Interview With a Thru-Hiker
Although I’ve done a few hundred miles of the trail, that small feat pales in comparison to hiking 2,180-something miles over a 6 month period.
Living in Asheville, North Carolina, I’m not only surrounded by the incredibly encouraging outdoor and AT culture of the mountains, but feck – there’s a lot of former thru hikers here. I sat down with kickball extraordinaire, ladies man, and footie enthusiast Luke Lanier yesterday to pick his brain on his ’09 AT thru-hike and what to expect on mine. His responses are thorough, thoughtful, and inspiring. Enjoy.
Why did you decide to hike the AT?
My family lives in Morganton, NC, and I went to school at Emory & Henry College in Emory, VA. Damascus, VA (and, unbeknownst to me during school, “The Friendliest Town on the AT”) was along my car route to and from school. My car rides back to school after visiting with family would often be filled with stress-inducing thoughts that centered around things like due dates, meetings, assignments, scheduling conflicts, etc. When driving through Damascus, I would see these unkempt backpackers and found myself envying them. Their stressors — where to find shelter, food, a shower, etc. — seemed more genuine and legitimate than mine. It was several years into making the trek to and from school when I finally realized these unkempt backpackers were thru-hikers, and that’s when I had the idea to make the trip for myself. So, primarily, I hiked the AT to ditch the stressors I had become accustomed to in order to adopt stressors that seemed less artificial to me. Plus, how cool would it be to say you walked from Georgia to Maine?
Gear specifics: backpack, favorite hiking shoes/boots?, tent/hammock?, music on the trail? audiobooks?
The blog my buddy and I kept during the hike would be a good reference for this question. Here it is. If you scroll down the landing page, you will see (on the right) a section entitled “What Luke has with him …” I’m sure many of the links to the gear are dead at this point, but you can google particular items if you’re interested. I wasn’t a huge fan of the tarptent due to too much condensation and would use a hammock if I were making the trip again (especially once it warmed up a bit). I switched to a pair of lowtop Merrel’s in the Shenandoahs and those lasted until Katahdin. I’d probably use trail runners or Chaco’s if doing it again, though. I really liked my alcohol stove made from a tuna can.
Any weirdos out there? How about any really amazing people? Any lasting friendships come out of it?
Oh, sure. There were more weirdos (and just more people, in general) in the beginning than there were by the end. I got the sense that some people at the beginning who were “thru-hikers” were just people down on their luck or out of a job or mentally ill who had learned about the thru-hiking season and jumped out there because, hey, what else are you gonna do. Some people were extremely poor and didn’t have funds to make it all the way to Maine but were just going to make it as far as they could. One guy I hiked with was homeless and was hiking for something like his 4th consecutive season. His goal was just to make it farther than he ever had before (Pennsylvania) and to find work as a cook wherever he landed. Weirdo or amazing person? Your call.
One capital-w Weirdo was a guy we hiked with in New Jersey who was not a thru-hiker but was out in the woods because he thought it would be good preparation for the looming apocalypse. I listened and nervously asked questions as he connected seemingly random events, and collectively those connections spelled an imminent end to civilization.
A thru-hiker I was walking with one day shared with me that his father had recently murdered his mother and killed himself and that his brother placed the blame on him because the thru-hiker was in the house with his parents at the time of the deaths. Crazy shit to tell someone you just met and crazy shit to hear.
And, there are, of course, amazing people out there. One of my good friends early on was an easy going biology/chemistry major taking time off from Harvard. There was a son/father duo named lil wayne/birdman who walked at our same pace, and the father recorded all the different birds he heard along the way. By the end of the trip he had recorded nearly every bird extant in the Appalachian woods. There were soon-to-be doctoral students and 70-year-old retired couples. The amazing people were encountered almost every day.
The other thing is that so few people go by their real names, so there’s no way to really fact-check one another. So many were — and still are — whomever they wanted to be to me.
The exception is the group I finished the hike with; we were pretty sentimental at that point and exchanged real names and numbers. And over time and via the friends-of-friends world of Facebook, I’ve been linked to several of the other thru-hikers that I met along the trip. Though I don’t communicate with those folks from the ‘09 thru-hike frequently (ok, at all) anymore, I’m sure they would still let me crash on their couch if I were adventuring in their area.
