A year after the Appalachian Trail: Advice for new hikers

It’s hard to believe it has been almost a year since I began my Appalachian Trail thru-hike. This time last year, I was making final preparations to head down to Georgia. My gear was laid out an organized, I was obsessively reading weather reports and saying goodbye to friends and family for the five-month journey.

Now that it’s officially spring (though we just got six inches of snow here in Connecticut) hiking season is about to get truly under-way at Springer Mountain. Many have probably already left on the AT, but the third and fourth weekends in March tend to be the biggest crowds at Amicalola Falls, especially that April first start date.

I thought I would use this momentous occasion to crawl out from under the rock I’ve apparently been living under, if my blog activity is any indication, and share some of my thoughts about to take their first steps on the Appalachian Trail.

As my March 31 departure date grew closer, I read and reread blogs and articles about the clothes, gear and equipment I should bring, to see if there were any last minute substitutions or additions I needed to make.

This is not one of those articles. For one, I don’t believe in recommending specific pieces of gear, except in rare cases.  I’ll suggest what kinds of gear to look into and maybe how many of each, but the specific brands and models are totally up to personal preference. Also, if you’ve planned to leave by the end of the month, or are even checking this from the trail, your decisions have already been made, hopefully with a lot more research and testing than this post can provide.

This is mostly going to be a set of advice for mindset and best practices while on the trail. The best way to get through the entire 2,200 miles is to prepare for it, and I don’t just mean having rain gear or a broken in set of shoes, but to be mentally ready for everything the trail is going to throw at you.

And, without further ado, here’s my advice for hiker getting ready to start the Appalachian Trail.

Hike your own hike

Lots of people hike the Appalachian Trail. There were over 3,000 people who attempted a thru-hike in 2017, and every one of them has their own ideas on what makes the best thru-hike. Listen to them, hear their suggestions, then either ignore them or carefully work their ideas into your own hiking strategy. Your thru-hike is your thru-hike. Don’t let the guy who survives off cold ramen and mashed potatoes tell you to stop cooking the delicious backcountry meals you prepare and don’t let the hiker with the sixty pound pack tell you you didn’t pack enough. If you’re comfortable and happy with the way you’re hiking, you’re doing it right. The only wrong way to hike the AT is to do it in a way that bothers the other hikers around you. So long as they’re not rude, take up a ton of room in shelters or leave trash everywhere, most hikers are pretty easy to get along with. Listen to other hiking philosophies and learn from them, but ultimately make your trail decisions for yourself.

Pace yourself

This is especially important at the start of the trail. The AT is a marathon, not a sprint, and unless you’re Joe McConaughy or Karl Metzer, it’s certainly not a race. Setting a pretty mellow pace at the start and building that up once you get your “trail legs” is a good way to prevent burnout and unnecessary pain.
I thought of myself as a reasonably fit and experienced hiker, and started the trail with a 14 mile day. I felt fine that first day, but paid for it the next when my legs burned, shoulders ached. I ended up with a strained muscle that prevented me from making any serious progress for almost a week.
You’ll find your pace eventually. Start small and enjoy the first few days on the trail. Don’t wreck your experience because you were racing the trail.

Plan, but don’t schedule

I tried to plan out my first month or so of the trial. When I left, my guidebook was marked up with dates for zero days and mail drops weeks out.
That plan fell apart within a week.
Some days, you just want to take it slow and others can take a few extra miles. Trying to plan out the whole trail to the day doesn’t allow for the things that will inevitably slow down or speed up hiking. Having too rigid of a schedule also has the added side effect of the feeling of constantly playing catch up. When I couldn’t meet my first goal by the day I planned to, I felt awful. Not meeting what I felt was an easy goal was hard. It was the only time along the trail when I seriously considered that the trail wasn’t for me and wanted to stop.
Planning is not the same as scheduling. Looking a few days or a week out to plan where the next shower or real meal will come from is fine and necessary, but trying to set hard goals for the whole trail right at the outset is a good way to feel stressed out.

