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