Flipping Out About Flip Flopping: Part 1

Emotional Justifications

So. I want to be Bliss, Yellow Bird and Outlier.

I want to be scrambling up those final, dramatic 5.2 hand-over-hand miles from the penultimate night spent in Baxter State Park. I envision reaching the northern terminus atop the highest peak in Maine, while wind washes over exposed tablelands, standing upon that iconic sign with outstretched arms reaching upward toward an endless open sky (which of course is also cloudless and all sunshiny) in triumph.

Mentally, Mt. Katahdin is my physical and psychological goal. It is also turning into my emotional nemesis.

I’ve always considered hiking the trail from the perspective of a NOBO, but open to the idea of being flexible. I already was considering a later start date and anticipating leap-frogging up to Katahdin if I was falling too far behind, then picking up the trail again from my point of departure. But I’m becoming increasingly concerned about the consequences for a NOBO hike in 2016, after the release of the movie “A Walk in the Woods” this fall. In particular—competition for lean-tos and campsites and southern AT hostels. Could my experience be negatively affected by a congested trailhead of ill-prepared, Hollywood-inspired wannabes who don’t necessarily carry a good background in hiking ethics.

Christine Hoyer, a backcountry management specialist for Great Smoky Mountains National Park, observed that there was a 60 percent increase in thru-hikers when Bill Bryson’s book was published in 1998 and expects to see new hikers in the national park after the movie is released. Likewise, we’ve heard how the PCT experienced an influx of hikers after the movie “Wild” hit theaters in 2014.

Yeah. I know. I shouldn’t fret. And not everyone is as anxious about ramifications as me.

A 2016 thru-hiker post on a White Blaze forum reports: “I am diving in head first at the end of March. Bubble or no bubble. I’ve been dreaming of a thru-hike attempt for 25 years and I’ll be damned if a silly movie is going to cause me to alternate my plans.”

Or this strategy from Facebook: “There will be an increase in AT traffic, but most likely many will quit around Blood Mountain. I will wait at Mountain Crossings and outfit my next AT thru-hike by raiding the hiker box.”

Head Start, Flip Flop, Leap Frog?

Regardless, I’m now in the process of considering alternative itineraries including a head start out of Damascus or a flip-flop beginning at Harpers Ferry. The ATC is even pushing these recommendations for a number of brilliant reasons. Nevertheless, it doesn’t “feel” right.

First of all, thru-hiking is traditionally “one-way.” I wonder if I’ll feel like finishing the rest of the trail once I’d summit Katahdin midway—especially knowing that New Hampshire and Maine are the states I’m most looking forward to hiking.

Second, no disrespect to Spoons, Sandals or Gnarly, 2015 SOBO hikers finishing in Georgia, but standing by a rock, with a plague, within a forest just doesn’t visually convey that same sense of victory, although the achievement is identical. Jennifer Pharr Davis’s touching of the oxidized bronze Springer Mountain plaque after her phenomenal 2011 record generates a quieter impression than Scott Jurek’s record-breaking 2015 summit of Katahdin framed beneath a brilliant blue sky (and just before proceeding to boisterously celebrate.)

And how about a finish at Harper’s Ferry, or somewhere in between? What would that finish resemble?

I’m well aware that my reasons for hiking are all—and should be—about the journey and not the station. It may seem foolish to some that I am projecting ending expectations before I even step foot on the trail. But I also am goal-oriented and—having worked in advertising—a slave to visual messages. Cliché images of success characteristically include summits, blue skies and/or upstretched arms.

I called the ATC headquarters curious to learn how many people begin and/or finish their thru-hikes at the visitor center in Harper’s Ferry. I asked what the “celebratory” finish* might look like—especially knowing that alternative itineraries are being encouraged as a means of alleviating the congestion found at the southern terminus each spring. Tenny Webster, Trail Information Specialist and a 1996 thru-hiker, admits that finishing in points other than Katahdin is not as dramatic, but reminded me that you don’t really know how you’ll feel about finishing. Hiking the AT is an overall transformative journey and not necessarily about the final destination.

Still—here’s the thing: Most of us, well—statistically 65 percent or more of us—apparently have that sign on Katahdin seared into our brains. The northern terminus is embedded into our collective consciousness as much as any stock photograph that depicts success.

Victorious Springer Mountain Photo Finishes?

Google “Finishing the Appalachian Trail in Georgia” or any variation of that key phrase looking for the victorious final photos of the southern terminus. There is a dearth of hits. Most of the search results are of hikers summiting Mt. Katahdin. And this is THE image culturally associated with the Appalachian Trail. Even our good friend Zach Davis, reinforces this bias as part of the Appalachian Trials branding and opines in his own book, “…crossing the finish line anywhere other than Mt. Katahdin seems anti-climatic to me.” (Important Disclaimer: We know/I know that Zack is amazingly supportive to ALL hikers, not just NOBOs.)

So what’s a 2016 would-be thru-hiker to do?

Instead of emotion, I’ll evaluate pros and cons of each my options in Part 2, and see if reason will help point the way.

*Fun Fact:

As AT hikers know, each hiker arriving in Harpers Ferry obtains a number and gets photographed at the ATC Visitor. For hikers who begin and end their thru-hikes at Harpers Ferry, the ATC will take two photos of you. These hikers receive very obvious “before” and “after” images of themselves—a kind of special celebratory recognition unique for this type of Flip Flop itinerary.


 Bales-Sherrod,Leslie, The Daily Times, “National Park prepares for influx of Appalachian Trail hikers after ‘A Walk in the Woods’ movie is released,” August 10, 2015



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Comments 4

  • Dave Michel : Aug 30th

    Excellent. Look forward to Part 2. I’m on 2016 group, with a NOBO Katahdin bias. Looking forward to your input.

  • John Sims : Aug 31st

    I really want to go next year, but it’s just not feasible for me for financial reasons, so I’ll be class of 2017. I can’t wait to see all the goodies in hiker boxes! I feel that many will start next year, but not as many will finish. I’ve gone camping with people that camp often, and when we did 4 days, they talked about how rough it was,lol. And this was camping in 1 location mind you, not carrying a pack 6 months! The beginning will be crowded I expect, but those meant to be there, will be there to the end, and most likely kindred spirits. I read somewhere that if solitude is what you expect to find, the AT is not the trail for it. I plan to do the 307 mile Sheltowee Trace in Tennessee and Kentucky next year as practice since I have never done a long distance hike. There I will find my solitude (I think there were about 25 thru-hikers last year), and on the AT, I look forward to meeting many more hikers making the pilgrimage. I’m not too concerned about the shelters, as my house will be in my backpack. I’m just starting to use a hammock, and from what I’ve read, it’s easier to find 2 trees than flat spots for tents on the AT anyways, just run your ridge-line for a tarp or rainfly first, and setup dry even in the rain.

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