This is just a handy spot for me to post an Oral History I wrote once. It has only tangental relevance to the main thrust of my work, but this blog is a handy spot for me to post it to show to a few people as it has been used in a portfolio sort of way a number of times lately.
I just returned from three months without electricity, news, or much outside influence at all. I’m still getting myself back up to date on all of the things that occurred around the globe while I was ‘away’. Soon I plan to have a post discussing a few noticeable trends, as well as updates on my primary research surrounding this site and its associated Twitter account.
SO ANYWAYS….. this is the part where I tell you that this is copyrighted material and that if you want to use any of it for some reason, that’s awesome! Just let me know and please give the appropriate source credit.
Tales From the Trail
Table of contents:
I’ve got to meet her” (Prologue)………………………………………..7
“In fifth grade I was reading this book about hiking” (Inspiration)….…8
“We were walking through the wedding of the world” (Beauty)………10
“I only have a mile left, I’ve got to keep going” (Destination)………..13
“We were able to stay at a fraternity house” (Hanover)….…………….16
“This is definitely the worst day ever” (Challenges)………….….……..19
“You don’t realize how massive those animals are” (Wildlife)…….……23
“You get into a really communal mindset” (Community)………………27
“That, for me, was some real trail magic” (Generosity)……………..….29
“A toilet and a bed again” (Home)………………………………….…..33
We had everything on our backs” (Epilogue)…………………………..34
AJ: Age 23. A section hiker, he went from Bear Mountain Bridge in New York to Kent Falls, Connecticut between July 31 and August 13, 2010. It was his first backpacking experience.
Stephanie Reighart: Age 24, trail name Evergreen. A thru hiker, she went from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Cornwall Bridge, Connecticut between March 2 and June 1, 2009. She then took six weeks off at home and then resumed her hike, summiting Mt. Katahdin on August 29, 2009 after nearly 2200 miles of walking. Stephanie is currently in the MALS program at Dartmouth College.
Ken and Elizabeth Kessler: Ages 62 and 58, trail name The Caboose. They went from Springer Mountain to Mt. Washington in New Hampshire between May and October of 1979 and completed all but the last few miles of the journey in 1981. They were unable to enter Baxter State Park, just before Mt. Katahdin, due to the weather, and haven’t been back. Together, they covered roughly 2180 miles.
Colleen McCullough: Age 23, trail name Dumpster Dave. Technically a section hiker, Colleen hiked from Damascus, VA to Mt. Katahdin between May 14 and October 8, 2010, hiking 1715 miles. She plans to finish the trail next year.
Paul Kreher: Age 39, trail name Jet Butt. He hiked the entire trail in 1994 with his wife Sherry, minus 200 miles in Pennsylvania due to injury. They started in Georgia and headed to Maine.
Chris Culvern: Age 25, trail name Marathon Man. Unlike most, Chris started his hike in Maine and headed south to Georgia, providing him with a slightly different experience from the norm. He started on June 22, 2006 and finished October 15th of that year.
Stew Towle: Age 22, trail name Gummybear. Stew hiked the trail in two large sections, starting the first from Georgia to Hanover on May 3, 2008 and finishing the last leg of the trail on October 12, 2010. In total, he spent about six months on the trail. He is currently an undergraduate at Dartmouth College.
The Appalachian Trail, or AT as some call it, is a hiking path that runs roughly 2180 miles from Springer Mountain in northern Georgia through fourteen states to Mt. Katahdin in central Maine. The trail project was started in 1923 and eventually came to be protected as part of the National Parks system. Thus the trail is considered federal property. It is maintained by local hiking clubs (including the Dartmouth Outing Club who work the first 72 miles in New Hampshire) under the coordination of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Myron Avery was the first person to successfully hike the entire trail in 1936, making him the first Appalachian “thru hiker”. Since then, roughly 11,000 people have completed the journey, which usually takes four to six months. Most thru hikers start their journey in Georgia and head north, leaving in March or April and making it to Maine around October. They bring only what they can carry on their backs and try to keep that load as light as possible. Only about 10% of those who have attempted the thru hike have achieved their goal. Most do not even attempt to hike the entire trail and simply hike small sections or use it for an afternoon stroll.
The oral history you are about to read is an attempt to capture the experiences of some people who have been on the trail and have been changed by the unique perspective that it provides. It is hoped that their stories will paint a colorful picture of life on the trail for those of us who have not, and probably will not find the opportunity to take advantage of this wonderful journey into a world modernity has largely left behind.
Prologue—“I’ve got to meet her…”
Paul: Somewhere along the way we met two hikers named Dream Catcher and Magoo. Dream Catcher was a young Boston woman who started her thru hike with a friend, but was planning to do the bulk of the trail alone. Magoo was a young guy in his 20’s, planning to be out on the trail for a week or so drinking beers and having a good time with his cousin. So, Dream Catcher and her friend are hiking up from the south and somewhere in Georgia they met Magoo and his cousin.
Well, Dream Catcher goes by and Magoo sees her and says, “I’ve got to meet her.” So, he keeps on hiking. I’m not sure what kind of strings he had to pull to free up the next few months on a whim like that, but apparently not too many, because he winds up heading all the way to Maine. His cousin eventually leaves and a couple of hundred miles later he manages to catch up with Dream Catcher, who by that time was alone too. So they wind up hiking together but they weren’t sharing a tent or anything like that.
