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 Ten

One of the first northbound views of cloud-crowned Mount Katahdin, Maine

What do we do given life?
We move around

Solitude, reach for light
Reach or slide
We move around

—Stephen Stills, “Move Around”

[On August 1 I summited Mount Katahdin in Maine to complete my 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail backpack trip.  Coincidentally, it was exactly a year to the day since my wife “rescued” me from thrombophlebitis near Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, after which I was sidelined for nine months.  This entry effectively finishes my A.T. travelogue.  I’ll probably offer some sort of denouement later, a clean green ribbon to wrap up the whole series.]

The so-called “Hundred-Mile Wilderness” which extends from Monson, Maine to Abol Bridge at the foot of Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park presented a few surprises.

First, it is not truly a wilderness as defined by the Wilderness Act of 1964.  It is not federal land that restricts habitation and motorized vehicle activity.  There are private cabins, gravel logging roads, and even an active sawmill whose racket can be heard from the trail.

Second, it is more rigorous than I was led to believe.  There are two significant mountain ranges: the Chairback and Whitecap ranges, plus several individual, smaller mountains.  There is also much twisting, turning, and root, rock, and boulder negotiation, especially during the first 50 miles. 

Third, there were far more hikers than I envisioned.  I expected thru-hikers and sectioners.  But I also encountered day hikers.  Even a family picnicking on a sand beach at Nahmakanta Lake.

For someone hoping for peace and solitude on relatively easy trail, this was all a bit disconcerting.

Hundred-Mile Wilderness caution near Monson, Maine

The good news is that I maintained my daily hiking average of 15 miles, arriving at Abol Bridge in my predicted six-and-a-half days’ time.  I had more than enough food to sustain me the entire way (supplemented by wild blueberries and huckleberries for vitamin C).

A large number of veteran backpackers evidently didn’t feel confident about preserving a requisite quantity of food in their packs, since many relied on food “drops” by hostelries at one or more gravel roads.  This surprised me.  One of the appeals of the Hundred-Mile Wilderness, in my opinion, is the challenge of shunning outside support and relying on your own preparedness.

I’m assuming there were the ubiquitous slackpackers using vehicles to haul their gear, since I met several northbound (NOBO) hikers with small packs headed in the opposite direction.

There were a few highlights.  I was reunited atop Little Boardman Mountain with old friends Hums and Checklist, a young married couple from southern Indiana whom I’d met just before the New Hampshire-Maine state line.  We later found great overnight spots at Antlers Campsite on Jo-Mary Lake, replete with swimming, blueberry picking, and the eerie sound of a distant loon.  Thru-hikers Chef Decker, Pi (from Germany), and a southbound (SOBO) section hiker named Solo completed the Antlers group.

Hums (left) and Checklist (right) atop Little Boardman Mountain

Our tents flooded that night from a torrential rain.  Wet gear, especially wet boots and socks, is one of the banes of backpacking, but we had fun for at least a few hours.

For the second time I bumped into Warren Doyle, the dean of Appalachian Trail hikers, who has thru-hiked more than any other hiker (nine thru- and nine section hikes) and runs a school for aspiring A.T. backpackers. (He’s also controversial with some people, promoting athletics on the trail and violating regulations that he dislikes.) Doyle and a sweet woman aptly named Sweet Potato were at a gravel road and treating poor Pi, who had either tripped or fainted, then fallen, consequently restructuring her nose and left eye.

Another highlight was having Little Beaver Pond to myself for my final night in the Wilderness.  This pond was a quiet surprise.  It’s a concealed sub-lake that spills into the eastern tip of larger Rainbow Lake.

There is no sign for Little Beaver on the A.T.  There is a sign for Big Beaver, but considering Big Beaver is 0.7 miles down a side trail, few hikers bother to walk it.  But just a tenth of a mile down this blue-blazed side trail is a tiny sign with an arrow that reads “Little Beaver.”

Little Beaver Pond tentsite and wild blueberries

I pitched my tent in a small oval of dry pine needles, the pond 100 yards below.  Surrounded by blueberry bushes, I devoted an hour to plucking ripe berries until my baggie was heavy.  These I gorged on later for dessert, then again for breakfast next morning.  In between I watched the sun set over the towering pines that rose over the shore of Little Beaver, while stoking a modest fire, smoking my “peace pipe,” and pondering the immensity of Mother Nature.

