The AT Metamorphosis: Becoming the Beast
During your Thru-Hike, you might notice some big changes. Not since puberty sunk its teeth into your protesting flesh have you found yourself so changed in only half a year. Once again, you will experience excessive hair, uncontrollable odor, and the overwhelming feeling that your body is betraying you.
But you will also gain some strange new powers that you never thought yourself capable of. You will be able to predict an approaching thunderstorm by watching leaves shake. You will grow so accustomed to sleeping on the cold, hard ground that you will toss and turn on soft hostel beds. You will become stronger, more agile, and learn to ignore pain with surprising ease. You may find ‘trail puberty’ to be more akin to Peter Parker’s experience than your own.
So here it is guys: the nitty gritty on the unpleasantries of trail transformation. A (slightly graphic) list of the bizarre, amazing, and sometimes gross ways in which your body will be changing on trail.
You may want to stop reading if you are squeamish, disinterested in bodily functions, or a decent human being.
Growing Fur: The hairscapades of the trail.
You might have ogled silhouetted AT pictures on a hostel wall in Georgia and thought ‘What are those tumbleweeds mounted on popsicle sticks?’ They are Thru-Hikers. And yes, you will look that way too.
Fortunately we live in a culture today that is rapidly embracing beardiness. You could be Earl Schaeffer, shaving in cold springs in the off chance he encountered someone that day. Instead, your shaggy scruff is a mark of pride on the trail. It says, ‘I haven’t cared for this long’. It proclaims your freedom to the world around you. You are also ensuring that you’ll have your own space on the train should you choose to ride into New York City from the trail.
Our culture is a little lagging still in its acceptance of the female equivalents – the leg beards and arm poodles of trail couture – but we’re making some big steps in the right direction as more ladies hit the trail every year.
Hiker Hunger: The appetite of the beast.
You will probably note a slight increase in appetite after a couple of weeks on the AT.
The true Hiker Hunger sets in when your body begins to lose its precious, precious fat. Everything fatty will become irresistible to you after this point. Once the Hunger begins, your sense of decency immediately drops several rungs in priority. You will gorge on fried food and ice cream in town, linger lecherously in the cheese aisle at grocery stores, and find licking warm peanut butter off of a fork to be rhapsodic. If you start to picture how a day hiker would taste, double your food rations.
Awoooooo Werewolves of London: Lunar Menstruation
That’s right: Moonblood. Aunt Flo. The Red Tide. Or, as my fiancé affectionately refers to it, Shark Week. Get ready for it to change.
Here is a little oversharing about my own experience. I noticed after month two that I got my period exactly at the full moon. Four days later, as the moon began to wane and turn from a perfect oval into the partially shaded luminary we all know and love, my cycle ended.
Talking to women on the trail, I realized this phenomenon was not exclusive to me. Which means two things:
- The men on the trail were terrified for exactly five days a month, and
- We were Lunar Menstruating.
This second fact is really fascinating because it means that we were synchronized with the rhythms of the earth. We literally waxed and waned with the passing of each moon, bloating and decompressing just like the ocean.
I really don’t understand the phenomenon and I wasn’t able to find a lot of clear information about it, so perhaps you should take my case study with a grain of salt. As far as I can tell though, this happens because of light. Without light pollution – streetlights, indoor lighting, obnoxious neon signs – our bodies instinctively searched for and followed natural light patterns again. To me, that’s real Trail Magic.
The Power of Smell: Not what you think it will be.
Hikers are notoriously smelly. No one needs to cite that fact. Whether we are talking about the hackneyed joke: ‘you’ll smell em’ before you see em’!’ or the famous Trail Days water fight that ostensibly started because locals were hosing down these unwashed travelers, we can all agree that Thru-Hikers are noxious. Take body odor, bug spray, sunscreen, and the dust of forgotten ramen noodles. Add a backpack and shoes that you can’t wash and shake it all up. There’s your hiker funk. It will draw flies from miles around.
But I’m not here to tell you about the hiker smell; like skunks suffering from anxiety, hikers manage to unintentionally leave an olfactory imprint wherever they go. I want to talk about the hiker sense of smell. The trail is a perfect example of how adaptable human beings actually are. People can get used to anything, including the stench of hiker funk. What we can’t get used to, however, is anything that we aren’t exposed to normally. Therefore, we often smelled clean day hikers before they smelled us.
After about a month on the trail, you are so infrequently exposed to traditional cleanliness that you start to notice the smell of perfume, deodorant, and soap on people from town. After two months, you can pretty much identify the brand of laundry detergent people use. Three months and over, you have no idea that you smell bad but you find yourself coughing and lightheaded when a perfumed local walks by you in town.
Speaking of smell, get ready for a lifetime supply of:
Embarrassing Poop Stories: Code Brown
After about two weeks on the trail, you will have the power to poop anywhere, anytime. But with great power comes great responsibility. Please bury your poop. More importantly, please bury it well. Most importantly, please don’t leave it like an unwrapped present on an overlook with a view. Seriously. Who is doing that?
The first weeks can be tough. I would recommend monitoring your dried fruit intake because walking for eight hours a day basically makes you a human cocktail shaker and what comes out is never a martini. Eventually, though, you will harness this power.
This is not exactly a life skill. No one will put this on their resume. But as you continue to hike, your body awareness will increase and your emergency hole digging will improve. You will also gain more control over parts of you that you previously never worried about (we tried to name one member of our group The Iron Sphincter but she wouldn’t have it). So good luck!
Disclaimer: Despite the previous comment about growing accustomed to bad smells, the smell of a ripe privy is one you will never, ever get used to. Sorry.
Month three: The ability to shoot lasers out of your eyes
After putting roughly a thousand or so miles under your belt, you will be able to shoot lasers out of your eyes. Be careful and always wear eye protection after this point to avoid accidentally killing innocent civilians.
Growing Pains: Supporting the Bigfoot Myth
I didn’t believe it would happen to me, but I was wrong. On Springer Mountain, I wore a shoe size 7 ½ wide. I now wear a size 8 double wide. Try to find heels in that.
Your feet actually do stretch out from the constant pounding they take under duress of a heavy pack. You will probably note your shoes blowing out from the sides first, since widening is pretty common for hikers, but some people grow a whole shoe size as well. My hiking partner – a much larger specimen – had that happen to him and he now struggles to find a size 14 in most stores.
Hikers who buy their shoes ahead of time to ship to themselves as they hike often find their purchases no longer fit, so I recommend buying shoes as you go. The outfitters along the trail are pretty used to it by now.
So, maybe you’ll end up special ordering blocky double wide shoes that vaguely resemble orthopedics, but you will have one advantage: a wider base. You will notice your balance increase, not only because you are learning to navigate better on your feet with each new day, but also because your platform is increasing as you walk.
That about sums it up. If you have hiked the AT, hopefully this brings back some fond memories of the ever-humbling experience. And if you haven’t, then let this inspire you to become the wild animal you know you really are. Impress your friends! Or gross them out! Enjoy your new found superpowers and freedom from grooming obligations. In other words, go unlock your inner primal nature and become the beast.
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