Finally, around Pennsylvania, a good 900 miles later, they see it’s funny that they are staying together, cooking together, and they think, “why don’t we ship a tent and one of the stoves home so we can lighten our load, and we’ll commit to hike together for the rest of the trail.” So they became an item on the trail and we actually finished with them. A year or two later we get an invitation in the mail from them and a month later we flew down to Athens, Georgia for their wedding.
“In fifth grade I was reading this book about hiking…”
Stew: When I was twelve at a summer camp in Maine I did a multi-day backpacking trip that went out to Baxter State Park. We climbed Mount Katahdin and I sat down at this little pond a small way up the mountain called Chimney Pond for a rest. I was just sitting out there looking out at this really rough area called the Knife’s Edge and this massive mountain, and I thought to myself, “I want to hike the AT. That’s what I’ve got to do with my life. This is too great.”
Colleen: The past couple of summers I’ve been working in Alaska in Denali National Park for the season, then worked in Colorado with the ski resorts for winter season. This year, when my job ended in Colorado and skiing season was over, I was all ready to go up to Alaska to start my job up there again. I had my plane ticket and everything. But I had a falling out with one of the people I had been living with there, so I decided last minute that I wasn’t going to go back up north, but I didn’t have a job or anything else lined up.
Then I was walking through the bookstore one day and there was this thing about day hikes on the Appalachian Trail. I thought to myself, “Huh. That would be funny, if I just disappeared and hiked the Appalachian Trail for the summer instead of trying to find work.” I talked to a friend of mine who had done it a couple years ago, and he just talked about how much he loved it. So I was like, “All right. Screw it. I’m just going to do it!”
I was really late to be starting all the way in Georgia. So I decided to start out in Damascus, Virginia. I figured, “I’ll start hiking from there and just go until I get tired or I get bored. And then I’ll come home and look for a job.” I wasn’t planning on spending five months out there, but that’s what happened.
Elizabeth: In fifth grade I read this book about hiking the Appalachian Trail and right then and there I decided that I wanted to do the same thing one day. So after I finished college, while I was working in Boston, I decided it was the time to do it. I thought, “I’m not married, I don’t have kids, I don’t like my job, I’m gonna do this.” So I gave notice on my job, and then I called up this guy, Ken, to see if he wanted to do it with me. I was really hoping he would want to do it with me, but I think I was determined, whether he wanted to go or not, that I was going to do it. As it turns out, he decided to go with me and we did it together. And we’re still together, almost thirty years later.
Chris: I was in my second year at college and, I don’t know, I was having a hard time. I thought about transferring. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. They were telling me that I had to go summer school because of the way classes were being offered if I wanted to graduate in four years. So instead of summer school, I figured I could just, like, take a semester off and do an extra semester later. I had nothing else to do and I’d wanted to get on the trail for a while, so I went ahead and did it.
“It was like we were walking through the wedding of the world…”
Paul: The South in the spring was just beautiful. My wife and I hadn’t gotten married yet, but I just kept saying it was like we were walking through the wedding of the world because it was flower after flower with these beautiful mountain laurels and rhododendrons. They were in bloom everywhere and almost blocking the trail they were so thick.
Stew: Pretty far south, there was just like this one day where we were coming down off of a pretty high ridgeline and we just hit this really awesome area. As we descended the whole smell and look of the forest changed, like there were all these different levels to the forest with different types of flora and fauna. You get into a new area and you’d be overwhelmed by the smell and even the color. The light, the texture of the light, would be different because of different types of leaves. The top level was covered in rhododendrons. And it smelled very aromatic in a flowery way. Then you hit this pine forest where there were all these dead pines and everything. That just hit you because it was all much darker and you smelled the pine. Then as you got even lower it started to smell like dirt and water and turned back to deciduous trees. When you finally get down, you’re at this river, and everything’s just wet and dank-smelling, almost—another big change. That was cool; I really liked that place.
Stew: One place that always stands out in my mind was just north of Hot Springs, North Carolina. And right after the town you come up and first you hit this place called Big Bald. It’s a grassy mountain with total 360 degree panorama. I hit it right before sunset, stopped up there, cooked my dinner, watched the sunset with a friend. It was just out-of-this-world beautiful.
Then you come walking down off the mountain, and you come to this forest. My theory is that it might have been old growth forest, which you don’t see much of on the east coast, if any, because these trees were just huge. All of the forest up until then had been very dense, young trees and these were big, massive, old looking trees, all kind of spaced out. It definitely looked like an old forest, and walking into that—the energy and the whole thing was just out of this world.
Chris: One of my favorite places on the trail was the Graceful Highlands in southern Virginia. People say it’s supposed to sort of look like Wyoming. I’ve been to Wyoming. And I agree. It looks similar to that.
It’s kind of a high elevation up there. Probably like 4,000 feet or so. When I was there it was kinda, like, overcast, almost foggy. It’d been raining on and off all day. It was grassy with lots of white little rocks just sticking out of the ground. And there’re these wild ponies up there that I guess the forestry service keeps an eye on. It was kinda cold and I wasn’t really ready for too much cold weather yet. With the fog kinda rolling in we would just stop and eat lunch or chill a moment behind a rock and cut the wind off. That was a cool little place. I mean, when you’re in the woods for so long after a while it just starts to look like one big, long green tunnel, so when we got out into this open space with wild ponies running around it really is like being on the other side of the world.