It’s a cliché, but out here your ego dissolves and you can feel your insignificance.  This is good.  It’s something one doesn’t often feel elsewhere, and it’s one reason why so many of us, ever since John Muir, flee to the mountains.

Rejuvenated by Little Beaver, I burned almost 18 miles next day to exit the Wilderness at Abol Bridge and reach base camp at The Birches campsite for my Katahdin climb.

Bulldozer, Heat, and me at Abol Bridge. Bulldozer was awaiting his family and summited Katahdin later.

The Birches is set aside for distance hikers intending to hike Baxter Peak, tallest point on Katahdin.  It’s located about a quarter-mile from family-friendly Katahdin Stream Campground.  This separation ensures the Griswold family won’t be disturbed by the sight of dirtbag backpackers getting wasted or peeing in the woods.  But for us hikers, it means a long slog to the stream just to fill our water bottles.

Only 12 hikers are permitted to camp at The Birches on any given night.  On the night of July 31, I was sixth out of seven hikers to sign up.  The others were Checklist, Hums, Heat, Chef Decker, Trash, and Wet Willy.  (The last-named was a really fun fellow, but he had two blown knees and had no business being with us.)

Around suppertime, Ranger Pete Sweeney dropped by to collect our registration cards and ten-dollar camping fee.  He also gathered us around the fire ring like a benevolent schoolteacher to discuss the sacredness of the mountain to native peoples…and to discourage us from celebrating too raucously at the peak.

I didn’t sleep much that night due to my excitement.  I’d come 2,185 miles and now had only five miles left.  So many times I’d wondered if I’d ever finish this Sisyphean venture, and it was hard to fathom the end was looming.

We rose from our sleeping bags with the first rays of sunlight (except Wet Willy), packed our gear, then hiked to the ranger station to trade in our heavy packs for lighter day packs.  I felt somewhat guilty about this, since I’d thus far prided myself on hauling my home on my back the whole way.  My justification was that a heavy pack up Katahdin could be extremely dangerous, plus there was no camping at the summit that required a full pack.  Also, with this short, five-mile “slackpack,” there would be no unnecessary burning of fossil fuels.

So I pulled out my Gregory day pack and filled it with peanut butter, tortillas, Clif bars, and my water flask.  Going suddenly from 40 pounds to five pounds felt like heaven, especially with all the adrenaline pumping through me.  I whisked through Katahdin Stream Campground, offered a knowing nod to Chef Decker (whose family was joining her for her final climb), and began my 5.2-mile ascent up the legendary mountain.

Cauliflower fungus (Sparassis crispa)

Katahdin is not easy.  The climb starts with a glide on gently sloping soil, then steeper dancing on rocks, then gymnastics on extremely vertical walls of boulders.  Some of the smoother boulder sections have rebar to assist climbers, this man-made addition courtesy of the Maine Appalachian Trail Club.

But I had time and adrenaline on my side.  Each day throughout my hike I had one song that I would whistle or hum to help my frame of mind.  Today I gustily sang out loud about a dozen of my favorite tunes—from Burt Bacharach to The Byrds—not even caring if anyone else heard me. 

About a mile from the summit begins The Tableland, a sea of rocks where the A.T. (here known as “Hunt Trail”) is delineated by stone cairns.  This is cloud country, and the wind and chill increase dramatically.  Suddenly, I see a group of hikers gathered near what looks like an oversized wooden sawhorse.

“Omoo!”  “Omoo!” they shout.  Heat, Hums, and Checklist have already arrived.  There are hugs and congratulations all ‘round. We collectively soak in this magical moment.  

As William Clark wrote in his journal when the Corps of Discovery first laid eyes on the Pacific Ocean in 1805: O! the joy.

We spent about an hour at the summit, taking pictures and responding—with as much humility as we could muster—to the day hikers’ many questions.  Hiking compatriots Lobo (a biology teacher from Richmond, Virginia), Zippy Morocco (a Triple Crowner from Missoula, Montana), Rabbit, Trash, and Chef Decker arrived later. Cell reception was no problem at 5,300 feet, so I called Lynn to let her know I was okay, and I’d soon be home to take care of the moles tearing up our lawn.

A bobcat posing in clouds with alma mater, Ohio University

Although I could have hung around the peak all day, I knew the climb down would be equally treacherous and cumbersome, plus I planned to thumb a ride into the town of Millinocket, so I reluctantly descended.  A few hikers were still ascending.  The last one I saw was Wet Willie.  (It turned out he did reach the peak, despite the admonitions of his partner, Trash.  However, on the descent he fell, gashing his head and breaking his glasses.  He didn’t reach the hostel in Millinocket until well after dark.)

