When the Trail Doesn’t Provide

“The trail provides” is one of the most common expressions said on the AT, second only to “Hike your own hike”. Both of these expressions have been defining points of my hike so far but not in the way I expected.

Along the way I have received countless acts of trail magic and unexpected kindness that have made my hike infinitely better. And while enduring hardships is part of long distance hiking, without these small “trail miracles” the experience would be vastly different. Unfortunately there have been many times where the trail has not provided and in fact has made me feel completely awful and unsafe.

View just past Rice Field Shelter outside Pearisburg.

The first day I considered quitting my hike was on Dragons Tooth in Virginia. I had been feeling down and unethusiastic about hiking for about a week. I lost my group in Damascus and hiking alone proved challenging. It’s hard to be in your head for 10+ hours a day without someone to talk to. I certainly miss my friends, family, and boyfriend more while alone. Of course I ran into other hikers frequently but none that hiked or camped with me consistently. You start to feel the “alone in a crowded room” syndrome. And crowded the AT is. I was shocked at around mile 700 to stumble into Niday Shelter after a long day and find the area 100% packed. I got one of the last tent spots and to top it off several hikers had hiked out cases of beer to drink to celebrate a birthday. When I arrived at 7:30pm, many were already loudly drunk. Not exactly what I expected of those communing with nature. Hike your own hike I suppose, but is that still okay when it is disruptful to others’ hikes? So beyond losing my group, I had hiked into a party bubble that seemed more interested in altering their minds than in hiking their hike.

I found this somewhat stressful since I’m not the partying type and had chosen to hike to have some time for life reflection. The few weeks of stress of being alone in a party bubble culminated at Dragons Tooth in the middle of a surprise thunderstorm after a tough, hot climb. I didn’t really see the view. I didn’t climb the rock formation. And honestly I didn’t really care about that stuff anymore. I called my boyfriend almost crying saying, “I just want to eat my snack…”  I slowly climbed down from Dragons Tooth holding back tears and trying not to slip on the giant rain soaked boulders. At one point I thought it would be okay to fall and hurt myself because that would be a legitimate excuse to quit not just “I couldn’t do it”.

Classic McAfee Knob shot.

I sought reprieve at Four Pines Hostel that night and felt renewed by a shower and clean laundry. Four Pines was run by nice people who only had good intentions in helping hikers but I found even more party culture here that I wasn’t expecting. First there was a fair amount of very obvious drug dealing going on. I did not feel safe leaving my pack or belongings out. I have heard many stories of people having their packs and even food bags stolen on the trail and at hostels. Second, when I took a shower I had issues flushing the toilet. I determined the issue was the flapper and when I lifted up the back of the toilet I found insulin needles blocking the flapper. I don’t believe any hikers there had diabetes and I don’t think they would dispose of needles in the back of the toilet. Never on my hike did I think I would be so boldly exposed to drugs and partying and I felt extremely uncomfortable.

The next day I slackpacked 26 miles to Daleville to avoid Lamberts Meadow Shelter which was closed due to bears. I paired up with Wartortle and John the Baptist and had a nice day hiking over McAfees Knob and Tinker Cliffs. I have been hiking with these two for several days now and have enjoyed my time with them including swimming in the James River and completing a “Bearathon”. (We hiked 27 miles one day/night after a very bold bear decided it wanted the food bags at Marble Spring campsite).

Sunset at Wind Rock.

But a few days ago I again found myself at a point of desperation at the top of a hot, tough climb in the middle of a severe thunderstorm. I was heading to Cowcamp Gap Shelter but decided I didn’t want to be there that night. I called my friends at the top of the climb in the pouring rain and asked them to pick me up at the road 2 miles back down the mountain. I hiked back down in a weird zen state feeling neither happy nor sad that I decided to abruptly get off the trail. I have slept a lot while staying with friends in Charlottesville and am feeling better overall. It’s so nice being in the company of others that care about you and having time to rest. I think my moment of desperation was just me being completely exhausted from hiking long days and not sleeping well. “Bearathon” and being verbally harassed by a townie in the Buena Vista park at 3am had lead to interrupted nights of sleep and me feeling too anxious/scared to fall into a deep sleep (which is desperately needed when you hike close to 20 miles a day for weeks.)

