Thru Hike Story Time
The entertainment of choice for Backtrack’s birthday was a storm brewing in the distance. The clouds were full of lightning and along with Michelangelo and Finch we sat watching with beers in our hands while swapping stories about our experience up until that point. In that moment we were almost finished with our hikes. Most of our miles were behind us and what was ahead of us was still very unknown.
We had a front row seat to the show as the lightning was striking the forest in the distance. Weed was passed around that Michelangelo and Finch were happy to share along with liquor for Backtrack’s birthday. With all the thunder around of us, it was eerily calm where we were situated on top of Old Blue. We spoke about our old lives and the possible new lives after our hikes. Would we go back to our old ways? No one really knew. It wasn’t an issue we could begin to care about now. Some rain reached us after all and when we emerged from our tents we were able to watch the sunset being highlighted by some more lightening. We spoke about nonsense then before we knew it, hiker midnight had approached and we all settled in for the night.
This is what I believe most would expect from spending months hiking through the wilderness of Eastern America. There would be reflections on life, enjoying the peace with a few like minded individuals and of course the blood, sweat and tears that come with pushing 20 plus mile days with about 30 pounds on your back. Oddly enough, these moments were few and far between. The biggest moment’s came from the magic of getting what you needed when you really needed it.
I woke up in the morning and immediately knew that my drinking the night before was a big mistake. My head felt hollow and my stomach felt like I was carrying a gallon of water in it. This was a bad sign, a very bad sign that I would be horribly hungover for the remainder of my day. After a heavy night of drinking at the Devil’s Backbone Brewery there were a few things my body needed and hiking certainly wasn’t one of them.
That day a few friends and I had planned to hike 19 miles to town for a Chinese Buffet. After everyone got up and a few jokes were made about how I was feeling, I gracefully threw up in the field a few feet from where we all slept. Twice. Although the brewery promised us breakfast, I decided to head straight back to the trail and give myself as much time as possible to make it to town.
After a slow start, walking only a few steps at a time with pauses to get sick, I was on the move. What would normally take me an hour to hike, took me about three. After some failed attempts to hydrate and feed myself, I managed to get a bite of Cliff Bar and a sip of water in my stomach. I just kept repeating to myself, “All You Can Eat Chinese food” and I would be able to get a few more miles in.
This was how my day went until about 6:00PM when I stopped at a shelter. I was able to drink some water and eat some food. My stomach felt good about it and the pounding in my head started to dull as I gained some energy back. Two more miles and then I would be done.
About a half mile later I came across a bear. My instincts kicked in and I did what I could to clear the bear from my path. With trekking poles banging over my head I spoke calmly to the bear asking it to leave while slowly I walked backwards. This situation wasn’t new to me. Usually a bear would run or walk off with no problem but this time, the bear looked pissed. Instead of turning to run away from me, it ran toward me. A few things went through my mind, “Awesome, this is how I will die. I’ll have to fight this bear and even if I live, it will maul the shit out of me first.”
As you can see, I stayed pretty optimistic about it all.
The bear veered away from me and left enough room between us for me to feel the tiniest amount of ease. It was a bluff charge. The bear blocked the path behind me so I continued ahead, arriving at the buffet right on time to meet my friends for dinner with a decent survival story in hand.
Survival wasn’t a goal of my thru hike experience, it just happened along the way. My goals centered around challenge. Reaching the final point of the Appalachian Trail in Maine was the biggest of all. Along the way, I came up with a few more to tide me over. Some drove me further and some nearly killed me. I don’t regret any of them.
“So I’m going to hike 32 miles today and you should too. The shelter is supposed to have beautiful views by the camp sites.” This was a clever challenge by Backtrack. He knew it would work, and as soon as I heard him say it I knew I would follow. For weeks I had been talking about hiking a 50k (31 miles) to prepare myself to run the distance when I returned home. Through the thick fog and rain of that morning, I started walking hoping to check this goal off my list. In the middle of the day I slipped and slid up and over the rocky, steep Mount Everett. This one of the steepest and hardest climbs I had seen in over a month. Backtrack was already miles ahead of me as usual and it was up to me to push myself through. As I started the second half of the day it became clear that this was a terrible spot to reach my 50k goal, but now I felt committed to it.
There was a shelter which marked the point in the day where I had to either stop or go the whole distance. Beyond this shelter there was a sizable amount of trail where I would not be able to set up camp. I was taking a food break there, thinking of what to do and decided to start packing my things to continue ahead. Another hiker at the shelter, an older man in his 60’s, didn’t agree with my plans. First he gave me a look that said, “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me if you think that’s a good idea.” He didn’t hold back with his words either, calling me stupid for choosing to add on 12 more miles to my day. If he wanted to convince me not to move on, he certainly chose his words poorly. Having another thru hiker judge my personal intentions was actually pretty shocking. As I threw on my pack, he condescendingly stated that as a skinny female I would not be able to do it. Now I had to keep going.
Hiking along a river that ran through a town during that evening turned out to be my biggest obstacle. The sky had cleared up and it was hot and humid. The terrain was flat and very forgiving but the mosquitoes weren’t as gracious as they constantly buzzed about my head. The DEET wasn’t working and the extra layers I put on made me unbearably hot but did not stop the biting. It was dinner time and hunger was setting in but every time I stopped to take bite, the mosquitoes would multiply exponentially. So I moved on. My mood was getting worse from hunger and it was getting late. The rain started up again. I kept moving, hoping to find a place the mosquitoes couldn’t find me.
I lost the daylight while climbing up to a ridge line and the fog rolled back in. Walking through a rocky wooded section, I found a surprisingly good spot for a tent. That was the excuse I needed to stop. I texted Backtrack and told him not to expect me at the shelter that night. He had me explain my location and told he me I should keep going because I was actually pretty close and the trail was “super easy”.
That jerk lied to me.
My headlamp seemed to make it harder to see in the fog so I stashed it away. Every turn I made I kept thinking I would find the sign for the shelter, I didn’t. It was slippery, wet and slow moving going through the area. Two more hours passed. In a frustrated moment, I called Backtrack to try to see if I walked passed the shelter but there was no response. The jerk now fell asleep.
It was after 10:00PM when I made it to the shelter. After grabbing a few protein bars, I threw up my tent and tried to sleep. One tidbit on distance hiking you rarely hear is that all the adrenaline from a long day makes sleep impossible. Not having a proper dinner doesn’t help either.
The next morning I could hear Backtrack talking to the other hikers at the shelter, “Ah, Stretch did make it. She’s going to be fucking pissed, just you wait.” And I was pissed. I ate two breakfasts while yelling at him through bites. All while not thanking him for pushing me to reach my goal.
These are just a few short stories and in no way reflect the full experience of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail or thru-hiking in general. The experience is very personal, more so than many other endeavors. Day to day it changes. And so do you.
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32 miles? Scandalously long hike! That’s a hard day’s night.
Too bad you couldn’t text a gotcha to the judgmental jerk in the shelter you left behind.