600 Miles and Counting
As I take a few planned days off the trail to spend time with Sydney and travel to Pittsburgh to attend a friend’s wedding, I finally have a chance to sit down at a computer and put together an update about things I have learned and some gear changes I’ve made.
I am now 45 days into my thru-hike and have walked roughly 600 miles through three states. After completing Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee, I am now into Virginia and will be in Virginia for a few weeks as I have 544 miles of this beautiful state ahead of me. With plans to meet up with family and friends along the way in Virginia, I am excited for the next several weeks of walking through one of my favorite states.
Things I’ve Learned
People and trail community: Recently at Trail Days, I had the pleasure of speaking with an older gentleman named Cracker Jack who thru-hiked the AT in 1986. While we were talking he asked me what my biggest surprise about the trail has been so far. I told him that my biggest surprise has been the trail community and the people who make this community so special. I have been truly blown away by how tight-knit and supportive the AT community really is. It’s one thing to hear about this special community and a totally different thing to be living in it. Everyone out here, from other hikers, to the folks that live in the trail towns, to the people that run businesses to support hikers, have all been so incredibly kind and helpful. From coming into towns where we are welcomed with open arms, to road crossings where complete strangers have set up trail magic, to seeing other hikers supporting each other, to helping each other with various needs and forming what will likely become life long bonds, has truly been a refreshing experience.
The AT community is really unlike anything else I have ever experienced. The AT is a place where your age is just a number, where you’re from is just a place on a map, and what you do for work has no role in defining you. The AT is a place where everyone out on the trail is just another human being out here seeking to achieve a personal goal that has it own meaning and purpose to them. Although, collectively, each person makes up this unique community and that is what really makes the AT so special.
I’ll preface this next part with the following; after working for nearly ten years in public safety, I do not consider myself naive to the world or to the types of people that exist in it. With that said, I personally believe that people are good and that people want to help others and do the right thing. The world isn’t a bad place. If you want to experience this for yourself and see first hand unfiltered human kindness and the good things that people do, step onto the AT, even just for a day, and you’ll be welcomed into the community with open arms.
Tough days: If every day on the trail was sunshine and puppies, three-quarters of the people who attempt a thru-hike wouldn’t quit. Going into this journey I knew that there were going to be tough days out there. Full disclosure; I totally underestimated what that was going to be like.
A few weeks ago, while dealing with another full day of soaking rain, wet and damp gear, bugs flying into my face, a trail that was more like a small creek than a footpath, and that awful, gut-punching sadness of missing my girlfriend, Sydney, I began to slowly unravel. A few fleeting negative thoughts began to snowball and before you know it, you find yourself asking that dreaded question: “Why am I out here?” There is not much out there to really mentally prepare you for this experience. The dynamic of willingly putting yourself in a position that you know you can pull the parachute and stop at anytime but finding ways to keep going, even when it just plain sucks is something that you learn as you go. You begin to learn that the tough days are often the most rewarding, even if that reward is days later when the rain has finally stopped. Each tough day that you go through becomes a tool for you to use to get through the next one that is thrown at you, and as the days get longer and more miles are being done, the tough days inevitably get easier than the one before it. Being able to look back at those crappy days and say, “Wow, I went through that,” is a incredibly motivating feeling.
They say to never quit on a bad day. I take that a step further and say, never question your reasoning for doing something on a bad day either. Get through the bad day, eat, sleep, rest, clear your mind, and then ask the question of “Why am I out here?” The answer you give yourself will be drastically different than the day before.
Being wet: I expected rain. It’s the AT, it is synonymous with rain. I did not expect just how wet I was going to be ALL. THE. TIME.
If you’re not wet from rain, you’re wet from sweat and that wonderful East Coast humidity. I quickly learned that this is just something that I have to deal with. A microfiber camp towel, wet wipes, and a sleeping-only shirt and shorts have been a godsend in keeping me somewhat sane after a day of being soaked in sweat, rain, or both.
Trail legs and hiker hunger: When you start on the trail there are two almost mythical topics that everyone likes to talk about—trail legs and hiker hunger. The anticipation builds and every day you wonder when you are going to be able to say, “I have my trail legs!” Then one day you hammer out a 20-mile day and you’re feeling pretty good, the next day you do it again, and then again, and all of a sudden you’re routinely doing these long-mile days that you never would have anticipated being able to do weeks or even days before. About the same time this is happening, you also notice that you are eating all the time, eating everything in sight. When you get into town you eat enough to feed a family of six and slowly start to feel full again; but it still isn’t enough, you need more, you’ve become a monster just looking for calories any way you can get them. Eating combinations of food that you would never even consider eating off the trail now sound like great ideas and you justify it to yourself by saying, “Anything for the calories;” this is hiker hunger and it is very real.
After walking close to 600 miles, you begin to learn what gear is working and what isn’t. A few shakedown hikes before starting a thru-hike does help you narrow down what you’re going to be using and what is staying behind, but until you’re actually out there using that gear day in and day out, it can be hard to get a good idea about what you really want to use.
Tent: I sent my Six Moon Designs (SMD) Skyscape Trekker home and picked up a Big Agnes Fly Creek HV UL 1. I still love my SMD tent and plan on keeping it in my gear collection, but after using it day after day, I found that the layout, space, and weatherproofing just wasn’t comfortable enough for me on a thru-hike. After waking up wet after two particularly wet and rainy nights I made the decision to send the tent home and pick up the Big Agnes that offered just a bit more headroom and overall space for me to be comfortable, as well as the extra weatherproofing I was looking for. For future shorter trips when I am not spending months at a time in my tent, my SMD tent will still be my go-to.
Shoes: I picked up a pair of Altra Lone Peak 3.5 shoes. No, I haven’t ditched the sandals, but as I consistently got into longer-mile days, I needed something that gave my feet a bit more cushioning. I am still using the sandals and typically start my day hiking in them before switching over to my shoes around lunchtime and finishing the day in those. The sandal-shoe combination is working quite well and, aside from the typical sore feet after a long day, I have had no foot problems since using the combination approach to footwear.
Water filter: Sorry Sawyer, but the Micro Squeeze just plain sucks. I am a person with a decent level of patience, but holy shit, the time it took to filter a liter of water with the Micro was unbearable. So back to the regular Sawyer Squeeze it is.
While in the Smokies, I had a series of failures with my insulin pump. During my planning for this hike, I expected and planned for pump failures, although I had not planned or anticipated this many in such a short amount of time. I was now faced with possibly needing to completely scrap my current plan on how to manage insulin delivery while on the trail. After a bit of a meltdown over the series of 12 pump failures, one of my trail friends, Letters, came to me and said, “It’s time for a new plan A.” After some calming down and refocusing on the bigger picture, I was able to get in touch with my endocrinologist (who is one of the best doctors I have ever had), and we were able to come up with a few new options. We took Letters’ advice and started putting the wheels in motion to come up with that new plan A. We ultimately decided that going back to pen and needle injections would be the best option if the technology I was relying on kept failing. While we worked to get everything for this new plan in place, I kept hiking and using the pump system. Fortunately, since this streak of pump failures occurred, I have only had one other failure. We’re still not sure what caused that streak of 12 to fail, but at this point I am continuing to use the pump, as it still remains the easiest option for me to use if it is working. I am still a bit nervous about the reliability of my particular pump, but, moving forward, having a much more solid backup plan in place is a way more comfortable position to be in if I were to have further issues with the pump.
One foot in front of the other,
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