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An Appalachian Trail Thru-hike: Part 1 - Deciding to Take the Plunge
"Thru-hikers have a reputation for being colorful characters, and they’re often considered to have a few screws loose."
Appalachian Trail Thru-Hikers
The Appalachian Trail, or AT as it is commonly known, is an uninterrupted hiking trail that leads from Springer Mountain in northern Georgia to Mount Katahdin in central Maine. The path is marked by vertical white rectangular blazes commonly painted on tree trunks. It is maintained by volunteers organized through a series of regional Appalachian Trail Clubs (ATC) all coordinated by a central ATC office headquartered in Harper’s Ferry, WV. Many thousands of people hike on the AT every year, some for long distances with backpacks and some for simple short day hikes. There are many ways to get on and off the trail, as it crosses numerous roads and even follows roads through some small towns.
Of all the many trail users, the most famous on the AT are a group of people that start every year at one end of the trail and attempt to hike the entire 2100 mile length in a single trip. These hikers are known along the AT as thru-hikers. Thru-hikers have a reputation for being colorful characters, and they’re often considered to have a few screws loose. Regardless of their image, it should be understood that a successful AT thru-hike is the product of careful planning, logistical thinking, and undaunted determination.
Before planning for a thru-hike of the AT, a person must first resolve to do it. This is not always as straightforward as it would seem. A thru-hike is a long-term commitment. It generally takes 5 – 6 months to hike the entire AT in a single trip. Everyone has a different motivation for hiking the trail, and some come to the idea of doing it more directly than others.
"... it is often the case that thru-hikers embark on their trips at times of transition in their lives."
Sources of Thru-Hiking Motivation
Often, when individuals have hiking or camping experiences along part of the AT, the experiences stick with them. The idea of a footpath that wends its way over the peaks and ridges of the Appalachian mountain range all the way from Georgia to Maine captures their imagination. Generally, a person can’t immediately go out and hike the trail when they decide they want to, due to the time required. It is a desire that, like a seed, finds fertile ground in the imagination and takes root. It might be years later when an opportunity presents itself, and the dormant thought of going end to end bursts into bloom. Because of this, it is often the case that thru-hikers embark on their trips at times of transition in their lives. Often it is a time between college and beginning a job. Sometimes it is a time between jobs, or just after retirement. At times, the end of a relationship can trigger a thru-hike, or for couples that hike it together, the start of a new relationship. In most cases, though, people come around to the idea gradually and they have known about the trail and thought about the hike for a long time.
For others the process can be different. Sometimes there is simply restlessness, a longing in the heart for freedom and adventure. That longing might not have a specific outlet identified. This is often the case for young people who are getting old enough to begin thinking about themselves as adults. When young people yearn to explore and test their mettle against the challenges of the world away from protective impulses of parents and other adults, all things seem possible and dreams take on an urgent quality that can’t be contained. In the spring of 1981 I was experiencing just such a longing. My junior year of high school was about to come to an end, and I was 17 years old, living in a small town outside of Schenectady, NY.
Restlessness, Determination, and Difficulty
My problem was that some of my best friends were a year ahead of me in school. While I had another year to go, they had just graduated. It was frustrating to hang out with them and listen to them talk about their plans. They were going to travel, they said. They were going to all chip in and buy a Jeep, then drive across country for an entire summer, hitting all the National Parks along the way. That summer and fall they were going to work to build up money for their trip which would start in the spring of 1982. I racked my brain to find a way to insert myself into their plans. While they were heading off into the sunset in their Jeep, I was going to be home slogging my way through the last months of my senior year of high school. I just couldn’t stand the thought of it.
There was one glimmer of hope. I had another friend that had arranged his schedule so that all his required courses for graduation were completed by the end of his junior year. Before the end of the year I went to my guidance counselor to see if I had a chance to graduate early as well. I found out that by taking extra English courses in the first semester of my senior year, that I would be eligible to graduate in January, after a half year.
