AT Thru-Hike 2.0

As They Say, This is Not My First Rodeo

In 2016, I made a thru-hike attempt.  It was the traditional NOBO from Springer.  I started on February 25th, a day filled with excitement and fear.  I’d been a member of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy since I was in my 20s. It was called the ATA back then, I think.  I had backpacked all of the AT in Shenandoah National Park, the Presidentials,  the AT in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and a section hike in Vermont.  Beyond the AT, I had backpacked in Alaska, the Canadian Rockies, Nepal, and all over Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Arizona, Utah, California, and West Virginia for, literally, decades.   In other words, I knew how to shit not only in the woods but also in the desert and, at times, in sections of the AT that literally runs past suburban back yards in Pennsylvania.  I’d backpacked for 31 years. I was a veteran backpacker.  Just ask me.

The AT Allows for Adjustments

Consumed would be an understatement to describe the number of books and videos I read and watched to plan for my thru-hike.  I knew the suggested gear lists from former thru hikers and read every gear review I could find.  I used Lighter Pack to plan and replan my gear list.  I was close to being on a first name basis with almost every clerk at the local REI.  I returned so many things to Amazon that I had to start paying for returns.  Honestly.  I went through multiple brands and models of tents, packs, and clothes.  In short, my planning really reflected my neurotic need for checklists and, let’s be honest, control.  Plan, plan, plan, and then replan.  In retrospect, it was a ridiculous effort to make the unpredictable predicable.

Here is the problem.  In addition to good planning, and I am not trying to understate the value of planning a 5- to 6-month trip, a thru-hike requires a high degree of flexibility.  And in reality, of the major backpacking trails in the USA, the AT is likely the most forgiving major trail in the country for bad planning.  Trail towns, mail drops, hostels, and outfitters are readily available on the AT.  There is room for making adjustments that you just will not find on the CDT or even the PCT, for example especially with a NOBO hike.

Thru-Hike Day 1 and Beyond

February 25th was a snowy morning when  I was dropped off with other guests from The Hiker Hostel and headed south toward the Southern Terminus.  For those who are not familiar, you either have to start south of the Southern Terminus at Amicalola State Park  and take the Approach Trail or start a bit north of the Southern Terminus.  I opted for skipping the Approach Trail.  So south I went towards the southern terminus monument in the light snow,  got my picture taken at the southern terminus, and started NOBO!

I continued north through Georgia and found a tramily and friends.  I crossed Fontana Dam and managed to get through GSMNP despite the AT being a sheet of ice (pack your MICROspikes or Yaktrax) from Clingman’s Dome north until we almost exited the park at Davenport Gap.  However, my chronic foot pain was clearly becoming an issue.  My feet ached after 10 miles and the pain was increasing and the number of tolerable miles was decreasing.  When I exited GSMNP, I cried uncle and called a shuttle when I hit I-40.  I flew home from Knoxville.  Really, there was an equal issue of my head and my lack of flexibility that impacted this decision – more on this in future posts.

I got home and stayed a few weeks but decided that I had made a giant mistake.  My time on the trial was excellent. I met some excellent people, my tramiliy.   My foot condition, a genetic disorder that causes collagen tumors on my connective tissue,  was unchanged, but I just could not quit yet, so back I went.

The remaining miles that I did in 2016 were a bit like A Walk in the Woods, a book and movie that I pretty much detest.  However, if I wasn’t going to finish, I was going to have fun and leapfrog around, hike with friends and relatives, and enjoy it until the pain got to be too much which happed in Tuxedo, NY.

My trip from Tuxedo to home was, well, interesting.  I took a bus from Tuxedo to New York City.  From there, I took an Amtrak train to Savannah, GA where I met my husband, Eric, who was at the beach with his family.  We then drove back to Phoenix from South Carolina by way of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Mount Rushmore, Badlands National Park (amazing park), and a lot more.  I never skip any opportunity to change a boring drive into an adventure even if that doubles the mileage. Eric was able to now say he had visited all 50 states, and I was up to 47.

