Saturday, December 7, 2013

Unsolicited Advice to Aspiring Thru-hikers

The more I hike, the more I realize I’m not an expert. I’m much more aware than I was 2000 miles ago just how much I have to learn. That said, time to give some unsolicited advice to aspiring thru-hikers. It's worth what you pay for it, I suppose, and above all, the HYOH principle applies - Hike your own hike! 

1)      Embrace reality. It sounds really awesome to be standing on top of Katahdin, a bottle of champagne in hand, celebrating the fact that you’ve walked there from Georgia. It’s significantly harder to actually walk there from Georgia. You will have mountaintop experiences. But the experience of the trail, like the trail itself, is basically a collection of PUDs. The trail is totally worth it. But it’s demanding. It’s never easy, despite the rumors you’ll hear about the mid-Atlantic. It’s awful at times. Do you really want to get out of your sleeping bag and walk through shin-high mud all day – for the fourth day in a row? Perhaps a better question is – are you prepared to do it if that’s what it takes to make it to Katahdin?

2)      Avoid “I will” statements. I hate pre-trail posts. They always strike me as highly presumptuous. For example “On March second, I will start my AT Thru-hike. Over the course of four months, I will walk over 2000 miles through 14 states. I will blog every Tuesday evening. I will be receiving food drops in Hiawassee, the NOC, Hot Springs, Erwin, Hampton, [insert a whole bunch of monotonous towns in VA, at which point the audience starts tuning out]… and Monson. I will spend two weeks fighting the heinous rocks in PA, cruise through the Mid-atlantic, and end on Katadhin, in less than 5 months.” Listen, you can prepare all you want, but nothing prepares you for the trail like the trail does. These ambitious, presumptuous people? They probably quit around Franklin NC, when they discover that the best laid plans get derailed by an all day, cold rain. They also don’t know that they’ll hate the PA rocks. Some people don’t mind them at all. Let the trail be the trail.

3)      Lighten your load. I don’t say this to be an ultralight gear weenie (I happen to find those people insufferable), but to keep yourself from injury. Hauling 40 pounds up a mountain is the quickest way to get blisters, joint problems, or back problems. Plus, you’re more likely to fall and break something. Not everybody should be carrying a 10-pound pack, but get rid of that stupid solar charger for your phone. Some people lighten up on the trail, but it’s really hard to switch out one of the “big heavies” (pack, bag, sleeping pad, shelter), since you get so dang attached to the thing after just a few weeks. Make smart choices before you hit the trail.

4)      Pick your moments. The trail is too vast to do and see everything. You could spend 7 months on the trail and still not take all the blue-blazes or stay at all the “must-stay” hostels. Many hikers, however, have the opposite problem. They’re so focused on hiking and making miles that they walk past incredible things and experiences without so much as a second glance. To find a happy medium, it’s important to know what’s important to you. Don’t skip the Kincora hostel (yes, the other one is nicer, but it doesn’t have Bob Peoples), but you can probably skip that quarter-mile blue blaze to the top of Brushy Sassafras Low Gap Mountain. Like peeing off of fire towers? Then skip High Point State Park (you can’t climb the monument anyway), but don’t skip the Shuckstack. Don’t skip the things that sound cool, and don’t feel obligated to do everything. It’s your hike, after all.

5)      Don’t live at home. I met entirely too many people on the trail who were more interested in blogging about their adventure than actually having their adventure. Similarly, there are some people who checked their phones daily (or more!) to make sure they weren’t missing any important text messages, emails, etc. Their bodies were hiking the trail, but they were allowing themselves to be consumed by their home lives. Keep in contact with the people who matter most to you. But at the same time, allow yourself to have a backwoods experience – and allow others the same.
6)      Don’t feel entitled. I fell prey to this one all too often. Listen, we get it. You’re a thru-hiker, which means you intend to hike the whole trail. And after being told “you’re so amazing; I could never do that!” about a thousand times by non-hikers, you start to think that you are amazing. This kind of entitlement leads to hikers skipping out of hostels (both fee and donation-driven) without paying, or getting angry when a restaurant declines to allow dirty, smelly hikers into its dining area for fear of grossing out their regular customers. Just bathe in a stream first… or put on sunscreen! The overwhelming of services that hikers need are very hiker-friendly. Count your blessings and remember that many of the hiker services we depend on are a result of wonderful people’s generosity.

