Wisdom From the (Recent) Past: Interviewing 2017 Thru-Hikers

Hi, Friends!

As I’m impatiently waiting for my start day to roll around, I contacted a few of my favorite past thru-hikers. All five of these hikers are inspiring and lend an inside look to each of their individual experiences on the trail.

Take a few minutes and meet (some of) the class of 2017. Oh, enjoy a couple laughs.

Bethany “Snap” Varner | February 13 – July 1 NOBO

Favorite trail town and why?

Hot Springs, NC. It was the first place to take a double zero, the Smoky Mountain Diner had the BEST food and so did the gas station!! It was a beautiful small town and everyone was so nice.

What did you do to prepare for your hike, that you think directly affected the outcome?

I read all of the articles, books, and blogs that my brain could possibly contain! It helped me mentally prepare and learn about all the completely different experiences that thru-hikers could have. I think it also stopped me from forming expectations of what my own experience would be like, as well as help prepare me for situations other hikers ran into. Forming too many expectations can make you upset if something doesn’t work out how you thought/planned- and that WILL happen!

What do you think changed the most about your personality or outlook on life, from this experience?

I think that mainly it showed me how capable I really am of achieving my dreams. I tend to self-sabotage a lot and I struggle to reach some goals because of it. Well if hiking 2190 miles doesn’t show me that I’m able to do whatever I set my mind to, I don’t know what else would have. For me as well as many others I’m sure, it started this little fire inside of me that I don’t think will ever be put out. I want more. More hikes, more adventure, more friends and more exploring.

What did you turn to, on a rough day, to keep yourself motivated and driven?

The thought of going home to nothing. No job, no completed thru-hike, and no friends. I had so much thinking to do out there and had to figure out what my next move was gonna be when I finished, so I couldn’t go home before I figured that out! Then there was the competitive part of me that really pushed me. I was NOT going to forgive myself if I wimped out! And of course, most importantly, all of my new friends were out on the trail. I was never ready to leave them, even if I did miss my cat.

What do you miss most about the trail (life)?

Food. All of the food!! There is no way I would order a large pizza all for myself now and be able to burn the calories like I did while hiking. I also miss not setting an alarm. But I think one of the things I took for granted on the trail and now realize how much I miss it, is the gathering of tramily before bed when we would all make our dinners and set up camp while chatting (probably about food) and just having that time with others before calling it a night. Sleeping alone without them around me snoring and stirring at night was very hard to get used to. Now everything is so quiet.

What is one piece of advice for future aspiring thru-hikers?

Trust your gut. Sounds cliché but it is true! Whenever you feel off about a person, town, or even direction you are going, get away, get out, or turn around and check!

Jennifer “Squeaks” Giddens | March 27- August 11 NOBO

Favorite trail town and why?

Damascus is a crowd favorite & I definitely have some dang fond memories from there but I really loved the places in New Hampshire and Maine! I saved a lot of money for the end so I could relax and enjoy time with my trail family.

What did you do to prepare for your hike, that you think directly affected the outcome?

I sustained a real bad back injury in high school and I was scared it would keep me from completing the trail so I worked out, gained muscle and weight that really stimulated me & supplied me with lots of energy at the beginning for sure.

What do you think changed the most about your personality or outlook on life, from this experience?

Everything? Haha. No, but really, I cannot begin to describe how much my life has changed since those first steps on the trail. Metaphorically those were the first steps I took away from a “normal” life. I now know what I’m capable of, what excites me and just how much I want to consistently change things up. I never thought I would be so driven to live a life that doesn’t revolve around working to pay bills.. even if society tells me I’m doing it wrong.

What did you turn to, on a rough day, to keep yourself motivated and driven?

MUSIC!!! I downloaded tons of playlists on Spotify and would listen to them depending on my mood. This really really helped. Especially at night, I had a playlist to fall asleep to. (I suggest looking up Ben Howard … he’ll give you the feels on all mountain tops)

What do you miss most about the trail (life)?

Wow… everything. The simplicity, the people, the accomplished feeling every night. I took for granted so much of the trail and I regret that.

What is one piece of advice for future aspiring thru-hikers?

Get comfortable with being uncomfortable!! This experience is every changing and no two days are the same!! Make the best of every situation and open your eyes and allow new experiences to completely consume you.

(second piece of advice: take more pictures.. of everything… and videos. You’ll look at those things every dang day like a disease)

Morgan “Moonshine” & Logan “Gibberish” | February 3rd – July 27 NOBO

Favorite trail town and why?

