Thursday, May 31, 2012

A Week on the AT

Some time last year I received a phone call from my father. My nephew S and he were driving around in North Carolina doing some sight-seeing in the Appalachians, and they had hiked to the top of one of the balds [1] out there. "You and S ought to come out here and do some hiking on the Appalachian Trail," he said.

"I'm in!" (I don't take a lot of convincing when it comes to invitations to adventure.)

I spent the winter doing research and planning the trip. S is attending university in Kentucky, so in addition to taking the weather into consideration, we had to schedule a time when he would not be in class. The break between Spring and Summer semesters offered the perfect time to make it happen.

My dad offered to provide logistics, ferrying us to the trail, after which he would stay in the town of Hot Springs, NC - at least until after we passed through - and then pick us up when we were done.

The goal was to spend one week on the trail, hoping to covering about 100 miles from Waterville School Road to Erwin, TN. Based on the mileage I was covering on my day hikes, that sounded attainable. Circumstances didn't entirely allow for it, but we did 77 miles (124 km), which we felt was pretty good. We put in on Sunday, May 20th, 2012, and left the trail on Saturday, May 26th.
Day 1: S and J, about to set out from Waterville School Road
This was my longest backpacking trip to date, and the first for S. It was absolutely amazing, and I think we both came away with a lot of good knowledge and experience and the inspiration to do more of it. A recount of the hike would be tedious, but here are a few things that I learned along the way.

The AT is a community

Upon setting foot on the trail, we were instantly immersed in a community of hikers. There were people from all parts of the country, from all walks of life, and with all sorts of goals. But we were bound together by the thread of the trail which wound its way through the forests and over the mountains of the Appalachians.

The AT must be one of the most heavily-traveled backcountry trails in the nation. We frequently hiked for several hours without seeing anyone, but there were always a few neighbors when we stopped at shelters for the night. We frequently found ourselves camping with the same folks for two or three nights in a row.

I've heard people say that they would enjoy hiking the AT, but would be unwilling to do it alone. My experience was that you're never really alone out there. They say that if you run into any kind of trouble, the best piece of equipment you can have is a deck of cards. That way you can keep yourself entertained while waiting for the next passer-by.
Day 5: A lush view from White Rock Cliff

Shelters are nice

The AT has shelters set up every 5 to 8 miles or so for housing hikers. We opted not to actually sleep in any of them, but we mostly camped next to them. The shelters of the AT are notorious for being visited by mice, and they lack any kind of shield from insects. But they have some nice peripheral features such as water sources, privies, picnic tables, and cables for suspending food out of reach of the local wildlife [2]. And they all had sites for pitching tents.
Day 3: Early morning at our camp site at Walnut Mountain Shelter
The only night we slept at an isolated camp site was on day 4. We had planned to bypass Spring Mountain shelter to get in a few extra miles, but found ourselves in a torrential downpour shortly after doing so. Had we known that it would rain that hard, we would have stayed in the shelter.

Go light

I've read plenty of times that carrying less weight will do more for your enjoyment of a backpacking trip than could be gained from most extra recreational items you might want to bring. This proved to be more true than I'd imagined. Especially with my plantar fasciitis giving me grief.

We heard many tales of through-hikers who had to jettison gear in the first days of their hike. One guy said he had to give a nice fishing rod away to somebody at a trail head parking lot. Another said he was given a samurai sword in exchange for cigarettes on some Georgia mountain top. Fortunately, meeting Dad in Hot Springs at the end of day 3 gave us an opportunity to drop some weight without losing anything permanently.
Day 4: Hot Springs, NC, and the French Broad River
Having the official AT map and guide book for our area was essential. But if I'd been thinking ahead, I would have transcribed or photo-copied the pages from the guide book for the sections we were hiking and left the book itself at home. That would have saved a fair amount of weight and bulk.

I hit the trail with three different knives! I had my Swiss Army pocketknife, a Leatherman, and a larger camp/bushcraft knife. When we met up with my dad in Hot Springs, I left all but the pocketknife with him. I would gladly have traded my 4-piece eating/cooking utensil set for one titanium spork. I also started out with a rain jacket, rain pants, and a warm puffy jacket. After HS, I just carried the rain jacket and used it during the chilly hours of the morning.

My DSLR camera didn't make the cut either. Photos from the second half of the trip were taken with my phone. Incidentally, I took more pictures that way than I did with the big camera simply because it was more convenient. A good compact point-and-shoot would have been the best option.

I can't go camping (nor otherwise get to sleep) without a book to read. This time it was book 1 of The Mongoliad, a collaborative work by several authors, including Neal Stephenson and Greg Bear. By the time I got home, I was well on my way to finishing it. But much of that progress was made on the return flight. I could have gotten by with a much smaller, lighter book on the trail.

Do your homework

As a vegan, I've become accustomed to mistrusting the availability of food at most small stores and restaurants. So I hit the trail with a full week's worth of food in my pack. It was by far the heaviest part of my load. If I'd known more about Hot Springs, I could have carried far less and resupplied half-way through the hike. Hot Springs has a Dollar General store with a good enough selection for most hikers. And there is a store which specializes in backpacking food where I could have gotten additional vegan items.

With a bit of research, I could probably also have figured out that much of the sun protection equipment I had with me was superfluous. I know it's part of the 10 Essentials, but the hat, sunglasses, and sunblock were all unnecessary beneath the canopy of trees that shades the vast majority of the miles through this region.

Tap water sucks

I'm not usually a water snob. And to be honest, my sense of smell and taste are usually pretty dull. But after a week without carbon monoxide or Sriracha, a week of drawing water from mountain streams and springs, civilization smelled pretty bad. Granted, I wasn't smelling like a bouquet of flowers, but at least it was a natural smell. After getting to a hotel room and showering, I was walking around in this choking cloud of perfumed soap fumes that I could almost see.

And the tap water... I can't believe how bad it was. It smelled of chlorine and made my tongue and the roof of my mouth go numb. 

Good stories don't always happen on the trail

Though he never set foot on the trail, my dad came away from the trip with plenty of good experiences and stories as well.

Within a few minutes of being on the trail, a woman passed by us going the opposite direction with her arm in a makeshift sling. The man with her said he believed her wrist was either broken or badly sprained. They were making for the Standing Bear hostel just up the road from where we were dropped off. My father had gone up there to kill some time, so he ended up giving her a ride to the nearest hospital, some 30 miles away.

During his time in Hot Springs, Dad hung out at the diner and other hiker haunts, talked to folks who were passing through, and gave some guys a ride when they needed it. He thoroughly enjoyed himself. And he also took in a soak in the mineral springs for which the town is named, followed by a massage.


[1] In the Appalachians, a bald is a mountain top whose summit is clear of trees. This isn't due to elevation, as would be the case here in the Rockies, but the exact cause isn't well understood. We saw signage which suggested it was done by Indians to aid in their hunting. See

[2] The Walnut Mountain shelter lacked a picnic table, and the privy was full to the point of unusability. Jerry Cabin Shelter had no privy. All of the other shelters we stayed at had those features.

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