What is the hardest part of hiking the AT?
Honestly, I gave this one some thought, and it’s being wet when you no longer want to be wet. And going back to the trail after a few zero-days. And missing loved ones you are used to seeing routinely.
Did you experience the “Virginia Blues”? If so, how did you overcome them?
No, I didn’t; I actually really loved VA. Outside of the Presidential Range in NH, the stretch of trail from Dragon’s Tooth to McAfee Knob to the Tinker Cliffs was my favorite thirty miles of the trip. However, the most northern part of the trail in VA was boring and overgrown and ticks were a major nuisance along that stretch. I don’t ever think I’ll ever hike that section of the trail again. That’s not the Blues, though — just trail maintenance issues.
I think a big reason I didn’t come down with the Virginia Blues is because I was aware of the phenomenon and leery of it. The weather was relatively nice for me in that stretch, too, which is huge in regards to mental fortitude.
What was your favorite part of the experience?
The coolest moment I had, which is a moment I think I’ll hold forever, was midway through a 34-mile day (the longest for me … we were on a sunset deadline to meet friends of friends who were offering meals and beds). It was around 2:00 PM and we just reached an awesome lookout over the New Jersey/New York state line after hiking 20 miles from the 220-ft. monument at High Point, NJ, where I’d slept the night before. At this lookout there were lots of day hikers sitting and admiring the view. One of them pointed out that along the distant mountain horizon, you could faintly make out the 220-ft. High Point monument. After squinting and collaboratively calibrating my pointer finger for a minute, I was able to spot it. And I couldn’t believe it! It was so far away, and I was just there this morning! And I still had 14 miles to go before the sun came down!
I was absolutely amazed and flabbergasted by myself. If someone had asked me before the trip if I could walk to that nearly invisible speck on the horizon in a single day I would have laughed in their face. “Ridiculous!” “No way!” But I would have been selling myself far, far short.
I learned from the experience that I can do amazing things … amazing things far beyond what I realize. I would do well to just not tell myself that I can’t do things.
My other favorite part of the trip is that when I finished, I felt an overwhelming sense of how great people are.
Was the AT more physically or psychologically challenging?
For a healthy, young guy like me, the physical challenge wasn’t a big deal, and I’m sure it will be the same for you, Evans. Physically, the first few weeks were the toughest (mainly blisters and sore muscles), but once I was in nice hiker shape, I was set physically. Psychological challenges were worse. Our year featured very wet weather, and it was frustrating hiking with no views and with my head down much of the time. A common refrain in my head was “Why am I doing this if I’m not enjoying it?” But, you just keep walking. You’ll have to walk in all sorts of psychological states, and managing the bad states is not easy. I spent some depressing and lonely moments on the trail, but I kept walking and, you know, things change.
Of the physical challenges, what was the most difficult? How did you overcome it?
Wetness/coldness. We had a bunch of rain leading into Mt. Greylock in MA and there was yet more rain in the forecast, but the night’s forecast was looking clear. We decided to hike up Mt. Greylock overnight with our headlamps to catch the sunrise at the summit. Along the way, my wet socks caused terrible rashes on my feet and it was really quite crippling. We had to take some unplanned zero-days at the next town. Zero-days can always cure physical challenges, though.
Of the psychological challenges, what was the most difficult? How did you overcome it?
I guess the toughest thing is to somehow manage your expectations of what your thru-hike will be. I’ve talked to many thru-hikers since the trip, and it’s interesting to hear how varied all our experiences end up being. We’re all met with unique weather, unique people, unique brushes of luck, all kinds of things we can’t plan for or expect, etc.
I found myself dissatisfied at nameless points along the trail. But why? I think it was because of the high expectations I’d set for my hike. By romanticizing what the hike would be like (I pictured reading, journal-writing, and pondering life’s deeper questions with sporadic dips in swimming holes peppered in), I was setting myself up for disappointment and dissatisfaction. If doing the trip over, I would try to ditch any preconceptions of what the journey will be like and be more accepting of things as they occur.
Any tips for aspiring or current thru hikers?
Definitely. Pack more socks.
Luke Lanier is a 26 year old awesome-guy living and working in Asheville, North Carolina. He’d love for you to send some warm fuzzies or ask any further questions by finding him on The Facebook.
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