Springer to the Smokies: My First Month on the AT
As I write, 30 miles from the northern end of the Smokies at Davenport Gap, I wanted to quickly check in and provide a glimpse into what’s been going on in my mind for the past month. Having started on New Year’s Day, I’ve experienced what seems like all four seasons and all of the demands you can think of to stay cool, warm, dry, fed and hydrated.
Going into this hike, there was no way I believed myself to be “prepared”: inevitably, there would be some piece of gear, some bit of knowledge, or some better decision I could have drawn upon to make my day smoother. As you read below, some of these realizations may strike you as common sense and others as profound ah-ha’s; some of it may not apply to you at all given a later start date where extreme temperatures and weather aren’t going to be the daily reality (and all the power to you for deciding that’s how you preferred your hike!).
Bottom line for me is that I absolutely love my life right now and all the challenges of making my way on the trail. For those embarking on a thru-hike, section or even just beginning to step out, you’re going to grow so much in a very little amount of time. Here are some ways I’ve grown and hope to continue to learn.
First and foremost, I’ve grown not just to act on my caring for others but to request it, and this means being vulnerable to those around you when you’ve just met. That could be tough for me when living and working off-trail. There’s a vibrant community all along the trail and I’ve learned that asking for help taps into the very deep desire of certain people to show solidarity with my devotion to thru-hike.
I’m now writing from a host family’s home, a true bunch of angels, given Jonas’ impact on the Smoky Mountains’ road conditions. I connected with them through a gear-maker at the Southern Ruck, a gathering of hiking enthusiasts at the NOC a week or so ago. The weather was fairly inclement and she checked in with me during the time when I was climbing snow drifts towards Clingman’s Dome and making a half mile an hour. I was OK, in good spirits and confident in my path, yet that’s not all that I needed to feel complete. Sometimes, you just need to know others are there – importantly, I asked her for any contacts in the area and was connected within a day to a passionate trail angel who’s known for her generosity. Over buffets, southern cooking and living room conversations, I absorbed energy that I wasn’t getting while following white blazes, taking pictures and making miles.
I’ve learned to get to know people, everyone that I come across (which sometimes can be as little as a person every few days this time of year). There’s always a relationship to develop. It’s hard to tell for me right now how these people will help me grow yet I know that will – and I have to allow that at every chance even if this means not strictly hiking.
Maintain Effort, Not Pace
I come from an ultra running background, and I’ve learned that when taking on long distances, every course record is course specific. Since I do a new section everyday, I’ve taken all the pressure to make miles by a certain time away. I focus on secure steps, proper alignment and keeping my heart rate low to avoid burning energy unnecessarily. These are all known to me yet doing so while carrying a pack is new territory.
Often times I’ve heard more about what we carry and shaving weight. And this is so important. I often think about proper carrying technique that’s suited for my body, however. I’ve learned that carrying a 30 lbs pack correctly is so much better than a 15 lbs pack poorly. To figure this out and get accommodated with my pack, my true partner out here, going slow and experimenting how to shoulder loads and adjust my movements to better take care of my body has been a huge focus. The more I could have done towards this end in preparation the better.
Simulate the Toughest Conditions and Determine the Multi-Use Before Go-Time
On the note of prep, gathering gear is really a small part of prep. Looking back, I know now I should have spent more energy on getting gear and using it enough to realize if I actually need it. For example, a nalgene cozy or hydroflask to prevent freezing water are helpful. It seemed like I really needed those before I took into account how other pieces if gear could be used differently to satisfy the same end.
Instead of keeping water out, I put it in my bag during the subfreezing days – a 20 second bag opening saved carrying the extra weight and did the same job. My sleep system dry bag can be turned inside out and to hold my nalgene and, if I sleep with it close, I was able to send back a 14 oz weighty insulated water bottle that turned out to be a luxury. I now wake up to warm water, saving fuel to heat it, too. (For winter hikers, always consider how your body heat can be used to your advantage, including drying wet clothes.).
For physical prep, hiking isn’t exactly enough. You need to hike the hardest sections slowly, and this means hiking uphills in addition to gradually upping your mileage on rolling terrain. On top of this, I would have done so with concurrrently increasing my pack load with the actual items I would carry (I instead loaded my pack with medicine balls since I was in a gym mindset). If the outdoors is out of reach, do all this on stairs – up and down, up and down, and chart how you feel. Few sections are steeper than 45 degrees on the trail – when you need to scramble you’ll use different muscle groups but from my NoBo perspective, this has only been at Albert Mountain and over chest high snow drifts so far. Lastly, I would have done as much hiking without the aid of braces and supports – these seriously prevented me from buiding muscles that alleviate the force on my injured areas. We think that if our knee hurts, we need to brace it – works for times when you have serious impact coming up, yet they’re not allowing me to use my legs naturally. When I stopped resorting to braces due to normal muscle fatigue from my first week, and invested more time in yoga during and after that day’s hike, all my pains there disappeared.
Along with going slow and cutting a 10 mile day to 5, which is so tough in the beginning when al you think about is the next destination that you planned on being at, you start to regenerate quicker and more effectively. Finally, don’t use your trekking poles to push it pull you forward as a strategy for making it through a stretch – they are for stabilization, no to substitute for your legs. As weird as it sounds, its possible to develop wrist and elbow injuries while hiking when you suddenly hire your arms to do your legs’ job. This also takes the load off your core and hips, unnaturally straining your lower legs to stabilize and leading to more injuries. I try to think; is this the most natural way to move?
Take a Zero when You’re On Top
You’ll hear, “Only quit on your best day,” and that’s a great way to know that the journey isn’t the one that’s going to make you your best self at this point in your life. A way to take care of yourself so this may be avoided is to take a zero or nero when you’re feeling great.
Again, your body is constantly regenerating – pain is a signal that something is wrong, I would not have waited until something was wrong (although there’s a lot of pain when your body figures out how to carry so much weight over so much distance). To note: there are alays going to be small pains that crop up – I’ve learned not to stop the show for each one and instead re-focus on my posture and form to diagnose if it’s something to track or a result of a mis-step that’s correctable.
Honestly, there are so many problems, real or perceived, that require your attention that I’m now really selective about what takes my attenition and, further, makes me stop moving and spend energy to address. Obviously, this may come into conflict with what I’ve written above; it’s all a fluid balance and, like fluid, it sloshes back and forth with every destabilizing event. I’m trying hard to practice the philosophy of good-day-zeros by deliberately taking days off after progressively longer intervals (so far it’s been betwrrn 30, 40, 50 mile stretches). I’ve learned this works for me; everyone has their own way, as I’ve learned.
Think Forward: The Best Days are Ahead
And, I continue to learn. As I head into the remaining 90% of miles left ahead of me, I hope to keep this learning up and share what’s been transformative for me. Please reach out to me directly with other thoughts to think through and especially if you’re up to hiking with me or hosting me for a night. Relationships are the main currency on the trail and lend the most meaning to my journey, I’m learning, and I’d love the chance to connect.
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