JTB during Bearathon.

At the same time, I think my moment of desperation was also my subconscious telling me I was no longer enjoying my hike. I have been soaking wet and gotten into camp before. I know I can deal with that but at that moment the rain was almost an excuse to leave and I took it. I have learned that I do not enjoy the party culture of the AT NOBO bubble. And while I realize it may not last forever, I am only about 200 miles from the halfway point and I still can’t escape it. Trail rumor is that there is an even worse bubble behind me full of “Trail Days” hikers that is riddled with theft, drugs, and fights. I’m not sure what I expected trail culture to be like but it wasn’t this. It is very apparent to me now that all the trail novels I read before my hike made the trail seem more glamorous than it really is. (Also Josh of Hiker Hostel was right when he told me not everything you read is true). Maybe I’d prefer hiking in the off season when there is less people and less partying? Maybe I’d prefer hiking with a partner so I have a constant source of support? I’m not sure. I don’t want to quit yet. But the first few days I took off I absolutely had no desire to go back to the trail either. My plan for now is to hike to my house at the halfway point in PA and reevaluate. I’ve considered flipping to Maine and hiking south to get away from the bubble but I don’t know if that is the right solution or not. I will hike a few more weeks and think about it. Thru hiking is a daunting task. If you are feeling miserable at half way, how will you feel the rest of the way to Maine? I know I will finish the whole trail some time during my life. I’m just not sure about right now.

(I know this post is very negative but I have overall had a positive experience on the trail. The past few weeks have been rough and have just made me reconsider thru hiking vs chunk/section hiking. There are also many nice people hiking the AT but they do get outnumbered by partiers. App Trials bloggers are not the norm on the trail. They are a special treat when you meet them.)

Looking back at the James River after a tough climb.

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Comments 36

  • Michael Goldman : Jun 6th

    Skipping ahead is probably a good solution. I was doing a section from New York to West Virginia until I hurt my ankle last week. All of the thrus I met who were already up there (New Jersey and New York) were very serious about hiking and were not really partiers.

    Reply
  • Auto Draft ('15) : Jun 7th

    I started in the bubble last year (April 1) but skipped trail days and was about 2-4 weeks ahead of the bubble for most of the remainder of the hike. If you don’t decide to flip flop right now, skip ahead 3-4 weeks and come back to the skipped section afterwards. (I was at mile 930 at this time last year). I hardly met anyone I didn’t like the whole 2nd half, but it took big miles to stay ahead of the bubble.

    Reply
  • George turner (AKA Old Growth) : Jun 8th

    This was one of the reasons I started in Marion, Virginia. I don’t understand the pub crawl thru hikers. Skipping ahead is a great plan. I would encourage you to do this.

    Reply
  • Jarod Fleming : Jun 8th

    Sorry you had a bad stay at 4 pines. I would chalk it up to a bad guest and tell you it’s not the norm for blatant drugging there. Lots of folks wash down their convenience store pizza with a 6-pack sure, but Joe wouldn’t tolerate hard drug use on his property. I’ve stayed twice once in Spring once in fall.

    Reply
  • Hawkeye Johnson : Jun 8th

    Stay the course and try to find a balance. Hiking solo and stealth camping can be very enjoyable. Waking up with the birds and not the sound of people, greater freedom and way less stress. Socializing is important too. Interact on the trail during the day, use the shelter facilities and eat meals there too but don’t unpack. I would hike on a mile or so and stealth camp off the trail where you can’t be seen. Best wishes and don’t quit.

    Reply
  • J Boyd : Jun 8th

    Totally do the flip flop, you’ll get away from the bubble and there is something reassuring about walking towards home!!!

    Reply
  • Kestrelchick : Jun 8th

    Hang in there – I think your order of flipping is a good idea or Auto Draft’s idea mentioned. Don’t quit! You can do this!

