Appalachian Trail Solo Thru-Hike Odyssey: Final Thoughts

This last Appalachian Trail post coincides with me finishing the transfer of my trail journal from a dog-eared, narrow-rule, chub notebook to an electronic file.  But unlike when I fashioned a book from my 2013 to 2018 section hikes, I won’t be formally publishing this time around.  Instead, I’m offering my journal to anyone who would like a free copy.  The journal covers all 165 days and nights I was on the A.T.

There’s quite a bit here.  In addition to my usual misanthropic observations, I talk about where I hiked, where I slept, people I met, wildlife encounters, fear, anger, loneliness, joy…even songs that I whistled.  And there are lots of photos!

If you would like a free PDF, just give me your email, either in the comments section here or in an email sent to: pkurtz58@gmail.com.

Anyway, here are my final thoughts to wrap up this series:

The Appalachian Trail has become a human highway.  This is undoubtedly due to the prevalence of recent hiking books and movies, iPhone technology, and to significant improvements in backpacking gear.  These days it’s not only “cool” to do a thru-hike, it’s easier than ever (or as easy as a long-distance hike can possibly be).  The days of a solo backpacker spending multiple days and nights alone with his or her thoughts, and calling home from a phone booth located god knows where are long gone.

I’d go into detail on why thru-hiking has exploded and why it is now so easy, but I already touched on this here and there.  My journal also covers this ground.

Audie Murphy plane crash site, Brushy Mtn., Virginia

The Appalachian Trail is becoming increasingly commercialized.  This first became apparent to me when I visited my local outfitter to purchase a few items.  When Emily and Luke learned I planned to do a thru-hike, they gave me a substantial discount (the tribe thing).  Then at the start of my hike I learned about “slackpacking,” where hostels are able to double their profits by offering shuttle services with day packs to hikers who temporarily trade in their full backpacks to make their hike easier.

At the end of my hike I learned about “food drops” in the once-austere Hundred-Mile Wilderness, and the popularity of one-stop shops like Shaws Hostel, which (some argue) are placing profit over quality, integrity, and ethics.

In between I experienced well-publicized speed contests on the trail, A.T.-related blogs and YouTube channels chock full of advertisements, and even a news channel specifically for A.T. hikers.

The Appalachian Trail reminds me of today’s sterilized Nashville country music scene.  As Waylon Jennings sang long ago, “I don’t think Hank (Williams Sr.) done it this way.”

People on the Appalachian Trail are the same as people off the Appalachian Trail.  I met hundreds of backpackers during my five-and-a-half months out there.  The vast majority were friendly and helpful.  They encompassed the mass of humanity: young, old, male, female, wealthy, middle-class, poor, homeless, highly educated, lesser-educated, urban, rural, liberal, conservative, white-collar, blue-collar, heterosexual, homosexual, religious, non-religious, American, non-American, extroverted, introverted, fat, and skinny. 

The one exception to this was a noticeable absence of “people of color.”  It’s evident to me that there is a socio-cultural element that is determining who backpacks and who doesn’t.

Abandoned barn near Hampton, Tennessee

The Appalachian Trail has a tendency to get under a person’s skin.  I’m not sure why this is.  One of my favorite hikers last year was a 74-year-old man from Honolulu, Hawaii named “Bruiser.”  He was on his third thru-hike of the trail. 

I asked Bruiser why one thru-hike wasn’t enough, and he said he liked doing them to stay in shape.  I then asked why he didn’t just work out in a gym back in beautiful Hawaii, and he said the fast food and snack machines there would be too tempting to overcome.  I then asked why he didn’t do other trails, like the Pacific Crest Trail or the Continental Divide Trail, and he said his skin was sensitive and there wasn’t enough shade out west.

I don’t know if Bruiser was being entirely truthful with me.  My impression was that, like me, he couldn’t really verbalize why the Appalachian Trail had gotten under his skin.

There won’t be another thru-hike for me, but there are one or two special places on the A.T. that I’d like to return to, if only for just a night or two.  If you read my journal, you’ll know where they are.

***

Thanks for following me on my trek, and again, if you’d like a free copy of Call Me Omoo, please comment or email me (pkurtz58@gmail.com).

Soon, I’ll be exchanging my tent for six months of beachcombing in Venice, Florida.  My hedonism agenda includes tennis-playing, sea kayaking, snorkeling, kitesurfing lessons, and collecting sharks’ teeth.  I want to eat a lot of fresh fish and catch up on my reading.  While I’ll miss being detached from the bullshit of 21st-century society – at least, superficially – a change of venue is in order. And I have absolutely no regrets being retired.