AJ: My favorite campsite was in Putnam County, New York at this place called Silo Hill. It wasn’t a campsite on the map, but we found a piece of paper from two previous hikers, saying this is a great campsite. It was off the beaten path. We wouldn’t be disturbed there. And it was probably one of my favorite places I’ve ever been to in the world. It was just at the top of this huge hill with a huge valley river at the bottom. We just looked out as far as the eye could see from the top of this hill. It was probably one of the most silent places I’ve ever been in my entire life. You couldn’t even hear a car alarm going off or any other signs of the civilized world. It was pretty amazing.
Colleen: I think one of my favorite parts of the trail would be Franconia Ridge, right in the thick of the White Mountains in New Hampshire. It was just beautiful, perfect weather when we went up there. And I was with the same group of people I had been hiking with for awhile. We took all day to do six miles. It was a really easy six miles, so to take all day to do it was probably… it could be considered a waste of a day, but not in my mind. We went to every single rock that looked sunny and comfortable and napped on it. We definitely took our time.
It was one of the most beautiful days I had ever spent up there, because we actually took the time to sit on every rock and look at every view. We didn’t care. We were like, “Well, we know we have plenty of food. So we’re not worried about getting back into town. The weather is amazing. This is the first time that we’ve been above tree line for a long time.” So we all just took it slow. I think it was one of my favorite days because that was really what I wanted the trail to be the whole time.
Stephanie: Maine is just beautiful country. And it really is not like the South where it’s so populated that you can see roads and houses off in the distance when you get a view. But in Maine, you look around. And there’s nothing. And it’s just so cool. You really feel like you’re out in the wilderness, and there’s really nothing like it in the Eastern United States. There are definitely places like that in the West. But it’s just so rare in the East. I really appreciated that.
“I only have a mile left, I’ve got to keep going…”
Colleen: The four of us got into Millinocket, the town right before Mt. Katahdin, and it was beautiful weather. Perfect. 60 degrees, sunny, not a cloud in the sky. You could see Katahdin from Abol Bridge, just open as anything. We still had 50 miles to hike to get to the base of Katahdin from there, so we planned on hiking it the next day. But then we found out from the weather report that it was supposed to rain for the next four or five days. So we decided to wait out the rain and hope for better weather.
We waited for three days. The weather report didn’t get any better, so we decided, “All right. We’re going to go up on Friday the 8th, before the weekend, before the weekend hikers come.” Friday came, and we got the weather report saying that it was a Class 3 day, which meant that all of the trails on the mountain were closed except for the Appalachian Trail due to severe ice and snow at the top. The trail was open, so we were allowed to go up – but they recommended that people stay off the mountain.
We went up anyway. We all made a pact–me and the three other people that I had been hiking with since Vermont–that we were all going to make our own decision about whether to go on to the summit when we got to tree line—whether we were going to turn around or keep going. All four of us kept going.
I thought about turning around before I got to the very top because I kept falling. My legs weren’t really doing what I wanted them to do because I was so cold. So I kind of took a couple of minutes to recoup and I kept going. There was no way in hell I was going to climb all the way back down defeated. I thought, “I only have a mile left. I’ve got to keep going.”
We got to the top and it was completely white out, freezing, ice everywhere. All of the guys that were at the top had icicles in their beards. My hair was frozen. It was ridiculous.
I popped a bottle of champagne, we all passed it around, took one sip, and decided “All right. Now we gotta go.” We spent, like, 15 minutes up at the top and then sprinted back down again. It was definitely not the Katahdin experience I had expected—it’s supposed to be a beautiful mountain—but it was definitely one that was worth it.
Stew: Nothing could finish the trail better than Mount Katahdin. I feel like a lot of times when you’ve finally accomplished something the end is kind of lackluster, like getting your degree, where after four years you find yourself thinking, “God, I just kind of stood on a stage and walked across. That was it.” But when you climb Mount Katahdin, not only is it the most badass, hardest climb on the whole trail, it’s also the most gorgeous view. It was unbelievable. You come up the mountainside and when you break out over all of the surrounding peaks, and look out at the valley you just see for miles and miles. You keep climbing up and all of it is just gorgeous. I got a really beautiful day for summiting, too. We were just like, “Oh, this is great. I can’t believe this is done. We’re almost to the top.”
Stephanie: I was wearing this jacket, which is just a really light wind layer. I had shorts on. No extra layers, just a t-shirt. I thought. “I will be fine. Not a problem.” I didn’t bring a hat. I didn’t bring gloves. The trail is ten miles in all—five miles up, and five miles back.
Going up, it’s a lot of rock crawling. So this trail would be amazingly fun if it was beautiful out. But it was miserable that day. You have to hang onto these metal rebar with bare hands like you’re climbing a ladder. And it was very cold. I wasn’t sure I was really holding on.
We got to the top. We spent maybe 30 seconds up there. I couldn’t see anything. And then we literally turned around and ran down the mountain until the trail was too steep. I think we ran almost the whole way. We just wanted to get off that mountain because we were frozen. I couldn’t feel my hands. I couldn’t feel my face. I was just miserably cold. The day before the weather had been beautiful and the day after that was beautiful. We just had bad luck.