All of the August 1 summiters reunited at the Millinocket hostel, except Heat and Lobo, who were elsewhere with their families.  We shared three large pizzas at Angelo’s (their white pizza was exceptional) and also, of course, shared our thoughts about the trail.  Next day I joined Checklist and Hums on a shuttle/bus trip to Bangor.  They flew home to Indiana, but I stayed over another night to decompress and celebrate with Maine lobster roll.  (TIP: if you visit Maine and want fresh lobster, it helps if you’re near the coast.)

***

Since my start at Springer Mountain, Georgia on May 2, 2021, I spent over 160 nights on the Appalachian Trail, most of them in a one-person tent.  About once a week I got either a motel room or stayed in a hostel to shower, eat, buy provisions, and clean my clothes.  The animals I encountered included one bear, four beavers, two porcupines, two foxes, one rattlesnake, one copperhead (whose head I stepped on), one water snake, several black snakes, one bald eagle, one Northern goshawk, several grouse, and dozens of whitetail deer, red squirrels, chipmunks, orange newts, and toads.  I hiked around multiple piles of moose scat but never saw one.

I met hundreds of distance backpackers and liked almost all of them.  They ranged in age from 19-year-old Cole, whom I encountered north of Buena Vista, Virginia, to intrepid 80-year-olds.  Women hikers were just as prevalent as men.  A few hikers were transgender.  Many backpackers like me walked solo, while others found security in a trail family (“tramily”).

Only one backpacker my entire hike recognized my trail name, asking “Isn’t that a book by Herman Melville?” when we identified ourselves.  It was in southern Virginia at exactly the one-quarter mark.  He was about 30 years old, a former thru-hiker now doing a SOBO section.  His name was Deep Roots.

Sunrise at Jo-Mary Lake

I met a number of eccentrics and heard about others.  They ran the gamut from the motor-mouth ex-boxer at Niday Shelter to a man named Leafblower, who hiked with a large…what else?…leaf blower, and always rented an extra hostel bed for his machine. 

My emotions also ran the gamut.  Hiking alone, I often mulled over my past: vacations I took as a child, old friends.  I constantly thought about my loved ones, especially my deceased parents.  I’m not religious—in fact I’m agnostic—but I could sense my parents’ spirits being with me.  Once, while alone atop Mount Washington in early morning, the grey clouds broke briefly to reveal a layer of blue sky with higher, wispy, white clouds.  This serendipitous event coincided with my thinking of Mom and Dad.

But despite my sentimental moments and occasional bouts of loneliness, only once did I get choked up.  It was on top of Katahdin while talking to my wife.  I told her that hiking this trail was the hardest thing I’d ever done, physically and mentally.  It was harder than leaving home, than any job, than any marathon race.  Raising a family was difficult, but she helped me with that.  This thing, however, was all on me.  I told her there were times of discouragement when I wondered if my hike would ever end.

Now…it was finally over. And I really felt it.

For my next adventure I’m planning a solo canoe trip on the Charley and Yukon Rivers in north Alaska.  After all…we move around.

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

Appalachian Trail Solo Thru-Hike Odyssey – Chapter Eight

Sunset at Lakes of the Clouds Hut in the White Mountains

[UPDATE: I’ve reached Pinkham Notch, New Hampshire, about 37 miles shy of the Maine state line.  I left the trail there to fly home for a family wedding get-together.  On July 6 I’ll be flying back to resume my hike for the coup de grâce in Maine.]

The White Mountains of New Hampshire periodically pop up in news stories.  Sadly, the stories often have to do with death.

The Whites are the most rugged mountain range in the state.  They extend from Kinsman Notch, New Hampshire into western Maine and include the Presidential Range, a series of 4,000-foot-plus peaks named after U.S. presidents.  The granddaddy is Mount Washington, at 6,288 feet the second tallest peak in the Appalachians after Clingman’s Dome.

The Lookout is a once-private cabin in Vermont I had to myself one night

Mount Washington is notable for having some of the most unpredictable weather in the world.  For 62 years it held the record for the highest wind velocity: a phenomenal 231 miles per hour, recorded on April 12, 1934. Frigid temperatures are common even in summer.

Last Saturday—two days after I trod the same path—53-year-old Xi Chen of Andover, Massachusetts succumbed to hypothermia.  It was on Mount Clay, just north of Washington.  Chen was an experienced hiker who had already summited 19 mountains over 4,000 feet.  Chen’s wife said “he’s not a quitter—that probably got him into trouble this time.”

