Not a Happy Camper (Lessons Learned from an Aborted Shakedown Hike)
We simply couldn’t resist. The lure of this incredibly mild weather, combined with all the accounts we’ve been reading of people who have begun their thru-hikes, made us anxious to hit the trail. As a result, we decided to turn our two-night shakedown into the official start of our hike. Our plan was to go from Turner’s Gap in Maryland south to the Ed Garvey shelter (11.2 miles) the first day, head down to the AT Conservancy office in Harper’s Ferry the next day to get our AT passports stamped, and then return to the same shelter that night (about 13 miles). On the third day, we’d hike the eleven miles back to our truck. After that, we’d take our time hiking through Maryland, front-loading a lot of zero days until we left in April for good.
In short, it didn’t go well. We ended up bumming a ride home the second night because I was in so much misery I couldn’t go on. Here are the lessons — good and bad — I learned from our less-than-stellar start:
When people say to start out slow, I NEED TO LISTEN TO THEM. Our first day wasn’t too bad for the first eight miles. After that, my plantar fasciitis kicked in, and I hobbled through the last few miles. Carrying a 24 lb. pack was also a lot harder than I expected, especially since I’d only slept four hours the previous night. But instead of learning from that experience, I stupidly extended my hike the following day. Instead of merely hiking 13 miles, I decided to go 17! And it destroyed me. By the time we reached Gathland Park I couldn’t take another step. I was so exhausted I could barely stand upright, let alone hike another mile to the camp. It was dumb of me, and I’m embarrassed to admit that I flaked out after just two days, but I guess it was a lesson I needed to learn. From now on, I can not push the pace!
Other bits of wisdom I gleaned from our brief hike: I don’t need to carry so much food, at least until the infamous “hiker hunger” kicks in (although I might want to go easier on the nuts and beans). This should help me reduce my pack weight. I thought I was doing well at 24 lbs., which included water and a three-day supply of food. But the stark reality is that 24 pounds is a lot to carry for me. Ideally, I need to keep closer to 20. It’s time to ruthlessly cull the contents of my bag.
My hair goes rogue in the woods. Seriously, my hair had so much static electricity that I couldn’t even comb it. It literally stood on end. I have no idea why.
I now know why hikers stink. At the end of the day I was too tired to think about hygiene. I managed to brush my teeth and swipe a wet cloth over my face, but my usual fastidiousness went out the window due to fatigue. This is something I obviously need to improve.
Hot running water is an absolute marvel. Even after one night of camping, being able to wash my hands with soap and hot water (in a public restroom in Harper’s Ferry) felt like bliss.
There is a lot of noise in the woods – and I don’t mean from the wildlife. Trains went by in the distance. We could hear cars and trucks, even though the nearest road was miles away. And the planes! I had no idea the Ed Garvey shelter was in the flight path to Dulles Airport, but those blasted airplanes flew overhead all night. I sure hope the rest of the AT isn’t as noisy. If it is, ear plugs are a must.
Setting up camp is harder than I anticipated in the woods. Staking out my tarp in my mother’s grassy backyard was easy, but in the forest, the ground was either too rocky or too soft. I finally got the tarp at roughly the proper angle but lost a stake when I bumped the tarp and it popped out. (Luckily, I’d put colored duct tape on the end, and John found it the next day.)
Hanging a bear bag is also more of a challenge than we thought. John was perfectly accurate with his throw, but none of the trees had limbs at the right height or angle. The bag ended up tangled in some small branches, and it took a lot of effort to get it down. On the positive side, I found our incompetence oddly entertaining. It provided some badly needed humor and really cheered me up.
Thanks to John, who channeled his inner boy scout, I rediscovered how wonderful a campfire feels. The beauty of it relaxed us, and the delightful warmth lifted our moods. I doubt we’ll make one often, but a campfire really is nice.
There were a lot of other lovely moments on the trail, such as when a herd of deer ran by. I also have to give a shout out to my Warbonnet Blackbird hammock. Sleeping in a cozy cloud of down was so wonderful that I actually missed it when I got home. (Although to be honest, taking a hot shower, soaking my feet in Espom salts, sleeping for ten hours, and availing myself of a hefty dose of Aleve felt pretty great, too.)
Anyhow, the shakedown was a sobering experience, and it’s time to take stock of what I’ve learned. I’m definitely still going to thru-hike. But there is no denying that the endorphin buzz I got from hiking was no match for the pain caused by doing too much too fast. Bottom line: I’m not superhuman. Carrying a loaded pack is hard. I also have chronic plantar fasciitis that hits me after eight miles. My feet seem to recover by the following day, but I’d better start stop pushing the distance before I end up off the trail for good. Oh, and I’d better stock up on Ibuprofen, too.
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