“We were able to stay at a fraternity house…”
Colleen: I really liked Hanover. It has a bit of a reputation on the trail as being a good place to crash for a day or two. A lot of hikers that had gone through the town before me had told me, “Make sure you stay. Contact someone. Go to the Dartmouth Outing Club in Robinson Hall. Someone will put you up or you can stay at a frat house. Everyone there is really friendly and can show you a good time.” I didn’t stay with students, but I know that a lot of people did. I slept in the soccer fields.
Hanover was cool just because it was a hiker friendly town. The pizza place hands out free slices to hikers and at the bookstore you can get free coffee if you’re a hiker. Free stuff is always a big deal when you’re hungry and broke.
The people in town… well you get a lot of dirty looks sometimes in trail towns because you’re smelly and downright disgusting. If people aren’t used to seeing hikers coming through, then I guess it can be kind of awkward. But Hanover proved to be a great place to hang out for a while. A lot of people I know stayed there for a couple of days. There are a few people that got sucked into the vortex at Hanover and didn’t leave for, like, a week.
Paul: We hitched into town and spent the afternoon running around trying to get a package we had sent there ahead of time. We went to the post office but they were no help. Then down Main Street, around 5:00, we saw the FedEx guy driving. My wife dropped her pack and took off running, hiking boots and all after the FedEx truck and got what we were looking for. It was a frustrating afternoon.
That night we stayed with a fraternity that opened up their house to hikers to stay the night. It reminded me of a hostel. In the house they had a big cardboard box where hikers could put their extra stuff and drop uneaten food. Anyone was free to take any of it too, if they wanted. So we got some free stuff, which is always nice. I ended up going out and having a beer with a couple of the fraternity brothers. I think it might have been my first real Black and Tan and that was pretty tasty.
Ken: I remember Hanover well. The word got out along the trail that there was a place in Hanover where people could stay and that you could eat in Thayer Hall. When we got in we looked into it and we were able to stay in the fraternity house. Some friends of ours from New Hampshire met us there and were willing to hike for three days with us, leaving from Hanover. So we connected with some friends, and also we were able to cash in on the generosity of the fraternity and the open arm philosophy that Dartmouth has toward hikers.
Chris: It was a very friendly town. The trail ran beside a grocery store so I went ahead and resupplied there as soon as I got into the village. Then I walked down some stretch that must have been Main Street. I got a haircut. Then I went to some pizza place that was recommended to me. I also had to pick up a couple things like Aquamira water purification tablets. I went to some places and found some sports-type store. They had this little backpacking section that had obviously been set up for people coming from the trail. And that’s kinda cool, you know? I managed to get everything I wanted done in a few hours, and not all towns are like that. So it was really convenient. I felt like I fit in there, and I appreciated that.
Paul: Leaving town was really strange. It was the crack of dawn and I was walking past the high school as the trail leaves town. So, with my pack on, I’m walking across the football field and I see all of the kids heading into the building. It felt like a collision of worlds. These guys were just living their lives and for them it was just another school day and here I am—going to disappear into the woods for another six weeks.
“This is definitely the worst day ever…”
AJ: One evening, we started to settle in and realized that we weren’t where we were supposed to be. We weren’t at a campsite. We had no water and we had to keep going. I felt like my mind was willing, but my body wasn’t able. At one point, I just snapped. Every part of your body is just telling you no. And, at a certain point, even your mind is trying to tell you there’s no way you can do it.
But, somehow, you just do. I still can’t tell you how I did it to this day. Another time our stove broke at the end of the night. There wasn’t any wood to gather and it was dark and we couldn’t make a fire. I was so hungry. And I just lost it. It’s so funny how something that you take for granted like eating can just be so difficult out in the middle of the woods.
Stephanie: I had been crying on the trail, hours at a time, for a few weeks. And the trail is such a weird place for your emotions because you’re sleep deprived. You’re exhausted. Your body has no time to recover from anything. You’re constantly hungry. And you’re just irritable. So my mood was all over the place. I would be ecstatic and just so glad to be out in the woods and free of my cell phone and my computer and people. But then it would just automatically flip on a dime. I would get bitten by a mosquito. Or it would start to rain. Or I would step in a puddle. It would just flip so fast. And I would be just in tears, hating my life, aware of every single pain that was going on in my body and just so jealous of everyone else that had a car; that was with their families. I just wanted to be able to talk to my boyfriend. I just didn’t wanna be alone. I felt so alone.
Colleen: You’ll always have the one breaking point during the day where you’re like, “This is definitely the worst day ever.” Well, my true worst day ever was going over Mount Washington in New Hampshire. The beginning of the day was fine. I was really cold. We got to stay at Lake of the Clouds Huts. We did some work in exchange for a spot on the floor for the night. And when we left, I was with a whole group of people. There were about thirteen or fourteen of us, I think, that stayed at the hut that night. And we all left together in the morning to go up the mountain.
I’d had knee problems pretty much my whole time on the trail and that day was especially bad. Pretty much any of my horrible days are because of knee, ankle, or foot problems. The pain that drags on you mentally, because every step that you take is so much harder when your joints aren’t working. It really makes you question, “Why the hell am I doing this to myself? This is not mandatory. There’s no on telling me I have to be hiking. There’s no one with a gun to my head. I’m going to need a knee replacement by the time I’m 30. Why am I doing this?”