Porcupine near Lyme, New Hampshire

This is something I’ve noticed with many A.T. thru-hikers: a propensity to continue no matter what.  Last year I met Gravy, who had a torn ankle ligament but was adamant he would go all the way.  When I last saw him in Tennessee, he had just hiked back-to-back 21-mile days on his bad ankle.  This year I met Runner, whose hike was curtailed in 2021 due to contracting Lyme Disease, a horrible disease caused by infected tick bites. Runner is now back on trail, ticks be damned.  There have been many others who, despite health setbacks, insist on doing the whole thing.

I don’t know if this is a distinctly American trait (“Never give up!”) or distinctly Appalachian Trail.  I’m inclined to think the latter.  Surmounting serious health issues to “go all the way” seems to be ingrained in the A.T. subculture. And the thinking is, if you can go all the way in one haul, you’re that much more special.

Boulder slide on Mount Pierce, especially dangerous when slick after a rainfall

I see comments on hiking social media sites all the time like “Don’t give up!” “You can do it!” “Just one foot in front of the other!” These people mean well, but they’re unknowingly creating pressures that could have unintended consequences.

As a marathon runner, I see a similar tendency. At first we ran for exercise and enjoyment. Then for speed and medals. Then came ultra-marathons and triathlons. Now it’s running through Death Valley. The bar is always being raised.

The “Croo” at Madison Springs Hut in the Whites. They gave me free shelter and leftover lasagna in exchange for washing dishes.

A.T. hiking wasn’t always like this.  Benton MacKaye, the forester who in 1921 conceived the idea of a long trail through the Appalachian Mountains, saw the A.T. as a way for city dwellers to temporarily escape urban sprawl.  The first thru-hike (covering the entire length, Georgia to Maine) wasn’t until 1948.  Most hikers in the early days were content to traverse pieces of the trail, to take in nature and temporarily escape industrialization.

But in recent years, thanks to cellphones, several popular hiking books and movies, and improvements in backpacking gear technology, thru-hiking has mushroomed into an industry.  For many it’s an athletic endeavor, and nature appreciation has taken a back seat. Trail congestion is now a real problem. I’ve hiked from Georgia to (almost) Maine, and I’ve yet to overnight in a shelter, or tent-camp near a shelter, where there wasn’t at least one other person.  What’s the point of escaping one “sprawl” only to find another?

Branch of the Pemigewasset River, New Hampshire

Completing a thru-hike of any of the Triple Crown trails (A.T., PCT, or CDT), or other long trail, is an epic achievement and something to be proud of (even if the majority of thru-hikers these days frequently use a vehicle to transport their backpacks to make their hike easier—a practice known as “slackpacking”).  But as impressive as a thru-hike is, it doesn’t qualify one for sainthood.

If you’re thinking of doing a thru-hike, make sure your heart is really in it and you’re not doing it merely because it’s cool or fashionable.  Make sure you do the necessary homework. And if you begin one, nobody will think less of you if you choose to quit.  (Nobody worthwhile, anyway.)  Too many people have died trying not to be a “quitter.”

Words of wisdom, south slope of Mt. Washington

Appalachian Trail Solo Thru-Hike Odyssey – Chapter Seven

Little Rock Pond, Vermont

Arrived in Killington, Vermont yesterday for a two-day R&R at beautiful The Inn at Long Trail. (The Long Trail stretches the length of Vermont, ending at the Canadian border, and shares the A.T. over its southern half.)

It’s good timing. Not only am I nearly halfway (for this year) to my climax at Mount Katahdin, but I depleted all my resources: trail food, clean clothes, cell charge, boots, and calories. Yesterday I took care of the first three; today I bought new Merrell boots, and I’m stuffing my pie-hole with an Italian sub, chips, and Powerade as I write this.

When your bones protrude enough to interlock with the tree roots under your tent floor, it’s time to build some fat.

Skin and bones hiker smiles while finding sanctuary at The Inn

I’ve always loved Vermont’s Green Mountains from a distance. Inside, on trail, they are more menacing, but the dense red spruce/balsam fir forests make for a stimulating olfactory experience…Killington Peak, the second-highest summit in the Greens (4,229 feet) is the best-smelling mountain I’ve yet hiked.

