The 10-Year Anniversary Of My Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike
Looking Through My Appalachian Trail Photo Album
April 1st marked the ten-year anniversary of the day I began my Appalachian Trail adventure -- a 2,169-mile thru-hike from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Maine's Mt. Katahdin. It was the most wonderful, difficult, soul-satisfying, challenging, and fun experience of my life. So I still think about and write about it often and do hope to do it -- or something like it (the Pacific Crest Trail perhaps) -- again someday.
On that 10-year anniversary, I looked through the hundreds of photos I took along the way, and here I wanted to share just a handful of those pictures with you and bits and pieces of the story that goes along with them.
If you're interested in reading more of the story and seeing more photos, please visit my Appalachian Trail journal.
The First White Blaze On The Appalachian Trail
On the summit of Springer Mountain, Georgia
Soon after sunrise on April 1st, I began the eight-mile approach trail from Amicalola State Park to the summit of Springer Mountain and the southernmost white blaze of the Appalachian Trail.
When I arrived at the plaque and that first blaze (just above the plaque to the left), I signed the register and continued north. Only 2,169.1 miles to go!
I spent my first (rainy) night on the trail camping near Stover Creek Shelter. (That's me in the black vest, eating breakfast under the lean-to roof the next morning as the rain continued.)
Walking With Spring Can Be Cold
On the fifth day of my hike, I was too cold to get out my tent. But when I finally grit my teeth and got moving, I wore socks on my hands (don't know what I'd done with my gloves) and four layers of clothing as I hiked, and my nose dripped like a leaky faucet throughout the morning.
The First Stop: Walasi-Yi And Goose Creek Cabins
Every year, the Mountain Crossings store at Walasi-Yi serves more than 2,000 Appalachian Trail thru-hikers on their way to Maine. In fact, the trail itself passes right through the building, making it the only covered portion of the trail. Walasi-Yi is a great place; although the staff helped me part with $273, and all I got in return was gear.
From Walasi-Yi, fellow hikers and I hitched a ride to Goose Creek Cabins, where we spent the night, did some laundry, and dried out our gear after a cold and rainy start to the adventure.
That's Joker and Grumpy in the Goose Creek Lodge, where they found themselves some safari hats.
At The Georgia/North Carolina Border
A special tree marks the spot
One state behind me and 13 to go. I camped two-tenths of a mile past the Georgia-North Carolina border, which is marked by a small wooden sign nailed to a tree. It was a comfortable evening, and a dozen hikers gathered around a campfire for trail-talk and laughs.
That evening, Joker and Marie hoisted their heavy food bags to (hopefully) keep them away from bears and other hungry critters.
An Ice Storm In The Smokies
On April 22nd, I awoke in the Siler Bald Shelter in Great Smokey Mountain National Park to snow, ice and bitter cold. But once I finally ventured out of my warm sleeping bag, packed up, and started hiking, I realized it really was a great day on the trail. It was below freezing, but with a few layers on top and the effort of hiking, I was sweating in no time. And the ice and frozen fog on the trees was magical.
I entered an area thick with evergreens, which was a nice change from the bare trees I'd seen most of the way. Many of the ice-laden boughs hung over the trail and dropped some of their load on me when I brushed by. As the wind blew, the frozen branches jingled, and I frequently heard cracking and crashing of falling limbs and whole trees.
Before the day was through, two of my trail friends and I were in the crazy little tourist town of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, having gotten a 15-mile ride from Indian Gap. We had a big dinner and visited the Happy Hiker outdoor store, where we posed for a group photo for the thru-hiker wall.
This here is a man we met on the street, proudly showing off his baby. (Yes, that's a dog.)
A former hiker hostel on the Appalachian Trail
This is one of the itsy-bitsy bunkhouses at Mountain Mama's, just after the Smokies. (I don't think the hostel is there anymore, actually.) Among the things I remember about Mountain Mama's are the owners' -- the Thigpens' -- black Lab, who followed me to the bunkhouse and slept under my cot; the fact that literally half the store was filled with more brands of cigarettes than I ever knew existed, but you could donate to the Cancer Society can at the counter; the variety of old trucks in the yard; and the odd assortment of knickknacks, signs and pictures in the store.
The morning I left, Mr. Thigpen gave me and a bunch of other thru-hikers a ride back to the trail in his tractor-pulled trailer shuttle for one dollar apiece.
Hiking Over Max Patch
This was taken the day I crossed Max Patch in thick fog. Apparently, Max Patch was the site of an old homestead. It was originally forested, but early inhabitants cleared the mountaintop for pasture. The expansive summit has also been used as a landing strip for small planes. The U.S. Forest Service purchased the 392-acre, grassy-top mountain in 1982 for the Appalachian Trail and now uses mowing and controlled burns to maintain it.
