Meal time on the AT.
So, I admit that I am a difficult person with whom to live, especially because of my dietary restrictions/preferences – low sodium, low fat, low caffeine , etc. Not surprisingly, my wife would agree with my assessment. To her credit, she doesn’t often tell me that my eating habits are a pain in the butt. But, after being on the trail now for almost two months, it is true that my eating habits have, well, further “evolved”. I guess that would be the kindest way of putting it.
Case in point: at a recent trail magic event I tucked into 2 packages of those mini powdered donuts, 3 bags of chips, a honeybun, and a banana, all washed down with a “real” coke (not decaffeinated coke zero). In my “real” life only the banana would have been on the menu. Or consider this, I paused at Uncle Johnny’s, a hostel literally right on the trail in Tennessee, just as Yoda (his trail name, not his real name) put out a plate of bologna sandwiches (bologna, white bread, mayo and cucumbers). Bologna hasn’t been part of my dietary lineup, so to speak, for about 35 years (actually, neither has white bread or mayo), but that day I scarfed down 2 of those sandwiches without a second thought. When I told my wife about these “meals”, I expect that she silently wept, then wondered who this person really was to whom she was talking.
The truth is that eating habits on the AT are, well, unusual. Actually, dinner time on the AT has become a favorite time for me – watching what people eat on the trail is fascinating.
There is the woman I saw making a tuna burrito at lunch time. Pretty basic – a flour tortilla and tuna. You know those foil packets of tuna that you see in the grocery store? AT thru hikers purchase those in prodigious quantities and then spend meal times arguing over which version has the best flavor. Anyway, this woman announced that she had these tuna burritos every day for lunch. This gave me pause, given the problems with mercury accumulation in tuna. If she keeps this up, she could become, literally, a human thermometer by the time she reaches Maine, if not before.
Speaking of burritos, there was the hiker I saw the other day making a burrito by first taking her tortilla, slathering it liberally with peanut butter, then adding corn chips, jelly beans and a little honey before folding it up and eating the damn thing. Take that Chipotle.
But there are other approaches to meal time. For example, I made and then dehydrated 135 dinners so I could eat healthily on the trail. And I felt good about this. Then I met a woman who was hiking the AT with her brother and dad. She had made and dehydrated 465 dinners for the three of them while on the trail. This was truly an heroic effort on her part.
But the vast majority of hikers don’t seem to fancy dehydrated meals. Generally speaking if you see someone preparing a Mountain House or some other brand name dehydrated meal then the odds are that the person is only out on the trail for a few days.
Besides tuna, there are of course those hikers who favor Spam as well as the Underwood ham and chicken products but when it comes down to it, on the trail, Ramen is still King. Is anyone truly surprised to hear this? College students and AT thru hikers must make up a sizeable percentage of the overall population responsible for Ramen sales.
Ramen is consumed in a variety of ways on the trail. There are the traditionalists – making noodle soup according to the instructions (add hot water and the flavor packet). There are the creative types – I saw someone “enhance” their ramen experience by adding Cheez-its to the basic soup. There are the stubborn minimalists who eat Ramen noodles raw (yes, I am serious). But, without a doubt, the most famous of the Ramen recipes is the notorious “Ramen Bomb”. A bomb is made by adding equal parts Ramen and instant mashed potatoes to hot water. The resulting concoction is revered for the carbohydrate load it can deliver for its maker.
What is the engine that drives all of this gourmet meal making, at least in the southern section of the AT? It is none other than Dollar General. It is hard to over-emphasize its importance to the thru hiker community. I’ve gone through a lot of small towns near the trail at this stage of my hike. Not very many of them have big box type grocery stores but they all have a Dollar General (sometimes two). These stores have adapted to this reality and stock every kind of junk food imaginable. It is hard to imagine what meal time on the trail would be like without them.
My diet now includes regular doses of Little Debbies, Hostess, and Tastykake products. It is all about the calories. I haven’t yet succumbed and bought any tuna or spam (or munched on dry Ramen). You’ll know that I’ve really gone off the deep end if you hear that I’ve started eating tuna burritos. But, truth be told, my wife thinks I went off the deep end years ago, so she probably won’t notice if it comes to that.