I lost my ‘why’ in Hampton, TN. I was sitting in Kinkora hostel, watching Brandon play Jenga with Prophet, Cowgirl, and Moonpie. I was full from a pizza buffet and had a bag of jelly beans in my hand. I was showered. My clothes were in the laundry. Hell, I’d even painted my toenails with some nail polish Emily found. Everything was in order . . . but I couldn’t answer the ultimate question: Why am I thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail?
In real life, the inability to answer the ‘why’ question is a red flag. Why am I in school? Why am I working here? Why am I dating this man? The day you can’t answer these questions is the day you start to re-evaluate your life. Does the same hold true on the AT?
There were a lot of reasons I wanted to thru-hike the AT before coming out here. I wanted to sit on top of mountains and watch the sunset. I wanted to exercise and get my body in shape. I wanted to visit small, Southern towns and talk with the locals. I wanted to spend time with Brandon and Emily. I wanted to meet people on the trail that I would otherwise never meet and exchange stories. I wanted to see the stars. I wanted to try something new.
Now, here I am, sitting in Damascus, VA, about 450 miles into the trail, and I feel like I’ve accomplished everything I set out to do.
But we still have 4 months left.
And I can no longer answer the ‘why’ question.
Is this a red flag?
There are approximately 50 miles between Hampton, TN and Damascus, VA and for 50 miles I debated whether it was time for me to leave the trail. When I got to Damascus I was ready to tell Emily and Brandon that I was done.
And then I remembered something Cowgirl (a young woman from Wyoming) told me in the interview I did with her for the documentary. She told me that she’d been hiking for a month and still didn’t know why she was out here . . . but that she was looking forward to answering that question throughout the rest of her journey.
Okay, so I’ve lost my ‘why’ factor. And that made the last 50 miles feel like 5000. But this isn’t a job or a boyfriend. This is a trek that is 5 months long and spans 14 states. The ‘why’ factor will change over time. Moreover, I can’t expect to be skipping up and down mountains every day, happy and care free. It’s unrealistic. Instead I need to put the last month of my life in the memory drawer and look forward to opening the next chapter of this journey.
So that’s what I’ll do. Virginia, here I come.
In 2010, Kate “Ringleader” Imp (pictured in the cover photo with her brother Brandon “Monkey” Imp and best friend Emily “Lightning” Ginger, left) thru-hiked the A.T. Together the members of the “Traveling Circus” captured the peaks and valleys of trail life in a documentary called Beauty Beneath the Dirt. You can check out the film (as well as their blog) here.
Okay, I figure that you are reading this because you don’t want to die…
…Or you do want to die and don’t want to make a mistake and live. I hear you. (see end note) Anyhow, if you follow this 13,562 step plan, you are ensured to never run into any risks on the trail. The reason being that you won’t ever make it to the trail.
How Not To Die Step One
Know what your thingymabobs do when they are seeking attention. In other words, learn CPR and then take a wilderness first responder course. Knowing how your body works is invaluable when you’re out on your own. Did you know that some dislocations, while easily fixed, need immediate attention? The way arteries run through limbs make some dislocations more critical than others. And for the most part, dislocations are easy to fix. Learn how! While you’re at it, learn which internal organs you need and which you can ignore.
How Not To Die Step Two
Bug out when the going gets morbid. Alright, so we know you’re a tough guy. After all, you’re out in the wilderness miles and miles from any help whatsoever (except for those three hikers right there, oh and that ranger who just drove up), with no communication devices (cell phone, ham radio, sat-phone, satellite beacon), no way to tell where you are (compass, full color topographical map, GPS unit, trail guide) atop one of the tallest and meanest mountains in the world (Clingmans Dome at 6,643 feet – don’t miss the information center), and nothing but sheer wit and brawn. But even though you will brave these most dangerous of conditions, be sensible. Climbing to the top of Katahdin in a raging thunderstorm to impersonate Captain Shakespeare isn’t the brightest of ideas. Nor is it wise to imitate the Black Knight and walk until your limbs fall off. So when the going gets morbid, run to a bar for cover. And for beer. Buy me one?
Remember Step One when you are determining how to implement Step Two. First responder knowledge will help you make the decision whether someone (you? never!) needs immediate evacuation for an internal injury or if he can walk it off. (What, are you a petunia? Walk it off!)