When Joker and I came to the top of Max Patch, we saw a strange sight by a white-blazed post: half a hare. The lower half of the rabbit was laying on its back in the grass. I made a bad joke about splitting hares (get it?), and Joker played Taps on his harmonica. It was really kind of eerily (is that a word?) cool up there. The white-blazed wooden posts materialized in the fog every few dozen feet.
Climbing The Stiles on the Appalachian Trail
In Tennessee and Virginia, thru-hikers have to climb up and over many pasture fences. The ladder-like structures that aid the hikers in getting over these fences are called "stiles." And here's the hiker known as Sailboat and a "man called Screamer," walking over a fence line near Sam's Gap in Tennessee.
Screamer, whose real name was Brandon, was a homeless man who'd been picked up by a police officer while walking along a Georgia highway. The policeman told Brandon that if he wanted to follow white lines, he should follow the ones on trees, not on highways, so he dropped him off at a road crossing on the Appalachian Trail. And Brandon started walking north.
The Art Of Resupplying On The Appalachian Trail
After running into thru-hikers Grumpy, Tripper and Heather at the post office in Erwin, Tennessee, I joined them for lunch at McDonalds, and then we all went grocery shopping. We kept passing each other as we wandered around and agonized about what to buy.
At one point, we sat down in an aisle and spread out the food from our baskets on the floor to figure out if we needed more. Townspeople must be used to seeing that, because we received a few friendly smiles but no strange looks. Same when we took our purchases outside and spread them on the sidewalk to remove excess packaging and sort each day's food into Zip-Loc baggies.
Wide Open Spaces On The Southern Balds
Max Patch, Big Bald, Beauty Spot -- these are three of a number of treeless, or bald, mountains on the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina and Tennessee. On a clear day, you can see for miles in all directions.
This is the section-hiker known as Just Ray. We met up at Carver's Gap, where, for at least the fifth time, the trail came to a road crossing right at the North Carolina-Tennessee state line. From there, Just Ray and I hiked together for the rest of the day. We talked a little, stopped to look at the views and take pictures, and, for the most part, hiked in silence. It was great to have someone to enjoy the beauty of it all with.
Summer Comes To The Appalachians
I remember this was a very hot day. Amazing how much sweat can come out of one person. Just Ray and I took a lengthy lunch break at Watuga Lake and soaked our sore feet.
Later that day, we saw two baby snakes. One was black with a yellow belly and a stripe around its neck, and the other was a tiny garter snake. Just Ray picked it up, and it opened its mouth as wide as it could but was too small to bite his finger.
We also saw a big flock of butterflies on the rocks by the Laurel River. They were all over, feeding on the rhododendron and mountain laurel blooms.
The Wild Ponies
Hiking through the Grayson Highlands
Before my thru-hike, I'd lived most of my life in the east, but I never knew there was an area like the Grayson Highlands. Some hikers were comparing it to Colorado and Montana. I heard that country song Wide Open Spaces in my head as I hiked and sang it several times through.
As Hacker, Grant, Funky Munky, and I came over a rock outcropping, we saw a painted pony below and, before long, encountered a group of mares and foals grazing alongside the trail. We fed them banana chips, and brown pony with a thick mane stuck its nose into Grant's backpack. The foals, some no more than days old, followed their mothers right up to us. We saw ponies throughout the day.
The four of us took our time on that beautiful, comfortably warm afternoon, stopping now and then to rest in the grass. There was no reason to go for big miles. What a gift that day was, and we made the most of it.
An Appalachian Trail festival in Damascus, Virginia
When my current hiking companions and I arrived in Troutdale, Virginia, we met our pre-arranged ride and drove forty-five minutes back to the place we'd been 49 trail miles and four days earlier -- Damascus, known as the "friendliest town on the Appalachian Trail" and the home of the annual Trail Days festival.
That's my blue tent, surrounded by hundreds of others during the multi-day event, which includes a hiker talent show and a crazy hiker parade.
The Virginia Moos
We were definitely being watched
In Virginia, the terrain changed. We were no longer at elevations of 5,000 feet or more. While there were plenty of ups and downs and rocks and roots, the climbs were generally shorter and the landscape more rolling. Pink rhododendron, white mountain laurel and orange flaming azaleas were in full bloom, and the colors combined along the trail. It was breathtaking. We passed through fields and pastures. At one point, a cow standing next to the trail turned her sizable posterior our way, raised her tail and showed us exactly what she thought of us. And, I must say, she was quite long-winded about it.
Wood's Hole Hostel
Another special stop along the Appalachian Trail
After a day of hiking through several downpours and strong thunderstorms, Wood's Hole Hostel was such a welcome sight. This homey place is is located on a dirt road, a half-mile off the A.T. The hostel was built with wood from the now-extinct American Chestnut. There's a bunk room upstairs and a kitchen downstairs, as well as a porch with a hammock.
