Appalachian Trail as much about people as nature
By Jayson Alexander | (email@example.com)
Just about anybody who spends time outdoors, especially hiking, can spout off at least a fact or two about the Appalachian Trail, which turns 75 years old this week.
The trail, commonly known as “The AT,” runs 2,181 miles from Springer Mountain, Ga., near Amicalola Falls State Park, to Mount Katahdin, Maine, in Baxter State Park and is a highway for those who seek companionship with nature and a simpler way of life. Thousands of people every year attempt to “thru-hike” The AT in one season for various reasons, whether they just like to hike or a life-changing event has occurred and opened up the opportunity, everybody on The AT has their own story adding to the experience.
The hike itself is life changing for many who complete it, but that is the catch: Many of those who begin this walk will drop out only a few miles from where the trail begins. Hundreds of print sources are available on how to prepare for the hike, what to expect, and even accounts of other thru-hikers entire journeys, the key is just getting started and having the determination to finish out.
Jeff “Geo” Sweeney of Little River Trading Co. simply decided to go for it because of books he’d read and the idea of just being able to spend so much time outside hiking.
Bert “WILDCAT” Emmerson, who works at the same shop, said after hiking The AT’s path across the Smokies in April 1987, he wanted to be a “real” backpacker. April is about the time that the huge portion of thru-hikers pass through the Smokies, so he spent an entire week hiking and talking with different groups of hikers at trail shelters. “It was the coolest thing I’d ever done,” he said.
The decision to attempt a thru-hike is a rather tricky one for most folks though because of the obligations associated with any normal life.
The average thru-hike will take a person six months to complete, give or take a month or two. For most of us, six months without a job is just unheard of, but the economy has perhaps unwillingly provided some people with the life-changing opportunity to hit the trail and never look back. Family proves to be another reason for keeping off the trail as well, because anybody with even a somewhat close knit family would suffer a little home sickness from being away that long.
Another decision for would-be thru-hikers: Which way do you go? There is the normal northbound hiker, or “NOBO,” and the south-bounder, or “SOBO.” For those who might get a late start headed north, there is also the “flip-flop.” This option presents itself because the northern terminus of the trail is Mount Katahdin, the highest peak in Maine at 5,268 feet. On Oct. 15, the park where Katahdin is located is closed for the season because of inclement weather, thus putting a time constraint on any hiker who gets the late start. So, a flip-flopper will hike as far north as possible and then before the park closes, travel to Katahdin and head back south finishing somewhere in the middle.
Hiking the trail NOBO is the best bet for anybody who is on the impatient side and wants to hit the trail running because the start time for a walk north could be anywhere from January to March, but SOBO is the best bet for anybody who might be running a little late.
Geo decided to head south because of school reasons, while WILDCAT headed north because the thought of waiting on spring drove him up the wall. If free time is all you have and regular hiking is your game, a thru-hike is as simple as loading a pack and walking.
Preparation is key
Preparing for a thru-hike in the gear department is very challenging, and lightweight is the ticket. When asked to give just one helpful pointer to anybody who might want to hike the trail, WILDCAT simply answered “light is right.”
Starting out on the trail, hikers will begin to notice at the shelters that tons and tons of sometimes brand new gear will be lying around in piles. The cause: over preparation. Three sets of clothes, 10 changes of socks and a huge stove is not necessary, nor are 30 cans of beanie-weenies. Learning the game of long-distance hiking takes either practice beforehand, or trial and error. WILDCAT practiced for years bringing his pack weight down considerably compared to the majority of other thru-hikers. Some hikers have been known to start the trail with 60 to 70 pounds of gear only to shed 30 pounds of it before making it through Tennessee.
After a few months on the trail, most thru-hikers will have switched over to carrying the lightest gear available, such as smaller stoves — some so simple to the point of being handmade and running off of denatured alcohol. They find that light sleeping pads, bags, shelters and packs are the most important pieces to worry about when trying to trim the weight. Then cramming as much cheap and packable food into their packs is another typical sight of the experienced thru-hiker in hostels all along the way. Tarps begin to replace tents farther along and heavy boots slowly disappear as light trail shoes begin to appear, and so on as gear keeps getting more and more minimalistic. The whole idea of the trail is to exist simply and enjoy the time outdoors.
Once everything is packed and ready to go, hitting the trail and soaking in the experience is the final step. This is what The AT is really all about. Meeting hundreds of new people from all walks of life and visiting new towns every week can really leave a mark. WILDCAT and Geo agree that the best part of the trail was meeting people. Spending so much time with new people can also help with gaining more patience because nobody is going to be able to get along with everybody. Being able to handle so many people and sharing space with other hikers on top of a long day of hiking is quite the test.
Not only is the experience and camaraderie on the trail amazing, but off the trail as well. Staying in hostels and hanging out in the small towns along the trail adds a whole new twist to the scenario. Some of the more highlighted “Trail Towns” — such as Hot Springs, N.C, or Damascus, Va. — are packed full of past thru-hikers, small-town shops, and usually a local outfitter or two with accessories to suit any hiking need. There is almost always a hot spot to grab a cheap, but hefty, meal to match the hunger of a hiker as well. Some hikers have even been known to love a town so much that they either stop the trail right then and call it home or after completing it, head straight back and settle down there.
Hiking the Appalachian Trail is truly a life-altering event, but for the better. If proper preparation and practice is done and mixed with some serious determination, a successful thru-hike could be in the near future for anybody willing to take the first step.