    Reply
  • Joelle Whitman : Jun 8th

    Thank you for a very honest blog. I want to complete the AT and actively section hike the AT in Maine (most done) and NH. I am never impressed with the pot and beer at the trail crossings and the set up camper RV’s and bbq. I will pack a cold one for a section hike once in awhile, but to get loud and obnoxious is not what I hike for. I’d flip if you can and enjoy the adventure again!

    Reply
  • Jordan : Jun 8th

    Think about finding out where your old bubble is and skipping to them. Then finish the skipped section later.

    Reply
  • Mary Beth : Jun 8th

    Girl- you have the Virginia blues. Keep going. It’s a totally natural part of the process. The psychological trials you go through out there are more rewarding to have overcome than the physical challenges. I remember having those same thoughts. But you have to know what it feels like to stand on top of Katahdin.

    Reply
  • Fred : Jun 8th

    So you were surprised that life and people are the same everywhere ? You thought the others were going to walk like a line of ants up the trail ? I don’t like any of the mentioned problems either but I suspect they’re trying to cope with loneliness. The thievery is just bullshit and hard to comprehend.

    Reply
    • TicTac : Jun 12th

      Fred, I find your excuse for drug use and abuse of alcohol on the Trail as a means of dealing with loneliness fatuous. They aren’t lonely, they have found exactly the crowd they went to the AT to find. The drug users and alcoholics go to the AT for all the wrong reasons. There is a class of hiker now that doesn’t have long hair because they haven’t had it cut since Springer, they have dreads and long beards because they dropped out of polite society long ago, and the life on the trail of walking some, then partying some is exactly what they wanted. And Trail Magic does nothing but enable these social dropouts that contribute far more than their share of abuse heaped upon the Trail. Just as the embezzler who avoided the FBI for six years by “dropping out” and becoming an AT “regular”, these social misfits have poisoned the AT experience for many, but find apologists who claim they are just battling “loneliness”… GIVE ME A BREAK
      TicTac

      Reply
  • At hiker : Jun 8th

    Wow, you keep saying hike your own hike but complain how others are hiking their own. Maybe you should stay at a campsite or hike past the hikers you don’t approve of. Your complaining about hiking alone then about other hikers when you catch up to some. If you came out here for solitude but post to an public forum about how negative it is. Think of the people who no nothing about the trail and their first impression of the trail are your negative comments. Your right maybe it’s time to get off the trail. Sounds like u have lived a sheltered life. Drug dealing and fights, you should name yourself “Drama Queen”.

    Reply
    • D Ross : Jun 8th

      Wow “At hiker”, that’s not belittling at all. Heaven forbid someone share their perfectly legitimate experiences.

      Reply
    • Fred R : Jun 8th

      maybe you should respect others opinions of the trail. It’s not all sunshine and roses, nothing wrong with her telling her side of the story. Jerk

      Reply
    • Hannah : Jun 9th

      I 100% agree with your comment!

      Reply
    • Joanna : Jul 9th

      I will agree that I do not like that she dismisses what the generalization of the trail is according to past bloggers, books, etc. If I read this and was planning a hike, I would absolutely be concerned and second-guess my decision. However, she is using her experience to state that trail culture isn’t what everyone claims it is and that’s fine if she presented it in a way that only reflected her own experience, but she didn’t. The trail culture was by far my favorite part of the trail and I could speak for the multitude of people I met and became friends with out there that it was their favorite part as well. Of course we heard stories about theft and the like or we heard of some sketchy people, but I kept hiking and easily found people not into excessive drinking or drugs. It shouldn’t be surprising to find those kinds of people out there, just like in everyday life. But to paint a picture of the trail as just some party-laden drug-filled parade is ridiculous. Tell your experience, fine, but don’t make claims that it’s all like that or dismiss the majority of others’ experiences.

      Reply
  • Steven Smith : Jun 8th

    When I thru hiked the party bubble was always near by, but I was able to stay in front of it most of the time. Once past the mid point, I never really saw it again. I never heard of theft or any other issues in the bubble either. It was after the mid point that we really fell into a groove and a group of 6 of us formed and were mostly together the rest of the trail. I typically didn’t stay at a shelter area unless I knew everyone, and I rarely slept in a shelter. Mostly because of snoring. I didn’t stay at many hostels either, I found it was much nicer to have 4-6 (or less sometimes) hikers that I knew stay at hotel together and normally ended up costing the same per person as a hostel.