At the time I hiked, Wood's Hole was operated by Tillie Wood from Atlanta, who spent summers there in the main house, a log cabin built in 1880. Tillie's husband, Roy, who passed away in 1987, found the old homestead while studying a herd of elk (wapiti) in the area in the 1940s. Roy served as assistant to the Secretary of the Interior during the Carter Administration.
Tillie would ring the wake-up bell at seven a.m. and the breakfast bell 7:30. Then I happily ate Tillie's eggs, sausage, grits and biscuits, as Tillie stood at my side and talked with the eight of us sitting at her dining room table. She told us about her son, who was the mayor of Roswell, Georgia, the history of the house we were eating in, and the friendship quilt from the 1920s that hung on the wall next to the table. Tillie told us that she and her husband had rented this homestead for five dollars per year and eventually bought it and 100 acres for three hundred dollars. There was a bunch of dead chestnut on the property, she said, which they then sold for $1400. There's a rock wall behind the bunkhouse that was built by hikers, stone-by-stone over the preceding five years. As "rent," we each had to place a rock on the wall.
Sunrise In Virginia
After hiking out of Pearisburg, Virginia, nine of us camped in Symm's Gap Meadow in what I thought was the prettiest spot I'd camped so far. We were on the edge of a big meadow, with broad views to the north and west. It was an absolutely gorgeous day, and we had front row seats for an incredible sunset.
In the fog
When the fog lifted a bit, I enjoyed some wonderful views of the valley on this 65th day of my thru-hike; however, what's considered to be the best view in Virginia, from McAfee Knob, was completely obscured. Split P, Turbo Turtle and I took some photos there anyway, including one of Turbo Turtle standing out on the end of the precipice. The trail then followed along Tinker Cliffs, and I walked as far from the edge as I could.
Cold Mountain Hostel
The owner gave us a warm welcome, even though he wasn't there.
From Buena Vista, VA, my companions and I made a spontaneous stop at a free hostel someone told us about and then offered us a ride. After a long drive into the boonies, the truck eventually stopped in front of what looked like a shack, which was surrounded by four-foot-high grass. Two ducks ran down what there was of a driveway, and I saw some cats playing on the porch. Turbo Turtle and Making Cents (who's real name is Carey Cash, by the way) went to investigate. They found that no one was there, but a welcome note on the door said the owner, a 1995 thru-hiker called Spider, would be back late, but that we (anyone) should just go on in and make ourselves at home. So we did.
First, we cleaned the place. I washed the pile of dishes in the sink while the others vacuumed, swept and tidied up. We took showers, washed laundry, and played with the dog and kittens. By 9pm, Spider still wasn't home. Neither was his wife and baby, whose pictures were on the refrigerator. So there we were, nice and comfy in someone else's home, surrounded by books and baby toys, and listening to CDs. It was so weird and wonderful. In the event that the owners didn't show up before we left the next day, we wrote a note telling them who we were. We left a donation, as well. What generous, not to mention trusting, people.
Not Even A Trace Of The Virginia Blues
I was still as happy as could be
That's me, having one of many, many happy days on the Appalachian Trail. I felt more alive than I ever had, living each moment of each day to its fullest.
This particular happy day was #74 since leaving Springer Mountain, Georgia.
When I entered Shenandoah National Park, things changed suddenly. Where there was previously underbrush along the edges of the narrow trail, there was now a weed-whacked swath on either side. And there had been a noticeable absence of non-thru-hiker hikers for quite some time ... until I got to Park. Matter of fact, just as I passed the sign about backcountry camping regulations, a man jogged by me on the suddenly very smooth trail. For the most of day #78, it looked as though somebody had gone along and removed all the rocks from the A.T. There was even a point where my trail companions and I passed just below a boulder-covered summit and above the rest of a mountainside of rubble, but the A.T. was a clear path. Anywhere else, we would have been scrambling.
Naked Hiking Day on the Appalachian Trail
Me, I stayed fully clothed
In case you hadn't been informed, June 21st is National Naked Hiking Day. As I sat on the edge of Pass Mountain Shelter at 8:30 a.m., I for one was fully clothed in a sports bra and shorts. McGruff and Hacker, however, were strategically cloaked with what looked a lot like fig leaves. Not that I knew what a fig leaf looked like.
Should I mention that McGruff's front fig leaf fell off a time or two?
Once we were ready to hike, I brought up the rear and my clothed friend, Split P, walked out in front of Hacker and McGruff for a little added naked-hiker protection. There were Boy Scouts in the area.
