The Long Walk North

2008-02-03

The following is a speech I delivered to the Akita Interpreting Service at Joinus, Akita City, Japan.

Woods.gif

Description

Bill Bryson wrote a book entitled "A Walk in the Woods". The name says it all. The Appalachian Trail is a footpath, a hiking trail that starts at Springer Mountain, in Amicalola State Park near Dahlonega, Georgia and ends — after five million footsteps — at the summit of Mt. Katahdin in Baxter State Park, Maine. My brother and dad hiked the Appalachian Trail (or A.T. for short) twice, so when I graduated from college and had no summer job, the natural thing to do was to follow in their shoes and go hiking. The day after I graduated I drove a thousand miles from Colorado to North Dakota, two days later flew to Atlanta, and started walking. I later got a job offer — Grand Canyon National Park had me on their backup list — but by that time I'd hiked two hundred miles and had no intention of stopping.

Location

The A.T. goes through fourteen states: Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. The shortest state is West Virginia, containing less than fifty miles of trail, whereas the longest state is Virginia, consuming five hundred fifty miles. Hikers often lament that they're experiencing the Virginia Blues when crossing this state. As a point of consolation, it is believed that if you can get from Georgia through Virginia with enough time left in the year, the rest of the trail cannot stop you.

The easiest stretch of trail is two miles of road walking along the river near Harpers Ferry, Virginia. For me it was very difficult, though, because I had eaten a large deep-dish supreme pizza in Harpers Ferry and could barely walk. The hardest stretch is Mahoosuc Notch, in Maine. It's a large boulder field with scrambling, climbing, crawling, and jumping from boulder to boulder. Thru hikers typically hike three to four miles an hour (4.8 to 6.4 km/h), but the one-mile Notch takes even speedy hikers at least forty five minutes — which is to say, it is three times slower than normal. I passed two eighty two year-old men in Mahoosuc Notch, and it was so inspiring to see them there. You could tell that they were going to finish the whole thing, and what an accomplishment. The easiest states are Virginia and West Virginia — the trail is gently rolling hills with no big climbs or rocks. The hardest states are Maine and New Hampshire, where the elevation changes are extreme and many climbs and descents are scrambles over rocks and boulders. Maine and New Hampshire also have the most lookouts and views.

Length and Pace

The trail is two thousand one hundred seventy four miles long, or about three thousand five hundred kilometers. Its length varies by a few miles each year as sections of the trail are diverted or closed. In New York the A.T. goes through the Bear Mountain Zoo, but the zoo closes at night, so if you hike that stretch in the evening your trail is a quarter mile longer than everyone else's. The Kennebeck River has a canoe ferry, but if you were to ford the river (I tried but the water was too deep) it'd add a few hundred yards.

I hiked two thousand one hundred seventy four miles in ninety six days, which is an average of twenty two point seven miles a day. My longest week was three thirty mile days, a zero day, and three more thirty-mile days. My longest day was in Pennsylvania. I hiked about 22 miles in the morning, so I got to my scheduled stop, but it was such a wonderful day I decided to continue to the next shelter. I started towards it and began crossing the Palmerton Superfund Site. The Superfund is the American funding agency for cleaning up the country's worst environmental disasters. Palmerton once had a zinc mine, but its fumes killed everything in the hills, and the mine eventually closed (without doing anything to repair the damage it caused). The Superfund has provided some money to try to rejuvenate the land, but nothing has worked. After climbing an exposed ridge, the trail crosses a large plateau, and there are no birds or grass or flowers, just trunks of dead trees. The silence is eerie. But after a few miles, you come to some plants — blueberries. And there are tons of blueberries; the animals and birds won't eat them. Then you're faced with the dilemma ... do you really want the blueberries that can survive heavy metal poisoning better than any other plant or animal? But they do look so tasty. There's also a spring that's unfit for drinking called Metallic Spring. Later that day, after several thunderstorms, I got to a road crossing where a man I'd met a month earlier — The Mechanical Man, he called himself — lived. My friend Sea Legs and I walked down the road to his house and knocked on the door. He and his wife --The Crayola Lady — let us in, and they also took us to town for large calzones and beer. That day was thirty eight point six miles (62 km).

Lodging

One question I regularly hear when discussing thru hiking is, "Where do you sleep?" When you're hiking, you can sleep in shelters or tents. Tents work well, of course, but they're heavy and not so great if they get wet. Tents are also nice because you can stop wherever you want, so it's easy to spend the night alone. Shelters are three-walled lean-tos with a floor and roof and space for maybe six or twelve people. They're located near the trail every five to fifteen miles, so it's usually feasible to find one for the night. On the other hand, sometimes the shelters fill up. Most thru hikers start in April from Georgia, and at that time most of the shelters are busy places, though at other times not so much. A few shelters have doors and windows, none have electricity, and three are close enough to pizza places that you can order pizza to them. I recommend a large supreme pizza and a 2-liter of Coke.

