What’s for dinner?

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.

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Is it time for a safety meeting?

An example of an unsafe building on the Appalachian Trail.

“I think we need to have a safety meeting.”

I first heard this from a guy sitting next to me on day 2 of my AT hike while hanging around a shelter close to dinner time.  I was confused and a little taken aback. What kind of safety information did this person want to impart?  Was he an official with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (the ATC is an umbrella organization that helps maintain the AT).  Did he want to go over rules for  securing food from bears or perhaps proper hygiene to prevent the spread of norovirus?  But this guy wasn’t wearing anything identifying him as an ATC official (they are required to do this when on the trail in an official capacity).

Okay I thought, something is not quite right here – what am I missing?  So, I asked, “ umm, what kind of safety meeting are you talking about?  He, as well as the other folks around the picnic table, started to giggle.  They explained that a “safety meeting” was AT code for being invited to smoke dope.  Now, why you’d need a secret code to decide whether or not to smoke dope escapes me, especially when you are out in the wilderness.

Nonetheless this does appear to be the universal code on the AT for raising this issue.  After that day, I heard it repeatedly – about safety meetings in progress, in planning, in shelters, on the actual trail, what have you.

Indeed, it turns out that safety meetings can be held anywhere, as the need arises.  Just the other day I was at a great trail magic event happily scarfing down food products that I would never eat under any circumstances in “real” life.  Anyway, a young lady asked me if I had seen her 3 traveling companions. As it turns out, I had.  I explained that they were about ¼ mile back, just sitting down in a circle right smack dab on the trail.  Yes, in retrospect it was a little odd, but I am by nature pretty oblivious (feel free to verify this with either of my daughters) and so didn’t give it a second thought when I walked by them.  When she heard this she just waved her hand in exasperation/annoyance and said “oh, they’re probably having a safety meeting or something.  Not wanting to know what the “or something” might entail, I  ended the conversation right there.

But for me, I reached my safety limit, so to speak, one day after a long climb in the afternoon to reach a shelter where I planned on camping for the night. As I pulled in, I noticed that one hiker (trail name “Fred”) was already there.  As it turns out, Fred had been sitting there, alone, for 4 hours.  I found this odd – why would you just sit at a shelter for 4 hours in the middle of the day, by yourself?  Then it hit me – Fred had not just been having your basic run of the mill solitary safety meeting, in all likelihood he had been holding a one man safety symposium all afternoon. In other words, Fred probably was completely cranked.

Soon however, 4 more hikers showed up.  Somewhat to my surprise, the symposium topic switched to tobacco.  So now, as I am trying to eat dinner, all 5 of them, are sitting around me at the picnic table, happily smoking like chimneys and I am getting a dose of second hand smoke that I haven’t experienced in years.  This was really frustrating: here I was, having just huffed my way  hundreds of feet up a mountain side and these  guys do the same thing and then decide to go damage their lungs a bit?  I discretely moved to the fire ring to finish dinner but, out of curiosity, remained in hearing range.

As everyone knows, all decent symposia end with a Q&A session and this one was no exception.  Only one question was raised but it was discussed at length and in great detail – the question was how best to score some dope when they reached Damascus.

This was when I really understood that I belonged to a different category of AT hiker.

So far it has been an interesting journey, and a learning experience in unanticipated ways. In particular, making contact with the millennial generation (which dominates thru hiker demographics) has proven to be quite educational.  The pack of hikers has thinned out a good bit but the shelters and campsites can still get crowded.  And the weather has been extremely challenging for me – rainy and cold.  I hate having wet gear.  The trail demands your respect in many ways.

So, I urge all of you to remember this – whether you are on the Appalachian Trail or not, it is important to always put safety first.