Expect to hate parts of it

Based purely on anecdotal evidence, one of the biggest reasons people leave the Appalachian Trail is because it wasn’t what they were expecting. They were probably expecting a beautiful hike through the woods, probably with some call to adventure or great personal revelation every other day. Unicorns may be involved. I don’t know.
The reality is, a lot of the trail is just kind of boring. As much as a person likes hiking, there’s only so long hiking for eight hours a day can be. Eventually, the novelty wears off and the monotony sets in.
Of course, the whole trail isn’t like this. There are definitely beautiful vistas, interesting sections of hiking and fun areas to get off trail. I went whole weeks just happy to be out there (looking at you, Shenandoah National Park). But between these places are long days slogging through rocks and rain.
These hard and boring days do not in any way take away from the trail. If the entire thing was nothing but easy jaunts to beautiful vistas, there wouldn’t be any challenge to the trail, nothing to make those mountaintops worth it. Embrace the difficult days, laugh at the rain, find a good podcast to get you through those long, boring sections (looking at you Pennsylvania).
Starting the trail with the mindset that it’s going to be one big fun vacation all the time is only going to make it harder.

Don’t be afraid to change

I know how it is. Months spent planning out every pound of gear. Meticulously weighing out meals by  ounce and calorie. Reading pages and pages of online reviews to find the perfect kit.
And 100 miles into the trail, I’ve ditched the expensive hiking pants for a pair of running shorts. 300 miles in, I’ve traded in the boots for a pair of trail runners. 100 miles later, those shoes are gone for a new pair. By the end of the trail, my shirts, shoes, pants, sleeping bag and even my backpack were changed (the backpack twice).
Most people test their gear in walks around town, a few trips to nearby parks, maybe an overnight or two. Despite all this testing, nothing compares to hiking 20 miles a day, day in and day out, for months. No one can know when their gear will fail or how their shoes will feel after mile 10 on rocky terrain. Don’t get too attached to your gear at the start and make preparations to change if a piece doesn’t live up to expectations.

Don’t be stupid

This is probably the most important advice I can give. The Appalachian Trail is incredibly safe. You probably won’t have to deal with hermit psychopaths, rattlesnake bites or rampaging black bears. All the things people ask about before your start are mostly made up dangers.
The real dangers come when you aren’t paying attention. Injuries, dehydration, malnutrition and illness are really the most dangerous things out there. The good news is, all of them are easily avoided by not being stupid.
Don’t take too many unnecessary risks, obey posted signs and for God’s sake stay on the trail. Eat high-protein, calorie dense foods regularly, purify and drink water throughout the day and take a multivitamin. Keep your eyes and ears open. Listen to your body, it knows what it needs.

 

There are only a few written rules for hiking the Appalachian Trail, and a million unwritten ones. Most need to be figured out along the way. Honestly, that’s part of the fun and community of thru-hikers. Hopefully, this gives a few hikers some idea of what’s to come from someone who’s made all these mistakes before.

Have fun out there. Let me know how it is.

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2,184.6 miles on the Appalachian Trail: The Hundred Mile Wilderness

KATAHDIN STREAM CAMPGROUND, BAXTER STATE PARK, MAINE

It’s upsetting to me that the Hundred Mile Wilderness is the last thing a hiker does on the trail. After almost five months on the trail, all I wanted to do was finish. I didn’t have it in me to really appreciated some of the best terrain in all the fourteen states the Appalachian Trail passes through.

The Wilderness starts at Monson and ends at Abol Bridge, just before Baxter State Park. The whole length is beautiful, full of almost untouched forests and secluded lakes, most of which have ample space to camp on. Even though there were probably dozens of hikers heading for Katahdin around the same time I was, I barely saw anyone after the first day or so out of town. Whole days went by when I was completely alone in the forest.

This could have been a profound experience. It could have been the perfect time to reflect on my journey along the AT. I could have taken it slow, camped a few times on the shore of one of these lakes and swam or just enjoyed the solitude. I could have spent twice as much time in the Wilderness and had an amazing time.

The lakes in the Hundred Mile Wilderness are all secluded, cold and crystal clear.

But I didn’t.

My parents were expecting me at Baxter on August 28, and I didn’t want them to waste a hotel reservation. I packed six days of food because I felt that any more would be too encumbering and I didn’t want to pay for a resupply at the only possible stop along the way.

By this point in the trail, I was tired. All I wanted to do was get to Katahdin. Even though Whitecap Mountain, the last real peak of the trail before Katahdin was close to the beginning of the Wilderness, I was still exhausted at the end of each day. Even the shortest climb left me discourage.

I hated how I came to feel about the trail. I wanted to enjoy the last section, but all I could think about was the final peak and getting home after.