Towns and Resupplying

Thru hikers sometimes sleep in town — I did twenty nights. Much like there are small towns all over Honshu, the eastern United States has a large number of small towns. There's always a bar, sometimes a gas station, and if you're lucky, a hostel or hotel. The best hiking hostel is Rusty's Hard Time Hollow. Rusty is an old Mennonite who lives alone with no electricity, phone, or running water. He does have water, though — he pipes a spring to his house. Some of the spring water runs through a concrete pit in the ground that acts as a refrigerator. There's also a cold water shower and a wood-powered sauna. You can stay in Rusty's barn if you like, and if you talk to him for a few hours in the evening he'll make you blueberry pancakes in the morning. In Vermont, there's a hotel and bar with the best Irish Whiskey selection in the state; thru hikers like this place. The most unique hostel is in New Jersey. A bar decided they'd get a few more patrons if they put some bunk beds in a storage shed, so hikers can go there, drink until closing time, and sleep in the less-than picturesque storage shed for the night.

The second question I regularly hear when discussing thru hiking is, "How do you get food?" On average, there's a town every three days, and the longest stretch without one is five or six days. A person eats maybe two pounds of food each day, so that's at most twelve pounds of food in your pack. When you get to town, you resupply at whatever store is there. Typical foods are instant pastas, couscous, King-Size Snickers bars, candy bars, Pop Tarts, peanuts, bagels, cheese, Little Debbie-brand desserts, Hostess-brand fruit pies, and anything freeze-dried. Hikers tend to eat five or six meals a day, with names taken from The Lord of the Rings: breakfast, second breakfast, elevenses, first lunch, second lunch, and dinner. One hiker I knew called himself Bilbo. He had hairy feet, was short, and wore a ring on a chain around his neck. For the most part the foods are high-sugar, except for a carbohydrate-rich dinner. Sometimes people hike with or while drinking beer ... this is called a brew hike.

The halfway point of the Appalachian Trail is in Pine Grove Furnace State Park, Pennsylvania. It is tradition among thru hikers to eat a half gallon (1.89 liters) of ice cream at the halfway point. I finished mine in 43 minutes. But that wasn't enough — thru hikers are always hungry — so I then had two bacon cheeseburgers, a 2-liter of Coke, and 12 oatmeal cream pies. That's around five thousand calories in one meal. People crave food when they're hiking, but after a while you don't crave anything in particular — you crave any food.

History

The first person to thru hike the Appalachian Trail was Earl Shaffer in 1948. The trail was first conceived in the 1920s, but it wasn't completed until 1937 — this was mostly by building connections between preexisting shorter trails. Some years later, the north end was moved farther north, and the south end farther south. The trail starts and ends at the top of mountains, and it goes over as many high peaks as it can, which is good for views.

National Parks and Trails

The A.T. is a National Scenic Trail, which means it has some limited protections under the law. There is hiking along the trail, but there aren't mountain bikes or ATVs (that is, 4-wheelers), and there are only horses in a few places. The trail goes through two national parks — Great Smokey Mountains National Park and Shenandoah National Park — and many state parks. It's mostly located on public land, but in a few places it goes through private property. There's some federal money for upkeep on national trails, but most of the maintenance money and labor is through private donations and volunteer efforts. Some people who live near the trail leave jugs of water and coolers of sodas at trail heads — such people are called Trail Angels. Their efforts are particularly important in states like New York where, for no apparent reason, there aren't many good water supplies. Over time, some of the Appalachian Trail has been seized for other uses. The Blue Ridge Parkway and Shenandoah's Skyline Drive, for instance, were part of the Appalachian Trail until they were converted into a summer road for an old Presidential retreat. The trail was rebuilt nearby.

Thru Hikers

In 2007, one thousand one hundred twenty five people started the trail. A hundred of them quit by 32 miles (51 km) into the trail. Half of them made it to the halfway point, and two hundred seventy people finished the entire thing (See the Appalachian Trail Club's website for more on this.). Bryson's book came out in 1999, and this inspired a great many people to try the hike. Numbers of attempted thru hikes peaked and has been declining since 2000. Yet while the numbers of attempts are significantly down, the quality of hikers must be increasing, because completions are only marginally down.