The ski resort town of K-ton is also impressive. They just had a Memorial Day trifecta event of golf, bicycling, and skiing (still happening!) at one resort, and unlike what might occur in my home state of Ohio, golf was the least popular event! (I love Vermont.)

The Inn might be my favorite R&R spot this entire thru-hike. It’s a time-tested rustic ski lodge, with ski superstars like Mikaela Schiffrin and Petra Vlhova dropping in during the World Cup, but which I have to myself, now, with a lull between ski season and the bubble of distance hikers. The Irish Pub and draughts of Guinness downstairs might have something to do with my enthusiasm.

The trail itself has been a joy compared to WV, MD, and (much of) Rocksylvania. Lotsa quiet mountain ponds, vistas, and wildlife. My last day in Massachusetts presented a porcupine, and first day in Vermont graced me with four fat beavers lazily swimming across their watery estate.

Two other highlights include the surprise I had on top of Black Mountain in upstate New York. Gazing out over distant peaks, my knees almost buckled when, swiveling my head left, I caught the distant skyline of New York City. Surreal is the word. Hard to imagine the riot of activity, noise, smells, and powerful deal-making in that tiny, smoky sliver of spires in the distance. I could almost see my uncle pouring vodkas through the window of his Upper East Side apartment. Yet here so solitary and peaceful.

The other highlight was my side-jaunt via thumb to Pittsfield, Massachusetts to visit and tour Arrowhead, where Herman Melville wrote America’s greatest novel, MobyDick. (Some of you know that Omoo, a Polynesian word for “rover,” was used as a title by Melville for his second semi-autobiographical book.) From his upstairs study he could view double-humped Mount Greylock, largest peak in MA, which supposedly seeped into his conception of the white whale. The view seeped into me, too.

Arrowhead, one-time home of author Herman Melville

Nice trail friends, too. Two include L.A., a veteran hiker who is actually from Nantucket and suffered heat exhaustion around Greylock, and with whom I shared burgers ‘n’ brews with in Bennington; and Golden, a UMass-Amherst kinesiology student on her first solo thru hike (Long Trail) and on whom I actually bestowed a trail name, based on her golden hair and personality.

Golden on Bromley ski slope, which the A.T. crosses

Well, it’s Guinness time, after which I have one more comfortable sleep before newly commencing my roving…hopefully with a bit more cushioning around my bones. As always, thanks for joining me, trail and non-trail friends.

Till next time…

Omoo (and his mute hickory trail companion, Queequeg)

Murray, owner and bartender at The Inn

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.

Appalachian Trail Solo Thru-Hike Odyssey- Chapter 6

Near Carlisle, Pennsylvania

I’d reached Wind Gap near Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania for 2 1/2 days’ rest, recuperation, and rendezvous at the Hampton Inn with my wife, whom I hadn’t seen (in person) for three months. It was going to be a nice mini-vacation from the goddawful knife-edge rocks of the previous week. I’d completed 1,281 miles and was one day’s hike shy of the New Jersey state line. Mount Katahdin in Maine was in figurative view.

Did you notice the past tense “was?”

In the past three months I’ve seen many thru-hikers younger than me have to quit the trail due to injury or illness (fractures, sprains, tendon tears, kidney stones, fatigue, etcetera). Others mysteriously disappeared, or resorted to “slackpacking” (using a vehicle to haul their gear). One man I hiked with and sheltered with, a friendly, self-deprecating guy named Faceplant, died in his tent.

A.T. halfway point south of Pine Grove Furnace, PA, where a lot happened all at once. The Scotch flask is courtesy my old school chum Tad, who drove clear from Pittsburgh to meet me, and helped re-charge my batteries.

I wasn’t immune to my own less-serious problems. Here’s a short laundry list: vasculitis (“Disney Rash”) in both legs. Mysterious calf ache. Hyperextension of knee. Scalping (twice) by low-hanging tree limbs. Four rock and root stumbles that laid me horizontal. Four ticks whose heads penetrated my flesh, precipitating a visit to Urgent Care in Waynesboro, Virginia. Allergic reactions to Permethrin insecticide to ward off ticks. Stingings by five hornets. Excessive weight loss, exacerbated by intense heat and 95 percent humidity. Broken backpack hip belt. A punch-drunk ex-boxer who wouldn’t leave me alone at Niday Shelter. A disturbed OCD woman and her hunchback son at Maupin Field Shelter. The Rollercoaster. Shelter journal entries that sounded like they were written by eight-year-olds. Meralgia paraesthetica.