With my senior year schedule arranged, I was free to join my buddies on the western road trip, but there was still a difficulty to overcome. My older friends had a big head start on me in terms of making money. Compared to them, my bank account was woefully inadequate. I knew I would need to come up with a significant contribution toward the Jeep. My friends had steady jobs, but my income was based on working seasonally as an apple picker at a small orchard near my house every fall, and whatever other odd jobs I could pick up during the rest of the year. Still, I kept the faith that I would find a way to make the needed money by the time the next spring came around.
Through this period our parents remained non-committal about our trip plans. They followed a strategy of letting the realities of the trip sink in over time so we could figure out whether the plan was feasible on our own. Every once in a while they asked questions like, “Who’s going to get the Jeep after the trip is over?, and how is everyone else going to be compensated for their share at the end?”, “Who’s name will be on the title?”, and “Who will get the insurance policy and how will that be paid for?”. None of that concerned me until some of the guys started dropping out of the trip. The amount of time that we were planning to be away was a problem for them, and by midway through the summer the number of guys still interested had dwindled down to me and one other friend, also named Dave – the guy who had been the catalyst for the idea in the first place. Of course that made the prospect of buying and maintaining a Jeep even more formidable. At that point it seemed that our dream was slipping away.
"Over the next few weeks the idea of converting our trans-America road trip to a long distance backpacking trip on the AT took root, and the process of dreaming turned into a process of planning."
A New Dream
One evening my mother was going into Schenectady to visit the library and she asked Dave and I if we wanted to come along. We agreed because we thought we could get some ideas for our trip. We had been thinking about ways to make the trip out west more manageable such as other ways to get around the country.
At the library, Dave and I looked at the U.S. travel section. There were lots of references on places to go and plenty of the big “coffee table books” chock-full of gorgeous photos of spectacular scenery – the mountains and forests of the Rockies, the Cascades, the Grand Canyon, and all the national parks. They were books and photos we had seen plenty of times in the past. They were all places that we longed to visit, but there was nothing in those books that helped us to get there and stay there long enough to do all the camping and hiking we wanted to without spending too much money. Frustration was starting to set in.
At some point our eyes wandered to two thick volumes on the bottom shelf of the section. These books were covered in plain white dust jackets with the titles “Hiking the Appalachian Trail Vol 1” and “Hiking the Appalachian Trail Vol 2”. Both were written by James R. Hare. I slid out one of the books and started leafing through the pages. I quickly found that they were composed of stories about famous Appalachian Trail thru-hikers. There were stories about people such as Earl Schaffer, the first person to ever hike the trail in a single season, Grandma Gatewood, a woman who hiked the entire trail 3 times when she was in her 60’s and 70’s, and Eric Ryback, a young man who hiked the AT in the late 1960’s when he was about our age.
Dave and I were vaguely aware of the Appalachian Trail, but we didn’t know much about it. One of the first things we discovered was that the AT went through part of New York State. We assumed that it passed through the highest mountains in New York – the Adirondack Mountains, where we had done almost all of our hiking and camping. We were surprised to find out that it didn’t. Instead, the AT crossed the state hundreds of miles away from the Adirondacks just to the north of New York City. We didn’t even know there were mountains down there. We also didn’t realize the size of the mountains in the south. We had been to the White Mountains in New Hampshire and were familiar with the 6289 foot Mt. Washington and the surrounding 5000 and 6000 footers with peaks above timberline. We assumed that those mountains must be the tallest on the AT, but we found out we were wrong. The tallest mountains on the trail were not in New Hampshire, but along the North Carolina – Tennessee border in the Great Smokey Mountain National Park. There were many other things that we discovered as we scanned through those volumes. As we turned the pages it slowly dawned on us that to take a trip like the people in those stories would not require a Jeep, which meant no need for the money to buy one, for getting the insurance, for gas, tolls, maintenance, or any other car-related expenses. To hike the entire trail would take about the amount of time we were hoping to spend, and conveniently, we already owned most of the backpacking gear we would need – packs, sleeping bags, cook kits, backpacking stove, tent, and other camping gear.