Perfect timing: I just received an unsolicited text from a recruiter about applying for a position. My response? “Thanks, but I quit the rat race and would prefer not to.”  Like certain sad copy clerks whose lives contain walls, I still have the power of self-determination.

Sunrise at Jo-Mary Lake, Maine

Appalachian Trail Solo Thru-Hike Odyssey – Chapter Nine

Yesterday morning I arrived in Monson, Maine. Monson is a small lakeside town of about 600 people in the center of the state, and a major hub for Appalachian Trail hikers. To give an idea of Monson culture, the lone gas station sells bumper stickers that read “Kids Who Hunt, Trap, and Fish Don’t Mug Little Old Ladies.”

I estimate one more week to complete my solo thru-hike odyssey.

Between Monson and Mount Katahdin (highest point in Maine, northern endpoint of the A.T., and centerpiece of Baxter State Park) lies what is known as the Hundred-Mile Wilderness. This is a spectacular area of scenic wonders almost completely void of any semblance of civilization.

Omoo at NH-ME line, middle of one of the most difficult segments of the whole trail

It is also one of the more challenging sections for A.T. hikers, featuring both mountains and rugged terrain. Hiking the austere Wilderness requires a stockpile of a recommended 10-days’ rations.

So I’m taking both a “zero” (no miles) and “near-o” (minimal miles) day in Monson to rest and prepare. My oasis is Lakeshore House, located on the northeastern tip of Lake Hebron. Upon arrival I indulged in a hot shower followed by a “Famished Farmer” sandwich at the only grocery and deli in town. I’m now spoiling myself with cappuccino crunch ice cream before it’s back to ever-monotonous trail food.

The vast majority of hikers, mainly younger, stay just down the road at Shaw’s, which is run by ex-hikers Hippie Chick and Poet. (Crunchy granola, anyone?) Lakeshore seems to be the quieter, more low-key alternative, which suits this old guy fine.

Hiking friends Ice Cream and Memories at Grafton Notch. From Germany, they’re spending part of their honeymoon on the A.T.

So far there are only five of us at Lakeshore: me, Silver Bullet, Dozer, Boston, and Double Vision. Not surprisingly, all of us have either silvery hair or bald spots.

When Vision walked through the bunkhouse door, my jaw dropped. We last saw each other over a year ago on a cold, rainy night at a shelter in North Carolina. Vision is now trying to complete a series of section hikes, and the Wilderness is his last stretch. But he’s not doing well. At Carlo Col he suffered second-degree burns after spilling boiling water on his leg. Now, in the heat of mid-July, at age 67, he’s on the verge of heat exhaustion. Like me, he’s spending two nights here. He’s also debating going home. With age comes wisdom. (Often.)

Trail at Poplar Ridge, near where hiker Inchworm stepped off to go to bathroom, got lost, and disappeared for over two years

Despite its hardships, particularly the rocky, rooty section around the NH-ME line, Maine is my favorite A.T. state. For one, Maine-ers don’t believe in asphalt or billboards, a welcome alternative to my home state of Ohio. The A.T. here is referred to as a “Green Tunnel.”

Bald eagle soaring over East Carry Pond, where four of us took an afternoon dip

Although I’ve yet to see one, moose thrive in Maine. Water abounds in the form of lily-padded ponds, lakes, and wild rivers. The mountain vistas offer stunning 360-degree views. And although a relatively rural, under-populated state, the residents have their own unique style (and accent). Living “off the grid” raises few eyebrows in Maine.

As Katahdin approaches, I’m feeling a mix of excitement and anxiety. My journey started May 2 of last year. Sometimes it feels like a shotgun marriage between me and the A.T. Will we ever divorce?

West branch of Piscataquis River, which requires fording. My new Crocs came in handy.

Other times, usually in early morning light when I feel strong and confident, hearing the sticks and crumbled rock crunching under my boots, I feel a deep satisfaction. I’m accomplishing a significant feat, and doing it my own way: wooden walking stick, paper guide/map, full backpack the entire distance, completely solo but nonetheless making trail friends…and lifetime memories.

And lest I forget, this project began with a cause in mind: raising money and awareness for American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.  Thanks again to those of you who have helped. (R.I.P. Biff, Ben, and Peter.)