The climb up wasn’t so bad except that it was only about twenty degrees, but when we got to the top it was sleeting, and the winds were steady at 55 miles per hour, with gusts up to 80. And we had eight miles of above-tree-line boulder hopping to get to our next resting place. It was the worst eight miles of my life. My knees just kept giving out on me. The wind would pick me up and physically move me.
Between the weather and the joints not working, by the time we got to Madison Hut, we were so looking forward to being warm and being able to do work for stay at the hut. Usually you scrub the floors or wash the dishes or do something for the people at the hut and they’ll let you sleep on the floor there. But this time they turned us out. We were like, “We don’t want your food. We can stay outside until all of your guests to go bed. We just want to sleep on your floor because everything we have is wet. We can’t go any further. We’re all exhausted, beat, and freezing. All of our stuff is soaked. Can we just sleep on the floor?” And they refused to let us. They’re like, “No. There’s a side trail. You can go down below tree line if you go 0.6 straight down this side trail.”
There we found stealth campsite, which is a campsite that’s not official but just a flat piece of ground you can set up a tent on. This site barely had room enough for a one-person tent. So we squeezed two tents together and we put two people in each one-man tent. And it was the most uncomfortable, cold, just miserable night after a miserable day. It was one of those days when you really question, “Why am I out on the trail? Why am I doing this to myself?”
The next morning, of course, it was beautiful weather. Somehow I wound up getting lost, which is really hard to do on the Appalachian Trail because it’s the most well marked trail in the world. I had such severe blisters on my feet that they were swollen and I couldn’t get them into my boots. So I was hiking in my camp shoes and my sandals. Being lost, I wound up hiking an extra six miles in my sandals with the terrific blisters, to the point where my feet were bleeding and raw when I finally got into town. That was another one of those, “Why am I doing this to myself?” moments. I think those are the worst on the trail because it’s easy enough to get past physical pain, but if you get mentally upset about something, it’s just, like, there’s no helping it. Once you start focusing on the negativity of it, it’s hard to get out of.
Paul: It’s not just the hiking, but the routine that gets you. And you’re always outside. If it’s 30 degrees in the morning, you’re outside. If it’s pouring rain for three days, you’re outside. It takes some getting used to. I can remember being in Pennsylvania sitting by the side of the road ‘cause there was a water spigot on a building, drinking warm water, eating granola and whatnot, shooing the bugs away, soaked in sweat, thinking I’d give $100 to sit in somebody’s car with air conditioning.
Ken: The trip through Georgia, Northern Georgia, and North Carolina was difficult because of the orientation of the mountains. You go up and down and up and down. There’s no ridge walking; it’s just continuous crossing of these ridges with blisters all over our feet. When you get to Virginia, things kind of straighten out, so you can climb up on a ridge and you can walk the ridge for some distance in the direction that you’re traveling.
So, I would say the beginning two weeks of the trip were the most difficult. Acclimating to carrying weight and trying to get your feet in shape so that you weren’t in pain all the time with blisters took some time. But things got better as you got tougher.
Elizabeth: Several weeks into it–two weeks, three weeks–I realized I couldn’t keep up the pace we’d set for ourselves. With a loaded pack I just couldn’t do one hundred miles a week. I had twenty three blisters on my feet, it was raining every day, and I had these heavy leather boots on. My feet were killing me and I remember just sitting down and crying. “I can’t do it,” I said. “I just can’t do this, but I’m not a quitter and I know I’m not a quitter.”
Colleen: For the most part, I think it’s very hard to find bad times on the trail. Every negative moment is so short-lived because something always happens that will make you smile or make you laugh. And then you’ll see an awesome view or you’ll see another hiker that you haven’t seen in awhile. And then it’ll be trail magic, or something will always help you, or make you realize why you’re on the trail and why you’re doing it in the first place.
“You don’t realize how massive those animals are…”
Stew: I was in Maine and there had just been this big rainstorm and I crossed this spot in a creek that was twice as wide as it should have been because of how high the water was. I get across the creek and I’m walking down the trail, and coming down the trail towards me is a pine marten. It’s a small woodland mammal that apparently you don’t see very often. It looks a bit like a weasel. This pine marten is literally hopping down the trail like a bunny rabbit, with this big fish, bigger than he was, in its mouth. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an animal that looked so happy in my entire life. I swear I could see a smile on this thing’s face. A big smile, just hopping down the trail looking so proud of itself, like, “Yeah, I got this fish.” Then finally it gets maybe five feet in front of me and realizes there’s this big hiker coming towards it and, like, darts off to the side with that big ol’ fish.
Colleen: I had one bear encounter outside of Pearisburg, Virginia. It was the only night that I ever camped by myself in the woods. I had made a fire and I was cooking broccoli cheddar rice on my stove. And this black bear… all of a sudden I just looked up and I saw it off in the distance. I was like, “Whoa, that’s a little scary.” So I started shouting at it and waving my trekking poles.
I called my mother just so I could be making noise and be talking and not look like I was crazy. So I told her about it. I’m like, “Okay, don’t freak out because I’m not freaking out. But there’s a bear in the general vicinity.” As I was cooking my meal, about fifteen to twenty minutes later, I looked up and the bear was half the distance away that it had been the last time. And it was getting really dark, really fast. I was so scared that I kicked my stove and my pot of broccoli rice went all over me, my tent, the ground, and everything just reeked of broccoli cheddar. And all you hear is “Make sure there’s no scents on you when you’re camping because the bears can smell this.” So I’m looking at this bear coming closer to me, as I’m covered in delicious smelling food.