How Not To Die Step Three
Don’t listen to me. Really. If I tell you to do one thing, I assure you that the correct action is the complete opposite. I use this rule all the time. I never listen to myself because I am always wrong.
How Note To Die Step Four
. . .
How Not To Die Step Thirteen Thousand Five Hundred and Sixty-Two
(Did it work? Checking bank account . . . darn.)
End note: Since this is going out on the big bad Intertubes, I feel obligated to state that while I have a mordant and morbid sense of humor, there’s no such thing as not living. Don’t do it. Trust me.
—Meriadoc the Mendicant
For more adventures from Eric Azriel (a.k.a Meriadoc the Halfling) check out his blog right here.
When you think of an Appalachian Trail thru-hike, maybe you think mostly of the trail itself, the scenery, the solitude, or the sense of freedom in living in the woods for six months. But a huge part of the experience involves the other hikers and the end-of-the-day gathering at the shelters……Some shelters stand out in memory for reasons both good and bad.
Stover Creek Shelter in Georgia was the first shelter I stayed in on my thru-hike. I remember how intimidated I felt among the other hikers; most of them had backpacking experience. I was new at this and very unsure of myself.
At Blue Mountain Shelter in Georgia, Tenderheart, Ansini, Mom, and I were the only ones there. Much giggling went on among us girls. It was just like a slumber party. We awoke the next morning — Easter — not to a glorious sunrise, but to a torrential downpour that lasted most of the day.
The shelters in the Smokies were always crowded. When Tenderheart and I hiked into Ice Water Spring Shelter, it was overflowing with people. We wanted to stay away from the crowd, and we had a hard time finding a suitable place to set up our tents. Since it was bear country, we took care to cook far from our sleeping area. We were not happy when some section hikers decided to build a fire and cook sausage a mere three feet from our tents. We referred to that night as “the cocktail party.”
Partnership Shelter in Virginia is famous along the trail. It has a shower and a nice privy, and the nearby Mt. Rogers visitor center has a phone that hikers can use. I took advantage of it and had pizza delivered right to the shelter.
The Sarver Cabin Shelter in Virginia was not even finished yet when Tenderheart and I stayed there. It had been a long day, my feet hurt terribly, and the shelter was far down a steep hill. Neither of us got much sleep. The no-see-ums were out in force, viciously biting any exposed skin…but it was too hot to cover up. It’s just too bad that whip-poor-will didn’t spend its time eating the bugs instead of yelling “Whip-poor-WILL, whip-poor-WILL!” all night.
Pennsylvania shelters were almost always too close to a road. At the George Outerbridge Shelter, a day-hiking woman allowed her dog to wallow in the water source, brushing off objections with, “Oh, it will settle out.” Late that night, an ATV roared through the woods around the shelter, crashing through brush and knocking down trees.
Hurd Brook Lean-to was the last shelter before Baxter State Park in Maine. I was two days from the end of my hike. I’d been hiking mostly alone for several weeks, and none of my trail friends from early on had been anywhere about. That night turned into a reunion, when Ladyhawk, Eggman, Sugar Daddy, and Gnome hiked in from the north.
Whenever I think of these shelters, and of other experiences on the trail, I am instantly transported back to that time and place. Although it’s been ten years, I can still see it as plain as day. I can still feel the magic that surrounded us all on our journeys.
Nancy Shepherd is the author of My Own Hike: A Woman’s Journey on the Appalachian Trail. As an accomplished thru-hiker she also maintains her own site at www.appalachian-trail-thru-hike.com/
It was nearly a decade ago that David ‘AWOL’ Miller left behind his software programming job, took a long walk in the woods and wound up penning the best selling AWOL on the Appalachian Trail. Traveling Sasquatch caught up with Miller at the recent Appalachian Trail Celebration & Backpacking Clinic at Amicalola Falls Lodge as he spoke to a crowd of fellow hikers. The following is a ‘behind-the-numbers’ look at this A.T. adventure…
41- Age of David “AWOL” Miller when he embarked on his long awaited
thru-hike in 2003.
3-Number of small children Miller left at home with his wife when he
embarked on his A.T. adventure. He said he received some spirited feedback
about this from a female co-worker.
“She said ‘It’s a good thing you’re not married to me,” said Miller,
with a grin. “And I said ‘You’re right.’”