Monday, July 25 begins my final launch. As hikers often remark before parting ways (most totally unaware it’s the title of an old song written by television cowgirl Dale Evans):

“Happy Trails”

– Omoo

Sunset at Pierce Pond

Return to the Appalachian Trail

White Mountains, New Hampshire, where I section-hiked in 2016. I’ll soon be returning.

He loves nature in spite of what it did to him.

Forrest Tucker

Where the hell did I stash those rolling papers?

Omoo

Last August 1 at Wind Gap, Pennsylvania my Appalachian Trail thru-hike was sabotaged after three months.  Thrombophlebitis in my right leg was the culprit.  (You can read or re-read about my trials and tribulations here.)

According to Dr. Kuhn at the Vein Center, there are still “old clots” (whatever that means) but nothing serious, and since my knotty calf veins are now just faint shadows, I certainly look prettier.  What I didn’t expect was another, more serious health scare, and it happened only a month before my scheduled A.T. re-launch at the gap this coming May 1.

I won’t go into the details.  It’s a long-term issue that I don’t think will affect my hike.  However, things will be different, mainly diet.  No more Snickers bars for sugar, packaged Idahoan potatoes for carbs, or McDonalds for fats.  I’m not sure how I will eat healthy and still maintain a decent weight, but I’m going to try.

Here’s the good news:

  • With “only” 911.4 miles remaining, I’m not rushed.  I have a whopping five months to reach Mt. Katahdin in Maine before bad weather hits, and assuming I maintain last year’s pace, I should get there in 65 days
  • The June/July temperatures should be more forgiving in New England
  • The smaller states will get scratched off much quicker, a great psychological boost
  • More towns in which to find a healthy meal…at least until Maine and its ominous 100-Mile Wilderness

I expect the first few days will be rough.  I’m hitting maybe the rockiest section of the rockiest state on the entire Appalachian Trail, a section called Wolf Rocks.  All those foot callouses I carefully and painstakingly developed last year are gone, so there will be blisters.  Due to recently being sick, I haven’t been able to train like I wanted, so there will be soreness and fatigue.

I’m also testing out a new water container.  It’s a two-liter bag made of thermoplastic polyurethane—looks like a colostomy bag—and it will hang on carabiners attached to my pack.  It replaces last year’s bulky, hard-plastic Nalgene bottle that I had to secure with bungee cords.  I also bought some gaiters to limit the amount of wet socks I’ll have to air-dry on my pack.

Northern Great Smoky Mountains

My tent reading material is another skinny, lightweight book: John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.  (Did I just say mice?)

Again, biggest challenge will be food.  Our daughter Holly is almost a vegan, so she’s helping me choose the healthiest breakfast bars and dinner fare.  One evening repast will be green lentils and red quinoa…healthy, packable, short boiling time, boring flavor.  My lunch fare won’t change: trusty peanut butter on tortillas!

As I did last year, I will try to update my blog, but no guarantees.  Those who know me know I hate writing on cellphones, and I can only do it during sporadic town breaks, when I’m pressed for time with eating, buying groceries, doing laundry, phoning loved ones, and airing out wet gear.

Nonetheless, I do appreciate connecting with you good folks who have to deal with that crippled “other” society (the not-so-real world).  So I’ll do my best to keep one toe on the grid.

Even if I don’t update longitudes, I plan to continue my evening diary dribblings, and once this damn thing is finally history I’ll send a PDF of my entire journal to anyone still willing to indulge in my narcissism.

Okay, Lonewolf (A.T. thru 1997, PCT thru 2001).  Okay, Queequeg (Pequod, 1851).  Ready for a road trip to Stroudsburg, PA?  Flutie you noisy sonofabitch, Omoo is headed your way…with a large colostomy bag and a few less varicosed veins.

New England shelter journals may never be the same.

The last photo from last year’s hike. I was on a mushroom photo kick. And I was cursing the rocks.

Confessions of a Running Junkie

[UPDATE, April 2022: this post is more about my running fixation than my health, but just recently I had a CT scan of my heart and learned I have signs of atherosclerosis (calcium plaque in my arteries) and unless I take steps I could have a heart attack. I thought my diet was good, but maybe not. Although both my parents lived long lives, it could also be heredity. Anyway, regular exercise and low cholesterol levels are not necessarily a guarantor of a healthy heart. I urge everyone when they get older to have a heart CT scan. They only cost about $100 and could make a big difference.]

Last week I donated blood.  The Blood Center folks always check vital signs before inserting the needle.  For the third visit in a row after taking my vital signs, the nurse had to phone the doctor to “clear me.”

