Imagine a small black ant, marshmallow in tow, marching over the backs of 400 Bactrian camels that suffer from severe scoliosis. Now enlarge this scenario, zoom in, and consider what it must take for a bony-kneed human to haul a 50-pound pack over more than 2,000 miles of continuous, forested mountain terrain.
The 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail extends from Georgia to Maine. Since its inception in 1937, about 9,000 people have walked it end to end. There’s no rule on how long that should take, but “section-hikers” tend to do it piecemeal over a period of years, while “through-hikers” average six months. The 5 million steps it takes to walk the entire trail leave a unique impression that only AT hikers can understand. Fortunately, these trail hounds are willing to lift up their boot heels and give readers a closer look.
Amy “Willow” Mullins, 40, who through-hiked the AT last year, gave an impression of what went on in her head while she walked the epic trail. “I built empires, reveled in their glory and then dismantled them bit by bit thru corruption and greed,” Mullins said. “I financed successful companies and watched them fade into bankruptcy over time. I dreamed dreams and wrestled demons. I solved problems, imagined new ones, and lived on the edge. I wallowed in pain, sorrow, misery and self-pity; picked myself up, dusted off and proclaimed that life is indeed good. I don’t think the same way I once did. I don’t react the same way I used to. I am more single-minded, less multitaskable, slower and even more of a loner.”
For Mullins, thunderstorms were a high point of the journey. “There is nothing more thrilling than the rumble of a spring storm coming up the side of a mountain, passing over your tent, and then fading down the other side of the mountain, thunder echoing from every cove,” she said.
Danielle “Danny” Bernstein, 60, spent 24 years “section-hiking” the AT and believes that one of the keys to her success was proper planning. She cautions would-be hikers that even spending several weeks at a time every year on the AT, which is what she did, is not like planning a last-minute day hike.
Todd “Sasquatch” Ransdell, 37, who through-hiked the trail in 2002, gave some advice on what to carry. “Some carry heavy loads with lots of luxuries and seem OK hauling that weight,” he noted. “However, I’ve seen plenty of folks get off the trail because of injuries related to carrying too much weight, particularly stress fractures in the ankles and feet. Most successful long-distance hikers I know carry a pretty light pack, which means cutting down on nonessential gear.” Bring the basics, Ransdell advises, including “a backpack, sleeping bag, cooking and eating pot, alcohol stove, headlamp, water bottles, sleeping pad, one set of clothing, good trail-runners [shoes], a lightweight tarp and food.”
Through-hikers start as early as February, and occasionally as late as June. Most “northbounders” (Georgia to Maine) start in March.
“I started in late March and had plenty of time to reach the northern terminus in Maine before it was too late,” said Ransdell. “Baxter State Park in Maine [where the AT ends on Mount Katahdin] closes in mid-October, so if you want to finish the trail you have to keep that in mind.”
According to Ransdell, “Most people acclimate [to the hiking] pretty quickly, but it would save a lot of physical pain to get in shape before the hike, and reduce the risk of injury. Really, the only way to get in shape for hiking is to hike. Put a pack on your back and hike in a mountainous environment. It’s a good way to test out your gear.”
Watch for blisters, hypothermia, muscle injuries and heat exhaustion, and remember that prevention is the best policy.
To keep a good food supply, either plan mail drops (friends or family pre-shipping food to post offices along the way) or buy as you go. Mails drops are convenient and cheaper unless the unfortunate happens: post-office holidays, lost packages etc. AT hikers generally have easy access to nearby towns every three to five days, and the buy-as-you-go method takes the guesswork out of mail drops. Be sure to get a week’s worth of food before hitting the 100-mile wilderness in Maine, though.
Hikers often start to feel one with nature along the way, but the lighter moments on the trail have nature becoming one with man. Adam Hill, 30, who through-hiked the AT in 1997, noted that hikers never know what the trail will bring them. “The scariest moment that I had was with a skunk trying to get in my sleeping bag one night!” he recalled.
And if you think that’s unusual, consider the experience of Stuart Cowles, 41, a 1988 through-hiker who woke up on the trail somewhere in Maine speechless, with his head resting squarely between the legs of a bull moose.
Moose and skunks aside, if you think you’re ready for this adventure, don’t miss the Mountain Sports Festival seminar series, which leads up to this year’s May 4-6 festival. The series begins with “Trail Magic” at Asheville Pizza & Brewing Co. on Thursday, Feb. 22 at 9:30 p.m. Facilitated by The Appalachian Trail Conference, the seminar will include a through-hiker panel discussion. Pizza, $3 drafts and giveaways will be part of the fun. Admission is free.
If you can’t make it, try poring over these AT hiker-recommended resources to learn more about what it takes to make the journey: the Appalachian Trail Thru-Hikers’ Companion 2006 by Cynthia Taylor-Miller, Dan Bruce’s Thru-Hikers Handbook and the Appalachian Trail Data Book 2006 by Daniel Chazin. The titles are available at local booksellers and outdoor suppliers, as well as the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Web site, www.appalachiantrail.org and www.trailjournals.com.
[Asheville resident Jonathan Poston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
Tips for the Trail
Hill: Bring nonperishables like ramen noodles, mac ‘n’ cheese, Little Debbie Cakes, and put peanut butter on everything! Avoid packing canned foods.
Bernstein: Treat all drinking water, which is easily found in streams, creeks and springs along the way.
Mullins: Bring a small first-aid kit with Band-Aids, antiseptic wipes, Neosporin and an Ace bandage wrap.
Ransdell: If there’s a thunderstorm, get off the ridgeline and sit on your backpack. It usually passes soon enough.