Second scalping, Exhibit A. Bandanas have many uses, but they are mediocre bandages. I didn’t notice there was blood until I removed this in my tent.

In the end it was blood clotting of the gorge-ous varicose veins in my right leg, inherited from Dad, that did me in. St. Luke Hospital in Stroudsburg diagnosed my condition as “thrombophlebitis.” They put me on blood thinners and recommended I consult a vascular surgeon.

So it was either get off trail, or risk a pulmonary embolism near an isolated privy, alone, in northern Pennsylvania. Or even worse, New Jersey.

So I’m writing this post while Lynn chauffeurs me home…ahh, Home, Sweet Home…on Interstate 80. I’m slouched in the back seat with my leg elevated over the passenger seat backrest. The good news is that I did manage a couple all-you-can-eat hot breakfasts at the Hampton.

Despite its many rocks, the Pennsylvania A.T. is chock full of colorful and unique mushrooms, like this white and rose-colored, cottony ‘shroom

Ironically, the clots flaired up only days after a minor crisis. While struggling heavily before and after Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, I considered quitting. (See paragraph 4 for my reasons.) I was actually planning an airplane trip from Harrisburg to Cincinnati.

But near the halfway mark a chance meeting with a Maine hiker and ex-cop, ex-fireman named Bilbo changed my mind. Bilbo is a stroke survivor. Seven years ago he was on life support for 15 days. Now, his right arm is paralyzed and his brain is at partial capacity. But he’s committed to going all the way for brain trauma awareness…hiking solo…with no slackpacking.

After hearing Bilbo’s story, and watching him struggle to open his bag of freeze-dried rice just so he could eat…and while I later mused in front of campfire sparks while sucking in some choice C. indica (medical, of course)…I chose to soldier on.

Limenitis arthemis. Beautiful butterflies are found up and down the A.T.

And through a careful program of trail-town gluttony, I’d even managed to add some weight to my bony frame.

But my 63-year-old body had other ideas. The first clotting symptoms appeared at Ironmasters Mansion Hostel in Pine Grove Furnace, amazingly within hours of telling Lynn I’d decided to continue and would not be flying home. I’m convinced Flutie and the Trail Gods are vengeful creatures. (Let me explain: Flutie is a male wood thrush I encountered at Beech Gap in North Carolina. He tagged along with me off and on, periodically singing out to reassure me. Thoreau loved his music, but to me he sounds like an impertinent child learning to play a flute, and not succeeding.) Flutie is my guardian angel. Or, at least, I thought so until Ironmasters Mansion.

O, Flutie, why hast thou forsaken me?

But as Arnold Schwarzenegger once said in a movie he starred in: “I’ll be bock.” I’ve got, as they say, unfinished business to attend to. Whether it happens this year or next, it will happen. When it does, I hope you’ll join me again for the second half. The Appalachian Trail may sound like a Trail of Tears, but there are also amazing and beautiful things that happen there.

For the immediate future though, I’ll be playing with my dog Sheba, savoring Seattle’s Best coffee once again, pulling weeds, popping Eliquis pills, and reading some material that is written by people who are able to construct coherent sentences…like here on WordPress.

Ahhhh. As Bilbo says, “Life is good.”

Bilbo and breakfast in Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania. We ended up hiking together for a week. I hope he survived the rock face north of Lehigh River.

Appalachian Trail Solo Thru-Hike Odyssey – Chapter 5

View of Maryland Heights from Harpers Ferry

Quick update before launching into today’s topic: I just left the Quality Inn in historic Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, after much-needed R&R. I just broke the 1,000-mile barrier and finally left Virginia, the trail’s largest state, then West Virginia. Now in the border state of Maryland. Just a short time longer and I’ll be bagging the halfway milestone in southern Pennsylvania.

But things are not so rosy in Omoo land. Two days ago I considered going home. The last stretch was very taxing: a particularly rough section known as “The Rollercoaster”; unbelievable heat and humidity; bugs, including a prevalence of ticks (one hiker I met yesterday at breakfast had to quit after contracting Lyme Disease); rocks at practically every step; and most significantly, weight loss. I’m now down to 135 pounds. I decided if my weight starts hovering around 130, I’m throwing in the towel. Wish me luck, as I truly want to do this hike in one take.

