300 miles in the books
I’ve just crossed the 300 mile mark and so I thought I’d update my list of takeaways from the journey thus far:
Hiking is still tough
Although my body seems to be getting accustomed to the daily grind of hiking 10-15 miles a day, I still find the actual hiking difficult. The ups make me work. I start sweating almost immediately into a climb and my breathing becomes labored. The downs are easier aerobically, but hurt my knees. Who knew hiking a mountainous trail would be so much up and down?
When setting a mileage goal for a given day, I will consult the elevation chart in the guidebook to see what type of terrain the day holds. I’ve learned, however, not to underestimate the difficulty of a section just because it appears to be mostly downhill. It could be a treacherous rocky scramble descent or a steep downhill that requires careful steps. The guidebooks also seem to smooth over the little ups and downs that one encounters. These can certainly add up and can be disheartening if I have an expectation of an easy day. So far, the only easy days I’ve had were zeroes on a motel bed (and even some of those were lumpy).
Sweet tea is pretty sweet
If you are from the northeast like me you may not be familiar with southern sweet tea. It’s like regular iced tea, but better in every way. I think it has something to do with the sugar used or when it’s added to the tea. It’s delicious and every restaurant in the south seems to have it. It’s become a staple of any in town meal I eat. I think about sweet tea often on the trail. The way the sun hits the clouds around dusk creates a color reminiscent of a tall glass of the sweet nectar. When I’m not with it, I often find myself wondering what sweet tea is doing right now and hoping that maybe, just maybe, it’s thinking the same thing about me.
White blazes are always a welcome site
The AT is well marked with over 83,000 six inch white blazes. Almost anytime I have encountered an alternate path there was a white blaze clearly indicating the proper way. However, there have been some tricky spots where the trail crosses roads or veers in a different direction. In one of these instances, Carsoni and I missed a turn and continued for a mile uphill in the wrong direction. The only thing worse than discovering you are walking the wrong way is the uncertainty you feel when you suddenly realize you haven’t seen a white blaze in miles. You start questioning whether there was a turn you might have missed. You start seeing white blazes in the distance only to discover when you approach that they are just discoloration spots on trees. You then start cursing those trees for their stupid imperfections and vowing to get your vengeance in this life or the next. Eventually, you stop, take off your pack, and pull out the guidebook. You try to triangulate your coordinates by fashioning a compass out of a pine needle, a glass of water, and a gum wrapper the way your old friend MacGyver from the Phoenix Foundation taught you. In most cases, I suspect you will eventually see a white blaze staring at you from the side of a tree as if nothing happened and you will immediately be flooded with relief.
Hiking the AT requires constant focus
In addition to white blazes, the trail is filled with loose rocks and roots whose only purpose is to trip unsuspecting hikers. Some camouflage themselves under leaves while others coat themselves in moss so as to become as slippery as ice when it rains. In my experience, if I look up from the trail for more than one second I’m bound to trip on something. I’ve also found that if I turn my head to look at something the weight of my pack steers my body off course. Therefore, to really enjoy a view or look at the guidebook I have to stop.
Before heading out on the trail, I went to a lecture at REI given by a two-time AT thru-hiker. At one point in the talk, the presenter stated with confidence that every thru-hiker will fall at some point and most likely he/she will fall multiple times. At the time I scoffed at the certainty with which he said this. I think of myself as a fairly adept athlete with strong motor skills and a good sense of balance and now this wannabe Nostradamus is telling me that I will undoubtedly fall. Fast forward to week three on the trail as I step onto a large, seemingly welcoming boulder that was covered by an invisible layer of ice. Damn you, REI guy.
The AT community is made up of kind and interesting people
I mentioned trail magic in my last post, but I wanted to add that the people who do these good deeds for hikers are very special people. For someone who is used to showering, using deodorant, and shaving daily, I haven’t quite gotten used to being around strangers having gone days without doing any of these things. Yet despite having an appearance and odor that may be offensive to most people with fully functioning senses, these trail angels seek us out and try to make our life better in some way.
The other hikers are also a wonderful group of people. There hasn’t been one time when I’ve passed someone on the trail where we didn’t exchange greetings; many times we will even do a stop and chat. AT hikers vary in age and life experience. We come from different cities and countries. And though there are various factors that drew each of us to the woods this spring, we all share the daunting goal of hiking across the country and because of that there is a kinship that everyone feels. It’s a special experience.
Humans are an adaptive species
I’ve been on the trail for over a month and though my living situation and daily activities have drastically changed, I realized that I haven’t experienced the major shock to the system I was anticipating. Within a matter of days, I became accustomed to the rhythm and routine of life on the trail. By this, I don’t mean that it came natural or that it was easy. It’s just that there are certain daily activities that need to be performed in order to survive out here. Instead of wasting time longing for the ease of civilized life I just have to get them done. It’s amazing to me to think about how quickly my focus has shifted from “what do I have to do at work today,” “what should I make for dinner,” “what’s on TV tonight” to “how many miles should I walk today,” “where’s the nearest stream where I can get water”, and “is five Snickers and a bag of Sour Patch Kids enough food to get me to town.” I think that people are capable of dealing with any situation that arises no matter how different it is from their normal life. One just needs to accept what is and proceed from there. Sure, there are plenty of times when I miss my friends and family and long for the comforts of home, but I choose to focus on the task at hand. The rain, especially, makes me wish for home. I spent a good portion of the Saturday before Easter shivering in a dank, cold shelter as it rained incessantly outside. Knowing that my family had all gathered down the shore for the weekend made this an even more depressing place. If there’s ever a time when a hiker would contemplate quitting, it would have to be in the rain. In those times, I just try to focus on the positives of this journey. As Tom Hanks said in Castaway, “I gotta keep breathing. Because tomorrow the sun will rise. Who knows what the tide will bring.” (repeat until rain eventually lets up and sun does return).
Although hiking the AT was something I have had on my bucket list for a long time, it was watching a National Geographic documentary on the AT last year that really put the wheels in motion for my current adventure. It describes an AT thru-hike as the closest thing our nation has to a pilgrimage and as “a journey that changes lives.” I watched it on Netflix, but just discovered it posted to YouTube. If you have any interest in the AT, I think this is a must watch.
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