My first glimpse of Katahdin came at the top of Whitecap Mountain. It loomed out over the other mountains in the distance. From the side, Katahdin isn’t a graceful peak. It doesn’t rise to a sharp peak, so even when it towers over the other mountains, it looks kind of hunched over. I thought the sight of it would give me some relief, or anticipation. But after working for more than four months towards that goal, I don’t think I really felt all that different.

I often compared Katahdin to the Lonely Mountain from the Lord of the Rings, and this view kind of gave me the same feeling of nearing the end of a long, difficult journey that had yet to show its reward.

Sure, I could now see my endpoint. I could see how far there was left to go, but if anything, it was kind of depressing. I had come so far. I just wanted to finish, to end strong, and the mountain was still days away. After a certain point, “so close” stops being close. I’d been hearing the phrase “almost there” since Massachusetts, and I think I psyched myself out of recognizing it. “Almost there” for me would be 50 yards before the terminus sign at Baxter Peak.

Other than a mental funk, hiking in the Wilderness was amazing. Beyond the beautiful scenery, the weather was fantastic through almost the entirety of the stretch. Days were mild and clear and the nights were cold enough that I could bundle up in my sleeping bag and not have to worry about overheating. There were so few people around, I could get my choice of campsites or shelter spots.

I even ran into my friends from Lakes of the Clouds, Powerade and Southbound. Colby Jack ventured ahead to meet his parents and the other two were trying to catch him. I walked with them for a few days before they took off ahead.

Leaving the Hundred Mile Wilderness and entering Baxter State Park was a surreal experience. This was it. The final destination. Base camp for the last ascent. Again, it was kind of hard to comprehend what that meant. Here I was, in the last 1/20 of the hike, and it still felt like I had so far to go. From the entrance to the park, there is another 9 miles of walking to the long-distance hiker campsite. The whole way to it was a pretty easy hike, but it seemed weighted down with significance. It was hard to get my legs to work right, and a hike that would have taken me a morning back in July took me to the middle of the afternoon.

The whole way there, I saw groups camping for the weekend or just doing a day hike around the park. Many people commented on my AT thru-hiker tag and congratulated me on making it. My response was usually along the lines of “I’m not there yet,” or “Congratulate me when I get to the peak!” It was mostly a joke but a little true. I didn’t want to celebrate until I laid hands on that sign at the top.

2,075 miles on the Appalachian Trail: Maine was harder

MONSON, ME

For most of the southern portions of the Appalachian Trail, people had been warning me about New Hampshire. They kept saying how my mileage would fall off in the White Mountains, the weather was violent and unpredictable and the terrain would be as rocky as Pennsylvania and twice as steep.

I can now that everything true about New Hampshire is also true about southern Maine, but worse.

My start in to the last state on the Appalachian Trail was a little delayed. After an unexpected day off at Lakes of the Clouds, I wanted to try and get through the few remaining miles in New Hampshire as fast as possible. I stayed the night in Gorham, NH and decided to slackpack (hike without a full pack) the 21 miles from Pinkham Notch, over the Wildcat Range, to the Route 2 crossing and spend a second night in town. I figured this would cut a day off of my travel time and would be more convenient, since my first plan would have me stopping for another night in Gorham anyway.

I set off with three other hikers I met at Lakes with loaner day packs at almost exactly 8 am that morning from the visitor center at the Notch. Honestly, I credit these guys with getting me through this day. Powerade, Southbound and Colby Jack, thank you.

The first half-mile felt great. Suddenly going from a 30 pound pack to a 10 pound one is amazing. I practically felt like running across the bog boards that started the trail.

However, that happy feeling went away as soon as I saw the first real ascent. The southern end of the Wildcat Range is pretty much a sheer rock wall. We passed another thru-hiker who opted to do the range with his pack and he told us he had to haul his pack up the face with a rope.

It took an hour to go the first one and a half miles and that pretty much set the tone for the rest of the day.

Rains from the last day made the rock faces of the sawtoothed ridge slippery and difficult to navigate. I spent more time standing on top of a drop-off, carefully planning my route down from treeroot to barely-there crack in the rock to a landing place that might not be a pit of mud. The saving grace was the last three miles. I could walk that gentle downslope of soft dirt path all day long. I actually ended up running for part of it, just because it felt good to stretch my legs out a bit.

