Learning from Example: Interviews with Successful Thru-hikers

They say it’s better to learn from example than from experience. Learn from others’ mistakes! It’s one thing to read books and blogs about other people’s experience on the AT, but this week I was lucky enough to meet TWO successful thru hikers and learn what worked for them. In both meetings, I felt like a Padawan talking to a Jedi. They have been there and succeeded. . . how did they do it?

 The Local Celebrity

This winter I was reading End to Ending, a memoir about hiking the AT, and about halfway through I glanced at the author bio. . to realize that the author Tanner Critz lives in Little Rock! Fast forward a few months, and a mutual friend offered to introduce me to Tanner. Yes, please! Of all the books I’ve read, Tanner’s gives the best description of the social aspect of hiking the trail. He met up with a group of guys a few weeks into his hike, and stayed with them the rest of the way. When I met Tanner at Mylo’s Coffee, I only had one burning question… but it wasn’t something I wanted to ask a stranger right off. I let him start. Tanner shared about the social aspect of hiking, and how the trail changes people. He said of all the couples/pairs that he met, they all split up before they finished. Everyone. . hiking buddies. . boyfriends and girlfriends, and married couples split up rather than finish together. GULP. 

Tanner met his group of friends a few weeks into his hike. They had all individually adjusted to life on the trail and found their rhythm. Once they met, they all knew how they wanted to live on the trail and formed a group that stayed together until the finish. One of his main points to me was that people change on the trail. You can put up with anything for a few days (i.e. hunger, cold, wet, bugs, blisters etc), but after the weeks and months add up, trail life can get to you. Tanner says, happy hikers can laugh at their troubles and enjoy the little things in (trail) life. Tanner and his best friend on the trail were able to do this. He shared one strategy learned from his friend for dealing with difficult people. “Act like you’re writing a book and researching a crazy character.” The couples he met did not adjust in the same way and became unhappy. If you become unhappy, every decision is difficult, and you want to do things your way. This is where the trouble comes for couples, because you may be sharing gear (as Claudia and I are), and if one person has the tent, stove, and water filter (as I will have).  If you want to be autonomous, it becomes very difficult. Then, you may feel trapped and call the whole thing off (but not us, right?!).

Tanner’s advice to the Carberrys was to be flexible and be patient. Don’t lock yourselves into one way of hiking. Start out with a plan and throw it into the wind if it doesn’t work for you. Consider how much tolerance you have for hiking in different ways. If we meet two groups of folks, would we join separate groups and meet up a few days later? Could Andrew hop in a canoe for a stretch and meet Claudia where the river crosses the trail downstream? Could we survive without each other’s gear if needed? (This is a safety consideration as well as marital consideration.) These are questions we’ll consider during our final weeks of planning.

Finally, after a good cup of coffee and learning about Tanner’s journey beyond what was in End to Ending, I asked him my burning question. “What kind of underwear should I wear?” Spandex running shorts.

The Hiking Farmer

I attended the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (SSAWG) conference in Lexington, KY last week, which was also my last week of work! After telling a friend from Mississippi about my thru hiking plans, he mentioned a farmer from Starkville, MS that thru hiked the trail before starting his farming career. I met Sam McLemore in the hotel bar while we both skipped the last ‘networking’ session of the conference. I needed to network with Sam more than anyone else there! Sam did a flip-flop hike, starting in PA where he met a friend heading north.  After they summited Katahdin together, he drove back down to PA to hike south to Springer on his own.

Lazy Eight Stock Farm

Lazy Eight Stock Farm, my SSAWG field trip destination.

Sam had a peace about him and a huge smile, and after we visited for a few minutes he started going through his gear list and lessons learned on the trail. Sam took a very simple approach to gear, using a homemade alcohol stove made out of an empty beer can fueled by gas line antifreeze. Claudia and I have an MSR Whisperlite stove that runs on white gas. The beer can is lighter than our stove, but we’re comfortable with our stove and like that we can adjust the flame to a simmer for cooking rice/couscous.

In general, Sam gave me the feeling that I won’t need as much gear as I think to survive on the AT. His wallet was a slice of bike tire inner-tube, which I plan to make this week! He did recommend buying Superfeet insoles. His AT Jedi mind trick worked. I am buying Superfeet immediately. Sam stayed on several farms during his hike, and gave me a few resources to look for farms near the trail to visit. He started his hike thinking he would go into landscape design as a career. After meeting several farmers and getting to visit and stay on farms, his focus shifted from landscaping to growing food. He now runs Bountiful Harvest farms in Starkville, MS! The trail can give you the space to find out what really lights your fire.

The Takeaway

I have reminded of the importance in being patient and flexible.  Claudia & I are committed to being open to change.

Here’s what I’m changing immediately based on meeting these two AT Jedi’s.

  • Reconsider how shared gear is distributed between our packs
  • Pack my running shorts
  • Make a wallet from an old bicycle tube
  • Buy Superfeet insoles
  • Research farms along the AT– Northeast Organic Farming Association https://www.nofa.org/
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