Southbounders: Still out here killin’ it
You heard right. We’re still out here. Crushing miles. Breaking hearts. Destroying burritos. We’re southbound on the AT and damn proud of it. Read on.
As both a thru-hiker and a writer for a website of this caliber, I feel a sense of entitlement that most other writers probably don’t. In this case, I’m entitled to one stupidly long stent of silence on the interwebs, during which I fail to update anyone on my progress down the trail or keep in touch with any of my “Normie life”. This has been that stent. But with this self-proclaimed “privilege” comes the responsibility to catch you up on what has happened during that time. So here it goes.
It’s funny. Everyone I’ve talked to since leaving the White Mountains has referred to the hike in two specific stages. Part one, Maine and New Hampshire as one entity, the hard part. And part two, the rest of the trail, the easy part. Let me spoil the surprise for any Southbounder north of Vermont: there is no easy part. It’s all hard. It’s all up and down. There are no flat states. There are no easy climbs. There aren’t any days where you’ll cover 20 miles without pain in your feet and sweat on your face. The states without roots and rocks and mountains are the mythical ones that don’t exist, at least not for your thru-hike. It doesn’t really ever get easier and I really wish that anyone who regularly tells hikers that would stop it. The terrain continues to kick your ass but what DOES change is your perspective of it.
When I first started hiking in Maine, every section of trail was a trial. Katahdin was a 10 mile day of a huge climb and descent. The “flat” 13 mile walk from Baxter State park to the 100 mile wilderness was an exhausting trek. The first weeks of dealing with sub 15 mile days through the huge mountains of Maine and New Hampshire were regularly trying, destroying my shoes, my joints and my will. But after a few months of regular ass-kickings from the trail, the mentality changes (or at least mine did). You start to hear from hikers coming the opposite direction about the huge mountain that you’ll have to climb. As you look down onto you elevation profile that you’ve studied for hours the night before, you realize they’re right. But it doesn’t matter. The fact that Mt. Greylock is a “straight up climb” for what seems like forever is just part of the trail. The rocks of Pennsylvania are going to be there whether or not you want them to be. The stretch of 13 miles without water through the August heat will still be there to deal with even if you’re not happy about it. So why even bother letting it get you down? I began to look at these obstacles as just part of the trail because that’s what they were. There isn’t any point in bitching about it. I’m out here because I want to be. Because I want to hike for 5 months. Because I want to backpack from Maine to Georgia. Yeah it hurts, but that’s what I signed up for. My feet will stop hurting a few weeks after I get to the end. And if they don’t, most places are wheelchair accessible now. I’ll survive.
Okay maybe this doesn’t deserve the light I’m about to shed on it, but that’s fine.
Trail Magic is awesome. Every hiker loves it. There is nothing better than a day of grueling hiking only to roll up onto a cooler tucked into the woods, filled with ice cold Coca-Cola and cookies. Sometimes it’s even better than that. Sometimes someone has a grill set up with some fresh fruit and burgers. Free food, ibuprofen, spices, water caches and trailside generosity are all the amazing things that thru-hikers come to expect at what seems like every other road crossing, unless you’re a southbounder.
I started to see trail magic in Vermont, and stopped seeing it by the end of New York. Coincidentally the same time frame when I saw the majority of Northbound thru-hikers. I kept hearing stories about the abundance of trail magic in the south and the glory of “southern hospitality”. Another spoiler for Southbounders who have yet to cross the Mason Dixon line: Trail magic doesn’t last forever. It follows the bubble of Northbounders. But what Southbounders get isn’t worse, or better. It’s different. As a SOBO (Southbounder), trail magic takes a different form. It manifests as random generosity from strangers in towns or on trail. Sometimes its a free campsite at a bluegrass festival, other times it’s a late night hitch to a college, where they happen to be showing Finding Dory on the projector outside with free popcorn and soda. And once in a while it is a cooler with a couple of sodas in it. So what if they’re warm. They’re free. Thru-hikers love free soda. Trail magic is way different for us. And I think that makes it way cooler. This could also just me trying to justify the lack of free barbeque in Virginia. You be the judge.