Those 21 miles were some of the hardest on the trail. The worst wasn’t the rugged terrain, the slippery surfaces or the threat of more rain later on, but because I didn’t have all my gear with me. On other days, if the terrain is harder than expected, there’s always the option to bail out early and set up camp. With the slackpack, I was committed to 21 miles, regardless of how late it went. And it did go late. I called the hostel for pick up at 7:56. That’s almost 12 hours of hiking with maybe an hour’s worth of breaks throughout the whole day.

Despite it being difficult, I’m glad I did the slackpack. And, I’m glad I took a full zero day after it, something I’d avoided since Connecticut. It would have been a miserable two days with a full pack and the zero gave my body some time to recharge, which it desperately needed.

Maine proper started out deceptively easy. The first seventeen miles out of Gorham weren’t too bad, at least not compared to the Whites. We joked and laughed at the campsite that night, making fun of southbounders who warned us about the horrors of southern Maine.

We were wrong.

It was like someone turned up the difficulty to 11. Every mountain was steep and rocky, either with huge boulders or just solid, flat slabs of rock. I had to trust that smearing my shoes over the flat surfaces would keep me vertical.

That first full day also brought me through the Mahoosuc Notch. The Notch is often called the most difficult mile on the trail, or the most fun by adventure-seekers, bouldering enthusiasts and masochists.

I kind of regret not putting something for scale in this photo, because it’s really hard to tell that the rock in the middle is as tall as I am.

It took more than two hours for me to clear that mile of trail. Boulders the size of cars and in some cases small houses were scattered around a deep ravine. The gaps beneath them were so dark and deep they stayed cold even in August. It was like standing in front of an open refrigerator and there was still ice in some places. The trail went around, over and in some cases under boulders, like the trail crew simply spun around, pointed at a rock and said, “Put the blaze there!”

I planned to hike 16 miles that day. I figured it would be a tough one, but I had done a couple 15-milers in the Whites and had done 17 the day before, so I was feeling confident. After the madness that was the Mahoosuc and the other climbs that day, I finished at around 4 p.m. having completed a big 10 miles.

Maine continued to pour it on over Bald Pate Mountain. The peak was like solid slabs of granite stacked on top of each other. I again had to rely on my trail runners sticking to the damp rocks.

At the elevation above the treeline, there is no protection from the weather. Storms come in fast, hard and dangerous.

If there’s one thing I hate, it’s camping in the rain. For most of the trail, I tried to plan out my campsites to be in shelters if there was any chance of rain in the forecast. On August 12, I found a great campsite next to a surplus pond. It was a nice spot and the sky over the pond was clear, so I didn’t feel too bad about stopping early for the day. I could have made it to the next shelter four miles on, but I would have arrived just as it was getting dark.

I was congratulating myself after a relaxing evening when I heard thunder. The next lightning flash was clearly visible through the thin wall of my tent. Then the rain started. My tent was pounded all night. I barely slept, paranoid that my tent would spring a leak.

Luckily, my tent held but I had to pack out probably three pounds of water weight in to Rangeley, where I received some awesome trail magic from a friend of my aunt and grandmother. I had an awesome hot meal and a great tour around a pleasant little town tat I’m sure Stephen King would love to visit.

Robin and Stephen, thank you for putting me up and putting up with me for the night!

The next few days were really my last “difficult” days. I say that because they were the last ones with any serious elevation change, not because the last ones were any easier. The few days after Rangely took me over the Bigelow and Saddleback range. Both were dramatic and beautiful. The ridges were almost entirely over the treeline. The mountains fell away from the trail in steep drops hundreds of feet down and the wind threatened to blow me off the trail in some places. I felt really bad for the college orientation group I met at the campsite just after the Bigelows, since they were planning on doing a traverse in a predicted thunderstorm that I was uneasy on on a clear day.

Taking photos in Maine on a clear day almost feels like cheating, especially in a place like the Bigelow Range.

Thankfully, that rain hit me over some pretty flat terrain. Despite the constant downpour, I still managed to get in 22 miles to Pierce Pond. I attribute that to just not wanting to stop in the rain for breaks. Also, a hunting cabin at Pierce Pond has a pancake breakfast that’s open to hikers. Motivation, thy name is food.

The last few days into Monson were nice. The weather was great and the trail was pretty mellow, at least compared to southern Maine. Despite that, I was hitting some serious trail fatigue. Earlier in the hike, I could do days like those and be done by five or six. By Maine, it was a struggle just to finish the day before dark.

