Quiet Man Hikes the AT: Why

“There ain’t a single thing we own; We’ll take with us when we’re gone; So I’ll just walk the earth a while.” Same Kind of Crazy as Me, Cody Jinks

For many section hikers the desire to hike the AT started as an idea to thru hike the trail. However, section hikers discover that going on trail for the five to six months it takes to thru hike just is not feasible. There are varying reasons and personal circumstances. Usually it is not realistic to give up a career, the timing is not right for their family, or maybe they started thru hiking and became injured. Nevertheless, while section hikers differ in how they hike the trail, why they hike is quite similar to thru hikers.

AT Pinnacles Picnic Area, Shenandoah NP, VA

Much Ado About Nothing

If Shakespeare had written a comedy about long distance hiking, A thru hiker would undoubtedly have been the protagonist and a section hiker the antihero, both pursuing their love of the trail. The “traditional” thru hike of a long trail, like the Appalachian Trail, is the gold standard. Nevertheless, section hiking is not a less valued coin of the realm. Earl Shaffer and Grandma Gatewood are well-known as the first man and woman to thru hike the Appalachian Trail. However, this was a decade after construction of the trail. The first hikers to complete the entire AT simply because they wanted to hike the entire trail were section hikers. George Outerbridge, along with Martin and Mary Kilpatrick, section hiked the AT starting in 1932 and completed the trail in 1939.* In fact, completed section hikes of the AT are more rare than completed thru hikes. Of the 8,550 completed hikes of the AT reported to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy from 2015 to 2023, only 1,179 (14%) were section hikes.** Attempting to complete the AT as a section hiker is as much ado about long distance hiking as a thru hike.

ATC Harpers Ferry via Appalachian Trail Conservancy website

Goal Setting

Many who follow or blog on The Trek have read Zach Davis’ book, Appalachian Trials, and have successfully applied his advice for answering why thru hike. However, my take on his formula is a little different for section hiking. Obviously, I have not completed the Appalachian Trail. Nevertheless, my military and marathon running experiences have significantly shaped my view on goal setting. My first two lists closely resemble Zach’s formula. While Zach does not discuss priorities as such, my first list of goals is in order of priority. Thinking of what’s most important will be helpful for assessing progress on the trail when things are not going quite as expected or even hoped. There are many variables in an adventure such as attempting to hike the Appalachian Trail and it is inevitable that some things will push you to choose between one goal or another.

My goals: I want to hike the entire Appalachian Trail because …

I want some time, solitude and quiet to reflect on my past 63 years.

I want to challenge myself mentally and physically by testing the limits of my endurance.

I want to explore the natural beauty and history of the Appalachian Mountains.

I want to experience AT culture and traditions.

I want to consistently journal about my adventure and share my experience with others.

I want to accumulate stories to tell in the future around the campfire and at my local tavern.

I want to complete my AT journey before I am 70 years old.

Measures of success; When I complete the Appalachian Trail…

I will recall those times in my life when I was most happy, most successful, let go of things from the past that I cannot change, and add this achievement to the pages of my life.

I will feel satisfaction of overcoming the day-to-day tactical obstacles of hiking the trail and the strategic challenge of planning/executing a multi-year section hike..

I will have a greater appreciation for the environment, history and culture of a unique part of the United States.

I will have a wealth of anecdotes, stories and photographs chronicling the journey.

I will feel a sense of accomplishment for completing a strategic plan that gets me from Springer Mountain to Katahdin, and back to Harper’s Ferry.

Achieving success: If I “quit”…

I do not subscribe to this part of the linear algebraic equation, especially as it relates to section hiking. Solving for “x” does not always equal “why.” The problem is more similar to theoretical physics. Is Schrödinger’s cat ahead or behind us on the trail? Can we simultaneously be both successful and not successful? Reaching Katahdin or even hiking 2000+ miles is not specified deliberately in my goals or reasons for this adventure. Every goal listed in the first part of the equation can be accomplished without summiting Katahdin or even hiking 2000+ miles. I will constantly assess my progress and my plan, then adjust as necessary, remembering that it is the journey and not the destination that ultimately matters. Certainly, there will be disappointment if I do not reach these very significant milestones. However, there is no true failure in attempting a feat, only lessons-learned to be used to re-attack the challenge when circumstances and conditions are more favorable. The artistry of hiking is that the ultimate definition of your success is up to you, the hiker. If you allow someone else to define your success or label you as a “quitter” because your definition of success does not match theirs, then you may have failed before you even take one step on the trail.

* “Hiking the Trail” Appalachian Trail Histories 

** “2,000-Milers” Appalachian Trail Conservancy

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Comments 4

  • Randi : May 21st

    Exactly! I had the desire to thru hike but I also have a life and family that are valuable to me. I decided that section hiking could fulfill my needs for this journey without giving up my “other life”I have met people during my sections that I will stay in touch with and have learned much from each section. One advantage to section hiking is that each section can be approached in a different way. I hiked in small tent and in hammock. I have the opportunity to choose different options for each section. Thanks for your words of affirmation about section hiking. It’s all about the Journey!

    Reply
    • Rick "Quiet Man" : May 22nd

      Randi, thank you for the feedback! Great to hear from other section hikers on The Trek. One reason for this blog is to highlight section hikers on the AT and your comment affirms for me that the message is getting out. I would really enjoy reading more of your story and journey!

      Reply
      • Nancy : May 23rd

        Quiet man! I come from a military family, my father having served in the Army for 26 years. Traveling was and still is in my blood! Like you, he was a fly fisherman, a hunter, and all-around outdoorsman. I am a 67-year-old woman, former teacher for 34 years, author, and wife in a still strong 40 year marriage. But how I wish I could section hike the AT!!! Foot difficulties would not allow this, unfortunately, but I will appreciate hiking the AT vicariously, and learn so much! Thank you for sharing your experiences.

        Reply
        • Rick "Quiet Man" : May 23rd

          Nancy, I am certain you already have some great stories – especially with 34 years as a teacher! Thank you for your caring and commitment to children – the future of our nation. I truly believe education should be a national security priority. As for hiking the AT; your wish can and should come true! I have arthritis and bursitis in both hips, as well as some stenosis in my lower vertabrae; so much so, that I have VA disability for these ailments. Fortune smiles on me because when I hike or even backpack with a 30 pound pack, none of this bothers me very much. However, one hour of walking on concrete at Sam’s Club will put me in a chair for the rest of the day. I do not know the extent of your foot difficulties, nor am I an expert for medical advice, but have you tried getting fitted at a reliable outfitter for good hiking shoes and possibly sole inserts? And remember, it is about the journey (at least in my opinion) not the destination. Many of my first hikes on the AT were day hikes of less than 10 miles. Remember what you told your students – you can fulfill any wish if you persevere. Let me know how things go…

          Reply

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