The Appalachian Trial
Dear Zach Davis,
I will admit to you that I didn’t take your book super seriously. I read it, loved it, and read it again. I made the lists, prepped the gear and told everyone I know about my ambitions. I found the mental challenges of the AT to be some of the most interesting aspects of the hike, yet did not take all of the preparations advised. We’ll call it “hiking my own hike”. This is me acknowledging that you actually made some good points. This is me admitting that hiking 2189.1 miles of absolutely bullshit terrain with a giant heavy backpack is not a physical challenge, it’s a mental one. Almost entirely.Hiking is fun. Backpacking is fun. Camping is fun. So logic would dictate that doing all of these things with fun people and the ability to eat whatever you want whenever you want would also be fun, right? Right. For a month or two. The third month is where the mental battle actually started for me.
Each day has a patten. Wake up (usually later that I want to) and stumble out of the mouse ridden shelter onto feet so sore that walking is nearly impossible. I shovel as much food as I can into my mouth, and start walking. The feet eventually stop hurting, and my pack eventually stops feeling so damn heavy. I look at my map often to create “checkpoints” for myself. (i.e. The next shelter is in 1.1 miles, that’s lunch, try to get there in 20 minutes) During lunch I continue to shove more food in my face, it’s not ever enough. Filter water, again. Continue walking. By now I’ve covered only a small portion of the miles I want to. There’s a huge climb, fuck. I pop a couple of ibuprofen and keep walking. I turn on my music and try to race up the hill. It lasts forever, always. I get to the top and I’m sweaty, exhausted, and not really that much closer to my goal for the day. Oh and now I’m out of water. Great. The day continues with little challenges like that for the next 8 hours, until it gets dark. Then the challenge is walking in the dark, by the light of a dim headlamp for another couple miles. I get to camp, inhale my food, and set up my foam sleeping pad. No, it’s not comfortable, but it works. I lay down and try to get my feet to a comfortable position and fail. This continues for about 20 minutes until the exhaustion of a 22.1 mile day sets in and I’m out cold. I wake up the next day, and do it again.
What makes the tough days bearable are the people you hike with. The stupid jokes are always stupid. Town days are always a blast. Cooking discount garlic knots over a half-assed fire at 10pm is always satisfying. And the friends on the trail aren’t only the people who you see every day.
Sometimes the entries in the logbooks at the shelters are like friends. The couple who you met in Maine and haven’t seen since, always write something witty and hilarious. It’s worth searching for that entry in the log book at the end of a day. And for me, I was lucky enough to catch up with some of the distant “friends” from the log books and hike with them. Everyone out here is working to achieve the same goal, and the friendships that you build with them are like no other. The people who I’ve hiked with over the last 4 months are the reason I’m where I am today. And they’re the reason I haven’t totally lost my mind and thrown my gear off of a mountain. Most of the time.
I’m sitting at a library computer in Damascus, VA. I have another 400 and something miles to Springer Mountain, Georgia and have covered just about 1700 miles since Mount Katahdin, Maine. My beard is unkempt, my clothes are tattered and I find myself regularly making bodily sounds in public without shame. I’ve accepted the fact that my metamorphosis into total hiker trash is just about complete.
It’s crazy to think that I’m over three quarters done with this journey, and it actually scares me a little to think about going back to the “real world” in under a month. When I started this hike, Georgia seemed infinitely far away. I had no doubts that I would push and push until I couldn’t anymore, but I really didn’t believe that I would ever be this far. I never REALLY believed that I would be able to walk 1700 miles to the border of Tennessee. I find myself looking at the AWOL profile map of Springer Mountain, almost every night. I imagine that Northbounders do the same thing with Katahdin. Everyone I’ve talked to about Springer has told me that the view is shit, the climb isn’t hard, and that I’ll be disappointed with the stunningly anti-climatic ending to my adventure. And now that I’m less that 500 miles from that landmark, my mentality has completely changed.
Southbounders are a different breed. We live to be different. We take the path less traveled. We drink negativity and piss excellence. We hike our own hike and don’t believe a word Northbounders say. Why would we let the words of anyone ruin the ending of our hike? We wouldn’t.
Springer Mountain will be one of the most beautiful sights of my entire life. And there isn’t a damn thing anyone can say or do to change that.
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