A lot of the time, the trail can be boring and difficult. Those times are made up for by the views on top of those hard-to-climb peaks and the people that share the long journey.

All that was left from Monson was the Hundred Mile Wilderness. It was hard to believe the trail was almost over. All that separated me from that sign at the peak of Katahdin was 100 miles through the Maine backwoods.

Piece of cake, right?

I can’t say how excited I was to hit this milestone. After about 1,000 miles, people stop making these and it was nice to see again.

1,891 miles on the Appalachian Trail: White Mountain High

August 9, 2017

GORHAM, NH

I’ve been hearing about how difficult hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire is pretty much since Harper’s Ferry. I heard it would be practically winter conditions, rocks worse than Pennsylvania and wind to blow a hiker off a ridgeline.

After hiking the distance between Mount Moosilauke and Wildcat Ridge, I can confirm that all of those things are true. What is also true is that the Whites hold some of the most amazing views, challenging and interesting terrain and, for me, held the strongest sense  of accomplishment and adventure.

I went into New Hampshire kind of nervous. Because of what I’d heard of the state, I wasn’t sure what kind of mileage I’d be able to do. How much food should I pack? Where should I plan to be each day? What if I ran into bad weather?

I was also starting this leg of the trail without my constant traveling companion, Trex the dinosaur. He took a little vacation when he fell out of my bag into my parents’ car in Hanover.

The little guy eventually made it back to me in my next resupply box at Crawford Notch

These question weighed on me as I climbed Mount Moosilauke, the first 4,000 foot peak since Virginia. The ascent wasn’t too bad, just long. The descent, however, was a great indicator of things to come.

It was rocky and steep. Most of the trail ran alongside a waterfall rushing over bare rock, making the path very slippery. Some parts were only passable due to wooden blocks bolted to the rock face.

On the way to the peak, I ran into someone I hope becomes one of the trail legends Thru-hikers talk about for years. A gentleman known as “The Omelette Guy” has a kitchen set up on the side of the trail just before Moosilauke. When a hiker rolls up, he welcomes them and asks how many eggs they want and what they want in their omelette. A four-egg omelette with cheese, peppers, onions and ham was just the thing to get me over the peak.

Even after 2,000 miles, it is still amazing to me that there are people in this world who go so far out of their way to provide a bit of help and comfort to complete strangers.

After the first day, the Whites proceeded to efficiently, mercilessly and repeatedly kick my ass. A 16-mile day, something that by this point I consider low, felt more like 26. I got to camp late and exhausted. The trail moves continuously up and down over something more akin to rock climbing than hiking in a lot of places and was often wet with rain.

Much of the Appalachian Trail in the White Mountains is above the tree-line. The elevation is such that weather conditions do not allow full-size trees to grow. Battered by wind, snow and cold, only low-growing vegetation clings to the high peaks. These regions continue for miles around the tips of the mountains and along places like Franconia Ridge and the Presidential Range.

These areas offer no protection from the wind and rain, but the trail is often clear and well-worn through the brush. Navigation is easy, unless the troughs worn by hikers are filled with rainwater. Finding a new path is forbidden because, though they are hardy enough to survive the mountain storms, the plants are fragile enough to be killed by a footstep.

If the weather cooperates, hiking above tree-line is one of the most amazing hiking experiences. The views from the alpine zone are unobstructed by trees or foliage. The bare rock and weirdly twisting plants makes it look like an alien landscape. Being atop a high peak like Lafayette or Madison means a vista a vista of mountains stretching to the jagged horizon. The wind blows and the temperature drops, doing away with the sticky back sweat of a humid summer day.

One of the first true alpine experiences of the AT, Franconia Ridge follows miles of peaks above treeline with stunning views on either side.

Despite the beauty, there is nothing more terrifying than hiking along an alpine ridge in a storm.

As I was hiking Franconia Ridge, just getting to the peak of Mount Lafayette, a thunderstorm rolled in. I could see it building in the valley below, dark clouds rising to flat anvil tops and a veil of rain obscuring the view. I thought it might pass me by and I could find a spot to stealth camp below tree-line for the night. Then, the wind shifted, the clouds flew in, actually climbing up the mountain, and dropped huge raindrops on me for 20 minutes before moving on. As I crested the peak, the rain stopped, but the clouds stayed and every few minutes I heard thunder.

