My First Test Hike—Could I Hack the AT?
In prior posts, I’ve noted that I was a veteran New Hampshire day hiker—but almost a complete noob to overnights. Could I get prepared to hike the AT in a year? This is the tale of my first solo overnight hike ever—as a 50-something year old on a trail I’d never hiked.
A Scaled-Back Hike—and Hoping the “Tom” Was Right
In my last post, I noted that I had geared up for an 8-16 mile out-and-back solo hike in April 2021. That was to be my first overnight—until I blew out a leg muscle just days ahead of “go date.” As I gingerly recovered from that injury, I greatly scaled back hike #1 to a 3.6-mile trek to an AT shelter.
My destination was the “Tom Leonard Shelter” on the AT outside of Great Barrington, MA. I felt that a shelter named for a guy named “Tom” felt pretty secure. After all, my father-in-law is named “Tom,” as is my brother-in-law, and I felt pretty safe with both of them. In general, “Tom” is a pretty sane name—except for maybe Major Tom, or Tom Riddle of Harry Potter fame. It wasn’t the “Ted Bundy Shelter,” so I felt some sense of security.
Early May in the Berkshires of MA
So in early May, I headed off to a part of Massachusetts that I’d never visited, to spend the night in unfamiliar woods. Although I had anxiety about the overnight, it was perhaps a good thing that my injured leg was my focus. I hadn’t been able to run in three weeks – and I was seriously concerned that I’d pull up lame in the first mile. Although I was just headed out overnight, I’d packed like an AT hiker … maybe 30 pounds on my back. That was also a huge concern. So maybe those immediate worries pushed all of the fears about bears and darkness and weird shelter-mates to the back corners of my mind.
It’d be a great hike – if I could just find the starting point!
I figured the Appalachian Trail would be simple to find as it crossed the road. I recalled that almost every place the AT crosses a NH road it is christened with multiple signs in each direction. Parking lots. Maps of the AT route on a big infographic sign. It’s a big deal! Apparently not everywhere, because as I headed down Homes Road I saw no trail signs, just a dirt pull-off with three parked cars. It forced me to pull out Guthook to figure out where the hell I was (recurring theme alert!). A half-mile downhill, I realized I needed to park at that little dirt lot pull-off. Reversing direction, I got there just before one p.m., which I thought was OK timing. Get to camp by four p.m. to give me plenty of time to get comfortable with the uncomfortableness of it all. Before darkness set in.
Once on the trail—it was just hiking again … but it’s so beautiful.
And once I started up, it was a rekindling of a romance that I’ve lived for nearly 50 years. Trees. Breezes. Air that only seems to linger in deep forests. A winding trail that uncovers greater mysteries at every turn. An acute awareness of sky, earth, and everything around me.
But I had to do a reality check. My leg was good so far, despite my heavy pack—and the awareness that hiking is a unique exercise activity! You can run every day, do your yoga, crush your lunges… but when you put on a heavy pack and climb—that’s different. I gasped for air in the throes of the steep early ascent. Later I called my wife to relay that I was not suffering at all from my prior leg injury. I’d be staying the night, not limping back to the car. My timing would work out well—I got to the shelter around four p.m. to set up my hammock …. just as the rain started to fall.
I was overjoyed to find that I wasn’t the only newbie in town!
It seems the outdoors gods were conspiring, because the other shelter occupants were ALSO camping out for their first time. After I set up my hammock I spent a good amount of time conversing with a couple prepping for an AT section hike from Mt Greylock to Mt Washington. As the light rain set in, we mutually cooked our dinners and tried to keep warm. But it was great to have company also learning the ropes!
I learned so much!
Yes, it was less than four miles out to Tom Leonard Shelter, and four more back the next day —but I learned so much! And there were the truly embarrassing moments along with insightful learning:
Silly noob moments:
- My new friends asked if I was thru-hiking – and I immediately said “Yes! I am through hiking for the day, I’m staying here.” And I immediately realized that they were asking about “thru-hiking” … and changed my answer to “No!” I said I planned to thru-hike the AT next year. God, I felt stupid. Duh. Could I really become an actual thru-hiker with a lame answer like that?
- I had brought a bear canister and – goddammit – I could not get the thing open!! It was cold and rainy, and my ungloved hands felt like skeleton bone trying to unlatch that thing to get my food. (For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, it’s like a big version of a Tylenol “safety cap”.) I could just picture the headlines: “Man starves in Berkshires – full container of food found next to corpse.” I finally got it open after five minutes of prying and ardent prayer, but it was strike one against the canister!
- Nights in May can be d*mn cold! I downplayed the warmth aspect of my trip, given that I’d be at a 1500 foot elevation for a single night. This wasn’t treeline on Franconia Ridge for God’s sake! But it was REALLY COLD – especially when the drizzle set in at five p.m. and continued for the next 6 hours! I was very thankful that I brought my puffy down jacket as a last-minute decision. I needed every bit of clothing to stay warm!
- Privy knowledge. I admit openly that I knew little about shelter bathroom facilities (called a “privy”) prior to this trip. But I did learn the following:
- “Duff” is not just the name of Homer Simpson’s favorite beer (though I now appreciate Matt Groening’s genius all the more!) It’s actually the name of the partially decomposed leaf stuff that allows a trail toilet to compost human waste. Who knew?
- And—do not forget to take your toilet paper to the privy. I forgot … mid-activation … and it was a long, difficult, and awkward trip to the pack and back!
- The bird-call alarm clock can be wonderful! I got maybe two hours of sleep the whole night due to the unfamiliarity, rain, and wind. But in the four o’clock hour as the sky lightened some incredible music floated in. I heard the calls of Northern Thrushes, Veeries, and other warblers all around me—even before the sun rose. It was an incredibly inspiring chorus!
I’d completed my first solo overnight hike—but there was so much more to learn! I’ll share more next time…
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