Evolution of a Section Hiker

“I’m taking a walk. I’m going outside.” Taking A Walk, John Prine

The Appalachian Trail is about 2,200 miles and it supposedly takes ~5,000,000 steps to completely hike the Appalachian Trail. The 5 million steps are actual physical steps, but the journey really begins with a lot of mental steps before someone physically hikes past that first white blaze. The physical journey typically takes between five and six months if completed as a thru hike. Section hikers may take a couple years to a decade or even more to complete the trail. For both, the mental journey may last decades before and after the hike. Almost every hiker is likely familiar with the proverb: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” The first step for me was probably in 1974 or 1975, when I first learned about the concept of long-distance backpacking after reading Colin Fletcher’s formative book, “The New Complete Walker.” My early backpacking years were confined to weekend trips, mostly on the Black Forest Trail and Loyalsock Trail near where I grew up in northcentral Pennsylvania. I did not know about the Appalachian Trail until I briefly touched the AT for the first time near Hawk Mountain, PA while attending a winter survival course at the Civil Air Patrol’s ranger school. Still, Fletcher’s book had planted the desire to hike a long-distance trail.

Grand Canyon National Park, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Long and Winding Road

Then the oft-heard refrain “life intervenes” conspired to lead me down the long and winding road. That is not to say the diversion was a bad thing. College, a career, and a family offered new adventures and new life goals. There were even plenty of hiking and car-camping trips with my wife and children. Living, working, and traveling in Europe and Eurasia for more than 30-plus years were a once-in-a-lifetime journey in itself. A 30-year Army career offered so many opportunities to carry a rucksack and sleep on the ground than at times I care to remember. Yet over the years, the idea of hiking a long distance trail would rise from the depths of my consciousness like a mountain rises out of the mist. And the trail over those mountains consistently materialized as the Appalachian Trail.

AT Little Stony Man Summit, Shenandoah National Park, VA

Did I Choose the AT or Did the AT Choose Me?

It would take 20-plus years before I stepped on the AT again; this time during a car-camping trip with my family to Shenandoah National Park. We were day-hiking, but passed several backpackers. My mind wandered along with them for a few miles. Another 10 years slipped away before I again stepped on the AT at Maryland’s Gathland State Park and at Harper’s Ferry during an Army War College Civil War staff ride. This was during the years I ran marathons and felt like I had achieved my goals in that endurance sport. I was also close to retiring from the Army; so, an Appalachian Trail hike became an actual, albeit far-distant, goal in my mind for the first time. Like many other aspiring AT hikers, I started to seek out things to read about the trail. And like others, one of the first things I found was Bill Bryson’s 1998 book, A Walk in the Woods. Bryson’s book still inspires and attracts criticism, which is why I think it is an essential read. For me, the book helps solidify the reasons “why” I hike. Yes, the physical goal is all 2000-plus miles and an end-point, usually Katahdin. And Bryson did neither. But Bryson showed me that the philosophical goals about the journey, self-exploration, and observing the world along the trail are more important than the physical goal. By coincidence, I read Bryson’s book in 2005, just before the release of the movie based upon the book. The seed planted long ago started to sprout, but it would be more than another decade before the sprout would break the surface of my consciousness.

AT Marker, Shenandoah National Park, VA

Instant Karma

In the summer of 2019, instant karma brought the idea of hiking the AT to life.  A few months earlier, I casually mentioned the idea of hiking the AT to my son. Matt and I had never backpacked together. We hiked a few times, including along the AT in the Shenandoah National Park, while car camping when he was a kid. He also accompanied me as a teenager on several day hikes with World War II Yugoslav partisan and military veterans in the mountains of Slovenia, including a snowy hike up and back down Mount Krn on November 11th for a World War I commemoration.  Since then, he had hiked and backpacked himself a bit with friends. So, when he texted me to ask how I would feel about taking a three day hike on the Appalachian Trail, I was quite surprised. It was only a bit over 20 miles from Harper’s Ferry to Snickers Gap in Virginia, but section hiking had its start, including completing my first state with West Virginia!. I even started my first trail journal.

Quiet Man Completes WV, August 2019

I am a Section Hiker

Over the last few years, I have felt like my journey to complete the AT is in slow motion. Nevertheless, I continued to take my AT journey a few bites at a time. In 2020, I completed Maryland in a couple “short ass section hikes – SASHes” and pushed more into Virginia. By 2021, I was into Shenandoah National Park and started “sashing” into Pennsylvania. Despite being retired, it is difficult to find opportunities for longer hikes. By the end of 2023, I had completed 212 miles of the AT, from Doyles River Trailhead in Shenandoah National Park, VA to the ATC Office in Boiling Springs, PA. Heading into the 2024 hiking season, I know I need to start LASHing or taking “long ass section hikes” and up my yearly mileage. I am fully resolved that I am a section hiker and I need to shift my strategic focus to that approach.

AT Museum, Pine Grove Furnace State Park, PA

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Comments 2

  • Dawn : May 13th

    Hi Rick-
    How do you handle transportation for either sashes or lashes? If I’m traveling solo, it tough to go too far because I have to get back to the car

    • Rick "Quiet Man" : May 13th

      Dawn, thanks for the question! This is the most difficult aspect of being a section hiker – getting to the trailhead and then back home – especially if you are going solo. My preferred method now is to drive to my Jeep to my planned end point trailhead and then arrange a trail shuttle to pick up and take me to my planned start point trailhead. Then hike back to my Jeep. I am fortunate that I live relatively close to the AT, within what I call the “AT corridor” and have the advantage of my spouse doing a drop off and a pick up. But as I get farther from home, the shuttle option becomes more necessary. I am staring to consider public transportation instead of driving my own vehicle. I am thinking of using the train to get close to AT trail towns and then use shuttles for pick up and drop off. You have to get creative.


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