7)      Know thyself. There are a lot of people who hike in groups, or hike with iPods, simply to keep their brains occupied. It’s almost like they’re afraid of being alone with themselves. How are we distracted or bored when enjoying a 2000-mile walk through God’s creation? Admittedly, there are certainly boring parts (although often in these circumstances, the beauty is just more subtle), But those boring parts gives us time to reflect. We reflect on what this hike means, how it’s changing us, who we really are, our dreams and goals, and God’s graciousness to us in all of this. Try doing that with an iPod, or while debating gear minutiae with Gandalf and Nomad.
8)      Expect to open up. Share a shelter with some other dirty, smelly, bearded freak for a couple nights. Spend an hour rigging up a tarp to keep snow from blowing in the shelter, and sit in your sleeping bags eating Snickers and GORP. You get to talking, and an hour later you’re sharing how after raising three kids, you still had really never done anything for yourself, and hiking the AT was something that you want to do for your own personal development. Or how you fear that even though you’re headed to grad school after the trail, you really aren’t sure whether that’s the path you want to take. And on the flip side, the trail will teach you to listen, to genuinely try to understand the path that the other person is walking. You may disagree, but the first instinct is to understand before you criticize. Expect it. Embrace it.  

9)      Keep a journal. I didn’t keep one until Hot Springs (mile 273), and I wish I had started at the get-go. My journal discusses what I hiked that day, my thoughts/feelings, anything notable that happened, and people I met along the way. In theory, at least. One day’s entry, in its entirety, was “I HATE WINTER”. On a related note, don’t take so many mountaintop view pictures; Standing Indian Mountain looks exactly like Tray Mountain, which looks pretty similar to The Priest, foliage conditions notwithstanding. Instead, take pictures of those funny orange salamanders, those funny orange-clad hikers, and trail angels handing out oranges. You love looking back on those. And, unlike me, keep taking pictures after the first month.

10)  Develop traditions. Traditions give us something to look forward to and ground us in our days. Every evening, upon settling into the shelter, I would announce that this was the best time of the day – dry sock time! I won’t tell you what I did at fire towers, just in case my mom reads this, but suffice it to say I was careful never to drop my pack downwind of the tower before I climbed it. 

Unfinished Business

“How was it?”

I get asked that by pretty much every single person I know these days. I’m not sure what they’re expecting to hear. Some of them, of course, are just being polite, in the same way that we say “how are you?” without really expecting a substantive answer. But for the rest of them, the people who really do want to know, what am I supposed to say? “Oh, it was great!” I suppose that’s true, but it’s so vague as to be meaningless.

How am I supposed to sum up four and a half months of my life in some sort of trite answer? The only thing I can say is this: It was wonderful, terrible, scorching hot, freezing cold, rainy, muddy, beautiful, frustrating, magical, perfect, lonely, socially stimulating, humbling, confidence-infusing, exhausting, refreshing… And I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.

The trail was the best four and a half months of my life. It was FUN. But it wasn’t fun in the same way that, say, spending a day at an amusement park is. Think of the closest relationship in your life: it’s not always fun, but it’s always worth it, and on the whole, it’s your highest enjoyment. It’s not shallow fun, it’s a joy.

But let me back up. I last updated in Hanover, NH. Hanover is the gateway to the White Mountains, the most rugged section of the entire trail. I was pumped. And I was totally justified in doing so. The Whites were AWESOME. I stopped in Glencliff, NH at the Hikers Welcome Hostel (yes, it was just as inviting as it sounds) and refueled, got some good advice on stealth camping in the Whites. Then it was off to climb Moosilauke, the first real peak in the White Mountains. At over 4800 feet, it was almost 1000 feet taller than anything since southern Virginia. It was also the first mountain on the trail that was above treeline. It reminded me of being out west. You know, actual mountains. We (Bright Side, Passover, Witchdoctor, and I) had an absolutely perfect day to summit: sunny, clear, and warm. The wind was only about 40mph, which is about as good as you can ask for in the Whites. Each afternoon, it started thunderstorming, which is rather concerning if you’re holding two metal poles in your hands above treeline, but with a little planning, I managed to play the weather pretty well.

Well, almost. On the day I summited Mt. Washington (the second highest peak on the trail, at 6200 feet), Bright Side and I got up really early and hustled to try and get to the Madison Spring Hut before 3pm, after which there was a likelihood of severe storms. As a side note, there are very few places in the Whites where you can legally camp. There’s a 20-mile stretch, in fact, totally above treeline, and the only places to stay are at the Appalachian Money Mountain Club’s “huts”, which are basically small hotels on top of mountains. They go for $130 per night. There are “work-for-stays” available for two thru-hikers each night. This means that you wash dishes, sweep up, etc, in exchange for feeding on the leftovers from supper, as well as being able to throw your sleeping pad on the dining room floor after all the guests go to bed. You get treated like a third-class citizen (by the guests; the hut crews in general love thru-hikers), but you get ALL THE FRESH-COOKED FOOD YOU CAN STOMACH!