I was freaking out. I decided to pack up camp and hike backwards, south, because the bear was north of me on the trail and I didn’t want to pass it. It came probably within 50 yards. I was yelling at it and throwing things at it, and it wasn’t getting scared away. It wasn’t going anywhere. So I just picked up everything I had and I threw it in my pack. I dragged my tent. I didn’t even take it down. I was just too scared and didn’t really have time to.
I took everything and I hiked six miles backwards, and most of it was walking backwards, too, with my headlamp, trying not to trip over everything.
Then I found a hammock in the woods. I didn’t know whose hammock it was, but it was just someone else who had camped there for the night. So I set up my tent pretty much underneath their hammock just so I would have company in the night. It was more of a mental thing. If I got attacked by a bear someone else would hear it and hopefully help me. But I didn’t see the bear again. Nothing ever came of it. I’m sure I probably made a bigger deal of it than it really was. But when you’re camped by yourself in the middle of nowhere, everything seems scarier in your mind.
Stew: When you stand next to a moose, it’s like, well, they’re huge. You don’t realize how massive those animals are.
Paul: We had a really cool moose experience where we were walking somewhere in Maine and this moose starts following us along the trail. It was going fast and catching up and I was in front of my wife and she was like, “Uh, Paul…”. The moose kept coming like it was going to bowl her right off the trail. And then at the last minute, the moose took a right turn off the trail and crossed the stream, no more than a few feet away from us.
Stew: I got between a mother bear and her cubs once in the Shenandoahs, which is generally a bad idea, and I thought it would be worse. I was just kind of walking down the trail, Shenandoah’s Blue Ridge Parkway Area, not paying much attention, and I hear this rustling. And I look over to my side and I see two cubs playing on a tree to my left side. I’m like, “Oh, shoot, bear cubs. Gotta find the mother; I can’t get between cub and her mother.”
I look over to my right side, and the mother bear is sitting on the log just the other side of the trail from me with this big dumb look on her face. She didn’t even move. Just kind of watched me walk by. I think if I’d stopped and started trying to take pictures, or something, maybe she would have gotten upset and things would have turned out differently. But she was just like, “I hope he doesn’t see us.”
Paul: One time we saw a moose in Maine. There was a huge rainstorm and the trail was flooded. The trail was about knee deep in water and we had to get off of it, so we left the trail and took a couple of logging roads to we went to see if we could find a ride. Sure enough, we saw these two old guys that were scoping out the area for moose. They had thick accents from backwoods Maine. Just the chatter between them was funny. They were talking about moose hunting and one of us asked what moose taste like. He said it tastes like horse.
We’re driving along this foggy road and we all saw it, but my wife couldn’t see it cause the moose was facing the car and when you’re looking at it in the eyes, they look skinny and can be surprisingly hard to see. But all of a sudden, the moose turned sideways and she could see the whole profile of it up close. It was one of the biggest animals we’d ever seen.
Chris: One night in Maine I was staying at this hostel in the middle of the Hundred Mile Wilderness. It’s pretty secluded and their power comes from solar panels and that kind of thing. It was pretty cool. I actually took a zero there which I did very infrequently.
The place was on a lake and they had a canoe. So I took a canoe out at night when the moose were supposed to be coming out, eating and what-not. I paddled around for a while and I ended up finding a female moose. I got pretty close to her in the boat. I got some really great pictures of her. I watched her for a while. She’d just duck her head down and eat and pull it up again over and over. It was pretty cool.
“You get into a really communal mindset…”
Paul: The community factor was really a surprise – a pleasant surprise. The hiker community is very open, funny, humorous and inspiring. You get some characters that you want to get away from too from time to time, but on the whole it’s a great experience.
Ken: On the trail I think most everyone’s mindset is the same and we’re all concerned about one another and are willing to share the positive experiences that we have with the next group that’s coming along. There seems to be an extensive brotherhood among those that are doing this trip, and you might not develop close friendships, but you understand what one another is doing and you care for one another.
Stephanie: At every shelter there is a notebook that all of the hikers sign and write things in. After reading them for a while you can kinda get an idea of who’s ahead and who’s behind you. So you end up knowing all these names of people in the community that you’ve never met before. All you know is that these are unobtainable people that are a day ahead of you or a week ahead of you or whatever. And you follow it. It’s like your news. Where is Ace today? I wanna know. When was he here last? How is he feeling? And I don’t know Ace. And I’ve never met Ace. But what was going on in his life was important to me because it was my connection to something else. Feeling like a part of that community is very important.
Colleen: I’ve noticed that you get into a really communal mindset when you’re on the trail. You’re sharing the experience with such a big group of people that, if you see another hiker, you’re automatically inclined to help him or her. The same is with them to you. So it’s a very “What’s mine is yours,” type of attitude.
When I planned to go out on the trail, I was expecting this solo wilderness experience, like going out on the trail and hiking by myself. And it’s not at all what you get. It’s a much more social experience than I think most people realize. It’s not only other hikers that you meet on the trail, but the people that make your hike possible by keeping the trail up with their time and money. And the trail makes you realize how much other people are willing to do for someone they don’t even know, whether it’s just a ride or something more. It’s just really heartwarming to see the kind of generosity that people will give to complete strangers.
