By Jennifer Fulford
Bucket lists irritate me. They are awful reminders that one day all this ends, and that say, “Hey kid, you’d better get on with the doing.” I’d prefer to think of each day as a fresh opportunity. Wouldn’t it be nice to try something new? Something really challenging besides the latest phone app?
Shortly after moving to Asheville in 2003, the idea of hiking the Appalachian Trail (a.k.a. the A.T.) landed in my lap. A local newspaper published a story about a young woman who hiked the entire 2,189-mile trail while wearing a skirt. A woman, bold on the trail, thumbing her nose at convention. Right on!
Then books migrated onto my nightstand about the courageous and half-delusional bravehearts who tackled various physical (and psychological) outdoor challenges. First was Shooting the Boh by Tracy Johnston, who took a grueling raft trip of premenopausal self-discovery through the Amazon with a crew of much younger companions. And then there was Zoro’s Field by Thomas Rain Crowe, a memoir about living off the grid in the Appalachians. I particularly enjoyed Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, a journalist whose self-deprecating humor about his mid-life trek on the A.T. had me spitting up coffee. I also read several other books of similarly daunting experiences.
With the exception of Crowe, a theme seemed to run through my reading list: the protagonists’ naïveté prior to their extreme adventures. Mentally and physically, a good time was not had by all. If the A.T. is calling me, especially as my birthday counter approaches 50, it’s going to require preparation and research.
Luckily, Asheville is flush with experienced athletes who know how to hike safely and are more than happy to describe what a starry-eyed hopeful may not want to hear, which is no secret. The A.T. is not for the soft-bellied or the cavalier. In other words, couch surfers or couch potatoes should definitely go to the gym first.
Ask Brenda Worley, who organizes day-long group hikes for Carolina Mountain Club (CMC) and has been hiking sections of the A.T. for 20 years. “I wouldn’t necessarily take a first-time hiker. They’d need to start with a half-day or five-mile hike.”
Fortunately, CMC (carolinamountainclub.org) offers group hikes for all skill levels and ages. As for the most important rules of the trail, Brenda hardly takes a breath to answer. “Always make sure someone knows where you are going. My husband knows exactly where we are.”
Pitfalls are plentiful. Terrain, rough. Animals, wild. Resources, scarce. Cell service, spotty. Cell service? Should a hiker even bother to bring a cell phone?
“Yes,” says Brenda, “so if you had an emergency, you might be able to get a call out. We’d send someone to the top of the mountain because you can sometimes get service.”
As does CMC, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (appalachiantrail.org) focuses on trail issues and hiker outreach. Both nonprofits participate in trail maintenance and are keen about hiker education. Not everyone who sets foot on the A.T. is going the distance. The majority of trail patrons are day hikers, those with a picnic lunch. And then there are the multiday hikers or section-hikers, backpackers bent on accumulating miles but in small chunks. Finally, there are the thru-hikers, upwards of 2,500 determined folks who start the footpath each spring, trying to hike from Georgia to Maine in one shot by autumn.
Since 2001, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy has published a free guide for the curious. Although far from being a technical how-to manual (the group has eleven guidebooks for that), it contains a thorough online checklist and insights into the trail’s mysteries. For instance, some sections of the A.T. in northern New England are situated above the tree-line trees on mountaintops, and many slopes are extreme. September Mihaly of Durham, who thru-hiked the A.T. in 2006, says fellow hikers joked about the steep climbs, but she found other conditions less optimal, such as rainy days that could drown even the most determined spirit.
“I felt like the hardest parts were through Pennsylvania because it rained all the time. So you’d just be in ankle-high water all day long, for day after day. Stuff never dries out anymore. You’re boots never dry, and you’ve slipped off a few toenails. So that was rough,” she says.
Besides weather, hikers must prepare for boulder-size rocks, voracious insects, and wilderness conditions. Pack a compass and know how to read it. But according to hikers, the trail is a mental game. It’s not about equipment, how little or how much to take or what kind. A more pertinent conversation to start before striking out concerns fortitude. Only one person knows your limits.
“I saw strong people drop out. I saw people who I never thought would make it, make it,” says September. “I remember at one point, we were standing on a mountain … just me and four other people, and we get our first clear view of Katahdin, way off in the distance, and we’re sitting on a rock eating a snack, and we’re talking about how pointless it is. There’s no point to it. But we’re smiling, and we’re laughing. It is pointless. But the people who thought it was pointless and despaired, they went home. And the people who said it was pointless and joyful, summitted.”
Which leads to the deeper question: Why do it? And that answer isn’t online, in a book, or available from the dude—or the young woman in the skirt—who just left the trail. I am still trying to answer that question for myself.
Jennifer Fulford is a freelance journalist based in Western North Carolina. She also writes novels and blogs at livingonink.com. (Photos courtesy of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy)