It turned out to be a bit of a dud, unfortunately. I usually come back tired and glad to be home, enjoying a shower, a comfortable bed, and hot food, but then after a day or two I’m ready to go out again. But this time I wore myself out too much. I tried to walk too many miles each day, and it changed from a fun challenge into a wearying slog. Husband and I parked cars at each end of our route, so we kind of had to do a certain number of miles, just to reach our transportation, although we found a way to cut it a bit short along regular roads. We had thought, since the section of the Appalachian Trail we wanted to hike runs near a few towns, that we could take very little food and stop in town to pick up sandwiches instead. Our packs were, therefore, very light, and we thought that would mean we could do a lot of miles, but that wasn’t quite true. By the third day of walking, I’d had enough.
Also, part of the fun of backpacking, believe it or not, is meeting other hikers, and this time there weren’t any other hikers out, on weekdays in April. Backpacking on the Appalachian Trail, at least in the summer, can be surprisingly social. On our summer trips, we’ll run into a lot of hikers doing the whole trail – Georgia to Maine – and it’s often been fun talking with them. Yeah, sometimes you camp with strange, scary people or loud snorers, but I have a lot of good memories of hikers I’ve met and the strange, scary ones turn into good stories afterwards.
Living outdoors is great in itself, but usually we find ourselves in some kind of adventure, large or small, that makes the whole trip into something surprising. This time around, nothing particularly special happened, and I got a little bored at times. I can “experience nature” pretty well on day hikes; it’s the adventure aspect that makes backpacking so great. The one interesting animal encounter I had was getting really close, scary close, to a vulture, who seemed to be guarding a nest. I was trying to make my way up a rocky hillside, and I saw the bird about 15 feet away, and I had to get even closer to follow the trail. When I did, it flew away, but I was ready to defend myself with my hiking poles. There’s no knowing what a bird guarding its nest will do.
The landscape we went through was beautiful, and I like hiking before the leaves come out because you can see so much further into the woods. You have to be careful about sunburn, though – there is no leaf cover to protect you.
If you are interested in long-distance hiking or the AT generally, I recommend Trailjournals.com. I learned about this last summer – some hikers take along this small device, made especially for hikers I think, that they can type journal entries into, and then they send those entries to a friend over the phone when they get to the next town, and that friend posts them on the website. So you can follow the progress of hikers, getting updates once a week or so, whenever they find a phone to send in their journal. It’s kind of fun to follow their adventures, particularly when you’ve met them in person on the trail.
You may already know Bill Bryson’s famous book A Walk in the Woods, definitely a good read, but you may not know Ian Marshall’s Story Line, a really great book about literature written in the areas the Appalachian Trail runs through, with a description of Marshall’s own hiking.
The trail is its own community, with its own vocabulary and customs. Here are a few examples of AT vocabulary:
PUDS: pointless ups and downs. I thought a lot about this word on my trip. The trail climbs to a lot of views, but it also climbs a lot for no apparent reason. You climb and you climb and you climb, and you reach nothing in particular, and then you descend and you descend and you descend. I’ve met people who get annoyed at this term and those who complain about PUDS – if you don’t want to climb hills don’t hike the AT!!! – but when I’m climbing one of these at the end of a long day, I complain too.
Thru-hikers, section-hikers, day-hikers: thru-hikers are hiking the whole trail in one trip; section-hikers (I am one of these) backpack the trail in short sections, often trying to do the whole thing eventually; and day-hikers are, obviously, out only for a day.
North-bounders, south-bounders, flip-floppers: north-bounders are hiking from Georgia to Maine; south-bounders the opposite; and flip-floppers hike from a point in the middle (say, Harpers Ferry) and hike in one direction, and then go back to the middle point and hike in the other direction.
Trail magic: some unexpectedly wonderful thing that happens to you, which can happen surprisingly often on the trail, maybe because it doesn’t take much to please a backpacker. For example, I’ve come across coolers with sodas someone left along the trail for hikers, which is a marvelous surprise. Or someone might unexpectedly offer you a shower, or a trip into town, or a hot meal. Trail magic is performed by –
Trail angels: people who help out hikers, just because they love hiking and are generous.
Trail names: people usually choose a trail name they’ll use on their backpacking trip instead of their usual name, often something related to nature, but sometimes something completely random. I’ve hiked with Out of Chocolate, Timothy Mouse, Dad’s Grin, Earthworm, Mountain Roamer, Tugboat, and Dog Tag, to name a few.
Slackpacking: when someone carries your pack for you, usually toting it to your end destination in a car, so that you can hike without the 30 pounds on your back. I wish I could do this more often!
Yellow-blazing, blue-blazing: yellow-blazing is taking a short cut along the road, which, if you have a good map or know the area, isn’t all that hard to do. It’s tempting if you want to skip a rough patch of trail or a difficult mountain on a rainy day or something similar. Blue-blazing is taking a side-trail as a shortcut. The AT is always marked with white blazes, and side-trails are blue-blazed, and sometimes those blue-blazes are faster and easier and therefore tempting.
I’d like to hike the whole Appalachian Trail before I die, although at the rate I’m going, it might be close. One problem is that I tend to hike the same sections over and over because they are nearby, and getting to the more remote sections is complicated and time-consuming. I’ll do it though ….