Things I think I know (about hiking the AT)

Harpers Ferry and the author at ATC Headquarters

So, I recently rolled into Harpers Ferry on my AT thru hike.  I stopped at the ATC headquarters there and let them collect statistics from me.  As of mid May, over 3,700 people had started a thru hike.  I am thru hiker #545 to check in at Harpers Ferry.  Many hikers started on the trail after I did and are making there way north – folks refer to this as “the bubble”.  I hope to avoid getting caught up in the bubble as it means crowded shelters, campsites, etc.

On the AT, Harpers Ferry is 1023.7 miles from the top of Springer Mountain and considered the psychological half way point of the hike.  The real half way point for me comes in a few days where the AT crosses Dead Woman’s Hollow Road. Yes, that is its name. Seriously, someone really thought this was a good idea for the name of a road?  I wonder what they call their children?  Were they like the Arthur family my ex-wife knew who named their first born son “King”?  I am not kidding – it is a true story.  Maybe Mr. Arthur was a cartographer.

But, I have digressed rather badly. Back to the main point – Harpers Ferry seems a good point to reflect on what I have learned thus far from my journey.  So excuse me while I expound/vent/complain and/or rant about a few things.

1) Worst advice ever for anyone contemplating a thru hike? “No need to train before hand, just show up in Georgia and hike yourself into shape.” I mean, this is just so wrong. The data indicate that ¼ of the people who start the AT at Springer never make it out of Georgia. I believe that is largely because people do go down there and think they will hike themselves into shape. But, Georgia is really hard. The mountains are steep and high (6000+ ft) and come one after another.  My advice?  Be in the best shape of your life before you get to Springer and have at least 150 miles on the boots you plan to use before you step on the trail.

2) Worst assessment I’ve heard about the trail?  This is a tie between “Virginia is easy” and “The Roller Coaster in Virginia is not really that bad”.  Let’s break this down.  VIRGINIA IS NOT EASY.  The AT in the Shenandoah National Park indeed is a welcome break but there are 450 other miles to walk in that state!  For example, in the space of a few days you encounter Apple Orchard, Bluff, Bald Knob and Three Ridges – all mountains with a lot/constant granite to negotiate and all involving steep climbs of thousands of feet.  Then, there is the matter of the Roller Coaster – in 13 miles you climb 5,000 feet up and down a series of very steep and very rocky hills.  The master trail planner for this section did not believe in switchbacks. So, no thank you, the Virginia AT is NOT easy.

3) Worst aphorism ever:. “No rain, no pain, no Maine.” If someone says this to you, please detain them so I can come slap them in the face. If I am not available, please feel free to slap them yourself.  There has been a lot of rain this Spring on the AT in Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.  The Smokey the Bear national forest signs all indicate that the forest fire hazard is “low”.  These signs NEVER say “low”.  I always thought that was part of the sign just to provide symmetry.  But all the rain this year doesn’t make getting to Maine more noble than any other year. I’d be happy to reach Katahdin without ever needing to don my rain gear (that possibility was unfortunately eliminated for me on Day 2 of my thru hike).

4) Biggest testosterone question on the AT?  “When did you start your thru hike?” This is another way of announcing “I’ve got a big one”.  Initially, I thought this was a nice, innocent conversation starter among strangers but hearing this repeatedly has let me understand that it is really meant as a macho lead in to how great/fast/strong the other hiker is because they started on the trail 2, 3, 4 weeks after you. There was a section hiker at a recent shelter who made a game out of guessing when you started your thru hike. For me, he estimated that I had started a full month sooner than I actually had.  In other words, he looked at me and thought I looked particularly decrepit. I just let it pass.  But I have yet to ask someone when they started hiking – it just doesn’t seem relevant. 

But there are actually upbeat things on which to comment:

1) Best advice I got before starting my hike?  “Bring a Kindle Paperwhite with you and load it with books”. My friend Michael insisted that this was a good idea despite the added weight and I took his advice.  At night, I am working my way through Justin Cronin’s masterful zombie apocalypse trilogy “The Passage” and it has made settling into the shelter or my tent at night a highly anticipated event.  Thank you Michael.

2) Best piece of equipment that I’ve added to my pack?  A high amperage battery recharger.  Yes, most people gradually pare down the size of their pack as they hike – my pack weight has grown. But having the battery recharger has enabled me to continuing using my cell phone without fear of running out of juice.

3) Piece of equipment that I have not yet used?  My tube of sun screen (see #3 in above paragraph concerning aphorisms for more details).

4) Stupidest mistake I’ve made to date?  Another tie – between stepping on my eye glasses and bending the frames and not properly securing my tent to the top of my pack and having it drop onto the trail without my knowledge. Talk about a surge of panic – when I discovered the tent was missing, it was not, well, my finest moment. I used some bad words.  The good news is that I did eventually find it after hiking back up the trail for a number of panic stricken minutes (I have a better system for securing my tent to my pack as a consequence).

As I look forward to the second half of my thru hike, I can’t wait to find out what new aphorisms or pieces of advice that I will be offered. One thing is certain, if someone tells me that New Hampshire’s White Mountains are overrated, I will try to put them in touch with the person who said that Virginia was easy.  They deserve each other. 

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