Hiker Hopscotch: Making a New Plan
I don’t know if a thru-hike ever turns out to be what the hiker imagines it will be. Sometimes (most times?) it’s a more amazing adventure than the mind can envision. Other times, thru-hiking is a harsh reality check. The romantic visions of idyllic views and soothing walks along the “footpath” that is the Appalachian Trail turn out to be mere fantasies. Hiking is hard.
Every hiker has a unique experience on the trail and mine has been anything but what I expected. First, I planned to hike straight from Georgia to Maine. No yellow blazing, no skipping, and definitely not flip-flopping. So much for plans, because now I’m hopscotching. (More on that in a minute.)
My expectation of the trail itself hasn’t been far off the mark. I did a lot a training hikes and knew the terrain would be challenging, the mud would be deep, and the mosquitoes would be big enough to devour a small animal.
What I didn’t expect was that I would be such a slow-as-molasses hiker. Or that I would need so many zeros to deal with fatigue, sickness (both an upper respiratory infection and bronchitis), and pain (Achilles tendonitis and a sprained foot). I didn’t anticipate that one planned trip home would be supplemented by an unexpected trip to visit with my mother before she underwent heart surgery (thankfully, she’s recovering well).
All in all, my zeros add up to nearly one and a half months of time off. Add that to a daily pace that hovers around 12-14 miles and suddenly I was in what another hiker called “the caboose” of the NOBOs. That’s not where I expected to be.
Although I was woefully behind, the thought of quitting hadn’t crossed my mind. I was still naively determined to hike nowhere but north. Pretty soon, all the NOBO hikers around me were talking of flip-flopping or jumping ahead. Loneliness and the possibility of not making it to Maine in time became real concerns. So I made a tough choice and decided to switch to a leapfrog hike.
According to the ATC, a leapfrog hike involves jumping ahead, skipping a number of miles as you continue north, then coming back after Katahdin to fill in the gap southbound. I swallowed my NOBO pride and decided to jump from Harpers Ferry to Pawling, NY, after my trip to Florida to see my mom.
I arrived back on the trail in early August feeling a little melancholy about my change in plans. Giving up a long-held vision can be tough to accept.
On the up side, I hoped to reconnect with some hikers I met early on and I assumed I’d be back in the bubble with more people. No more nights of just one to two hikers in camp. More fun and camaraderie, great conversations, shared stories and adventures.
I was only partially correct.
There were more hikers on the trail. I was meeting SOBOs coming from Maine and NOBOs booking it toward Maine. Each night in camp was a meet and greet, getting to know amazing hikers while realizing I might never see them again. It felt like waves were passing over me in both directions and by Southern Vermont I was feeling pretty discouraged and very much alone.
My sprained foot—X-rays showed it wasn’t broken, thank goodness—wasn’t getting better. Hiking more than ten to 12 miles over mud and rocks was tough. My confidence waned. Could I make it through the Whites? Time was not on my side and for the first time ever, I seriously thought of quitting.
After a tearful conversation with my husband, I spent a sleepless night at the Catamount Inn in Bennington, VT. Did I really want to quit? Would I hate myself if I did?
I checked in with friends on and off the trail, searching for encouragement. Late that night a text came in from Mud Bug, who I enjoyed hiking with earlier on the trail. She was facing similar emotional issues as she prepared to enter the Whites. “Come hike with me,” she suggested.
Yes! I had my solution. I’d have to jump ahead again, adding 136 miles to my already long makeup list. But I could get to Maine before the end of the season and do it with a friend.
Suddenly, my mood improved. I swung into action to find a way from Bennington to Hanover, where we would meet. It would take three buses and an overnight in Manchester Center, where I had packages waiting, but I could get there.
My leapfrog hike become a game of hopscotch. In addition to two big gaps, I also have a couple of 20+ mile stretches to complete. After Maine, when all the NOBOs are celebrating and heading home, I’ll still have 500 miles to go. I’ll make my way through Vermont, then from New York to Harpers Ferry, and finally back to McAfee Knob, the picturesque point I saved for my personal summit.
My journey will be longer than most, but barring more injuries or sickness, I’ll get it done. I’ll have the best of both worlds, meeting SOBOs as I hike toward home, adding new friends to the contingent of NOBOs I’ve gotten to know.
Someday I’ll be able to call myself a true thru-hiker, and the accomplishment will be even sweeter for all the challenges I conquered to earn the title.
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