I opted to take the one mile side trail to Greenleaf Hut that night to escape what sounded to be a bad storm. When I was about to step on the hut’s porch, the clouds rolled off the mountain and blue skies followed. I was already off trail and wasn’t going to hike back up the steep mountain, so I did my first work-for-stay that night.

Throughout the White Mountains, there are huts set up by the Appalachian Mountain Club. These serve as bunkhouse and waypoints for hikers in the mountains and have full-time staff, called the “croo,” that provide meals and information about the mountains to guests.

They also usually allow a few thru-hikers to stay the night (on the floor) and a meal (leftovers after paying guests are served) for a few chores. Hikers just need to be polite and show up late enough in the day. I stayed at three huts for the low price of helping with dishes, sweeping the dining room and organizing the bunkhouse each. I call that fair.

My cousin, Christine, even helped me out with an unheard-of reservation at Lakes of the Clouds hut. This meant I was entitled to an actual bed, didn’t have to do chores and could eat at the table during meal service. You know, like a real person. So thank you, Christine, for the night of luxury.

I ended up extending my stay at Lakes for another night, this time as a dirty thru-hiker once again. The croo said the weather the next day would include sustained winds of 30 to 50 miles per hour with gusts up to 80 and a wind chill temperature down in the 20s.

I experienced some of the bad weather in the Whites the day before and was in no hurry to do so again. A storm descended on me on my hike up from Crawford Notch, bringing wind, rain and cold. My rain jacket was already soaked through by the time I broke treeline, and the remaining miles to the hut was a study in misery. Everything was soaked and cold in minutes. The trail flooded almost as quickly, and soon I was hopping between rocks to avoid what now resembled a river. I couldn’t see more than 50 feet in any direction, and every time I reached what I thought was a peak, another would loom out of the fog in front of me. All I could do was keep moving forward. I don’t remember ever consciously thinking it, but later I figured that stopping for too long up there would probably kill me. Even keeping my body heat up like that, if Lakes had been another mile further from Crawford, I might have been in some serious trouble.

The sign does not lie. The weather chances fast and violently in the Whites, and more than 150 people have died exploring the peaks.

It took almost all the next day for my clothes and shoes to dry out. In that time, more than a dozen other thru-hikers sought shelter at the hut, trying to wait out the fierce weather on Washington.

I spent the day waiting around, reading, playing cards and trying to plan the rest of my hike, I set out the next morning with another group of thru-hikers. There were more than twenty sleeping on the floor of the hut that night.

My Washington summit day was better, but by no means good. The mountain was still socked in by clouds and the constant wind was wet and chilly. Still, with a few layers, I made it the 1.4 miles to the 6,288 foot peak, the highest in the Northeast, at just after 7:30 am.

That is the smug smile of a hiker who made a smart decision to not hike out in 70 mile per hour winds.

I wish there had been a view at the top. Every hiker does. But there was something to summitting in bad weather. I feel like it’s part of the experience to witness the “worst weather in the world.” Mount Washington is a test, just like the rest of the Whites and the whole of the AT. Hikers can never win against these mountains. They’ve been here longer, they’ve seen tougher things than us, and they will again. There will always be something out there greater than ourselves. What things like that socked in day on Mount Washington teach is that even though there are things that can beat us, there is much more that can still be overcome. Someday, that line will become clear. I’ll find the thing I can’t do, and I’ll yield. I’m not going to risk my life for it. I did that my second day at Lakes.

But if there’s a chance it can be done. If there’s a chance to accomplish something, to strive towards a goal and reach it, to stand atop a high peak and shout into the wind “I AM HERE. I DID THIS,” then I am going to take that chance, and be glad I did, regardless of the outcome.

There is less than 300 miles left in the trail. If I can keep a decent pace through Maine, that means I’ll be done with this whole mad endeavor in less than three weeks. It’s hard, planning for the end of the trail. For the last four months, I’ve just been thinking campsite to campsite, town to town. I guess real life always has a way of rearing its ugly head.

1,747 miles on the Appalachian Trail: The other Long Trail

July 29

HANOVER, NEW HAMPSHIRE

Vermont passed by in a blur. One second I was in a hotel in Bennington, just over the border of Massachusetts, the next, I’m in a hotel in Hanover, just over another border in New Hampshire.