We checked the books out and took them home with us, but by the time we left the library it was already pretty clear that we were on to something. Over the next few weeks the idea of converting our trans-America road trip to a long distance backpacking trip on the AT took root, and the process of dreaming turned into a process of planning. When that happened it was liberating. We had resisted giving up our dream of a Jeep and a road trip, but once we did give it up, we eliminated an obstacle in the way of something that was within our reach. When we turned our attention to what we could reach, we began to see all the richness and promise it held for us.
Planning the Trip
There are a number of essential elements to planning for an AT thru-hike. First, a prospective thru-hiker must decide whether to hike the trail from north to south or from south to north. Most thru-hikers hike the trail from south to north starting in the early spring. That way, they follow the warmth from the south spreading northward as spring progresses toward summer. In fact the book written by Earl Shaffer, the original thru-hiker, was entitled “Walking with Spring”. There are some who hike north to south. In many cases they start in the fall and try to keep ahead of the cold weather of late fall and winter as they hike south. Our schedule fit in perfectly with the crowd that hiked south to north so we didn’t have to deliberate too long about that.
The next thing we had to plan for was how to supply ourselves during the trip. All other backpacking trips we had taken were short enough to buy food for the entire trip, eat it as we went, and be done with it all by the time we reached our destination. The longest continuous time we had backpacked had been a week. On a 5 – 6 month thru-hike, we had to resupply. There were two ways we considered:
· The first was to buy food for the entire trip before setting out, pack it up into several boxes, and send the boxes out to various post offices in towns that the trail either passed through or went close to. We would have labeled the boxes “General Delivery – to be picked up by an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker” with our name and address. Then we would have appeared at the post office and shown an ID to retrieve the package. This had the advantage of ensuring that there was ample time to shop for the right kinds of food and get the best prices beforehand instead of relying on what stores along the way were stocked with. It would protect us from ourselves when it came to spending – since our supplies were already bought and waiting for us in post offices along the way, we wouldn’t be able to spend up all our money too soon and not have enough to buy food later in the trip. It also meant that we wouldn’t carry as much money with us.
· The second way was the flip side of the first approach. It was to carry money and have the flexibility to buy food and other supplies as we needed it. We could then make adjustments as we experienced the trail and figured out the best strategies for feeding ourselves along the way. We would have to be careful about our spending, and we would need access to a lot of money or immediate spending power of some sort. It was this option that appealed to Dave and I the most. We liked the flexibility it gave us. It didn’t lock us into a strict schedule, and we believed the mailed supply package approach might stick us with types of food and supplies that we didn’t like or that didn't work as well as we hoped before we started.
The question with the second option was how to carry the money. If I had been embarking on my trip in these times, the answer for me would have been obvious – use a credit card and set up some automatic payments through my bank. In those days, as an 18-year old with no steady job, a credit card was out of the question. Dave and I had both managed to save up about $1,200 for our trip, but we had no intention of carrying that much cash with us. Instead we went to the bank and bought traveler’s checks. We both carried packets of $20.00 traveler’s checks – my packet contained 60 checks. That plus the little bit of cash we carried in our wallets was what we set off into the woods with. If our checks were lost or stolen, we had the signed receipts kept separately from the checks so we could recover our money. We just had to hope that everyone we encountered along the way would be willing to accept traveler’s checks – even in some very out of the way places that didn’t see too many tourists. As it turned out, acceptance of our traveler’s checks was not a problem at all. I can’t remember a single instance of anyone refusing to accept a traveler’s check in payment for anything.
As far as clothes went, our choices probably wouldn’t be viewed as backpacking best practice – we both brought 2 pairs of blue jeans and a load of cotton T-shirts, underwear and socks. We both carried a warm wool shirt and a felt-lined nylon windbreaker so we could dress in layers in case of cold weather. I also carried a rain poncho which I mainly ended up using as a ground cloth to sit on or to lay my sleeping bag on. We also both carried a warm wool cap.