When my dad was hiking in 1999, he encountered many pilots and flight attendants. That year, apparently one of the major U.S. airlines offered extended furloughs to employees to save some money, and many of its employees decided the outdoor life appealed to them. Maybe pilots and flight attendants tend not to be tied town as much as other people. Perhaps what with the current and continuing American recession, more people will go back to nature. Hiking takes money and time — not that much money, but even so — and this limits the kinds of people who decide to do a thru hike. For the most part, thru hikers are either in their low twenties or recent retirees in their late fifties or early sixties. The majority of hikers are men, and it's rare to encounter older women. Sometimes you find men between jobs, and many middle-aged women hike with big dogs. In the past eighty years, only three people have been murdered on the A.T. — all women, and all in Georgia. Unfortunately, the latest of these was just last month. They caught the man who did it. The murderers were locals, not other hikers. Even so, it's sad that while the trail is generally incredibly safe, it wasn't safe enough last month.

Section Hikers

There are plenty of people who would like to hike the A.T. but don't have the time. Apparently getting married and having kids makes it hard to take a four month vacation. Anyway, many of these people take their summer vacations every year and go hiking for a week or two. They finish the A.T. in sections, so they're called section hikers. It shows a great deal of dedication to finish a two thousand mile trail over ten or twenty years, and section hikers have that dedication.

Weekend Warriors

The most entertaining guests on the trail — other than the black bears, porcupines and skunks — are weekend warriors. Weekend warriors can't get much time off from their high-paying jobs in the big city, but come Friday afternoon they're out to the wilderness. Weekend warriors don't have much experience with long-distance hiking, though, so they tend to be insulting or very useful. It's common for them to carry too much food and give it away — the Boy Scouts do the same. On the other hand, I once had a conversation with a weekend warrior couple who told me I smelled. I laughed, because of course I smelled. All thru hikers smell. Then they suggested I take a bath, and I assured them that I would ... when I got to the next town. I'm not sure that appeased their noses, but I never saw them again, so who knows. A man in New Hampshire once ordered me to "Stop running up the mountain." It's true I was running up the mountain — Mount Washington, in fact, a rather big climb — but as I explained in vain to him, after hiking for fifteen hundred miles, it would be embarrassing if I weren't faster than him.

Blazing

The Appalachian Trail is marked by white blazes. That is, a two inch by one inch painted rectangle on a tree or rock can be seen every fifty or five hundred yards. To get to Maine you just follow the white blazes. There are also blue blazes, marking side trails to water and shelter, and Dartmouth College blazes the trail with its school colors, orange and black.

Like most pursuits, there is a purist element to hiking. People who hike every foot of the trail call themselves white blazers, since they pass (and sometimes count) every white blaze. Some hikers skip sections of the trail — Bill Bryson skipped a thousand miles — and they are called blue blazers. Some people look down on blue blazers and consider them not to be real hikers. Hikers who hitchhike are called yellow blazers. Hikers who skip sections of the trail by taking a boat or raft are called aqua blazers, and as a point of humor, those who get injured on the trail are called red blazers.

Hiking Solo or in Groups

I hiked alone, and Bill Bryson did too, but he missed something important about hiking alone. When you're walking with nobody around, you can think about whatever you want. Some people spend time remembering song lyrics from their childhood. Sometimes people ponder what gear is best, or what they'll do after they finish the trail. It doesn't really matter what you think about, of course. Some people walk alone and get bored, so they carry MP3 players and listen to music. If you walk alone, you determine your own pace and tend to move faster, and there's typically company at shelters in the evenings anyhow. Other people walk in groups. My dad hiked with my brother; husbands and wives hike together; and it's not uncommon to encounter one girl hiking with two or three guys. Many people start the trail with friends, but many others make friends while walking. It's an interesting thing that most hikers are laid back, friendly people. In their regular lives maybe they're actually real jerks — we don't know — but when people are out on the trail for months on end with no responsibility except to slowly walk north, they tend to be generally enjoyable company. Reading Bill Bryson's book, it's clear he never actually enjoyed two things: (1) the people around him on the trail and (2) walking in itself. Other than these two very important things — they aren't problems, per se — the book is quite good. I believe his writing lends itself better to spoken language than written words, so I'd recommend the audio CD.

Pace

I hiked twenty two point seven miles a day on average, but as they like to say, hike your own hike. Most people average between ten and twenty miles a day, going faster in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York. Most of us start off well below our average and take a month to get up to speed. If you aren't in good shape when you start hiking the trail, that's no problem, because you can start slowly and increase your speed as your fitness improves. One man I met started with eight mile days, but by his third week he was hiking eighteen miles a day. There's no particular reason to go fast, except that the faster you go the more often you hit towns, which means you don't have to carry as much weight in food. Also, it's recommended to hike quickly in Virginia because the state is just so big.

Gear and Other Requirements

I once spent an entire day contemplating the contents of a 1-quart ziplock bag. From six in the morning to six at night, scouring every inch of its contents in my mind, I was hoping to find a way to slash a few ounces. That day it was the first-aid kit, but other days and weeks it was other gear. In terms of gear, it's weight that matters the most. Less weight means less work, fewer injuries, and a faster pace. This provides the hiker with increased flexibility and improved health. What gear is truly necessary for a thru hike? The three heavy items are the tent or tarp, the sleeping bag, and the stove. Whatever you decide on gear, it's reasonable to spend five hundred to a thousand dollars in total on it.

