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.

Reasons for Thru-Hiking the Appalachian Trail

At the dinner table the other day, the subject of my pending thru-hike came up.  My three-year-old granddaughter Avi wanted to know why I would soon be walking alone through the mountains.

My mind spun a few seconds.  “The best response is an honest response,” I thought.  So I told her what I usually tell adults when they ask.  “I want to go to a place where things work the way they’re supposed to work.”

After a pregnant pause of about nine months, my wife grunted “What’s that supposed to mean?”  While I ignored her vaguely hostile question, I couldn’t ignore my daughter’s more reasoned remark: “You should just explain to her that you like nature.  She knows what nature is.”

Point taken.

There are a lot of reasons to deprive oneself of adequate food, water, shelter, companionship, and Netflix for five months.  I’ve been mulling over some of them, and I’ve come up with six reasons why people thru-hike the Appalachian Trail (or slog along any other line of dirt for months on end):

  1. To get to something.  My response to Avi falls in this category.  I like nature and the spiritual cleansing you might find if you open yourself up to it.  I know this last sentence is pretty lame, especially since I’ll be hurling four-letter words, oh, about 10 miles into my hike.  But it’s as close to Thoreau as I can get for a blog post.
  2. To escape something.  I haven’t read her bestselling book Wild, but author Cheryl Strayed hiked the Pacific Crest Trail to escape drug addiction and domestic abuse.  Others want to escape the couch, the TV, the cubicle, Wall Street, Big Brother, unrestrained development, toxic chemicals, plastics, politicians, Bible thumpers, terrorists, white supremacists, conspiracy theorists, political correctness, identity mongering, violence, heartless people, brainless people, social media, leisure technology, and any of a hundred other glaring trademarks of the 21st-century.  I’m ready to escape this, too.  Big time.
  3. To deal with something.  This is related to the above.  The first person to thru-hike the A.T., WWII vet Earl Shaffer, did it to “walk the army out of (my) system.”  Today there’s a veterans group called Warrior Expeditions that does long-distance hikes, including the A.T., as a way to deal with shell shock.
  4. To challenge oneself.  Some people are athletically inclined and enjoy tackling something difficult, in setting goals, training, then accomplishing their goals.  I’m partway there, being a casual marathon runner…although I get slower and slower every race.
  5. To hike for a cause.  While I’m trying to raise money for suicide prevention (click here if you want to help), truthfully my charity effort, despite AFSP being such a prodigious cause, was an afterthought.  Those folks who are as committed to good causes off the trail as well as on, I take my bandana off to them.
  6. To be part of a subculture.  There wasn’t much of a club until recently, since there were so few thru-hikers, but now thru-hikers are as prevalent as the Deadheads of yore.  They bond on trail, and (assisted by social media) have even developed their own code-speak.  Know what a “LASH” is?  I didn’t till recently.  It means “Long-Ass Section Hike.”  Ha ha.  My impression is that most members of the Tramily (Trail Family), similar to Deadheads, tend to be younger, as in twenty-something, with time and money on their side. And maybe likeminded in practice and outlook. Which means I don’t think I’ll be on the Tramily Tour.  Is there a Curmudgeon Tour?
Fellow curmudgeon Ed Crankshaft

UPDATE: in my last post I decided to switch from Potable Aqua iodine pills to a standard filtration device. However, I just discovered Aquamira drops. These drops use Chlorine Dioxide instead of iodine to kill Giardia protozoans. And unlike iodine, Chlorine Dioxide also kills equally nasty Cryptosporidium. Aquamira drops get great reviews. They’re inexpensive, lightweight, easily packed and easy-to-use. The only downside I can see is that it takes a few hours for the drops to fully purify water that’s close to freezing. My throat will just have to be patient.

Has anyone used these drops?

Greenpete Goes Ga Ga on Gear

Since deciding to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, it’s been a fraught couple of weeks.  This post is devoted to sharing some of the fraughtness.

Most backpacking shit I currently have is fine for a three to four-day trip.  But with a looming 150 consecutive days and nights on all types of terrain in all kinds of weather, a few upgrades were advisable. 

The biggest item is a tent.  The tunnel-shaped two-person jobbie I bought at Morrie Mages Sports in downtown Chicago in 1983 is still holding up, but the rain cover has a tendency to collect puddles, and it’s incredibly heavy in these days of lightweight options.  So I sprung for a $325 Nemo Hornet I.  Like many modern tents, it’s dome-shaped, and it weighs less than a bag of frozen peas (slight exaggeration).  I had to special order it and haven’t yet set it up, so it remains to be seen if I can adequately squeeze my fat ass inside.

Also bought a high-tech rain poncho.  Rain is one of my big miseries while hiking, and I wanted something reliable.  Considering I forked over a hundred greenbacks for this piece of plastic, it better be good.  Also got a rain jacket, which should offer protection plus warmth when I hit that chilly New England weather in September.

I learned that iodine in large doses can adversely affect one’s thyroid gland.  Therefore, gone are the Potable Aqua iodine pills I once used to sterilize water on short section hikes.  Still debating on what type of filter I should get, since there are so fricking many of them.  As Jethro Tull once sang, Nothing is Easy.

Also pending are backup boots for when those jagged rocks of eastern Pennsylvania chew up my current pair.  I usually wear Vasque, so I’m deciding on either Vasque Breeze AT Mid GTX or Salomon X Ultra 3 Mid GTX.  Both get stellar reviews.  Don’t ask me what “Mid GTX” means, or why a ski equipment firm is in the hiking boot business.