    The trail is not a different world, it’s the same world you live in every day, there is good and bad. My experience was a great one, with some bad eggs here and there, mostly in the first half. There is allot of good advice here, and allot of great people along the trail.

    Hiking south will put you back in the bubble at some point, but only for a short amount of time. If you decide to stop, make sure it’s for the right reasons. I would suggest not to think about stopping until well past your home area, it’s too easy to stop when close to home, and also if you do decide to stop hiking, try not to do it after a bad day but after a good one, this will help you know that you want to stop for the right reasons and not because of a bad day.

    Other then that my best advice would be to keep on hiking! Don’t try and out run the bubbles, just keep doing your thing and I think you will find yourself in the right place. Best of luck to you Olivia!

    Reply
  • Kristie : Jun 8th

    Great post! Thank you for your thoughts. As someone who still has the AT in my mind as a “someday” I have to be honest that this party culture is something I definitely want to avoid. Hopefully when the day comes I can make a schedule that does so. I am personally extremely bothered by all drug use and alcohol use in large quantities.

    Reply
  • Forrest stone : Jun 9th

    Olivia, sorry things are going rough. I’m planning a 2017 SOBO. The parties wouldn’t bother me, I’ve seen much worse in life. But that’s me, hopefully you can find ways to stay positive. You say you’re a environmental scientist? You could focus on different things you see on the trail that affects environment or peaks your interest. Either way, find a reason to continue and enjoy.

    Reply
  • TheDenton6 : Jun 9th

    lots of miles & natural spaces for hikers over here on the North Country Trail #NCT (we may or may not have cookies)

    Reply
  • Hannah : Jun 9th

    This is a very negative blog. I understand it’s your point of view and everybody is entitled to their opinion, but all I see is you complaing about the trail. If everything is bothering you so bad then you should take a break or start section hiking. Or just quit. It’s not for everybody. Everybody that I have met on the trail has felt so blessed to feel free including myself. With that being said that’s the whole point of coming out to the AT is to do whatever you want. If you don’t like all the partying then don’t be around it. It’s as simple as that. Do what makes you happy. Don’t complain about other hikers doing what makes them happy, whatever it may be. Everybody is on the AT for some purpose. Good luck to you and hope you find what your looking for on the AT. Or find what makes you happy off the AT.

    Reply
  • Chris : Jun 9th

    1. Definitely consider the flip-flop. It can be a re-set button.

    2. If you are consistently having your toughest times at the end of particularly strenuous climbs, make sure stop periodically for snacks to keep your energy up. It definitely can make a difference.

    3. Hang in there, and don’t second-gues yourself.

    4. Be proud of what you have accomplished. 900 miles is an incredible achievement!

    Reply
  • HeyBear! : Jun 10th

    Most young people (or maladjusted older people) whose incomes don’t allow them to have their own homes are looking for places to get high without being pestered by parents or the authorities. Having once been a young person (I’m 60 now) I remember very well that the woods were always a great choice. That will never change. Young people are often very annoying and very inconsiderate, and that will never change. What could change is local oversight of the shelters, but that’s about money and resources, and the problem stretches across all the states the AT passes through. It would be nice if some organization at the federal level could fund a handful of officers in each state to show a presence at the shelters regularly and curb the stupidity.

    Reply
    • Mike : Jun 11th

      I have thought the same. We are about the same age (60). I have run into the party hard in the woods crowd, and would rather steer clear of that. The hot spots are usually easier to reach areas near crossing roads. My advice to this young lady would be: not everyone you encounter in the woods is there to enjoy the same things as you are. You should find ways to avoid the crowded areas. Hike on thru them and camp off to yourself. Find a buddy or 2 and stick with them for some companionship. I get it. You want to be away from the inner city part heads, but don’t want to be totally alone. Skipping ahead and hiking that section later or a flip flop might be a solution as you said. Rest and build your energy back, you will find your happy place eventually.