1-Sets of clothing Miller took with him on his hike. This made his
rain jacket imperative when washing clothes, said Miller.
100- The number of days in which Miller planned to complete the
trail. “I planned to go fast,” he said. “I mapped everything out.”
146- Actual number of days it took Miller to complete the trail.
“[The plan] went out the door after about three days,” he said.
43- Number of days Miller hiked over 20 miles
30- Number of miles hiked during his longest day
18-Number of Zeros Days taken by Miller while completing the trail,
four which were for a sprained ankle.
2,500- Average number of calories in a “half-way” half-
gallons of ice cream, which Miller consumed at the A.T. Conservancy
Center in Harpers Ferry, Va.
“I was a very modest eater before hiking and never thought that would
be me,” he said. ” … I ate it all and afterwards I had dinner.”
2- The number of years Miller waited after first asking his boss if
he could take a sabatical to hike the trail and hearing a ‘no.” If
they would have denied him the second time, Miller said he would have
O -Number of times Miller thought about giving up on the trail. “I
never really gave quitting serious consideration,” he said. “I had so
much invested in it. And I never had a day where I thought, “I’d like
to be at work now.’”
Want to hear more from Miller? You can check out his best-seller, as well as his trail guide, here.
And he’s not a big fan of shuffleboard either.
“That’s not me,” said the 71-year-old Marine with a chuckle. “I also
don’t play golf. I need more activity. A little more excitement and adventure.”</strong>
That’s why, at an age when many of his peers are looking for a new bridge
partner, the five-time grandfather is gearing up for a back-straining, shin-splinting, 2,181-mile
journey on the Appalachian Trail.
“When you get older, you have to do things that have a little
adventure to them,” he said from his Dawson County, Ga home. “If not,
your big excitement of the day is that you get to try a new box of
There will be no room for cereal in Ferg’s pack next week when he
hits the trail with fellow retiree Bob Miller.
No one is more surprised about it then they are.
“It’s totally out of character for me,” said the 68-year-old retired
real estate agent. “It’s unlike anything I’ve ever done.”
Miller admits that the A.T. was the last thing on his mind until one Thanksgiving Day a few years ago
when his daughter suggested a week-long hike.
“I said ‘Can’t you find somebody your own age?” he laughed.
She didn’t. And several months later Miller had logged hundred of miles under his
boots and earned the trail-name of Granbob.
“[My daughter] said she’s created a monster,” he said. “That’s all I
talk about anymore,”
Likewise, Ferg (a.k.a Jarhead) didn’t expect to become anything close to an A.T. enthusiast.
After his military career, the Vietnam vet actually decided to permanently swear
off any grueling outdoor excursions.
“I was done with dirt,” he said. “I just didn’t want that anymore,
but then as time kind of heals wounds, I started to get back into the
dirt a little bit.”
So what’s the secret to Septuagenarian hiking?
Don’t stop hiking.
“Hiking the trail itself will keep you in shape,” Ferg said.
In order to keep moving, Miller and Ferg are also hiking for a local causes.
Ferg, a longtime sculptor, will be walking for the Dawson County Arts
Miller will walk for the Reading Education Association of Dawson.
Sponsors can donate in one lump sum or on a per mile basis as they move the pair moves their way up the
Ferg said he’s hoping it will give him extra incentive to
trudge through the inevitable low points of trail-life.
“There’s some dark days out there,” he said. “And when you’re getting
beat on by the rains and cold weather you’d like to quit. But that
will be tough to do when people are counting on you.”
In the meantime, the soon-to-be thru-hikers are getting ready to set out from
Springer Mountain. And Ferg just laughs when he’s asked if his friends ever
tell him it’s time to start acting his age.
“Im not hearing it,” he said. “I’m sure people are thinking it though.”
Even if they did say it, Ferg and Miller probably wouldn’t pay
They’re too busy hiking.
Traveling Sasquatch will check in periodically with Ferg, pictured above, and Miller as they move toward Maine. In the meantime, you can keep track of them through Ferg’s blog at www.trailjournals.com/entry.cfm?trailname=12204 or Miller’s blog at www.trailjournals.com/entry.cfm?trailname=12912 . If you’re interested in contributing to their cause you can visit www.dawsonarts.org or email email@example.com.