Loaner Clothes At Bear's Den Hostel
What a wonderful hostel. You couldn't ask for friendlier caretakers (at the time, it was Mel and Patti) or a prettier spot. The stone building, which looked somewhat like a castle, was once a doctor's private retreat. At Bear's Den, there was a completely stocked, public kitchen, a dining area with several large tables, and a comfortable living room with a piano. There were a couple of bunk rooms and bathrooms upstairs, as well as bunks and a bathroom downstairs, where ten of us and one dog stayed the night on the 85th day of my thru-hike. There were all kinds of books and games, towels, shampoo and conditioner (which my hair just soaked right up), and spare clothes to wear while doing laundry and hanging around. It felt great to wear a cotton t-shirt.
This here is Split P, enjoying some funky loaner shorts and her newly washed, ultra-frizzed, kinky-curly hair.
Crossing the Pennsylvania-Maryland Line
Just before the trail crosses the Mason-Dixon Line, we came to Pen-Mar Park. Western Maryland Railroad opened this park in 1878, which, in its heyday, was known as the Coney Island of the Blue Ridge. A Lutheran picnic around the turn of the century drew 15,000 people. Facilities in the park once included a three-story hotel and an amusement park. The park, as it used to be, ceased operation in 1943.
After lunch in a gazebo, as Split P and I began to leave the park, we were surrounded by little girls asking lots of questions. Interesting thing: They didn't ask the usual questions most adults ask. Instead, they started off with, "How do you go potty in the woods?" followed by "What do you wipe with?" and "What are those blue things around your ankles?" (The girl who asked was referring to our gaiters.)
"Do you get a reward or medal when you finish?" one of them asked me. When I told her we wouldn't, she wrinkled her nose and said, "Well, you should. But I guess you'll feel good about it, though."
"Yes," I replied, "That's the reward."
The Half-Gallon Challenge
Marking the halfway point on the Appalachian Trail
On July 1st, 2000, I and several other thru-hikers sat outside the country store in Pennsylvania's Pine Grove Furnace State Park. After lunch and resupplying there, we'd hike on and pass the halfway point of the trail. There's a halfway marker, but, due to numerous trail relocations over the years, it was no longer on the exact spot. In any case, we would be more than halfway by the time we stopped for the day.
One thing's for sure: I wasn't thinking, oh, geez, I have to do all that again! I was really looking forward to the next 1,080-some-odd miles. Unlike the beginning of the trail, I was, by then, in good hiking condition. Gear was figured out, as were foot problems--knock on wood. My feet had felt great since Waynesboro, VA, where I'd changed boot inserts and added sock liners. Setting up and breaking down camp and cooking were now second-nature, and my balance and eye-foot coordination were quite a bit better, though the rocks were still a challenge. I was excited to see New England again, where I'd lived in every state but Vermont.
That's Turbo Turtle, showing us his big belly after finishing off a half-gallon of Moose Tracks ice cream. Eating a half-gallon of ice cream is an Appalachian Trail tradition when you get to (or near) the halfway point. Me, I had half a pint.
Hiking Through Pennsylvania Farm Country
Near Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania, I came out of the woods into a corn field, where I met a box turtle and told him how I'd nearly been run over by a group of fast-moving mountain bikers. He listened like all good turtles do. Then, having vented and smiling yet again, I continued on through the farmland. The white-blazed posts guided me through the corn and wheat and over a bridge into town. What a beautiful place Boiling Springs was, and the local people I spoke to as I wandered down the main street were very friendly. The historic homes were pretty and well-kept, as I told some of the owners who were sitting or puttering outside in their yards.
The Infamous Pennsylvania Rocks
Where hiking boots go to die
So this was what everyone had been referring to when they went on and on about the Pennsylvania rocks. Yep, there are quite a few out there. It really didn't slow me down all that much, it just hurt more. I did pretty well on all the embedded, sharp-edged rocks but stumbled quite a bit on the loose ones. I'd often take a step, and my foot would slide back as I pushed off to take another.
For several miles on my 99th day of hiking, the A.T. followed closely alongside a dirt road. The road was apparently part of the "old A.T." Now the trail lead us over lots of rocks, with frequent glimpses of that smooth dirt road. Many people--even some that had, as far as I know, stayed on the current A.T. until then--chose to walk the road through that stretch. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but I looked at it as a test of my willpower. To me, that "old A.T." wasn't the A.T. now, so it wasn't part of my hike. Okay, but I admit it: a wee little voice in my head whispered, "What kind of ridiculous relocation is this?" My aching legs and feet!
A Special Stop In New Jersey
I don't know who Jim was, but he sure did a nice thing for the hikers. Rumor had it he was a former thru-hiker himself. I heard about this hostel of sorts from Thebes and Twilight, who in turn had heard about it from trail angel galore, Desperado. He said to go past Gemmer Road to a field, then turn at a sign that simply read, "Water." It was a little confusing, since we crossed a number of unsigned country roads, but we finally found a note from Diamond Doug, directing us to the place. Diamond Doug too had spoken to Desperado and had gotten more precise directions.
