5 Things I Got Wrong About Hiking the AT—and 2 I Got Right
What I Got Wrong
1. Because I’m a woman I won’t lose weight.
On day hikes before I planned my own thru-hike, I encountered male and female thru-hikers. The male hikers were all scrawny, haggard. They were almost halfway finished, and the trail had taken its toll on them in the form of flesh. The female hikers, though, were not scrawny. They weren’t fat, and some were slim and fit, but a surprising number of them were plump and even chunky. This amazed me. Unless they had started out obese, I just couldn’t get my head around how they had walked a thousand miles and not become skeletal. Googling “women losing weight on the AT” revealed that, at least according to anecdotal experience, there is something about women’s metabolism (some fertility-protecting mechanism, it was hypothesized) that means we just don’t lose as much as guys do.
So, on the basis of this information, I lost weight in advance of my hike (just 10 pounds; I wasn’t too fat to start with) in order to protect my knees from the additional pack weight they’d be bearing.
However, once I got out there and started burning multiple thousands of calories a day and not replacing them, maybe on account of having gotten used to a calorie deficit during my pre-hike diet, I did lose weight. At first, I lost a lot—my pants got really, really baggy within the first two weeks.
Then I built muscle, of course, and by the time I got off the trail because of my injury, spent a weekend eating all the calories in Charlottesville, and finally stepped on an actual scale, I was two pounds heavier (though smaller and stronger) than when I started. And of course now that I’ve been home and sedentarily healing my foot for nine weeks, I’m getting thicker by the minute.
But I’m sure that when I go back out there I’ll lose the weight again. The point is, women do lose weight on the trail. We might not get dangerously skinny at the same rate the guys do, but we definitely melt fat and get lean and mean.
As for all those plump ladies I saw last summer on my day hikes? I can only assume, based on Facebook, Instagram, and eyewitness testimony this year, that they simply play a stronger candy game than the guys do.
2. I’ll want lots of ice cream and pizza.
Perhaps this is related to number 1, but no matter how hungry I got, with the exception of beer and wine, I didn’t crave junk. I didn’t eat ice cream until I was completely off the trail because of my injury. I had pizza a few times because it was the only hot, savory option. I ate plenty of very high-calorie foods, but I always wanted actual food. My body knew what it needed, and that was animal protein and produce.
3. There’ll be plenty of other women out there.
Although I knew from statistics that I’d be outnumbered by men, I blog for a Web site with a lot of other female bloggers and I’m in a Facebook group with more than 5,000 female AT-hiking enthusiasts; subconsciously, I built an expectation not just that I would find a lot of other women in the mountains, but that any of them would be close to my age. Of course there are women hikers, but we are the tiny, tiny minority. Dudes completely overwhelm the AT. And what women are long-distance hiking, with a few exceptions, are in their 20s. Of course, one of these 20-something women became my treasured hiking partner, Sunshine, and she made a HUGE difference in my hike.
But, ladies of the Internet, do not be fooled online. The real woods contain mainly men.
4. I’ll have time to think.
No matter how many solitary hours I spent, my mind always found a way to focus intently and exclusively on the immediate present and very-near future. How far to the top of this hill? How far to the next water source? Do I even need more water? Should I stop to pee here or hold out for a bit better cover? Should I take a leisurely break when I reach that shelter in three miles or should I water up quick and hustle on to the evening’s shelter? Should I try to get a shelter spot or should I tent? How many people from last night’s shelter have passed me? How many of them were tenters and how many shelter sleepers? Have I walked farther than one mile since my last break? What’s my pace right now? How far is tonight’s water source from the shelter? What does today’s last mile look like? How steep is it, exactly? What do I have left for dinner in my food bag? Are there bear cables at the shelter or will I have to throw a line? Should I have a snack now or just wait till dinner? When I get to camp, should I get water first or should I put up my tent first? Can I maybe make it to the next shelter tonight? How tired will I be? Seriously, it’s surely boring you already but I could go on for days with these questions.
And, not to minimize their importance, because they are both urgent and important when you’re out there, but maybe, in the end, my brain simply doesn’t want to sort out and try to find the answers to the big, existential questions I had starting out and still have now.
5. The forest will bring me peace.
There are moments of calm and much about the woods that is peaceful, but I did not achieve the deep, lasting peace I sought. For my money, day-hiking is actually a surer route to such stillness, because of its contrast with normal life. On a thru-hike, you are never not in the woods (except on town days, which are less “towny” than I anticipated, but that’s another story), and so their ability to bring me peace just went away, I guess. It was the woods’ contrast to the rush of urban chaos that gave them power in my pre thru-hiking life.
When the forest is my everyday, it becomes something else. It is chaotically alive and yet at once dying. It is always in an overwhelming and urgent state of entropy. It is lonesome, decaying, uncomfortable, wet, cold, hot, humid, dusty, dirty, grim, creepy. But mostly lonesome. Which leads me to …
What I Got Right
1. I’ll be lonely as fuck.
People asked if I was scared to be hiking the AT alone, particularly as a woman. The solo-female-thru-hiker thing didn’t scare me from a safety standpoint, but it did concern me from a loneliness perspective. Knowing before I set off that I would be demographically unusual—i.e. not male and in my 20s—and knowing that I’m introverted, I knew I’d face two additional hurdles to falling in with a bubble the way most thru-hikers do.
Although I met people who were far kinder and more interesting and lovely than I could possibly have dreamed up, I was right about the bubble thing. One crew—The Hootin’ Hoodlums—kept trying to adopt me, and for that I was deeply grateful; I loved their rowdiness and how instantly and effortlessly they accepted me despite our age gap (which only I seemed concerned about—they acted like they didn’t notice it at all). But in the end they were simply faster than I was.
Meeting my hiking buddy, Sunshine, turned the whole journey around, and if I hadn’t broken my foot I would have stayed with her until Harper’s Ferry, but then she would have gotten off and I’d have been solo again. In fact, one of the few things that gives me pause when I think about getting back on in a few weeks is a real fear of again facing that loneliness.
People talk about facing your fears as if somehow that will allow you to overcome them, somehow triumph, as if loneliness is something surmountable. But there’s a reason we pair off, a reason we shack up, live in cities. There’s a reason our criminal justice system gives the worst offenders solitary confinement.
2. I’ll feel more alive than I ever have or (I’ll add, now that I’m back home) ever might.
The purity of being in actual survival mode takes your breath away. I was reduced almost daily to tears of despair: the torment of cold and rain, the “excessive and protracted fatigue” (as Charlotte Bronte once put it it) brought on by endless climbs, the terror of bears. I was brought almost daily to tears of joy: the relief in realizing that the faint sounds you hoped might be voices in fact are voices, that you’re within shouting distance of the evening’s shelter; the leap in your heart when you glimpse a tiny patch of deep blue through branches, and the overwhelming gratitude when wind spins the remaining clouds into tendrils of fog that dissolve; the pleasure of sweet, living, true banana taste and texture on your tongue when you stumble on trail magic.
These feelings are orders of magnitude greater than anything off-trail life ever offered me. On the basis of reading others’ accounts of their hikes, I suspected they would be, but I was unprepared for just how intense they were, and there’s something addicting about them, something very drab about a world that lacks them.
Makes you wonder what else you can do besides get back out there.
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