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

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.

Put Away Your Damn Fartphone

grim reaper

(They) keep you doped with religion and sex and TV—John Lennon, from his song “Working Class Hero”

Last week I was sitting in a co-worker’s cubicle, discussing an art rendering for a project, and I heard a familiar jingle. Is that my phone? I thought, instinctively reaching for my pants pocket. Couldn’t be Dave’s. I’m the only one who still has a non-internet flip phone.

I’ll be darned if Dave didn’t pull out his own flip phone. Later, I told him how good it felt to know I wasn’t alone in shunning the internet phone. He nodded and smiled, then went into something about iPhone costs, and how China was having the last laugh on the U.S.

Then, this morning, I saw a segment on CBS Sunday Morning about how worldwide feelings of loneliness are becoming epidemic, that the U.K. actually has a Minister of Loneliness to deal with this problem, and that studies show a correlation between loneliness and people who regularly immerse themselves in social media. “(E)specially among millennials, the ever-present phone may in part be why.”

where are you

And I recently read a book entitled The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection, by Michael Harris. Harris discusses how social media—being able to wire in 24-7—is helping to increase social and political apathy and is reducing our capacity for quiet solitude (absence), which in turn reduces imagination, creativity, empathy, and an ability for sustained concentration (one reason, perhaps, why fewer people now read books).

I’ll add that these devices also cause marked deficiencies in vitamin N (nature), and an increase in bad manners, something I wrote about back in 2013 (click here).

apes

It doesn’t take a PhD in media technology to see all this. Just go to a restaurant, or walk through an airport, or visit the local park. Or glance at people driving down the road. (But if you’re driving, don’t glance too long). Our obsession with “wiring in” is, indeed, epidemic.

The problem, as I see it, is less about omnipresent digital technology than lack of self-control. Children, obviously, have yet to learn self-control, and it’s incumbent on parents and teachers to develop this ability. If you put a large bowl of M&Ms in front of a child, then leave the room, what do you think the child will do? If you give your teenager the TV remote, and let him watch whatever he wants whenever he wants, do you think he’ll view PBS Frontline for an hour and then hit the books? Hell, do many adults watch PBS??teens

(TV is one of the reasons my parents sent me to boarding school. I guess it never occurred to them to remove the TV and kick my ass outdoors.)

Unfortunately, when it comes to social media, parents and teachers are setting a terrible example for kids and teens. Not only are they unable to refrain from reaching for this digital chocolate, but many can’t even recognize how their kids and students are being doped.

Not long ago, a friend of mine expressed concern that his son was doing poorly in school. I asked him if the boy had a smartphone. “Yeah, I got him one a year ago. But all his friends have one.” The kid was only eleven.

(Then my friend interrupted our conversation because his iPhone rang.)

***

One thing that really jumped out at me during the CBS Sunday Morning broadcast concerned Facebook. Boy wonder Mark Zuckerberg’s creation has to be the biggest Frankenstein monster worldwide. There are, undoubtedly, positives to Facebook. But as we’re becoming increasingly aware, there are just as many, if not more, negatives. And one of them is how Facebook, incongruously, actually contributes to loneliness.

lonely girl

“How the hell does this person get so many Facebook friends?” is something I once asked myself. Aside from the reality that most Facebook connections aren’t really “friends,” or at least true friends, and that Facebook correspondence between these “friends” is primarily superficial, there’s also this observation by Dr. Brian Primack of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health:

“People are able to take 300-400 pictures of themselves and post that one that makes them look like they are that much more thin or that much more attractive or that much more successful. The impression from the outside can easily be, on social media, ‘Wow, I can’t measure up with my very normal life.’”

Ah yes, the ever-popular selfie (or “selfish-ie”). Loneliness? How about clinical depression?

help

I’ve been accused of being anti-technology, including by members of my own family—all of whom, I might add (other than my 93-year-old mother), own iPhones. However, that’s an unfair accusation. I’m all for advances in responsible medical technology, which extend life and benefit health. In fact, I’m actually looking forward to my procedure next week to remove my prolapsed internal hemorrhoid.

I’m merely opposed to technology for its own sake, to the worship of technology, particularly leisure technology, by creators as well as end-users. And like I said above, it’s usually not about the technology, anyway. It’s about self-control. Too much technology and science, in irresponsible hands, and without self-control—as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein made clear—can be dangerous.

And as author/environmentalist Edward Abbey also noted: “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” Or the hemorrhoid.

 

girl on couch