Really I think it’d be a tie between Hot Springs, NC, and Rangeley, ME. Hot Springs is the first town as a NOBO that you actually walk straight through, and perhaps that added to it’s magic, but we seriously never wanted to leave! Everybody that lives/works there is so incredibly kind and encouraging, the restaurants and beers are amazing, the outfitter was so helpful — it’s a dangerous place! But Rangeley. Rangeley was just as magical, the food was just as delicious, the people might have been even nicer… It is also the last Trail town we zeroed in so I think that made us take a few extra deep breaths there. It’s hard to explain, but some towns along the Trail just win you over way more than others!

What did you do to prepare for your hike, that you think directly affected the outcome?

Honestly, we didn’t do a whole lot to prepare ourselves. We were both working full-time jobs at a local outfitter, I (MoonShine) was still in school at the time, and we were in the middle of packing up an entire house to move into a storage unit. We did physical training as much as we could and Gibberish compiled a beautiful spreadsheet of a plan, but we were off track of that schedule by the end of the first week. But in a way, I think our neglect of preparation was the best way for us to prepare – we went into the hike with no true expectations and were continually amazed at our bodies for making it as far as they did each day. We took the Trail day-by-day and both believe that was the best way to enjoy it to the utmost!

What do you think changed the most about your personality or outlook on life, from this experience?

I think that the biggest change in both of us is that we both seem a lot more present and intentional in all things. It’s very easy to get distracted by all of the conveniences of society, but once those are all stripped away you can actually begin noticing and discovering the things around you so much more.

What did you turn to, on a rough day, to keep yourself motivated and driven?

I’d like to be able to say each other, and to an extent, that is definitely the case, but I think the biggest motivation for both of us was our dog, Pneuma! She was always so happy to be out there, no matter how long we had hiked that day, so she definitely kept our spirits high!

What do you miss most about the trail (life)?

That is such a freaking hard question. We joke often about how we even miss the rainy days where all of our belongings were soaking wet because we would do just about anything to be back out there. But I think we really miss waking up in a new place every day the most! Being able to set up your tent on a bald summit or the brim of a lake, etc, is the most freeing thing ever!

What is one piece of advice for future aspiring thru-hikers?

Another hard question — there are so many things! Really, though, take it slow. And we don’t even necessarily mean that literally, although our slow days were often our favorite, but even if you just keep your mindset slow your time will be so much more enjoyable. We encountered so many people that were frantic and rushed, and while we didn’t judge them because to each his own, we were always so much more appreciative of our experience after those encounters! There are a lot of amazing things out there that would be easily missed, so give yourself some freedom – freedom to stop after just 4 miles at that unbeatable campsite or to take a double zero when a trail angel extends themselves, etc.

Rhys Hora | March 12 – August 30 NOBO

Favorite trail town and why?

Favorite trail town is so hard to pin down. Going to town, for me at least, was always kind of a sacred event. If I actually slept there in a hotel, nero or zero, I loved it regardless of how shorty it was. I’m like a puppy; “oh god a tennis ball? BEST DAY EVER!”

That said, Franklin was fun. There’s a brewery, a really cool outfitter that also has a bar (and is across the street from a bookstore), cheap food, and there’s a free shuttle from the trail.

Harper’s Ferry was a big one for me, but not because it was overly hiker friendly. My trail family and I rented a house for a few days from Air B&B and it was just the most amazing thing. We didn’t even misbehave; we sat on a huge wrap around couch and watched movies all day. It was glorious.

What did you do to prepare for your hike, that you think directly affected the outcome?

I honestly hardly did anything to prepare. I don’t think you can actually really prepare for what you’re about to put your body through. Cardio doesn’t really matter; the Trail will take care of that for you. All you have to do is not quit.

Were I to do it again I’d concentrate on strength, not cardio. Lots of squats and muscle development.
The most important thing is to get shakedown hikes in. Not to prepare you physically but to wear in your gear and make sure it works for you. Wear a full pack and get used to how it feels. Test your gear. Make sure it works in a storm. Set up camp in the rain. Get familiar with pain and filth, it’s about to be your life for half a year 🙂

I actually wish I’d spent more time going out and practicing setting up camp with my hammock. I was ok, even in the blizzard that hit us a few days in, but it would have made me more comfortable. In the end, it wasn’t a big deal, though.

What do you think changed the most about your personality or outlook on life, from this experience?

This is a tough one. Part of me wants to say it didn’t really change me all that much. It’s eye-opening to see how relaxed and happy you can be with so little. It’s no surprise that lots of people near the end of their hike start talking about camper vans and minimalist living. I suppose a thru-hike gives you a stronger sense of self, of what you’re capable of if you already weren’t aware.