Anyways, the entire stretch from the Mizpah Hut to the Madison Hut (15 miles) is above treeline, with no place to camp. I arrived at the Madison Hut just in time; it hailed on me on the way, but I was safely inside the hut by time the lightning started striking where I had been about 20 minutes prior. Then came the twist. The Madison Hut crew is evil. Since we got there “too early” (you’re not supposed to get there much before 4pm), the crew sent us out… in a lightning storm, over the top of 5700-foot Mt. Madison. Sprinting across boulders above treeline isn’t fun in the slightest. Of course, we weren’t the only people that the sadistic Madison crew screwed over: they made one guy hike over Mt. Washington, in a thunderstorm, with a leg bleeding so bad he had to get stitches. Why? Because he too made the egregious error of arriving 30 minutes too soon. There’s following the rules, and then there’s being morally irresponsible.

Really, though, aside from the miserable experience at Madison, I had wonderful hut stays in the Whites. The hut crews fed me well, treated me well, and (if such a thing appeals to you) liked to share their booze. Yeah, they’re college students, in case you haven’t gathered.

The Whites were hard. But they were worth it. I had a great day on Moosilauke, an epic windy and foggy day on Washington, great views along the entire Presidential Range, and reconnected with some trail friends. The Whites were hard, absolutely. But they’re my favorite part of the trail thus far.

Southern Maine doesn’t get the press that the Whites do, but it’s almost as tough. Doing a 15 mile day is still a huge accomplishment over that kind of terrain. One of the highlights of my hike was the so-called “hardest mile on the AT”, Mahoosuc Notch. Imagine a canyon with sheer vertical walls, and in the bottom, a “jumbled pit of boulders” the size of houses. You have to climb over, around, and even under these rocks. It takes some people up to 3 hours to traverse the mile. I think that there were much, much harder miles on the AT, but this one was certainly the most fun. I thought it was just a big rock jungle gym. The Notch was the last major psychological barrier to break on the AT. For a few months, I had wanted to at least make it that far, to prove that I could take the absolute toughest that the AT could throw at me. And I passed with flying colors.

After the Notch, it was time to get off. Those last few days were some of the most difficult trail days for me. I couldn’t think about anything else other than that emptiness that getting off the trail prematurely would certainly bring. It’s not the fact that I’m not a “thru-hiker” that bothers me; I just want to know what’s around the bend. I want to climb to the top of Avery Peak, Saddleback, Bigelow, and most importantly, Katahdin. But more than all of that, I want the hiking life. I love the freedom, the independence, the simplicity, the importance, of life on the trail. Some people were counting down the miles until their hikes ended. Not me.

I’ve thought a lot about what it feels like to be off the trail. When I look at everyone’s Katahdin pictures, something seizes me, and it’s tough to say what it is. I guess the best way to describe it is “unfinished business”. That trail is mine, and I’m going to finish what I started. Period.

I was going to end the blog on that  note, but that doesn’t seem quite fair. Because I’ve gotta roll the credits. Thanks go to:
·         Mark and Wendy, trail angels in the Smokies, for picking me up after a really frustrating, icy day
·         Miss Janet, for bailing an entire tribe of us off the mountain in the worst snowstorm in years
·         Bob Peoples, for being the Most Interesting Man in the World
·         The Bastian United Methodist Church, for the best breakfast I’ve ever eaten, anywhere
·         Nomad. Not just for the good work that you do, but for the spirit of service to God. Straight out of Matthew 25
·         The fine folks at the Bears Den Hostel
·         Blue Moon, for being a wonderful friend, baseball connoisseur, and considerate person. I never had a true “hiking partner” on the trail, but I’ll admit it was tough to say goodbye back in PA.
·         Bright Side, for sticking together to make it through the rain in New England.
·         Passover and Witchdoctor, for bringing so much joy wherever you went. Also for motivating me to push through the pain
·         Mary Jo and Jerry! Thanks for taking dirty, smelly hiker trash into your home for a couple days. Had an absolute blast with some dear friends
·         The Glencliff hostel, for great service, stealth camping info, inspiring dreams of the PCT, and preparing me mentally for the Whites
·         Coups, Dirty Mike, Chino, and Ayce, for not running me over as you flew past me on the trail.

And a special mention goes to my family, for being there for me. They were a listening ear when I complained about endless snow and cold. They sent me stuff as needed. They prayed their hearts out for me. And they actually read every word of these silly blog posts:

·         Dad, for being unfailingly encouraging
·         Mom, for being willing to do anything and everything to help
·         Grandpa and Grandma Start, for praying, following my blog, and getting almost as excited about my adventure as I was.
·         Josh, Jennifer, and Nichole, who made my entire week better when I had chances to call them.

I am blessed.