You and you alone define the conditions that dictate the experience of your thru hike. Until your feet finally hit the trail it’s impossible to envision what it’s actually going to be like, and it’s possible to carry an unfounded obligation to the plans that you made beforehand. Part of the allure and opportunity in doing a long distance hike is planning to not have plans.
Living by a rigidly set schedule is probably something you’re looking to escape from by leaving society and dirtbagging it on trail for several months. You should definitely do your research, especially if you’re purchasing gear or doing mail drops, but committing yourself to an unrealistic timetable you made on your couch several months beforehand will only serve to limit opportunity and stifle your experience.
You’ve got over 2,000 miles ahead of you- how are you going to hike them? When I started training for my hike in the winter of 2014, I visited Blood Mountain twice a week, trail running with a ULA Circuit filled with 18lbs. It had been a while since I had put in any serious miles, so I figured that trail running would be a more effective way to rebuild my trail legs. I’ve always been a fast hiker who tends to gallop downhill and aggressively push myself up climbs without rest, achieving the proverbial “runner’s high” at the peak, which augments the already elated feeling that being atop a mountain invokes.
I started my hike in very much the same fashion, hiking 26 miles my first day. I kept a pace of 3 – 4 miles an hour, taking a short break each hour or so to rest and refuel. My body was accustomed to the pace from my training, and it seemed like the way for me to get in the miles each day while enjoying breaks at overlooks and time at camp. However, I also found that my sprightly stride required more energy, which required more food, and that I seemed to be more tired at the end of the day than the more efficient hikers only walking 2.5 miles an hour. I was overeager and risked burning myself out. The differences in energy expenditure and impact on your body between 2.5 and 3.5 miles an hour are definitely noticeable, and by nightfall, you’ll usually find yourself in the same camp as the people who had a slightly longer, yet easier day. The story of the tortoise and the hare came to mind, and I soon realized that this was not the experience I wanted.
A popular trail maxim says it all: It’s not about the miles, it’s all about the smiles. What I had envisioned in my planning no longer correlated with the desires I was having on trail, so I decided to make a change. I slowed down a bit, and the resulting experience turned into something more beautiful than I ever could have imagined. I started to see more. I began to appreciate more. I felt more. I started having more intimate encounters with wildlife and also with people. The trail opened up to me and began to reveal its wondrous ways. At that point I made a commitment to not just hike the Appalachian Trail, but to fully immerse myself in it. It’s likely that this is the first time in your life that you’ve been able to live purely by your own agenda, free to be yourself, limited only by your own thoughts, beliefs and expectations- I implore you to make the most of it.
Guidebooks Are a Resource, Not an Agenda
I spent several weeks going through AWOL’s guidebook, and since I had mail drops to prepackage I was faced with the impossible- determining where I was going to be in 4 months, how far I’d be walking that day and what I’d be in the mood to eat. In my planning I anticipated being able to finish in roughly 136 days, or four and a half months. By my fourth day on trail I had strayed from my proposed timeline, instantly realizing how much time I had wasted with a calculator, pencil and highlighters planning in the previous weeks. The magic of the experience had taken over, and deviation from the sterile timeline I had created was truly a liberating feeling.
Oddly enough, the plan I created didn’t account for spending several days at Miss Janet’s house, or the music festival 500ft off trail we happened to stumble upon in New Jersey. It definitely didn’t factor in that double zero we took in Pennsylvania for my birthday at the somewhat secret “219” that included a lush plot of grass to tent on, coolers full of beer, and a dinner for eight hikers that included fifteen pounds of Alaskan King Crab legs with a delicious array of sides and several bottles of premium scotch. Trail is FULL of truly magical experiences that you can’t possibly account for, so make sure that the plans you do make are dynamic enough to be able to take part in them.
I can truly say that I absolutely love walking, but if that were all hiking the AT were about, it wouldn’t be anything close to the experience that it embodies. Trail is about people. It embodies community. Its conditions and landscapes foster spontaneity and bring magic into the lives of hikers who bring an open perspective and adventurous spirit. It’s important to be mindful of your final goal, but don’t let adherence to your original plan serve to limit the vast potential for truly wonderful experiences inherent in this journey.