AJ: I think the coolest part of the trail is just the trail network itself. At first I was really nervous because I felt like it’s kind of sketchy. We’re going to be on this trail for fourteen days. There’s not really a police force out there for anything that could happen. But mostly everybody was just so nice. I mean, they’re so willing to help. It’s like going back in time almost.
Just the way people communicate out there is so different. Everyone we met, I felt like they would listen. You know, you have nowhere to go. You have no time constraints. So why not sit and talk. It’s not like I have to get to work. It’s not like I have to go do this project thing. It was just amazing. I can’t say it any other way. Like when I came back to society, I was so in shock. And I had only spent two weeks on the trail.
I guarantee most people will say that the same exact thing. So it’s like the hikers out there are not looking out for each other exactly, but willing to help each other. Everybody is a trail mate. It really is like a different world.
“That, for me, was some real trail magic…”
Ken: When you’re on the trail, every once in a while you come across something we call “trail magic” which is basically being on the receiving end of someone’s kindness or good intentions. Getting a lift into a town from a stranger or finding a stash of food left behind on purpose by another hiker—that’s trail magic.
Well, when we were in the Smoky Mountains one night, we pulled into a shelter and found a pile of clothing that was left behind by some hiker—a couple of shirts and a pair of pants. We checked the stuff out and in the pocket of the pants was a guy’s wallet. It contained money and a driver’s license and a lot of personal information that the guy probably would want to have back.
So about fifty miles down the trail, at the next post office, we just mailed it to him with a note that said, “Sorry I took some money for postage, but we found this in a shelter along the way, figured you’d want it back.” And, as far as we knew, that was that.
About a week later, one hundred or so miles down the trail, we got a letter at the post office from this guy. With it was a check for $25.00 as a reward for finding his wallet. It said, “Please go out and have a nice dinner on me.” The guy had no idea that we would even get the letter. He just thought that it was generous on our part, so he thought he would try to be generous on his side, and we connected. That, for me, was some real trail magic.
Paul: My wife and I got stuck in a pouring rainstorm in Pennsylvania and hiking through it just ripped my feet to shreds. I was tearful and thinking I had to get off the trail and I couldn’t do it anymore. The pain was too intense. So I decided to hitchhike about 250 miles through the state to make it up to the Delaware Water Gap, which is the end of Pennsylvania and the beginning of Jersey. I figured I could rest up there and let my feet heal until she caught up with me again. The forest service guide took me to where he turned off to work and I got picked up by this old couple.
I’m in the car with them in the middle of Pennsylvania with my route all laid out. I had about six different big turns to make and it wasn’t a straightforward route. After a bit they asked what I was doing and they told me that I reminded them of their grandson and they said they were just out yard sale shopping, “so if you don’t mind making a couple of stops with us then we’ll take you the entire way.” So, I stopped at the yard sales with them they took me out to lunch at a diner, which makes for a great time after weeks of trail food.
Then they took me all the way to the water gap and they purchased me another meal, helped me unload my stuff and helped me get settled in a hostel. Then they took off. I was extremely grateful for them. I had never met these people before. They picked me up and drove me halfway across Pennsylvania
Before they left I took down their address, so when the holidays rolled around I sent them a Christmas card. I told them that my fiancée and I were getting married and thanks so much for really helping me out in a time of desperate need and making a bad situation magical. Then a couple of weeks after our wedding, they sent a $50 check saying congratulations on finishing the trail and congratulations on getting married. I had never met these people before.
AJ: We were hiking one day, me and my friend, and we were so thirsty. We had no water left. And we were both about to freak out. And we just came across this note on a tree from two previous hikers saying where there was a hidden stream for anybody who needed water. It’s just little things like that that make the trail so unique.
Chris: One day this British guy I had been hiking with took a bad step and he ended up just spraining or breaking his ankle really bad. We were kind of coming down this hill and he slipped. His foot got caught on a root and just snapped it. And so we had to work him off.
We ended up running into this day hiker with his family, a real nice guy with no arms. He works here, like an assistant for the governor, I think. Like, everyone knew him. He helped us get the Brit off the mountain and then we got the ambulance. And it was a bit of an ordeal, but we got all that handled. Then we realized that we had, like, ten to fifteen miles to get back. It was already dark and we didn’t have any food. So we figured we’d just be camping out there for the night. But this guy was, like, “No,” and he packed us all into a big Suburban with his family.
So he drove us to this crowded restaurant and he kinda had a whole system for driving. I mean, he did everything with his feet. He had a strip up on the steering wheel and steered with his foot. He had sort of a little cruise control kind of setting on the floor. He set the cruise control at around thirty. So we went slow on the streets and then just took corners like madmen, working with thirty the whole time. When we got the restaurant we went to eat. He had a beer, ate some fried chicken. All on him. He was just a really amazing individual.
Stephanie: In one town up north I had to stop at the post office to get my next box and wanted to talk to my parents and try and talk to my boyfriend. I got a hold of my parents and cried on the phone sitting outside of the post office. I go inside to pick up my box. And the woman who worked at the post office could tell I’d been crying. And she just looked at me so pitifully and asked me if I was okay. I said, “Yes.” And she asked me if I had just talked to my mom. And I said, “Yes.” And I just started crying. She comes out from behind the desk and just holds me and
invites me to stay at her house and just to rest. She was so kind to me. And I told her I couldn’t. I needed to keep hiking. But her kindness touched me.