Anyway, here’s a continuation of profiles of those in the hiker community whom I’ve met. Round two:

Rabbit: trail name of a former thru-hiker who runs the last hostel in Tennessee before the Virginia state line. Rabbit always goes barefoot, has a pet terrier that would intimidate a grizzly, and seems a little scatterbrained (he alluded to some LSD dropping during his younger days). But he’s a really nice guy. Originally from New York, Rabbit became so enamored of the trail after his southbound 2016 thru-hike that he decided to open his own hostel. While the bunkroom is clean and comfortable, Rabbit Hole’s specialties are delicious homemade milkshakes and morning eggs (“They’re farm fresh!” Rabbit explained to me, while I plucked a tick from his bare back.)

Rabbit of Rabbit Hole Hostel

Quarters: I met Quarters after Trail Mix (a thru…or at least she was a thru) and I stumbled onto Overmountain Shelter at Yellow Mountain Gap, which Revolutionary War volunteers had once marched through. An avid section hiker from Spartanburg, South Carolina (he knew several members of the Southern-rock group The Marshall Tucker Band), he was surrounded by overnighters (including a young family) and was stoking a large campfire. “I’m getting burgers and beer for later,” he said. Needless to say, Trail Mix and I beamed with delight at the prospect of fresh food and alcohol. Though a little chilly, we all had a great time that night, telling stories, eating, drinking (and some toking). The next day, Quarters surprised me eight miles later at the next road crossing and shuttled me to Mountain Harbour Hostel for snack food. I think Trail Mix may have still been sleeping.

At Yellow Mountain Gap. Quarters is wearing the baseball cap. Trail Mix is to his right.

Chicago: we hiked together sporadically through North Carolina and Virginia. I left Chicago behind in Atkins, Virginia when he did an overnight, but another hiker said he wafted through Harpers Ferry earlier today, so I anticipate seeing him again up the trail. Chicago’s a regular guy. Unlike most younger thrus, he has no affectations like tattoos or facial jewelry…in fact, he’s used his real name for most of his hike. He’s out here, like many of us, due to a dead-end job. My favorite anecdote of his relates to his mother: while marking his progress on a large wall map, she informed him over the phone that he was only a few inches above the bottom of the map and had several feet to go to reach Maine.

Chicago at one-room schoolhouse near Atkins, Virginia. Inside were hiker goodies, plus various Christian icons. Wonder what Thomas Jefferson would say about this violation of church/state separation!

Geo and Jeff and Crew: I met these folks at the trailhead above Buena Vista, Virginia. Geo was doing a 300-mile stretch, and her husband Jeff was meeting her at road crossings and sharing “trail magic” with other hikers. Accompanying Geo were Radar, Jive Turkey, AKA, Research, and Karma. Karma is older and closer to my pace, but the others are young and very fast. Initially I questioned their judgment and maturity. (I tend to have “reservations” regarding millenials, having had some negative experiences.) But these folks proved first impressions are deceptive. Similar to the Black Mountain Gang (see Chapter 1), they’re not only bright and curious, they’re also friendly and unafraid to engage with curmudgeons like me. And without Jeff’s pizza, sub sandwich, Gatorade and fruit on one of the most beastly hot days yet, I’d have melted into Tye River Gap, never to emerge again.

L to R: Research, Radar, AKA, Jive Turkey, Karma, Geo, Jeff at Tye River

Catnapper: I met him down a dirt road from Standing Bear Hostel. I was tenting next to a stream, and he was nearby, reading in a collapsible chair next to his car. From Albuquerque, Catnapper is a grandfather and retired physics professor who lived, taught, and volunteered in post-Berlin Wall Russia and who has hiked the A.T. twice. He now drifts between trailheads, talking to hikers and bagging various side trails that pique his interest. The night we met, he brought some trail food to my tent, and we talked long into the night. Through Catnapper I learned just how horrifying Russia treated its own children. When ideology supersedes compassion, anything can happen. The U.S. is no exception.

Bruiser: Bruiser is the oldest thru-hiker I’ve yet met, at age 74. He’s from Honolulu, and like Catnapper, has thru-hiked the A.T. twice. Why vacate Hawaii for five months of masochism? Bruiser does it, so he says, to stay in shape! A couple hikers dislike him for being a know-it-all, but I find him generous and helpful. When the hip belt threads on my Gregory Contour 65 pack broke, Bruiser let me use his curved sewing needle and dental floss for a temporary repair. Though my amateur sewing job only lasted a half-day, Bruiser advised me on contacting Gregory, the result being I now have a brand-new Baltoro 65, the company’s top pack. Bruiser might be outwardly gruff, but I sense a soft side to him. At one of the shelters we shared, I noticed him reading a biography of Frederick Douglass. And when I asked if he had family, he said his wife died several years ago. “I miss her very, very much.”