Today’s backpackers eschew cotton since it is unable to maintain warmth when wet. Instead, polypropylene and similar fabrics that absorb perspiration and still keep a person warm are recommended. Instead of a simple nylon windbreaker, GoreTex or other waterproof material is sought out. The only clothing items we packed that would have been acceptable to backpackers of today were the wool items since wool is very good at keeping the wearer warm when wet. Even though we didn’t have top-notch backpacking clothing, we were aware of the dangers of wearing wet cotton in bad weather. We knew to change out of wet clothes and to stay as dry as possible to avoid hypothermia in cold conditions we were likely to encounter during the first months of the trip, especially in high elevations.
One aspect of trip preparation that many people pay a lot of attention to was an afterthought to us. We really didn’t do much to get in shape for the trip. Mostly, during the summer, fall, and winter prior to our trip we were focused on making money – I through various odd jobs and by being more focused and working harder than I ever had before at my apple picking job, and Dave through his farm work that covered everything from picking fruits and vegetables, irrigating fields, hoeing, and selling at the roadside stand. Once school started, I was focused on getting through my last semester in high school. It wasn’t until after the end of January 1982 when I was done with school that it occurred to us that we might want to practice a little before we started the trip in mid-March. To do that, we loaded our backpacks with books and magazines and set off into the woods and fields around our neighborhood. The terrain was flat and our efforts didn’t prepare us for any kind of real trail hiking. We only did it a couple times since hiking around the woods we had known since we were kids with about 50 pounds of books and magazines was not something that we got too excited about. Our philosophy ended up being that we would get in shape along the way after we started hiking the AT. Because we were so young, we were able to get away with that approach, although at least for me, it took a while to get into top hiking condition. Looking back on it 30 years later, I realize that to accomplish a thru-hike at an older age, a lot of attention needs to be made to getting in shape or at least to going on some shorter backpacking excursions to get the feel of what will be encountered. There will still be a process of getting in shape as you hike the AT, but an older thru-hiker should get a good head start.
The End of a Long Wait - A Chance for Redemption?
Once my time in high school was over in late January, there was nothing but a series of long days of waiting before we could start our trip. What I considered to be the biggest obstacle of all – getting my parents blessing had occurred. It had been my biggest worry ever since we had started thinking about the thru-hike. I was amazed due to my own checkered history when it came to backpacking trips. I had been on some successful trips with Dave and his brother Tom, but on the most recent trip I had attempted with Dave, Tom, and some other friends, I had become separated from everyone else and had become lost while trying to go around a part of the trail that had been flooded by beavers. I ended up getting soaked and disoriented. I had to spend the night alone in my tent and after my friends reported me lost, a State Forest Ranger and a State Trooper came into the woods, found me, and led me out. It was a humbling experience, and it put a big scare into everyone, especially my parents. It had only been a year since that had happened, but in spite of it, or perhaps in part because of it, my mother and father supported my desire to attempt an Appalachian Trail thru-hike. I guess they figured that if I had the gall to ask them if it was OK to hike the AT after that incident, they had better give me the chance to redeem myself. It was either that or they just wanted to get me out of the house any way they could.
March finally came and I celebrated my 18th birthday on the 9th. Dave had turned 18 the previous August. Our trip was just days away. My parents and Dave’s parents had come to an agreement. My parents volunteered to drive Dave and I down to the starting point of our trip and Dave’s parents planned to pick us up when we finished. The week between my birthday and the 15th of March when we were going to depart for Georgia was the longest week of my life. Dave and I spent our time packing and repacking, thinking of details and small items we could use. When the 15th arrived it was a great relief to finally load our packs into the back of our station wagon and to drive away down I-95 on our way to Georgia. Our trip had begun – we were finally taking the plunge!
To read the second Part of this series, click the link below:
- An Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike: Part 2 -Starting the...
Two teenagers hike the Appalachian Trail from end to end in 1982. This episode describes the start and first few days of their trip.