Although my blood pressure was slightly high (blame coffee, age, and Washington D.C.), that wasn’t the issue.  It was my pulse: only 44 beats per minute.  Halfway to dead.  A minimum pulse of 50 is required to donate.

Before phoning the phantom doctor, the nurse tried to get it up.  “Think of something exciting,” she instructed me.  So of course I concentrated on hardcore sex.

“I can’t believe it,” she said after taking my pulse a second time.  “It actually went down.”

Fortunately, my visit to the bloodsuckers wasn’t wasted, because Dr. Mysterioso “cleared me” after hearing that I was a daily runner.  Evidently runners and other athletes have lower heart rates.

This latest longitudes yammer isn’t to puff myself up.  No athlete am I.  Like my man Lou Reed, I’m just an Average Guy.  But running is a big part of my life, as you’ll soon see.

Back in high school, inspired by running icons like Frank Shorter and Steve Prefontaine, I ran cross-country for one season.  Then in college I got sidetracked with my studies: sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.  (The sex part was a distant third.)  Then I continued my studies while living the single life in Florida, but also began jogging along the beach.  I needed to work off the cheap beer from the previous weekend. 

I didn’t commence a regular jogging routine until 1992 at age 34.  I’d been laboring several years at a strenuous outdoors job, then suddenly found myself behind a desk doing sedentary work.  This abrupt venue change triggered some long-suppressed anxieties.  Then the anxieties triggered depression. 

Running helped lessen my mental struggles.  I found that—once I dragged myself out of the recliner and stepped outside—the sustained cardiovascular activity provided by running helped me escape the inside of my head.  And during the in-between times, the bleak moments weren’t quite so bleak.

Therapy and benzodiazepines also played a role, but there’s no doubt running helped pull me out of my deepening funk.

In 1993 I got hired by a company that co-sponsored a popular local road race: the Cincinnati Heart Mini-Marathon.  I’d been jogging regularly now for a while, so I registered.  This race was the turning point.  It was like a giant party without the booze.  And instead of a hangover afterwards, I experienced the oft-cited “runner’s high.”  I had so much fun running those 9.3 miles downtown, I began doing smaller 5-kilometer races (3.1 miles).  Then 10K races.  Then marathons (26.2 miles).

At this stage—before age began chipping away at my testosterone level and male ego—speed was paramount.  Pushing myself to set PRs became a minor hobby.  Sometimes, the night before a race, I dreamt of being pulled by a giant conveyor belt strapped around my waist.  (And sometimes I was sprawled on the edge of the freeway and clawing gravel with my hands.)

My speed peak arrived in 1998 at age 40 when I qualified for the Boston Marathon, the granddaddy of road races.  In Boston the following year I set a personal best time of 3:11 (three hours, eleven minutes). 

After Newport (RI) Marathon, October 2013 (photo by Mom)

My times soon slowed, but the marathons continued.   Altogether I’ve run 32 marathons in 22 different states.  (It would have been more, but I had two multi-year marathon layoffs due to back trouble…probably running-related.)

These days I average about 18 miles a week.  This includes an eight-mile run every Saturday morning on the nearby Little Miami River Scenic Trail, where I’ve co-adopted a four-mile segment.  I supplement my volunteer hours by scooping up litter that the fair-weather slobs have discarded.

My weeknight runs are two miles through my neighborhood.  This is also social time.  My wife asked me recently, “How did you get to know this person?”  I told her to join me on a run and I’d show her how.  (She declined.)

Running is my TM and yoga combined; it strengthens both my body and brain.  I can’t imagine what my BP reading would be without it.  Also, as with mountain backpacking, I like the outdoors solitude.  I get a lot of writing ideas while running alone.  The first few paragraphs of this essay came while running along Little Miami.

There have been occasions when I couldn’t run, such as after breaking my ankle in 1995, or after surgery in 2019.  The sudden indolence actually brought on physical withdrawal.

So that’s where the “running junkie” in the title comes from.  It’s an addiction.  I realize running isn’t for everyone.  Some people can’t run due to bad knees or back or other health constraint.  Others, like my brother, claim running is “boring.”  Some have exercise alternatives like walking, bicycling, swimming, or weightlifting…all good. 

Still others enjoy massaging their gluteus maximus with a recliner cushion.  Hey, I figure if you remain undistracted, that’s good too.  In these digital-compulsive days, doing absolutely nothing is vastly underrated.  As we say on the Appalachian Trail, Hike Your Own Hike.  As we said in the Sixties, Do Your Own Thing

My thing is running.  See you on the sidewalk.