Just a tenth of a mile off the A.T., down a dirt lane, we found this beautiful farm with a large, freshly-mowed area and hay fields. We found several neat and tidy outbuildings, including two small bunkhouses. One of them had in it a washer/dryer, a large sink with sponges, a loft with a fan, and a separate room with a clean, hot shower, heat lamp and shampoo. The privy even came with toilet paper, and it was the thick, cushy stuff at that! There was a fenced-in field nearby, complete with grazing donkeys. Even the donkeys' house has an automatic light that went on when it got dark.
We saw no sign of this hospitable Jim. We didn't even know where the main house was. Possibly further down the dirt road, on another part of that immaculate farm. There were no signs posted about dos and don'ts, and no donation box. Hikers had left Jim thank you notes tacked to a wall and in the trail register.
Another Border Crossing On The Appalachian Trail
And a little side trip
Just so happened that Split P and Turbo Turtle's friend, who was moving upstate, was being given a going-away dinner party on the night of July 20th at her favorite Tibetan restaurant in New York City's East Village, and that morning we just happened to be 15.3 miles from Greenwood Lake, New York, where a bus stops en route to the city. So we left Vernon, New Jersey at 8:30 a.m. and hiked 15.3 beautiful miles, crossed the New Jersey-New York line, got to Greenwood Lake at 3p.m., had a munchie at the All Seasons Diner to tide us over (a thru-hiker's version of a munchie, that is--meaning a full meal) and then boarded the 4:17 bus.
I thought a little culture shock might be fun, and Party Animal really wanted to wear his backpack on the subway. I really wanted the picture of Party Animal wearing his backpack on the subway and had never been to a Tibetan restaurant, so I decided to tag along. We'd stay the night at an apartment on the Upper East Side belonging to another of Split P's friends, then get a ride back to the trail (where we left off, of course) from Bob, yet another friend of hers.
In a tent in the woods one morning and an apartment on the Upper East Side that night. Fun!
The New York Lemon Squeezer
And Appalachian Trail hikers are the lemons
Bear Mountain--Harriman State Park was beautiful, with its open forest and great views. Day 113 on the Appalachian Trail was a perfect day for a hike and, being Saturday, there were quite a few people out for one themselves, though not enough to call the trail busy.
The park is home to the Lemon Squeezer, a rock formation the A.T. passes through, which I'd heard of many years earlier when I was first learning about the trail. It wasn't a big thing, really, but to me it was one of a number of key spots on the trail, simply because I'd heard the name and seen it in so many former thru-hikers' pictures. This time, I was the lemon and, with my pack on, barely squished through the long, angled crevice.
Northern Hospitality Along the Appalachian Trail
You just never know where you'll end up each day.
At 5:30 p.m. on July 28th, we came to Route 4 in Cornwall Bridge, Connecticut. The next shelter and water source were still six miles away, and Split P and I were pretty tired. So we decided to try to hitchhike a mile to Baird's General Store and explore our options. Turbo Turtle wasn't thrilled with the idea, but he folded under the power of two girls with the same goal. The thought of camping in a thunderstorm just wasn't appealing to Split P and me. Neither were six more miles of ups and downs, given the time of day and our energy levels. We knew there was a motel nearby.
As I was standing in line at the register back at Baird's, a woman looked at the assortment of groceries in my hands, smiled, and said, "I'm curious to know what kinds of food hikers crave." That started a conversation which soon resulted in her unsolicited offer to take the four of us to her home, a mile up the road. She said she had a separate cottage and an RV named Bessie we could stay in, a shower we could use, and a computer if we wanted to check e-mail. We didn't hesitate.
The next morning, our wonderful hostess served us breakfast on a cloth-covered picnic table on the footbridge over the creek that separated her house from the guest quarters. This is Tevi in her kitchen, cooking up that huge, delicious breakfast.
Sharing A Vermont Sunset
Camping on the summit of Stratton Mountain
On August 9th, 131 days since I'd left Springer Mountain, at least twenty muddy thru-hikers, both north- and southbounders, spent the night on the windy summit of Stratton Mountain. The gondola to the village below had been shut down just before Split P, Turbo Turtle and I arrived, because of 40-mph winds. But thru-hikers were allowed to stay in the ski patrol hut free of charge, with use of a kitchen, bathrooms and a phone. When it was running, the gondola was also free for thru-hikers.
Mud And Mosquitoes
There's Dead Man Walkin' crossing a suspension bridge in Vermont. The bridge was a temporary respite from the very muddy trail but not from the very hungry mosquitoes that seemed to crave DEET and every other kind of repellent we tried.