For me, it was really about just going out there and looking for an adventure. To that end, I think I got one. It was a great experience, no matter how miserable it could be at times. You’re out there meeting people, walking on mountain ridges, laughing with friends while you make food concoctions by a fire that should be gross but somehow taste delicious.

But eventually, you go home back to the same cares you left and get a job and assume your old responsibilities and lots of things seem more dull than you recall.

Thru-hiking will ruin your brain in the best way.

What did you turn to, on a rough day, to keep yourself motivated and driven?

I never really wrestled with the notion of quitting. There were plenty of times I felt that the hike was just awful, or that the Trail was somehow trying to punish you. Injuries. Four weeks of continuous rain. Knee pain. Brutal climbs. I was low key worried about my body being able to finish from the Smokies through somewhere in Pennsylvania. But eventually, you get used to it, or pass it, or climb over it. I always looked forward to getting camp set up and then cooking that hot meal. A hot pot of mac n’ cheese with some sausage thrown in.

I think it is really important to have goals, or breaks, to look forward to. Both short and long-term. I remember hearing tales from other hikers about the Devil’s Backbone brewery and how they let hikers camp out back. It became this goal; everyone couldn’t wait to get there and have a greasy burger along with many beers. It’s easier to deal with cold rainy days when you know at the end of the week you’re getting into town and splitting a hotel room with friends. Or when you’re in Maryland and know when you get halfway into Pennsylvania you’ve got a buddy picking you up and taking you home to Philly for a break.

Of course, there are impromptu breaks as well. I remember feeling burnt out somewhere in Virginia; I’d been hiking alone for awhile and had passed on a ride to Trail Days and put in some big miles. One morning I got up, excited to get to town and resupply and treat myself to a hot meal. After a surprisingly hard morning hike (and seeing my first bear!) I was in this tiny town walking towards a Subway. After chatting with a hiker there I walked down the road by a hotel, and saw the telltale signs of hiker trash; backpacks against a wall, sleeping bags airing out, nasty shoes. Right then I broke and walked across the street and paid for a room. A big storm rolled in that evening and I was laying in my bed with a huge meal and a six-pack of beer just watching HBO for hours. It was heavenly. The next morning was perfect and I got a hitch to the trail before I even stuck out my thumb, and had an amazing day. I just needed a breather, I suppose.

Aside from that stuff, I listened to lots of music and podcasts. I’d start the day without, just spending the first hour or two listening to the forest waking up. After that, I’d usually start a podcast (Hardcore History, usually) and listen until the episode was done or I stopped for lunch. After lunch, I’d often switch to music, something pop or upbeat, and just start crushing miles. I always felt faster after lunch.

I listened to every genre of music but often came back to silly pop. I listened to more Taylor Swift than any one man probably should, but it got me over the mountain.

What do you miss most about the trail (life)?

I miss the atmosphere, the silly happy hippie vibe where everyone is mostly happy. There’s a kind of honesty on the trail that isn’t as common back home. Perfect strangers will tell you the most intimate details about their lives without a thought. Maybe you’ll never see them again, maybe you’ll hike a hundred miles together, you never know. It’s just a really interested community.

Every day you’re pushing miles and it can get super monotonous but there’s also a happy spontaneity as well. Random little magic moments; a breeze and a view from a mountain peak, a beer or a burger from a stranger at a road crossing, a sunset from a fire tower. It’s a fleeting feeling that’s hard to pin down and describe.

I guess I’ll just say one of my big reasons for hiking was that I wanted to squeeze more living out of life. And I think I did.

What is one piece of advice for future aspiring thru-hikers?

Just relax, man, and don’t give up. Everything really will work itself out.
That said, of course, get your gear squared away and get out there. You’ll agonize over little details and laugh at how different things are a month later.

I would like to extend one more thank you to my interviewees. I followed this lovely group of hikers through their journey from start to finish and I am beyond grateful to have the opportunity to learn from them. I hope y’all enjoyed their responses as much as I did.

T-Minus 54 Days!

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Comments 2

  • April Selden : Dec 24th

    Love the interviews 😊

    Reply
  • Ruth morley : Dec 31st

    Really fascinating reading these. Thanks so much for doing this.

    I’m heading back to finish my second half of the AT in April and can’t wait! And these interviews only fueled the fire. Sometimes , when laying in my nice comfy queen size bed, I imagine I’m on my neoair mattress under my tarp, and fall right to sleep.

    Reply

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