I met a person on trail who was unwilling to take the .2 mile blue blaze to enjoy a waterfall for lunch- our friendship didn’t last very long. After parting ways I reached the waterfall in mere minutes, stumbling upon hikertrash I had been trying to catch since Trail Days. Perhaps for some it’s really just a walk, but in my opinion, those folks have missed the bus. You’re not going to break the speed record, so what’s the big rush? Take time to enjoy the experience- the last one to Khatadin is the true winner.
Case In Point
Sometime in Virginia I met an interesting fellow- let’s call him Pogo. Pogo was a really chill, deep thinker from California in his early forties that I shared many deep conversations with in a short time. We found ourselves hiking within the same bubble for a couple of weeks, and he was really determined to get to Harper’s Ferry by a certain arbitrary date- so determined that he offered to pay all the expenses of my hiking partner, Wookie, and I for two weeks to ensure that he hiked at least 18 miles every day. After we all discussed it at lunch one day, Wookie and I agreed that we would join him since we had been hiking together already, shared good company, and both saw the free ride as a welcomed blessing.
Our destination for the evening: Four Pines Hostel. We reached Dragon’s Tooth just in time to take a few pictures before a violent thunderstorm with torrential rains chilled us to the bone. We huddled under an outcropping, trying to stay out of the whipping winds and stinging rain. It quickly became evident that it wasn’t going to let up anytime soon, so I made the decision to seek lower ground and hurry to the pizza, beer and hostel waiting several miles ahead. So much water had fallen so quickly that the trail became a six inch deep river, its outcroppings transformed into massive waterfalls. I would not have been nearly so confident in my descent had I been wearing anything but my beloved Chacos. Trekking poles were a must. After getting our provisions, reuniting with old hikertrash, meeting Joe and seeing what an amazing place Four Pines is, Wookie and I decided that we would zero the next day before beginning our contract with Pogo. The forecast showed a beautiful day ahead and we had camp chores to do, since my companion set her pack in someone’s shit pile that was conveniently located at a well defined clearing by the river the day before, and it had been a while since we were able to air out our infernally damp lives.
Moments before the Great Flood at Dragon’s Tooth
We hadn’t had a good zero for nearly two weeks and Four Pines was by far the coolest place I had been in several hundred miles. Pogo seemed offended by the idea, disgusted that it seemed we were backing out so soon. I proposed a plan that would allow us to catch him in two days. He gruffly agreed and retreated to his tent at around eight that evening. Pogo left at sunrise the next morning, hiking more than 23 miles that day. Meanwhile, we spent the day relaxing, sharing stories with with our beautiful hosts, making music and fishing. Obviously feeling betrayed, Pogo soon stopped responding to my texts and we never saw him again.
I reached out to him after returning home to say hello, to thank him for our time together and to see how things ended up for him. Turns out, Pogo left trail several weeks after that fateful day at Four Pines. He said he was burnt out hiking 25 mile days and that he just wasn’t having fun anymore. In doing the math at the time, only a 15 mile per day average was required for him to meet his ultimate goal, but the pressure he had created for himself proved stronger than any logic or equation.
It’s a sincere tragedy- Pogo was as excited to reach Khatadin as anyone I’ve ever met and he came short of his goal because he burnt himself out, desperately trying to catch up with a barren timetable, devoid of all but walking. Unprompted, he intimated to me that he wishes he had taken that zero with us at Four Pines.
Wise words to live by- on trail and in life
This adventure is your own- you owe it to yourself to ensure that you get the most out of each moment of your journey. Remain flexible. Adapt. Check in with yourself from time to time to identify your needs. If something is not working for you, including the people you find yourself with, only you have the ability to recognize the opportunity that exists and make a corrective change. The hike will be over before you know it- make sure you make the most of every moment.