Marching Orders…


So I’ve wanted to walk the Appalachian Trail for almost fifty years.  I expect it to be physically challenging.  I expect that I will miss my family.  I know that the mental grind of walking for six months will be a greater challenge than the physical grind.  So why would I want to do such a thing? In my mind, all backpacking trips are journeys of discovery.  Not  so much of discovering a new slice of the physical world, but rather discovering new aspects of yourself.  We can’t really learn anything about our selves when we are comfortable.  Self discovery comes when we flirt along the line between what we are and what we are not.  As a teacher, I often observed that my students’ potential was more often shaped by what they believed it was rather than what it actually was.  When we genuinely believe that the Earth is flat, it is impossible to see evidence that it isn’t.  When my students believed “their limits” were fixed and immutable, it was next to impossible for them to see evidence that they weren’t.  Only prolonged experience and success could teach them that what they perceived to be a permanent fixture of who they were was in fact a temporary condition.  I’m feeling that some of my perceived limits may spring more from my beliefs about who I am rather than reality.  I would love to get down to my “playing weight,” but diet and exercise I’m willing to do at home will never accomplish this.  As I approach my geezertude, some of my interpersonal interactions approach the stereotypical grumpy old man yelling at kids to get off his lawn.  It is not that I’m actually a grumpy old man; I have just fallen into this habit of using a sort of interpersonal shorthand. I’m looking for the solitude of the trail to make me more hungry for these interactions and more willing to fully savor their richness.


About 15,000 people have complete thru hikes of the Appalachian Trail.  Only about 500 of them were in their sixties.  What makes me think that I may be able to join their ranks?  In my head, I’m not really hiking 2,189 miles.  I believe it is incredibly important to cut this number down to a manageable size.  In my head, I’m taking twenty-two one hundred mile trips separated by zero days.  I’ve done scores of trips like this.  I’ve learned that it is incredibly easy to cut short any backpacking trip when you are cold, wet, hungry or tired.  I’m simply planning to defer any thoughts about quitting until I’m warm, dry, well fed and rested.  I know it will be incredibly hard to be away from my wife for six months.  She is going to join me for a zero day to celebrate my sixty fifth birthday. She also plans to walk with me for a week in Vermont or New Hampshire.  My son wants to join me for the Hundred Mile Wilderness and Katahdin.  I know I will be looking forward to both these things.  I know that they will act as an incentive to keep roughly to my schedule.  On the other hand, I know that all miles are not created equal.  I expect that I will walk eight to ten hours a day.  I have no expectation about how far I can hike in that time.  I know the trail in Virginia fairly well, so I’m confident I can estimate how many days it will take me to get to Harper’s Ferry.  As to the rest of the trail, I’m clueless.  I think it is important to set your goals in terms of how long you will walk rather than how far.  It is much easier to control how long you walk and therefore much easier to successfully achieve your goal for the day.  Success breeds success.  On my shakedown hike last summer.  I had to get to Daleville by a certain date so that I could be home when friends were coming to visit us in Greensboro.  After the Dragon’s Tooth chewed me up and spit me out one incredibly hot afternoon, I realized I wasn’t going to make it to my planned destination for the day.  I stopped at a hostel in Catawba and arranged for a shuttle to the bus station in Roanoke.  I felt defeated, but half a pizza, a bottle of gatorade, a shower and a good night’s sleep, I was ready to go back to the trail the next morning.  I went ahead and came home to visit our friends, but I learned that I’m not going to be able to control my destinations each day.  I can only really control my effort and let the destinations take care of themselves.


If all I did was walk for six months, I may go nuts.  I love backpacking, but too much of a good thing is a real possibility.  I’m planning to journal as I walk.  I’ve never done this before, but I think it will good practice and will support this blog.  I am carrying a cell phone and a my Kindle.  I know this will make some of you nuts, but here is the reality.  Cell phone coverage is better every time I go on a hike. (I’m planning to keep a record of which shelters have coverage and include this information in my blog.)  While cell phone coverage is better, pay phones are much harder to find.  My cell phone is probably a better camera than any I’m willing to carry.  I like to listen to books on tape and music as I walk.  It is not unusual for me to sing along.  Our family has a running conversation in WhatsApp.  My son lives in Berlin and this app lets us message internationally.  I plan keep in touch this way on the trail.   As for the Kindle, I’ve always walked with a book.  My all time favorite was a collection of Faulkner short stories.  When faced with six months on the trail, the Kindle seems to be a perfect choice.  It weighs less than any book.  It easily holds more than I could possibly read and if I want something I don’t have, it would be pretty easy to get it on the Kindle when I’m in town.  If you plan to take your cell, walk in airplane mode to preserve battery.  While I’ve seen solar chargers on the trail, there are so many trees on the AT, I think it is simpler to take a supplemental battery to recharge between towns.

I leave in a tad over 3 months…I’m twitching in anticipation.

Affiliate Disclosure

This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!

To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.

Comments 2

  • George : Dec 15th

    Best of luck. You will have a wonderful time.

    I took a cell phone and used it to journal and to take pictures. I also put the Guthook app on it and used it every day to take stock of where I was. I also put the Kindle app on it so I didn’t need to bring a separate device. The supplemental battery is a good idea. It helped me nurse my battery charge for at least 10 days while journaling, reading etc.

    I like your idea of “how long” rather than “how far”. I did the hike with my 23 year old son. Let’s face it 60 year old joints and muscles are in a different state than when we were 20 something. I was fortunate that my son took my lesser abilities in stride and stuck with me.

    All the best!

    George (Dos Equis)

  • George Turner : Dec 16th

    Thanks for the tip. Bought Guthook with the whole trail! Sweet


What Do You Think?