– Omoo

Bruiser, relaxing in middle of trail while perusing his trail guide

Appalachian Trail Solo Thru-Hike Odyssey – Chapter 4

Writing from Mountain Home B&B in Front Royal, Virginia. An easygoing, somewhat quaint, vaguely progressive town, ironically where Stonewall Jackson won a significant battle in 1862.

Just exited Shenandoah National Park and only a few days from a new state (West Virginia) and historic town of Harpers Ferry, which is the headquarters of the Appalachian Trail Conference (THE governing body of the trail). I look forward to meeting those responsible for turning me into a Sisyphus and carrying me over a sea of jagged rocks. And look forward to revisiting where John Brown became a martyr, albeit a shortsighted one.

Sunset in Shenandoah

I’m at mile 972 of 2,190 miles…almost at the halfway point and nearly back “home,” in the North, where the Union won a war to end slavery and keep the states glued together. Gettysburg and Antietam are in my sights. I’ve visited these battlefield locations many times, but this time I’m marching by foot. Thank God I don’t have to trudge barefoot or eat maggot-riddled hardtack. How did those soldiers do it?

Can you tell I’m excited about these links with U.S. history? These kinds of milestones help keep me going. Later, I plan to revisit Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where the author of “Omoo” later wrote “Moby-Dick.” Also, Williams College, where my great-grandfather graduated Magna Cum Laude, and the small village of Stamford, Vermont, settled by my g-g-g-g-g-grandfather Josiah “Rock” Raymond when he camped against a boulder (damn those rocks) in the mid-18th century.

Copperhead snake. Note his cocked head and blank-looking orange eye. I stepped on his head accidentally while trudging up Apple Orchard Mountain. We were both a bit shaken.

And it will also be interesting to train into Manhattan, subway to the Upper East Side, and walk down Lexington Avenue, full backpack and greasy beard, and ring the buzzer of my uncle’s eighth-floor apartment, where he’s lived since…wait for it…1960.

The word “surreal” is an understatement.

Thanks for traveling with me…

Omoo

The new Omoo at Mountain Home hostel: clean-shaven, locks shorn, smiling with banana split on mind. And possible turntable action. Trail towns are nice.

Appalachian Trail Solo Thru-Hike Odyssey – Chapter 2

After 3 1/2 weeks of hiking, I’m 343 miles into my 2,190-mile journey.

Next to raising a family, this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Mentally, I’m doing much better than I anticipated. Only minor pangs of homesickness. Having social media like this, being able to talk to and even see my loved ones (via FaceTime), and meeting friendly people here helps enormously. Can’t imagine what it may have been like even 20 years ago.

But physically, oh jeez. Tonight I’m resting in a motel in Erwin, Tennessee. But tomorrow I commence an elevation increase of 3,000-plus feet. And some of it will be straight up, not switchbacking. And I confront similar climbs every day, sometimes more than once.

Needless to say, this is exhausting for a 62-year-old man. Forget my marathoning, this form of masochism is far worse. And it’s virtually impossible to replenish the calories I burn, despite what I’m doing right now (being a glutton).

So why am I doing it? Honestly, I don’t think I have the answer yet. Maybe it’s like the soldier who struggles through boot camp. Once the abuse is finally over, there’s an overwhelming self-satisfaction. And there’s a bonding with others that doesn’t occur often in “regular” society.

But I think most significantly, out here, everything is more basic and tangible than in that other society. There’s satisfaction in knowing that you don’t need the same technological and even emotional “crutches.” None of us are totally free, despite kidding ourselves. But these solo, isolated struggles and joys in the wild come closer to feeling freedom than anything I can think of, at least in the 21st century.

Maybe it’s a bit like being a cowboy or whaler in a bygone era…other than this being a temporary life choice (mixed with not a little vanity).

Well, call this my attempt at a sort of metaphysical chapter. Next time I’ll try to bring it down to earth and discuss some of the people I’ve met and sights I’ve seen.

As always, thanks for following my crazy American odyssey.

– Omoo

P.S. Of the dozens of hikers I’ve met, only four or five, when I tell them “Omoo” is Polynesian for “rover” as well as the title of the second book by my favorite author, have asked who my favorite author is. And all but one were older than me. People just don’t read anymore in this world of constant visual bombardment.

O, Herman, the indignity!

Campsite at Low Gap. One of many Low Gaps, by the way.