Salomon X Ultra 3 Mid GTX ski hiking boots

Reading material: I decided on Marcel Proust’s seven-volume Remembrance of Things Past.  If I can get partway through the second volume by the time I reach Mt. Katahdin, I’ll be happy.

There are lots of little things still to acquire, but I’m in no big rush for moleskin.

I’m not a “gear head” or fashionmonger, so I think I’ll stick with a wooden stick instead of buying a pair of flashy trekking poles.  This despite my neighbor, Curt, raving about his own poles.  Speaking of Curt, he’s been enormously helpful.

In my book Evergreen Dreaming I briefly mention Curt.  He and his wife Brenda live behind us.  I see him occasionally—usually pushing a lawnmower—on my evening runs.  He’s tall, stocky, with a bushy beard and hair down to his waist.  After getting out of the army, Curt (trailname: Lonewolf) solo-hiked the A.T. in 1997, then did the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) four years later.

When I told him I’d decided to literally follow in his footsteps, Curt got real excited.  He was not only nice enough to share with me his ’97 hiking journal (They Spoke of Damascus), but he volunteered to get me in shape with some hikes at nearby Caesar Creek State Park and Shawnee State Forest.  He’s also advising me on important matters like choosing a good trail name, how to properly wipe my rear end in the woods, and where the best trailtown bars are.

Last Sunday, Curt and I (trailname: either Greenpete, Peat Moss, Omoo, or Stinky Old Man) rose before dawn and drove up to Caesar Creek for a pleasant 13-miler.  We plan to do a two-nighter at Shawnee once my Hornet arrives.  The cool thing is, Curt likes to pound beer as much as I do.  So when Shawnee rolls around, I’m debating whether or not to skirt park regulations and use canned Budweiser instead of rocks to weigh down my pack…with the thought that my return hike will carry less weight.  On second thought, forget the debating…it’s a done deal.

That’s it for now, fellow Longitudinals.  Oh yeah, if you would like to contribute to my charity, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), you can click here.  Many people today suffer depression, especially since the pandemic hit, and AFSP is a great cause. I’ve already raised close to the halfway mark of my goal of $2,189, so I’m now thrashing around northern Virginia.  And to those of you who have already contributed, a huge MERCI BEAUCOUP.

Happy Trails!

Longitudes on the Appalachian Trail

I guess it was a matter of time.

Last Sunday evening I was cozied up to the fire pit in our backyard, enjoying a cold Yuengling and warming myself with one of the best conflagrations I’ve ever fashioned.  As often happens when the flames are dancing and wood smoke caresses my olfactory receptors, my mind drifted to the trail.

“How nice it would be to be transported to the mountains right now,” I thought.

Well, one musing led to another.  I thought about how Lynn and I had flight credits with Delta, accrued from somewhere back in the early COVID days, and which we would soon lose unless we used them.  Then about how I’ve been unemployed since last summer (with a couple disconcerting stabs at galley-slave work).  And about how, based on our recent discussion with our financial adviser Mandy, I could probably join Lynn in retirement or semi-retirement if I really want to.  And about how I feel fully healthy right now—lower back stiffness notwithstanding.

I realized I’m tired of chirpy recruiters asking me “Where do you see yourself in five years?” and managers telling me “Pete, you’re driving the bus on this project,” when I’d rather be puffing a Romeo y Julieta cigar under a full moon in the middle of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The only perceivable obstacle might be Lynn.  But when I proffered my idea to her, I was flabbergasted when she replied “You should!  It’s something you’ve always wanted to do, and right now is the perfect time!” (Her response has a lot to do with our daughter’s family moving only a few miles away, so she now has a support system while I abandon her for five or six months.)  Thanks, dear!

So—after multiple section hikes over the last eight years—I decided to finally thru-hike the Appalachian Trail.

If you’ve read my memoir Evergreen Dreaming, you know a little about the A.T. and its colorful subculture of thru-hikers: those who walk the entire 2,189 miles between Maine and Georgia.  And about how I marvel at this feat, while telling myself “No way could I ever do that!”  Supposedly only twenty percent of those who start a thru-hike ever finishes.

It remains to be seen how successful I am at this nutty endeavor.  But you’ll never realize your potential until you try.

My launch date from Amicalola State Park in northern Georgia is May 2, so I have time to prepare.  A new tent, cookstove, extra pair of boots, and rain poncho will be necessary.  Guess I’ll have to join the 21st century and get one of them thar fancy filtration devices instead of using iodine pills for my water.  Need to decide on some good books for headlamp reading in my tent.  For starters, I’m thinking of Walden and War and Peace.

Until May 2 I’ll be updating you loyal readers with how I’m progressing.  After that, there will be only brief computer activity, since I’m carrying a flip-phone and will be jumping online only during occasional motel respites.

Since this is kind of a marathon endeavor, I thought I’d try to raise some funds for a good cause.  The organization I chose is the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP).  I’m aiming to raise a buck for every mile of the trail…$2,189 total.  If you’d like to help out, please visit my Facebook fundraising page by clicking here.

A hundred percent of your donations go to this organization, which uses its funds to help survivors of suicide loss and for mental health and suicide prevention policies.  I realize COVID-era is a difficult time to ask people for money.  But whether it’s $5 or $500 (and whether or not my thru-hike stunt is successful), your generosity will not go unrecognized.

Finally, anyone who wants to swing by to say hello, or even hike a few miles with me, is more than welcome to.  I enjoy peace and solitude, but it can get terribly lonely out there.  As launch date approaches I’ll give more details concerning my estimated whereabouts and contact info.

Thor Heyerdahl, John Muir, Roald Amundsen, Meriwether Lewis…here I come!