Chris: There are definitely acts of kindness and just crazy people you meet. For example, we were at a diner one night, and when you’re hiking thirty miles a day you’d be surprised how much you can eat. So we figured, “Man, let’s order two entrees.”
So we got our food and we had all these plates covering the entire surface of the table and we were, like, just piling waffles on top of things and some guys were just drinking coffee in the corner. They must have been watching us, and I guess they finally made a bet to each other, one saying, “I bet those three skinny dudes won’t eat all that stuff,” and the other saying we could. So, of course we finished it all and the loser came over and bought our entire breakfast. He told me, “Yeah, we had a bet going on you guys. I said you wouldn’t eat it all and you did, so I guess I lost. I’ll pay for your dinner… you know, I’ll pay for your breakfast tomorrow too.”
“A toilet and a bed again…”
AJ: It’s really something to come home and have running water and a toilet and a bed again. After being out on the trail you appreciate what you have in your home so much more. Not that the trail is horrible and you’re living like a homeless person. But you realize how nice modern amenities are. These little things you take for granted every day
Colleen: It’s crazy how fast you can adjust to certain things, though. Even things like indoor plumbing and sleeping in a bed. I’ve only been off the trail for a week and I’m already like, “Oh, man. How did I do that for five months? Really, this is awesome. I don’t ever want to give up indoor plumbing ever again.” You don’t think twice about things like the cold. On the trail you think, “I’m cold and I’m just going to get into my sleeping bag and hope for the best.” But here, I’m cold and I turn on the heat immediately. It’s weird how fast that happens, how fast you go back to what you were used to before the trail.
Chris: When I got done with the trail, I was like, “Man that’s just great, I’ve just accomplished something amazing.” Then I realized that people don’t really know what it’s all about. People kinda think you’re crazy. I would tell people, “Yeah, I just got done hiking the Appalachian Trail.” “What’s that?” they’d say. After I explain it, they’re just like, “Oh, cool.” And sometimes it makes me feel like what I had done was maybe greater in my mind than it actually was.
So you have to fall into the old routine. But it does feel weird. Like sitting on the couch and watching TV is kinda weird, you know? Especially when we watch nature shows. It’s not at all like they make it out to be.
When people ask me about the trail I tell them “Well, it’s kind of a walking tour of rural America.” And that’s what it is. It’s about the best way I can describe it for someone who may not really understand. But I don’t think you can ever do the experience I’ve had justice by putting it into words.
Epilogue—“We had everything we needed on our backs…”
Elizabeth: The longer we were out, the easier it became, and the more I realized how little I needed to survive. Fresh, clean water, fresh air, and sleep, being able to wash off the sweat of the day, that’s all that mattered. We had everything that we needed on our backs. That was the most important lesson I gained from that trip.
Stew: Being on the trail was really good for me. For the first week or two I almost felt like I was hiking out of my body because as I was walking I was realizing that I didn’t have anything to stress about. I didn’t have to worry about this or that. I’m like, “who cares? I’ve got a crazy situation with my ex, and who cares? It makes you realize that there is no one way to live. You can live on very little money with very few things and be very happy for a very long time, without trying all that hard.
Now, I feel more empowered to do the things that make me happy, to be willing to embrace the life that I love rather than trying to do something because I think I need to do it or because it seems like what I’m supposed to do. I think the trail has really helped with that. I think it’s just so good for the soul. At the end of the day I feel more confident and energized having spent that much time in the woods hiking. No doubt, it’s definitely a life-changing experience, or better yet, a life affirming experience.
AJ: Two weeks out in the wilderness, just hiking, pumping my own water, cooking my own food, nothing but a backpack to my name. It was great.
Ken: You get more fiercely independent and you think you’re very self-reliant and you think you’re invincible because it’s just what’s on your back and what your wits will allow you to do, and you don’t have to worry about all of the technology and all of the extraneous worries of life. You’re just trying to survive, that’s all. It really helps you get perspective on life, I believe.
Stephanie: And the one lesson that I really had to learn on the trail was it’s not about proving something to anyone. It’s not about what your family thinks. It’s not what your coworkers think. It’s not what the guy that’s sitting right next to you thinks. It’s about what you think. You’re out there for a particular reason. If you’re not having fun, leave. No one’s forcing you to hike. No one’s forcing you to enjoy or not enjoy anything. So, for me, it was about hiking my own hike. The last thing to do is make your hike conform to what someone else thinks is a hike.
Paul: I think a real gift that the trail gave me is that it put me in a position where I was vulnerable and in need and saw people’s generosity. I always think that I’m a college educated kid and I’ve got a lot going and can help the world, but being out there, cold, wet, and hungry, without a ride, really tired, exhausted, and having to be at the other end of other people’s generosity was a lesson that I’ll never forget.
It also allowed us to just become pretty more confident about how we were going to manage our lives. If we would get to a stream or some kind of a water source and we were able to sponge off, it kind of washed away the difficulties of the day, whatever they may have been. Life was about those simple pleasures at the end of the day.
We just enjoyed the fact of being outside, and each day got better and better. We weren’t overcome with the drudgery of the trip, as many people could fall into. We just enjoyed where we were.
AJ: I used to read about Native Americans and how they’d do a solo hunting trip to become a man. And they had to go feed themselves for a week and go out in the wilderness. And I kind of felt like the hike was my solo in a way. I would do it again in a heartbeat.