It is a Sign…

This is a short post, but I have to share. When Beth and I were discussing the possibility of my retirement and Gavin and I hiking the Appalachian Trail, I found a quarter in the floor of my classroom. It wasn’t just any quarter, it was one of the 2016 series America the Beautiful quarters featuring John Brown’s Fort from Harpers Ferry, WV. This is significant, I told her, because Harpers Ferry is the symbolic half-way point of the AT, and also home to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. This was surely the sign we needed to know this was the right decision.

Fast forward to today. We were fortunate to go see a movie with our friends Matt and Katie and we wound up at Ruby Tuesday for supper. Guess what I found on the floor on the way out? Hint: there is a photo above. I suppose it was probably a small part of someone’s tip to the waitress, but I couldn’t bear to put it back on a table because of its significance (sorry nice waitress). The last two quarters I’ve found have been of the Harpers Ferry variety. I take this as a definite sign that Gavin and I are supposed to be taking this trip!

What is the Appalachian Trail, anyway?

When I share with folks that Gavin and I are planning to hike the Appalachian Trail, you can see the look come across their faces. Most folks know that the AT is a really long hike in the woods, but unless they’ve read Bill Bryson’s book A Walk in the Woods or have seen the movie (please, read the book– the movie is abysmal), their knowledge of the trail stops there. In this post, I’ll try to answer some of the questions that most folks ask about the AT. The Appalachian Trail is a 2,200 mile “footpath for those who seek fellowship with the wilderness” that stretches from Springer Mtn., GA to Mt. Katahdin, ME. The elevation gain in hiking the AT is equivalent to climbing Mt. Everest 16 times. Along its course, the trail traverses 14 states, requiring more than 5,000,000 footsteps to complete. Fitbit Challenge, anyone? The average hiker takes about 165 days to finish the trail. Gavin and I plan to start in late February and finish up in August or early September.

One of the most popular questions is, “Will you ever go into town?” The answer is definitely, “Yes!” Throughout most of the trail, we’ll never be more than 3-5 days away from a trip into town to resupply or sleep in a real bed, or, most importantly, find an all-you-can-eat buffet. Though town life can put a drain on both your wallet and hiking pace, I expect we’ll plan for at least one zero day (a day where you hike 0 miles) each week or so. An alternative to a zero is to plan to end a day only a few miles from a town so that the next day you can take a nero, or a day when you hike nearly 0 miles. You might stay in town that night, and get up bright and early (yeah, we’ll have to work on that) and hike out the next morning.

Wise Shelter at Grayson Highlands St. Pk.
Wise Shelter at Grayson Highlands St. Pk.

When we’re not in town, which will be most of the time, we’ll either be tent camping or staying in one of the more than 260 shelters spaced out along the AT. Generally, shelters are basic, 3-sided structures designed to provide respite from the elements (as long as they don’t attack the open 4th side.) The good thing about shelters, especially in inclement weather, is that you don’t have to worry about pitching a tent in the rain (or packing one up wet.) There are down-sides to consider too. Because they are frequently populated, there are lots of crumbs which attract mice. Nearly every shelter I’ve visited has dangling strings with a tin can or plastic coffee can lid from which to hang gear. Since shelters may accommodate 6-20+ hikers, it is difficult to get sleep there because of all the snoring. I don’t expect to be part of the solution on this one.

Many hikers will mail themselves packages along the trail (or have their lovely spouse do it for them.) This used to be one of the primary ways to resupply. For whatever reason, be it the increased popularity of the trail, or the kindness of strangers, though, it is now easier and more cost effective to go into a town to buy whatever food items you are hungry for now, rather than taking your chances that you’ll still be craving what you sent yourself weeks ago. Though we’ll no doubt have to swap out winter gear for lighter weight summer stuff and order replacement gear (i.e. shoes = 3-4 pair each) by mail, most of our resupply items will come from local towns along the trail.

Speaking of towns along the trail, two of the closest “trail towns” to us are Damascus, VA and Hot Springs, NC. These, and most other towns along the trail are hiker-friendly. That means that there is no shortage (I hope) of inexpensive hostels which provide a cot/bed, and often breakfast for under $20. Towns along the trail are accustomed to hosting thru-hikers, and residents of these towns often provide shuttle rides from town back to the trail and/or vice versa.

People frequently ask me if I am planning to carry a gun on the trail. The short answer is, “No.” For a variety of reasons, I don’t believe a gun would be useful on the trail. First, I don’t own one, and second, they’re very heavy. Most importantly, the biggest danger that I hope to run into along the AT is ticks, and I think a handgun is overkill for those (and my aim isn’t that good anyway.) We will likely see rattlesnakes, but you don’t gain any Leave No Trace points for walking up and down the trail shooting wildlife. We’ll have to remember that we’re guests in the wildlife’s home, and will have to behave accordingly. If it means taking a wide berth around a snake, or waiting for it to move along on its own, that is what we will do. You might be thinking that I’ve avoided the #1 reason for having a weapon along the trail, Bears! Yes, the entire AT runs through the habitat of the Black Bear, but all the research I’ve done indicates that they’re more scared of me than I an of them. I just hope they’ve done the same research. Kidding aside, Gavin and I will hang our food bag and “smellable” items high in a tree away from camp each night, so bears will not be drawn to our campsite. Also, we’ll be mindful of not crossing between a mama bear and her cubs. If we encounter Black Bears, we both know how to behave, so I’m not really worried about them. I guess that is easy to say from the comfort of my recliner.

For the final question, and you know what it is, the answer is, “We’ll do what the bears do.” Seriously, if we’re fortunate, we’ll be passing by shelters that have privys when Nature’s call arrives, but otherwise, we’ll follow the Leave No Trace practice of Disposing of Waste Properly by burying it in a small “cathole” 6-8 inches deep. Can’t wait for that balancing act.

This wraps up the answers to most of the questions that we’ve gotten so far. If you have other questions about how we will deal with life on the trail, please comment below. We’ll look forward to hearing from you.