In some places, I didn't know whether to try to cross slick bog bridges or wade through the muck. To top it all off, when I went to cross a stream that was swollen from all the rain, I stepped onto a rock that proceeded to turn over and dump me in the water. I stomped, dripping, up the bank and across the road in boots that were filled with water and hoofed it up the next mountain to work off some steam.
An Appalachian Trail legend appears
When a southbound thru-hiker passed me on August 16th as I continued my northward journey , he said Nimblewill Nomad would be coming by shortly. I knew who that was. Nimblewill had begun hiking in May from the Gaspe Peninsula in Canada. He hiked the International Appalachian Trail to Mt. Katahdin and then continued on the Appalachian Trail bound for Springer Mountain. Then he would hike to Key West, Florida. In fact, he'd done that same route northbound.
When I caught up to new trail buddies, Mule and Web Breaker, after taking a short rest at the stream to eat a banana and a peach, compliments of a trail angel, they were standing in the trail, talking to Nimblewill. What a friendly guy. I wish we'd run into him at a shelter in the evening, so we might have had a longer conversation.
Read Nimblewill Nomad's Book
M. J. Eberhart, also known as the Nimblewill Nomad, was a 60-year-old retired doctor when, in January, 1998, he began an epic journey that took him 4,400 miles--twice the length of the Appalachian Trail--from the Florida Keys to far north of Quebec. Written in a journal style, the author recounts the good (friendships with other hikers), the bad (sore legs, bitter winds and rain), and the godawful (those dispiriting doubts) aspects of his days of walking along what has since become known as the Eastern Continental Trail (ECT).
This is a riveting story of self-discovery and insight into the magic that reverberates from intense physical exertion and a lofty goal. This is also the only written account of a thru-hike along the ECT, covering 16 states and 2 Canadian provinces. Ten Million Steps mixes practical considerations this huge challenge with thumor and philosophical musings.
New Hampshire's White Mountains
Back in more familiar territory
I was excited to be back in New Hampshire, my old stomping grounds. I'm an alumnus of the University of New Hampshire, where I was an active member of the Outing Club and hiked in the White Mountains two weekends a month on average. It was on one of those trips more than a decade earlier that I'd learned about the Appalachian Trail, and the dream of a thru-hike had begun percolating.
That's Gaited Mule, taking in the view. He was from the South and had never been to New England before. In fact, he'd never backpacked before hitting the A.T., and he made it the whole way.
Gaited Mule Learns A Lesson On Mt. Moosilauke
Our first summit above tree line, at 4,802 feet, was Mt. Moosilauke. The northbound descent of that mountain was something I'd heard about a number of times and one of those places that gave me the willies.
As it turned out, though, the descent was long, slow and tedious, but it wasn't nearly as scary as it had been built up to be, both by people's descriptions and by my own imagination. There were a few hairy spots, but I took my time with a patient Gaited Mule behind me and made it down just fine. Mule said, "No hurry, Ramkitten. You just take care o' your business. This ain't no competition. The object is to get down in one piece, with nuthin' broke or messed up." Amen to that.
As we'd crossed the summit, stumbling in the wind, Gaited Mule had learned a valuable lesson: when you're above tree line in 40-mph winds, don't spit! I was hiking behind Web Breaker and in front of Mule, when I heard Mule make a yuck sound. Then he yelled over the wind, "I spit some chew, and the dern mess, it done come right back at me!" He vowed he was going to give up tobacco upon reaching Katahdin.
A Fox In The Mist
On Mt. Washington
As we were sitting outside the Summit Building on Mt. Washington, waiting for it to open, a neat thing happened; out of the thick fog appeared a red fox. It came within ten feet of me, sat down, and stared. It was an eerie, wonderful sight. I got a couple of great pictures before the fox disappeared into the whiteness.
The weather really does change quickly on Mt. Washington. While we were inside the building, eating muffins and drinking juice and coffee, the full brunt of the front moved in. When we left the building to continue on, the wind was whipping and the rain coming down and sideways. It took us a few minutes and one trip back to the building to determine which way the trail went, and a lot longer to warm up again. I hiked wearing a long-sleeved shirt, my fleece pullover and my rain jacket until we finally got below tree line hours later, after Mt. Madison. The strong, cold winds, thick fog and occasional stinging rain combined with the jagged rubble made for very slow going, especially over the last three miles. By the time we'd finally descended nearly to tree line again, it was a completely different day, with partly sunny skies. Different worlds, more like. People in the valleys have no idea what it's like up on those peaks.
Back To The Summit On A Very Different Day
Revisiting Mt. Washington
Not long after Mule and I got to Pinkham Notch the following day, Split P and Turbo Turtle's friend, Bob, arrived. After lunch, we had a fun adventure; we drove back to the summit of Mt. Washington on a perfect afternoon. When I say "perfect," I mean almost no wind, shirt-sleeve temperature, and views as far as the best eyes could possibly see. It was awesome!
We loved seeing the ridge we'd walked the day before, when the wind was blowing like crazy and we couldn't see ten feet in front of us. It was so neat to look at the summit buildings and weather monitoring equipment we previously couldn't see at all. We took the summit pictures we couldn't stop to take when we walked over it yesterday, and we checked out the Cog.
The Longest Mile On The Appalachian Trail
Maine's Mahoosuc Notch
Mahoosuc Notch is filled with boulders, which came down off the mountains on either side. Those jumbled boulders have formed caves and deep crevices. The sound of the unseen river running below the obstacle course can be heard in many places, like a washing machine running in the basement. Ice is found in the notch at all times of year, and I saw some of that ice on September 2nd, day 155, while scrambling on my hands and knees. We spent 4-1/2 hours throwing our trekking poles ahead of us--somehow without losing any in those crevices--and climbing and crawling our way under and over and around the wet boulders. Yes, it took us 4-1/2 hours to cover that one mile.
A Significant Milestone
2,000 Miles On The Appalachian Trail
On September 12th, I arrived at Long Falls Dam Road. I then realized what the painted white arrows with the 5 mi., 4 mi., 3 mi., etc. on rocks had been during the last part of the hike the day before and the first part of that morning. I looked down at the pavement to see "2,000 mi." painted in the middle of the road. The 5 mi., 4 mi., etc. had been the countdown to 2,000, beginning just after coming off of Little Bigelow.
In the year 2000, the actual 2,000-mile point of the A.T. was already two miles further north due to trail relocations, but my friends and I celebrated there at the painted numbers. We had to be careful when taking pictures of each other standing and sitting in the middle of what seemed like a quiet road. Every few minutes, we'd begin to hear a distant rumble that quickly got closer and louder, and a big logging truck full of timber would come barreling past at high speed. Five went by in fifteen minutes.
Water Crossings in Maine
On September 16th, in the 100-Mile Wilderness, I experienced the first "real" ford on my thru-hike. We were hiking along the Big Wilson Stream (although I'd hardly call THAT a stream!) when we suddenly saw an "A.T. North" sign and an arrow. We looked to our right at that fast-moving river and saw the white blazes on the other side. I was with Split P and Turbo Turtle at the time, and we just stood there for a couple of minutes, looking at the water. Other than the Kennebec River, where we made use of the canoe ferry (which has a white blaze on the bottom of the boat, making it the only moving blaze on the trail) everything up to this point that had been listed in the Data Book as a ford had turned out to be pretty easy rock-hops. Not this time. Turbo Turtle went upstream a ways to scout out a better place to cross. Split P and I went even further up, hoping to find a rock-hop around the bend. Wishful thinking. We finally gave in to the fact we were gonna get wet.
Our First Glimpse Of Trail's End
As we started down White Cap Mountain on September 19th, we had our first clear, no-mistake view of Katahdin. There it was: a big, pointed mountain standing alone, with lakes and comparatively flat land all around. I heard Gaited Mule yell, "Yep, that's it!" and Split P exclaim, "Woo-hooo!" as I came around the bend.
As we stood there looking at it and taking pictures, I was almost a little surprised at my reaction. Or I suppose I should say my lack of it. I used to think I'd be quite emotional and feel a wave of excitement when I first saw Katahdin, but that's not exactly how it was. I thought about that as we continued on, frequently stopping and looking up from the rocks to stare at that mountain. The more I thought, the more I realized what I felt; it really had been the journey I'd been emotional and excited about--all those little personal triumphs, when I had overcome an obstacle or found improvement in myself, the shared laughter and meaningful conversation, seeing places I'd never seen before by climbing up a mountain, or arriving at places I'd been but this time getting there on foot.
It felt wonderful to have come all that way, and I was certainly looking forward to meeting my overall goal of completing an A.T. thru-hike---all the white blazes from Springer to Katahdin---but I had realized that it was the steps getting there that had meant so much more to me than standing on that final summit. I wasn't sure what my reaction or emotions would be when I would stand there in several days' time.
A Spontaneous Dip
Serenaded by loons
On day 173 of my thru-hike , I walked 17.6 miles at a leisurely pace, finishing by four p.m. I left camp at Mountain View Pond at 7:30 and stopped every three miles or so. I enjoyed a 10:00 break at Cooper Brook Falls Lean-To, where the cascading water in front of the shelter formed a deep pool, ideal for swimming on a warm day, before it cascaded on. I stopped at a dirt road, where Sweep---who's was now doing vehicle support for his girlfriend, Stretch, after deciding not to continue his own thru-hike---offered me a folding chair and cold Dr. Pepper. I stopped for a few minutes at Antlers Campsite and then enjoyed a nice long break at Sand Beach on Jo Mary Lake, where I took off my boots and waded, listening to the loons and washing whatever body parts I could without diving into the cold water. I bent over and dunked my head to rinse my hair. My next shower would be after I summited Katahdin. That would make it the longest stretch of trail between showers and laundry--at least ten days. PU!