So What is the Point?

In short, there are a few key points here:

  • First, plan but foster an attitude of flexibility into your hike.
  • Second, treasure every day on the AT, even when it rains for 12 days in a row, which it will. Find something, several things, to be grateful for each night.  It is not a bad idea to record those ideas as they will be treasured memories of your thru-hike.
  • Third, if you have a physical condition that is limiting or ending your trip, you have to accept it. This is an experience that requires a lot of endurance but not inflicting permanent or serious self-injury.

Post-Hike Reflection

When I got home, I went to my foot doctor who recommended a restorative surgery.  It fixed my feet for now.   Since then, I have done trips up to 300 miles long and have backpacked in the USA, France, and the UK including a recent 154 mile hike on the AT.

My “failed” 2016 AT thru-hike was indeed a failure to meet my one and only goal when I started out heading south toward the southern terminus on that snowy morning – getting to Maine.  What I learned, and I learned deeply, is that the AT is a constant series of lessons.  At 56 years old, I learned that the AT provided more lessons on learning to be the most genuine and authentic me that I can be than anything else I know of.  It can be a kind teacher most of the time and a harsh teacher from time to time.   Regardless, it is a teacher that has few equals.

What I had to learn, and still need to do better at, is to be flexible and roll with the learning that the AT offers.

Wazo

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Comments 10

  • Avatar
    pearwood : Jan 2nd

    David,
    Not nearly your experience, but a few more year on the fuselage. I was first going to do AT 2020 for birthday 70, but back surgery nixed that and the pandemic sealed the deal. Then it was going to be 2021 for 71, but I’m thinking I don’t want to do it with COVID-19 still hanging over the community. I’m hoping 2022 for 72 will be the magic number. In the meantime, New York has no end of beautiful trails.
    Blessings,
    Steve

    Reply
    • Avatar
      David Smith : Jan 3rd

      COVID was a major consideration. I will likely write about that. I am currently volunteering at a mass immunization site, giving COVID immunization injects, 10 to 20 hurs a week.

      Reply
      • Avatar
        Maryann Gunning : Jan 7th

        David,
        First time I’ve seen your article. My husband and I are seasonal residents in Highland Lakes, NJ in Vernon Township. Near many AT access points. You would’ve passed through on you last walk if you ended up in Tuxedo NY. The steps of Vernon section of the AT is very close.
        Anyway, you are welcome to reach out to us if we can help you RE supply at the Acme in Vernon on route 515. Or possibly provide a shower, a meal and a swim in the lake. Not sure when you’re passing through our area but I’ll toss it out for you as a potential option. Good luck. 💪🏻

        Reply
  • Avatar
    Julie : Jan 3rd

    I look forward to following your adventures on Trek!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      David Smith : Jan 8th

      Thanks!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Kate : Jan 4th

    “What I learned, and I learned deeply, is that the AT is a constant series of lessons. ” Beautifully stated. Looking forward to hearing more from you when the next adventure begins. Best wishes!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Ann Strauss : Jan 4th

    I Just subscribed to your journal. Looking forward to reading. Good for you on what you’re doing in volunteering! Did you work in the medical field?

    Reply
    • Avatar
      David Smith : Jan 4th

      registered nurse and nurse practitioner. It was a great career. I now teach part-time for a university.

      Wazo

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Randall Smith : Jan 6th

    David,
    That is soo inspiring for me at this point in my life. At 60 y.o, my attempt is upon me in March for the awe inspiring A.T.
    I’m in a place called, New Leaf, in N.Mesa and when I leave here, I will be encroaching on a jouney, I didn’t dream up, but was inspired to do so by many many hikers out there and now including you. Thank you.. I will take it “one a day at a time”, just like i’m learning that in life, it is just that..

    Reply
    • Avatar
      David Smith : Jan 8th

      Us Smiths don’t retreat to the sofa!

      Reply

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