Hiking the Appalachian Trail

The first man to ever thru-hike the Appalachian Trail (AT) gave the following advice to hikers: “You have to learn to live on the trail.”

I don’t know if I would have fully understood this advice before hiking the AT for six days, but I definitely understand it better now. By our fifth and final night on the trail, I had finally started to feel part of the woods. The millions of frogs serenading me to sleep at night were comforting instead of startling. The woods was starting to feel like home. 

It’s hard to write about the trail. It is a magical place. At first I didn’t think so. With the exhaustingly heavy pack, steep route, never ending switchbacks, pouring rain, and a bear sighting, the first day was less than glamorous. 

The start of our 50.3 mile hike at Dennis Cove.
Jango the dog belongs to our shuttle driver and did not accompany us on the trail.

Just like when we headed out of Minnesota back in July, I felt myself fumbling around again, trying to get my bearings, trying to make sense of my experience, trying to figure it all out. I did figure out a few key things that first day.
  1. Be loud. Bears don’t like to be startled. After I saw two adult black bears 50 yards from me in the woods, we started making noise. We sang, we talked to each other, we talked to ourselves, we yelled out trail markers -  we were loud. The. Whole. Time. 
  2. Water sources are often barely perceptible trickles of water amidst a pile of rocks. In the mountains of Tennessee in late summer, some water sources will be dry, despite the drenching rain.
  3. Time your hikes. It may be tempting to want to take a break every 10 minutes. Don’t do it. The trail doesn’t hike itself; you must keep moving to get to where you are going. We took a break every hour (about every 2 miles). 
  4. Always be prepared for rain. Our packs wore rain covers for three days straight. Hiking in the rain is fun; setting up camp in the rain is not.
  5. Hang your food. All sorts of animals wanted our food. Mice, raccoons, and of course, bears. Martin became the MacGyver of hanging food. He would devise a pulley using a simple rope, and we hung our food sometimes 20 feet in the air. Nothing touched it. 

How was the trail?

I loved it, and I hated it. 

I loved the physicality of walking for hours every day. 

I hated my aching shoulders.

I loved the beautiful sights and discovering new places every day. My favorite day was when our path suddenly led us into a pasture of cows! We had to walk right by them! This still makes me laugh in astonishment. 

This cow was scratching her head on the trail marker.

I'm walking the AT - through a pasture! What?!

I hated the cold mountain nights where every sound make me startle. During the one night we slept in a shelter instead of our tent not only did I freeze, but I also felt a mouse run across my body. Eeeeeek! When we got back and I mentioned this to our shuttle driver Gypsy Dave, he remarked that he is always glad to see mice; that means there aren’t any big snakes! 

I loved the challenge of living in the woods. 

Martin found a floating bench!

I hated setting up my tent in the rain. 

I loved seeing the myriad of cartoon colored mushrooms, the groves of blackberries, the millions of millipedes. 

I was terrified when I saw the two bears while out looking for water by myself. When I was a child, a bear peering into my bedroom window at night was a recurring nightmare; now it was a reality. 
Yet, when I mentioned my bear sighting to the owners of the hostel we stayed at in Damascus, he remarked that I was lucky! Most people don’t get the opportunity to see a bear. 

So the trail taught me a lot about perspective. 

The trail also taught me to be more childlike again. 

Martin and I spent hours every day doing things I used to do when I was a child. Climb around in the woods. Find cool places in which to hang out and make a temporary home. Sing songs all day long.

I'm in Tennessee AND Virginia at the same time!!

By our sixth and final day on the trail I had a lot of mixed feelings about the experience. While I was ready for a break from the trail, I also wasn’t ready to leave it behind.

View from Vandeventer Shelter. 

I found myself knee-deep in culture shock when we returned. After wearing the same clothes for 6 days, I couldn’t possibly figure out what I should wear from my suitcase of clothes. I can’t imagine being faced with an entire closet of clothes! I had a hard time holding conversations with others. My brain was still focused on water, food, shelter, weather, route, sleep. 

I miss the simplicity of the trail; the rules of the trail are so straightforward. We went out to a few breweries in Asheville two days after being on the trail, and I watched in amazement at the complex social interactions surrounding us.

I miss the wilderness. I miss eating all my meals outside. 

Making some breakfast after camping at Double Springs Shelter.

I love that the trail made me appreciate all the little things in life. We walked over a small river in Damascus, and I was transfixed by the amount of water in the river. After celebrating tiny trickles of water, this small river looked like a flood. What a gift of abundance. 

I appreciate the ability to wash my hands. I appreciate not having to carry everything on my back at all times. 

Would I do it again?

Yes, I would totally hike the AT again. Or any other trail for an extended period of time in the wilderness. (Maybe the Camino de Santiago!?)

One last shout out:

A huge thanks to the hospitality of the Hiker’s Inn who had clean rooms, comfortable beds, reasonable rates, and fresh-from-the-garden tomatoes and grapes. Love! I also loved the mini tour of hostels that Gypsy Dave brought us on before dropping us at our starting point. 

The people we met in Damascus were so kind and friendly. The world is large and we have many places to go, but I would love to visit this area of the world again. Maybe someday.

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