Mount Katahdin sure got close quickly. We couldn't see it at all at White House Landing, but the rain stopped and the sky cleared enough to get a good look at the lower half of the mountain from Nesuntabunt Mountain on the afternoon of my 174th day. The upper half was still covered in thick clouds. I must say, though, the closer it got, the more impact it had on me. Still, I wasn't there yet.
A Gift On The Final Evening On The Trail
What can I say? It was simply amazing.
The End Of An Applachian Trail Adventure
Each day at seven a.m., the rangers in Baxter State Park post the weather conditions and rate the day from 1 to 4, 1 being the most favorable conditions above tree line. September 25th, 2000, my 178th and final day on the trail, was Class 1! What wonderful luck to climb that unique, incredible mountain on a day like that. We signed out on the register at the base, as you're supposed to do, and began climbing at 6:30, before the weather rating was actually posted. It was very cold, but the sky was blue and the breeze negligible. For quite a while, that day felt like so many other days on the trail ... not the last.
But the higher we climbed, the more the feeling changed for me. While each mountain on the trail had its own personality, Katahdin really had a strong one. It seemed like almost no time passed before we hit tree line and stood above the world. It was breathtaking. I looked up at where I was going--another 2,000 feet--and wondered where up there among the rocks and boulders that final sign was. I felt no anxiety about the rest of the climb, although I had for many miles before that day. Suddenly, that anxiety was gone and I felt very comfortable up there. Turbo Turtle made me happy with his observation that my climbing and footwork skills were much improved, and that helped me as I chimneyed up one location where house-sized boulders looked like they'd fallen from the sky into a big, jumbled pile someone had named Katahdin. A few Rebar hand- and foot-holds were well-placed to give added security and crucial help in a couple tough spots. For some reason, though, the climb felt almost easy to me, despite the fact the Thru-Hiker's Companion guidebook called it the most difficult. Not for me. Not on that day.
After a few miles of steep climbing, we crossed the wide-open Tableland. Just gorgeous! There was frozen mist sticking out sideways on the alpine vegetation and the "Please stay on the trail" signs. I could see the sign marking Thoreau Spring--named for Henry David Thoreau, who climbed Katahdin in 1846--from nearly a mile away. Once I passed that sign, the final, moderate, half-mile ascent was in front of me. My feet flew like I was walking on air. I hardly realized I'd started to run as I reached the top. When I looked up from the rocks, I saw something that made my heart leap into my throat, and I started to cry. I shouted "YAY!!!" although it didn't feel like my own voice.
And there it was: the sign I'd seen in so many photos on so many walls for so many years with so many other people standing behind it, sitting in front of it, kissing it, sitting on it. I didn't think I'd react the way I did when I reached that point, but the culmination of almost six incredible, difficult, challenging, wonderful months hit me as I walked over to touch the big, red sign with the word "Katahdin" painted in large, white letters. "The northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail," it read, and I just continued crying as I turned around and watched Split P and Turbo approaching. I shouted again, and Split P cheered back over the sound of the wind.
When Split P reached the sign, she lay against it for a long moment. Then came Gaited Mule. I'd expected him to whoop it up, but he was actually silent with a slight smile behind all that facial hair. He stopped a few feet from the sign and stood quietly watching, while Split P continued to lean. Finally, she stood up and said, "C'mon, Mule. Come touch the sign." It was so sweet the way he reached out his hand and walked over to it. Funny, Mule's reaction and mine were the exact opposites of what I'd expected them to be. You just never know how the emotion will manifest itself. It's an incredible feeling.
Three days after standing on the summit of Mt. Katahdin, I was back at home. Now that I was finished with my thru-hike, I tried to grasp the thought that I really did it at all. I mean, it almost didn't seem real. After only days off the trail, I almost felt ... like it was a dream. I had no aches and my feet looked like they always had before. Being "out here" felt like it always had, too. The thing is, though, I knew something had changed. I had changed. I don't think you can go through this experience without being somehow deeply affected and altered by it, even if in some subtle way you might not, at first, realize. Sure, the old jeans fell to my ankles now, but the differences went a lot deeper than that.
All I can say is, whatever it is you do, if you eventually thru-hike or not, make the most of and appreciate each day, because the days pass and things end, and it's like *poof* ... it's over. The memories are wonderful. So are the pictures. But the journey is the treasure.
To read my trail journals from the Appalachian Trail, Pennsylvania's Laural Highlands Trail, the Kekekabic Trail in Minnesota, and more, visit my website:
Deb "Ramkitten" (formerly Lauman) Kingsbury, a hiking writer
© 2010 Deb Kingsbury