, too stubborn to admit that I’d been beat. In a photo of the two of us that day I noticed that only he was smiling.
The continued lessons of long distance hiking would be harsh and painful. One of them is that the name of this place should be the Appalachian Mountain Top Trail. Most times the path goes to the very top of each mountain and exhausted me in the process.
Another is that no matter what you’ve read about the trail’s fragile beauty, adventure, and wildlife, the immutable fact is that hikers spend the vast majority of the day dealing with roots, rocks, bugs, and trees. And this more than anything is what sends thru-hikers packing to the nearest Greyhound bus terminal. “It just wasn’t what I expected” was a refrain I heard from many on their way down a paved county road.
Lesson #3: Like most trail rookies I had way too much in my pack. Embracing the Boy Scout’s motto to Be Prepared, I brought two of every conceivable knick knack and gadget I could think of, and ten-days of freeze dried food. Just putting it on would leave a scrape on my arm.
And everyday was my own private Bataan Death March. Off at 7am, by nine I would be drenched with sweat, by noon exhausted, by five, dehydrated and in a bad mood. How in the world do Sherpas do this?
My Name is Sailor
A week of these lung-busting, two-hour ascents and foot-chewing, ankle-twisting descents was really sapping my energy. Finally one night I tore apart my pack and questioned the importance of every item in there. The next garbage can I encountered received a good 10lbs of pots, toiletries, clothing, and food. If I wasn’t going to use it within the next week, it didn’t belong on my back dammit. It’s amazing what you don’t need on the trail.
My tent was the heaviest single item at almost 5lbs, and getting rid of it made a lot of sense. But it meant that I would have to stay in the myriad shelters along the trail. A unique feature of the AT, the shelters, and much of the trail itself, were built by Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corp. during the Great Depression. Every so many miles there is a three-sided roofed structure that features all the comforts of a very rough existence: a privy, spring, picnic table, and a contraption for keeping your food away from bears. Reluctantly I put the tent into a box and handed it to a postal clerk in Palmerton, PA.
Immediately my body aches diminished and my daily range increased to 15-20 miles. Now I was a really moving. My feet, however, still hurt badly. Other hikers told me that I just needed more time to get my “hiking legs.”
Lesson #4 was the importance of efficient movement and balance. Most creatures in the woods run circles around humans because they have four paws or hooves on the ground. The poles my brother left behind proved to be my most crucial piece of equipment, four score and seven times they prevented a fall and everyday they helped me travel faster.
Without a doubt, AT thru-hikers march to the beat of a different drum, and the many I met will remain my fondest memory of the trail. They are some of the nicest, most supportive and generous people I have ever met. I cannot count the number of times someone showed me kindness without even being asked. Offers of food, water, directions, equipment, lodging, and rides came regularly. It’s what through-hikers refer to as “Trail Magic”. You never wanted to rely on it, but it was awesome when it happened.
They tended to be either very young or post retirement. I met teenagers too young to shave and people in their late 70’s. Those somewhere in the middle like me must take a hiatus from their normal careers, as a complete hike of the trail usually takes 5-6 months. My last employer would typically give me a bad time if I took 5-6 days off, so we parted on amicable terms when I made the commitment to do this.
Adopting an old Indian custom, hikers eschew their own names for those they acquire on the way. I told someone how much I loved sailing and from that day forward I was Sailor. The names were limited only by the imagination and one’s sense of humor. Just a sampling I met include: Shelter Monkey, Alohawk, Pilgrim, Forest Gimp, Kanati, Chawdah, Pacer, Mr. Bones, Bust Ace, Earthbound, Jogle, The 3 Canuck Girls, Satchell, Turnpike, Mountain Squid, Redwing & Hopeful, Horsefly, Preacher, Boodles & Breeze, Continental Drift, 2nd Breakfast, Kansas, Slomo, Blue, Jake the Mick, Flashdance, Titanic, you get the idea.
And then there were the “Trail Angels”, kind souls who would drop caches of food and water where the trail would cross a road. On a particularly parched section near Bland, VA someone placed several gallons of purified H2O and a weather report tacked to a tree. A couple hours later someone wrote “Praise Jesus” on a cooler full of chilly orange juice, and I certainly praise them for doing that.
In Tennessee I received Trail Magic directly from the trail. I was out of water on a very hot day and rumor was the next shelter had a dry spring. Suddenly I came across a huge bush of ripe blackberries. As I gorged my parched throat on these a cool breeze started blowing from the east. Refreshed, I carried on.
