More heart than heel

Appalachian Trail
Your home away from home: Typical accomodations along the Appalachian Trail. photo by Danny Bernstein

Is 2007 your year to hike the Appalachian Trail? If you’ve been trying to figure out whether you have the right stuff to walk the 2,175 miles from Georgia to Maine, listen to Leanna Joyner, who through-hiked the AT in 2003. “Success,” says Joyner, “has to do with enjoying your surroundings and having a positive attitude despite uncomfortable circumstances.”

Joyner, who now works for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s regional office in Asheville, continues, “Yes, the right gear always helps, but having an openness to learn, to be challenged and to be adaptable is very important.”

Most people who through-hike the AT do so at a point of transition in their lives: graduation, retirement, losing a job or a partner. When you complete the trail, you will be forever known as a 2,000-miler — you can put that on your transcript (and, if you wish, your tombstone).

A little history

Several names will forever be associated with the Appalachian Trail. Benton MacKaye was a thinker and advocate for wilderness who, in 1921, proposed a footpath connecting the mountains from the highest point in New England to the highest point in the South. Myron Avery was a doer who organized hiking clubs, recruited a corps of volunteers to build the trail, and headed the Appalachian Trail Conference (now the Appalachian Trail Conservancy) for many years. A private, nonprofit organization, the ATC is the umbrella for the 30 volunteer clubs whose members built and now maintain the trail. Avery became the first 2,000-miler by walking the entire AT, in sections, in 1936. Earl Shaffer was the first through-hiker, walking the whole trail in four months in 1948.

In 1955, Emma “Grandma” Gatewood became the first woman to complete the trail. After raising 11 children (now there’s a life transition) in southern Ohio, she first hiked the AT at age 67 and went on to complete it two more times — the last time at age 76. She was the first person to walk the trail three times, and this was well before the days of light, ergonomically designed backpacks and sleeping bags. Instead, Gatewood wore tennis shoes and hauled her gear — an army blanket, a raincoat, and a shower curtain — in a duffel bag slung over her shoulder. One of her famous lines was, “Most people are pantywaists. Exercise is good for you.”

The reality

Hiking the whole trail is not an enterprise for dreamers looking to commune with nature. Spring flowers, mountaintops and dramatic sunsets are among the rewards, but they don’t happen every day. Instead, through-hikers and section-hikers alike need to be linear thinkers: Go north, follow the white blazes, make your miles, stop for the night before you drop. Through-hikers walk the trail in one continuous stretch between mid-March and the beginning of October. If they start earlier, they can be walking in snow or get caught in a blizzard in the Southern Appalachians. If they reach Baxter State Park in Maine later in the fall, they’ll find the park closed.

I was a section-hiker who walked the trail on yearly vacations over many years, completing it in 1998. On each section, I started at one point and needed to get to my car by a certain date. The ATC makes no distinction between the two approaches, terming everyone who finishes the AT a 2,000-miler. In 2005, 510 people completed the trail, 99 of them section-hikers.

How long will it take you? It depends on how much you walk per day and how many “zero” (nonhiking) days you take. If you average 13 miles per day six days a week, it will take you six-and-a-half months to finish. Most backpackers walk more, since the hiking day is so long (you don’t have to drive to the trailhead — just pack up and start walking). And on the seventh day, you don’t rest: You do laundry, take a shower, buy and repackage your food and send postcards home.

“Postcards?” I can hear you asking. Here’s why: If you call home too often and get pulled back to your family life, you’ll find yourself leaving the trail to attend your cousin’s wedding, or worrying about your sister’s divorce. For the duration of this adventure, other AT hikers are your family.

Walking the AT is not a solitary experience, and meeting other hikers is part of the fun. If you start out by yourself — and most successful hikers do — you’ll meet people at shelters and be able to pick and choose your companions at different points. Shelters, planned about a day’s walk apart, are three-sided structures with a tin roof and a front that’s open to the elements. Hikers keep in touch through the log books. Originally placed in shelters so hikers could enter their intended route as a safety precaution, they’re now also used for musings, exaltations and complaints about the trail, nature and food (a vitally important topic on the AT).

Walked 15 miles today, saw a snake heading into the grass. Looking forward to some chow. Curry noodles tonight. Elaborate drawings sometimes accompany log-book entries.

The superlatives

The easiest portion of the AT? Shenandoah National Park. The Skyline Drive crisscrosses the trail, providing many places to eat, take a break and throw out your trash.

The hardest? The New Hampshire/Maine border. Mahoosuc Notch is known as the hardest mile on the AT. When negotiating the rocks in the White Mountains, I had to throw my pack down ahead of me, scramble to pick it up, and repeat the process again and again.

The most boring? Massachusetts is the ultimate green tunnel. I felt like I was walking around in a circle and would never escape.

The most exciting and varied part? We’re living in it: The Southern Appalachians boast the trail’s highest point (Clingmans Dome), along with outstanding views, balds, hospitable trail towns (Hot Springs, N.C., and Damascus, Va.) and abundant spring wildflowers.

First steps

Celebrated in books, movies, myths and, more recently, listservs and blogs, the AT may be the most documented trail in the world, so getting schooled in its ways isn’t hard. To get started, consider joining the ATC (www.appalachiantrail.org). Buy the trail guides and the Appalachian Trail Thru-Hikers’ Companion (edited by Cindy “Mrs. Gorp” Miller, $13.95 at the ATC Web site) and pay attention to Grandma Gatewood, who said, “It takes more heart than heel.” Good luck — and have fun!

[Danny Bernstein, a hike leader and outdoors writer, can be reached at danny@hikertohiker.org.]

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