The Appalachian Trail: Overall Musings

Sep 15th, 2016 in Adventure

Along the Appalachian Trail, I learned a lot about myself and observed many interesting things. With this trip now concluded, it’s appropriate to clarify what comprises both of those, along with what goals I set myself then and am setting in the future. Consider this article an amalgamation of a recap, guide and resolutions.

Most critical on successful thru-hiking was seeing things through an optimist’s lens. There are many tribulations, and one regularly encounters the unexpected; keeping morale up is critical. Merely embarking on this trip required a leap of faith that things would work out okay, both in terms of my well-being and that my career and relationships would survive the departure. I now am finding that much of what laid dormant in my absence still blooms, and throughout the hike, I kept awaiting the next serendipitous moment eagerly.

I became adept at dealing with a new level of squalor. Par for the course were rancid outhouses that can make your eyes water as well as the inability to take a shower, nor change your clothes, for periods as long as a week (or longer, if your budget was minimal). Deodorant and soap were uncommon; cleanliness was a sought after luxury. I was unique, however, in choosing to carry a travel bidet. I had some peace of mind with my filth, that at least it was purely sweat and dirt.

Covered in grime, I became one with my body out on the trail, learning my limits, and continually pushing them. My legs (and wits) were reforged, and I lost significant body weight, about 20 lbs overall. It can be challenging to get your daily calories when your metabolism is equivalent to a professional athlete’s! I expect to regain most of that, as my routine becomes more sedentary. I do have the NYC Marathon upcoming as a bulwark against that though.

No hikers make it through sans injury. My worst trial was a bit bizarre; I had a filling came out of my teeth. This required a difficult to plan out trip to a dentist while in rural Virginia, but was successfully resolved. Our aches and pains were definitely a favored topic of conversation (right up there with food and gear choices). Pain management was a challenge that varied between individuals, with some people pushing their limits self-medicating off ibuprofen. More than two weeks after finishing, my feet still sting when I stand up or start a run.

Another necessary skill in thru-hiking is a mastery of logistics. This started from the beginning with selection of a proper set of gear, with as low a weight as possible. Along the trail, I had to manage online food orders to local businesses and post offices, as well as replacements for gear or book orders. Rather than considering the AT as one massive hike, it is generally broken up into a bunch of smaller sections, with each checkpoint, usually a town or at least a hostel, punctuating them. What amount of food to carry was planned around those lengths. I considered the logistics pretty forgiving overall as there were many of those checkpoints throughout, and a density of traffic in case of error. America’s other long trails are much more forbidding in that absence.

Speaking of that density, 2016 turned out to be the busiest year on record for thru-hiking. There were some big crowds at the start, but it never felt that bad to me. By the time I was halfway, I felt like I was consistently ahead of any hiker “bubbles”. I’m not aware of any final statistics (plenty of people are still hiking), but numbers around 5000 for the total thru-hiker population were being thrown out there. The count of people who’ve finished Northbound is at least 650 now; I was #419.

A goal for me out here was a reconnection with Nature. Being fully integrated to urban living meant there wasn’t that much green in my routine. NYC can be a golden cage, without ample amounts of time or money, it’s difficult to leave, thus I had rarely hiked before deciding to do this. My reward was a flood of opportunities to appreciate the forests and mountains that make up our backyard. It wasn’t solely a visual spectacle either, all five senses were represented: think of the roar of rivers and chatter of insects or birds (especially the eerie cries of the loon), the smell of conifer or campfire, the tactile via powerful alpine gusts or the routine pounding of your feet against the earth, and the taste of foraged berries.

A second component of that revitalization came from a reduction in my technology use. Working full-time as a developer and with much of my leisure time also spent in front of screens, I was ready for a reset. At the start of the hike, when the experience was novel, I barely glanced at my phone. It wasn’t too long though before I was eagerly awaiting each opportunity to get data or wifi, and I even did some mobile gaming. I’m inexorably linked to the tech world, and that’s fine. I returned enthusiastic for the latest inventions and now know I can live comfortably deprived of the latest amenities.

The challenge and embrace of minimalism is a defining aspect of thru-hiking. It’s a true test of doing as much as you can with as little as possible. As a society, we focus too much on acquiring material goods. To thru-hike requires breaking that habit; I got rid of most of my belongings as I prepared for departure. On settling back down, my goal is to mindfully collect what I need, and to separate those carefully from my wants.

Throughout my hike, I met many fascinating individuals across a gamut of qualifiers much different than what I’m used to. Those included country folk, the devoutly religious, young veterans, and many retirees. The seniors were my favorites, as they challenged my expectations on what they can do physically. Many of them were very formidable hikers, had great stories and were inspiring to me.

AT hikers and the community around them are the most generous people I’ve ever met. I’m still awed when I reflect on how much good will came my way. Whether it was people opening their homes, fellow hikers hooking me up with food when I was low or hitchhiking, I got a lot compared to what I gave. I have a goal of finding some avenues of volunteerism when I’m settled in hopes of paying this intangible debt.

I’ve always been one for reading, and the AT was a good place for me to enjoy the printed medium. Many nights I was up late (hiker midnight is at 8) reading in my tent with a nightlight before drifting off to sleep. Books were plentiful, with libraries and hostels along the way both offering book exchanges or take one, leave one arrangements. I read 13 books in total on the trail.

I considered myself a purist on the trail for statistics tracking, which means that you hike every mile. People may “yellow” or “blue” blaze parts of the trail to get ahead, which respectively involve automobile or walking shortcuts. It was very disappointing to see people con themselves doing things like that, but people cope in different ways with the wear and tear of the trail. I estimate the percentage of thru-hikers who have cheated is unfortunately significant.

I abstained from alcohol for the trail’s length. This was a social experiment to see if I could overturn our conventions around drinking being a necessary mortar for socializing with strangers. I also never wanted to hike hungover. My gambit was a success, I made some good friends where drinking never even came up. Now, back in real life, I’m no longer teetotaling, but this resistance is something I will use on future adventures.

Finally, here are my statistics. I hiked in 155 days, taking 15 of them off. Factoring those “zeroes” in, my average miles per day was 14.1. My single day max was 33.4 miles. I went through 3 pairs of shoes, and probably should have done 4.