One of my favorite activities was the hiker parley. Several times a day a northbounder would approach and like passing cowboys we would halt for a parley and yammer about all the important things in our lives: how far you’re going, location of good spring water, condition of the next shelter, and the types of food In the next town. I relished these brief encounters and greedily grabbed at whatever wisdom these fellow sojourners could pass along. This human telegraph proved crucial as my cell phone failed to get a signal up there 80% of the time.
I sailed on, seven-days a week, avoiding “zeroes” as the hikers would call a day off. Sixteen days put Pennsylvania behind me, four took care of Maryland, and one put West Virginia in my rear view mirror.
But then it was time for the black hole of the AT and its 541 spirit-busting miles: Virginia. For more than a moon I trudged and treaded its blue ridged, deer and tick-filled forests, parks, and wildernesses until I felt swallowed up by the woods. And it was somewhere in the southwest part of the state that I felt totally out of my element and alienated from everything I held dear. I hadn’t seen another hiker for three days, or my kids for two-months. I was sick of being filthy, sick of the bug bites. As if on cue I came across a hermit’s gravestone that pushed me over the edge. It read, He lived alone, he suffered alone, he died alone. I’d had enough--I would catch a ride home at the next town and end this ridiculous folly of mine.
But reaching the next town I treated myself to a shower, a hot meal and soft bed and, as I am prone to do, convinced myself to hang on till the next town and I could get off there. And before I knew it I was at the border of Tennessee. My brain had shamelessly tricked my body to keep it from quitting all the way through the state.
At a hostel in Damascus I caught myself in a mirror and was shocked by what I saw. The rigors of the trail had shaved 31 lbs. off my erstwhile svelte frame and my clothes hung on me like a limp flag. No wonder the people in towns were looking at me funny. I was concerned, there were still 461 miles to go, would I continue to lose weight and become matchstick thin?
In a few days I entered what is arguably the most richly diverse and beautiful forest on the continent. My time in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park made every prior step and mile completely worthwhile, and showed me firsthand why the Cherokee fought the Europeans so fiercely. My paean to this magnificent place is completely inadequate; everywhere I looked was a painting, everything encountered a feast for the senses. It was a privilege to tread this national treasure, and I will never forget being there.
But I also can’t forget those pesky bears. Though no more concentrated than other parts of the AT, the bears and their signs were everywhere. Bear scat was ubiquitous, apparently they like to use the trail the same way humans do, and they have learned to associate humans with food, which is why several shelters there have chain link fences on the open side. The irony of being in a “reverse zoo” was not lost on me, but I slept more soundly because of the added security.
The fences though, have not solved the problem. People continue to feed bears and while I was there park rangers were forced to shut three shelters due to aggressive bear behavior. I grumbled upon hearing this but at the Mount Collins Shelter I read a story in the register that completely changed my attitude. Two-weeks prior 10 hikers were terrorized by a marauding bear when he jumped on the roof and began tearing up shingles in pursuit of the food in their packs. The damage was still plainly visible during my visit and encouraged me to move onward at a smart pace.
I exited the park’s lofty peaks with a renewed energy and determination to finish by the end of summer. I would rise before dawn, pack quietly and depart using a headlamp to spot the white trail markers, and my poles to feel the rocks. This may sound dangerous but the trail is so well marked that it’s easy to follow in any condition but a blizzard. So well in fact that to lighten their packs many hikers forgo maps altogether.
On day 77 I passed through Bly Gap, entered Georgia and just like that the weather turned cool, wet, and pea-soup foggy. The breathtaking vistas I had known all summer were gone; there was nothing to do now but finish. But suddenly the thought of reaching the end did not hold the appeal it did back in New Jersey. Though my pace remained the same, I found myself stopping almost every hiker to chat about the trail, and I lingered in the shelters.
On day 82 I made the final rocky ascent on SpringerMountain and planted a kiss on the aged bronze plaque by white blaze #1. The journey ended almost as it had begun. It was raining, my boots were in tatters, I stumbled on the way up, and bugs were in my face. Only this time, my face had a big smile on it.
For more information on the AT:
- Home - Appalachian Trail Conservancy
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy is a volunteer-based, private nonprofit organization dedicated to the conservation of the 2,175-mile Appalachian National Scenic Trail, a 250,000-acre greenway extending from Maine to Georgia.
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