Cooking

There are four options for cooking. First, don't. This works fine in places where you hit town every other day, but for longer stretches pasta and rice are too valuable. Second, you can carry a white gas stove. The fuel is essentially a pure diesel ... these are the kinds of hiking stoves that you pump before using. Third, you can use isobutane stoves, a variant of propane stoves. Fourth, you can use Pepsi can stoves. Pepsi can stoves are made from ... Pepsi cans. The design is based on a Swedish stove (the Trangia), and they burn rubbing alcohol, medical alcohol, or very strong vodka. Thru hikers can become gear freaks, and they have done the research on stove weight. The research shows that Pepsi can stoves are the most efficient in terms of BTUs per pound, followed closely by isobutane stoves. Also, you can make a Pepsi can stove yourself for supplies that cost a dollar.

Sleeping

I didn't carry a tent or tarp, though hikers in groups tend to find them useful. As for a sleeping bag, a lightweight fleece bag weighs about a pound and a half ... it won't help you much in the snow, but in warm summer weather it's fine. Some people like sleeping pads, but if your back doesn't mind the wood floor you can skip them. Lightweight fanatics are known to trim straps on their packs, cut the handles off of toothbrushes, not carry soap, never change clothes, and buy expensive titanium cook pots. When you're hiking for that long, the difference of a few ounces is noticeable, and the difference of a few pounds is important. If you don't use gear every day, you probably don't need it. If you can replace gear with lighter gear that does the same thing, you probably should. A hardcore lightweight backpacker would say that the only essential piece of gear is the bandanna. My pack weighed between ten and twenty five pounds, depending on food and cold weather gear. But even if you have a lightweight pack, sometimes you just want an extra item. I once found a copy of a trilogy of books by Asimov, The Foundation Series. I carried it for four days and finally finished it. The extra pound was worth it, for a short time anyway.

Emergencies

Hiking without a tent is an interesting thing. If it rains, you either find a shelter or get wet. On the 4th of July, I was hiking with a guy named Doc Gnarley in Shenandoah National Park. We were about ten miles from the next shelter and heard the thunderstorm coming, so we set up camp on the front porch of a private hut that was locked. Ordinarily you'd watch fireworks on July 4th, but instead we drank Coors Beer and ate potato chips while watching the lightning. On another occasion, I arrived at the Brink Road Shelter in New Jersey only to find it full, so I pulled the picnic table under the edge of the roof and slept on the table ... until my friend Sea Legs showed up two hours later, whereupon I slept at the foot of the shelter. I got kicked a lot, but it was dry.

Thru-hiker etiquette dictates that a shelter is never full, no matter how many people are in it. Since staying dry is very important to avoid getting hypothermia, you'd never want to turn someone away. So sometimes ten or twelve people will crowd into a space built for six. But generally, when people show up and put a shelter over capacity, some of the people who are already there go set up their tent (if they have one), so it tends to work out. One time it didn't work out for me, though. In central Maine, I arrived at a six-person shelter with six people in it at six in the evening. They informed me it was full, so I picked up my pack and hiked another nine miles in the rain with my headlamp battery dying, arriving at West Carry Pond Lean-to four hours later. When I woke up in the morning, it was so pleasant to be surrounded by friendly hikers who didn't mind sharing their shelter.

Finishing the Trail

The trail ends in Baxter State Park, at the top of Mount Katahdin. The hike up the mountain is the biggest climb on the trail, and it's a rather difficult one too, but soon enough you get there. There's a sign at the top, so people tend to celebrate when they arrive. I had a cigar and a can of beer. Some other people that day brought margaritas. I suppose it's an interesting feeling, finishing the A.T. You hike for months on end, going north to a mountain in Maine, and then you get there. People stand on the top for a while, get cold from the wind, and then hike back down the mountain. A few people decide they aren't done hiking, and start the long trek back to Georgia, but most thru hikers go back to civilization. When I finished the A.T., I took a bus to Monson, ate lobster, and flew to North Dakota. Two days later I drove twelve hundred miles to Pittsburgh, found an apartment, and started graduate school. In summary, in the week before and after hiking the Appalachian Trail, I drove as far as I walked in four months. But thru hiking stays with you. Trying to describe the beautiful views is difficult, so let me leave you with a quote about Mt. Katahdin, which to me is symbolic of the trail as a whole.

Man is born to die. His works are short-lived. Buildings crumble, monuments decay, wealth vanishes, but Katahdin in all its glory forever shall remain the mountain of the people of Maine.

— Governor Percival P. Baxter