      Reply
      • HeyBear! : Jun 11th

        Well said. Good advice.

        Reply
  • Rocky : Jun 10th

    I had very similar mental experiences as you, at around 900 miles too. Thank you for sharing and being honest; the trail is a complicated place! You are not alone.

    Reply
  • Galia Goodman aka Quill : Jun 10th

    Oh Dear! Olivia, I am sorry that the trail has not been good to you lately, but speaking as a sixty-five year old section hiker, I want to reassure you. You have a good sense of who is ok and who is not. You don’t like the party folks. I get that completely. You surely know by now that the rumor mill runs the trail, as it does the rest of the world, and that not everything you hear is accurate or honest or true. First, trust your gut feelings. If you need to stand down for a bit, do it. But do not give up the dream of thru hiking: I had to, when younger, and am only now back to the dream as a section hiker. Second, when it gets to be TOO MUCH stop for a bit. Eat a snack. Look at the scenery. I know the bear incident was not your fave, but it’s one helluva good story! THAT is what you will remember later. Find your old bubble, if you can. Hang with people that you like. Learn to treasure your own company and like your own solitudes. I have been up to 36 hours without seeing another person on a couple of sections, and it was wonderful. Try the suggestions made by the guy who said “use the shelters but stealth camp about a mile away if it does not feel safe or comfortable.” And above all, be dispassionate, especially about people who react strongly one way or another to your posts! And keep on hiking, you CAN do it!

    Reply
  • Number : Jun 10th

    Excellent post. Your honesty is refreshing. Overall, sounds like you are going to hike your own hike, when you figure out which option works best for you. Good on ya.

    Reply
  • Paul Wayne Dominy : Jun 10th

    I do 4 day hikes when I can, Last year I did about 4 from Oct.12th -15 Dec. this year I’m going for Sept-Dec, Last year I had no problems with party folks, I was going in March this year but things didn’t work out then I heard about the crowds I’m Glad they didn’t,your right about off season it’s the best, I normally camp on ridges alone, tried two shelters, okay, but I prefer being alone,Hope the remainder of your Hike is good my Trail Name ‘Preacher Man’ because that’s what I do.

    Reply
  • Bad Daddy : Jun 10th

    Thanks for an honest post Olivia. You sound like a nice, responsible woman. I can understand your frustration with those who are less thoughtful. Not having hiked at all, (going NOBO next year), my general advice is to avoid groups of partiers and be careful about who you hike with at any time. But don’t let the fear dissuade you from finishing what you started. You will regret it the rest of your life.

    Take a break, suck it up, and let the bubble get past you. Then finish what you started girl!

    Best of luck!

    Reply
  • Counselor : Jun 15th

    Olivia, I am getting ready to do a section hike and appreciate your honesty and sharing. Thank you for the post. I would much rather head into this adventure with realistic expectations than have my idea of a peaceful and calm walk busted open after a few difficult hiking days. Better to walk in with eyes open and plan accordingly. The advice from other commenters is great. Do what you need to to make your dream happen. No one can take that away from you!

    Reply
  • David C Miller : Jun 16th

    Hello Olivia; thanks for your open honesty. I had read several AT books, and did my homework. I wanted to avoid all that you mentioned… hence started in Harpers Ferry, May 3rd. I encountered NONE of what you had to experience. By Maryland, Pennsylvania and up it is just section hikers and thru hikers. Just good people . It’s not written anywhere that you HAVE to to do the whole trial now or ever … take what the trails offers you and be happy with that. All the best to you!

    Reply
  • Taylor Ciambra : Jun 20th

    I love that you wrote this, thank you. I feel so similar to you, right down to the getting hurt and having a “legitimate” excuse to leave the trail. I’m not sure what I’ll do yet either. Hugs to you.

    Reply
    • Olivia Stoken : Jun 22nd

      I saw you on Sunday in Harper’s Ferry! I loved your post too. I hope we see each other again on the trail 🙂

      Reply
      • Taylor Ciambra : Jun 23rd

        I thought that was you!!! AWESOME.

        Reply

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