My Top Five Greatest Feelings on the Appalachian Trail
5. Popping a Blister
There is no greater feeling than popping a good ole’ balloon on the feet. Infection? Possibly. But there is just something special about bursting those little sacks of liquids. One of the great memories I have on the trail was sitting in Hot Springs, North Carolina, and drinking Cheerwine, Nehi Peach, and RC Cola as I popped blisters with my hiking partner at the time, McGyver.
4. Town Food
After eating ramen, mashed potatoes, and an assortment of other brown or beige foods, eating foods that had a little bit more color and flavor was a welcoming treat that I cherished. To this day, I don’t know if what I was eating was really any good, or rather that I was just extremely hungry. It reminds me of an idiom that my Dad would tell me after winning a soccer game. “It isn’t that you guys were good, the other team was just really bad.”
3. Harpers Ferry
Harpers Ferry was a seminal moment in my hike. I firmly stand by the fact that the bridge walk as one enters the town from the South is the most underrated part of the trail. You’re tired, hungry, and have a funk that one could only liken to something sour or fermented. In a way, hiking for days on end has fermented you like starch rising in a mason jar. Cars of out-of-towners and locals zoom by you, probably staring at this ratchety character moving slowly across the bridge, walking with a little pep in their step. You smile because you know you are essentially halfway; those passing faces are clueless about what you have just seen. Getting to Harpers Ferry is no guarantee of you finishing, but it is a memorable town, full of history and pride, as well as being a reminder of the bustling world all hikers vowed to temporarily abandon. For me, it was a gateway back to familiar faces in Washington, DC. A friend’s couch awaited me in the city, as well as dinner on the house. As a trail town, Harpers Ferry, in my opinion, doesn’t have the amenities and ambiance that other towns have, but as a history nerd, and someone who was missing their friends, Harpers Ferry signaled intermission on this long and beautiful path.
2. Mt. Katahdin
It comes to no surprise that this is on the list. Can anyone name another ending more iconic? The approach to the sign can be likened to walking towards a religious shrine. The wind dies down and that final mile to the sign is silent. You relive everything that you just experienced in that moment. I felt as if I was walking down the aisle about to meet my bride. It felt like I was walking towards the ending and the beginning. Which is why I think people are so anxious and antsy on summit day. For many, there is uncertainty on the trail after the AT. I’ve been living my life so simply, following a linear walking path, denoted by the selfless volunteers who meagerly tattoo trees and rocks with hardware store paint. Thru-hiking is easy. And I understand the weight of the word easy. I don’t mean easy as in the challenges one has to face in nature. Easy as in the life. The way in which I interacted with the earth, other people, and myself. When I was hurt, I stopped or slowed down. Seeing people after hiking alone in the woods brought a certain excitement. I practiced leave-no-trace principles (to the best of my ability) and learned to read the weather and appreciate the sounds and idiosyncrasies of nature. I suppose all of this could have been learned another way, but I’m a stupid, inexperienced, young person. Any parent reading this knows that you could tell your kid anything you want, sometimes they have to experience it themselves to truly understand it (I know this as a kid who has had numerous spats with my parents). My point being, as I’ve realized that I’ve shimmied away from the original topic, Mt. Katahdin was the most emotionally confusing part of the hike. Touching that sign was a celebration, yes, but it was also my farewell to something so precious and one of a kind to the thousands of hikers who have called the AT their home.
Starting the hike
It takes a lot to just start the AT. And to those who quit early and don’t make it the whole way, that isn’t a blemish on you. Most people who quit have come to terms with themselves and have discovered enough for them to end. Yes, there is a fixed beginning and end to the AT, but at an individual level, it is different for everyone. Let’s take someone who is confused with their future, recently divorced. They might start a thru-hike with the intention of completing the whole thing, only to realize halfway that they’ve discovered their calling and want to pursue that immediately. We all hike for different reasons, and our endings can lead to profound answers and realizations that not starting in the first place could never have brought about. I have huge respect for anyone who is brave to start, regardless if they finish.
Getting Out of the Smokies
This was the first real obstacle of the hike. I had heard stories where things went incredibly wrong in this section from bears, running out food, or strange disappearances in the park. I also wanted to push myself to get through the smokies in three days which was a crutch that I put on myself. I did it and rewarded myself to some pizza at Standing Bear. It felt great to get through this section.
This is strange, but I starting crying when I stepped into Connecticut. Particularly when I walked by the sign that read “The Gateway to New England.” This felt like the final leg of the hike, and I was about to enter someplace foreign and magical. Moose, lakes, LL Bean, fly fisherman, and Boston accents flooded my mind as I entered this new world. To my disappointment, I was unable to see any moose.
Amazing feeling finding a nice cold soda or a snack on the side of the road. I didn’t rely on trail magic (and no one really does, except for some) and there were times I didn’t take anything from the cache. Either I was on a time crunch or there were only nuts or peanut options (I’m allergic). But when I did get a soda on a scorching day, my dad was boosted immediately. I didn’t receive much trail magic in the traditional sense, but when I did, it was lovely.
Number 1: Meeting New People
The Appalachian Trail, today, is a social experiment. Some start the trail with intention of being hermits in the forest. I initially thought I was going to move throughout the day, alone with my thoughts. I would reject all attempts at socializing with the outside world and live an anti-social, stoic life in the forest: a Henry David Thoreau experience. In fact, I discovered quite the opposite. Socializing was every bit of the trail as the walking. I gleamed with excitement whenever I passed by a NOBO or encountered a SOBO. Everyone had such an interesting story, and they were all willing to share it. Hostels were like speed dating events. I met so many different types of people who had different reasons to why they were hiking. This is where the serious growth came in. I learned about others and in turn learned about myself. Walking through rural America and seeing how different this world was provided me with a new perspective towards literally everything. In a world where it feels so divisive, I was having dinner with someone who I knew had a completely different outlook on things, yet I enjoyed so much about them. I understand that some may read this and think that this was ignorant, foolish, or a somewhat unrepresentative take on a person’s character. I suppose in some cases that may be right and maybe in this case they’re right too. But why did I have more things in common with them than most people I live in the city with? What I experienced wasn’t fake, or in my opinion an illusion by the other person. I felt they were as genuine as myself. And I hope that they learned and took away as much as I did from the conversations that we shared.
Furthermore, in my interactions with people I’ve felt in overwhelming sense of equality unseen anywhere else. In the city, I’m defined by my job or the fact that I’m a student. On the trail, we are all hikers. We smell the same, we eat the same food, we see the same views. There really isn’t a hierarchy to anything (or there shouldn’t be). We all look out for each other and try to experience the same natural beauty outside has to offer. Looking past the terms thru-hikers, day hikers, section hikers, etc, at the end of the day we are all hikers and nothing more.
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