That blur consisted of very long days, lots of rain, an excellent cheeseburger and about 100 miles of the capital “L” Long Trail.

Actually getting to Vermont was a lot of fun. I hiked most of Massachusetts with a group of hikers I’d met on and off over the course of the trail, many of whom I last saw months ago and didn’t hold out any hope of seeing again.

They’re the of the mind that if the trail passes by a restaurant, of course they should stop for lunch. It was a good time.

One particular shelter gave the best experience since walking off of a snow-covered mountain to a three-course meal in North Carolina.

Upper Goose Pond Shelter is a half-mile off trail, but it’s worth the walk. It has bunks with mattresses, lake access and caretakers that fed all the hikers present a pancake breakfast and hot coffee in the morning. Definitely worth a second visit.

Hiking in the Green Mountains of Vermont started out well, too. I had a few days of great weather going into Bennington and made plans to meet up with some family a little further down the trail.

A few shorter days of hiking brought me to Stratton Mountain, a favorite winter destination of mine, and lunch with Auntie Paige, Uncle Emmett, Auntie Cindy and Uncle Ted. They treated me to a fantastic burger and my uncles tried on my fully-loaded and smelly pack.

After a fruitless search for an emergency blanket for the coming colder weather, I headed back out.

I planned out the next week’s mileage to get me to Hanover in time to meet my parents on the weekend. That schedule had to be readjusted after the weather on Monday left me stranded at the warming hut on top of Bromley Mountain.

I hiked all morning through constant rain, and as the elevation grew, the temperature dropped. All I had for insulation was my rain jacket, since everything would soak through anyway and my body head would keep me warm. Sort of.

I rushed inside to get out of the rain and wind for a bit of lunch, but when I took off my jacket, i couldn’t stop shivering. Even though it would mean I’d have to make up the miles later that week, I wasn’t going to risk hypothermia. I changed into my sleeping clothes and stayed relatively warm there for the rest of the day.

There were three other people there; another man who was thru-hiking, and a woman and her nine-year-old daughter hiking the Long Trail. The kid was obviously going a little stir-crazy in the but. We talked a lot and I got to show off my skill at memory match games.

The next few days were difficult. I had to make up the miles I’d dropped on Bromley. Instead of four days of just about 2o miles each, each one was at least 21, with one almost 25 miles. It may not seem like much, but a body knows it’s limits, and that was certainly pushing it, at least for that long of a stretch.

The weather also wasn’t very cooperative. It threatened to rain all week. Most days had some kind of precipitation. Nights are also getting colder as I spend more time at higher elevation. I got my cold weather gear back from my parents and I’m hoping the almost three pounds of weight is worth it.

Despite it’s challenges, Vermont was fun to hike through. On a clear day, the views from the mountains are beautiful. The trail often passes for miles through stands of pine and hemlock. The other day I walked through a forest of young maple trees, none more than a few inches thick, standing straight and tall with no branches before the top. When the breeze blew, they all swayed back and forth with the same rhythm.

From what all the southbounders tell me, all this is just the prelude to the White Mountains. Despite it being recognized as the hardest part of the trail, everyone I’ve spoken to said it’s the most beautiful part to hike.

Things like that are what’s keeping me going on this. I’m not going to lie: I’m tired. It’s hard waking up every morning, eating cold oatmeal and shouldering a heavy pack for another 20 miles or so, do that for five days, then get a teasing rest in a real bed. Then know the cycle repeats itself.

My feet, knees, back, shoulders hurt. I’ve got a sore throat and a headache most mornings. I itch all over from dozens of bug bites.

Despite all this, I can’t stop. I have to believe this is all worthwhile. I need to know I’m still doing the right thing, that everyone was right to believe in me and encourage me to try this.

I’m reminded of a poem I like. It’s one of the few I know well. There’s a line in “If” by Rudyard Kipling that goes,

“If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

To serve your turn long after they are gone,

And so hold on when there is nothing in you,

Except the Will which says to them, ‘Hold on.'”

That’s all I’ve got left. Just a desire to finish, and an unwillingness to quit. Everything in between is all burned out.

1,500 miles on the Appalachian Trail: Home Stretch

July 14

WINSTED, CT

The last two weeks have been a blur. It feels like I sprinted, or at least the next closest thing in a 3o pound backpack, from central Pennsylvania to my home state of Connecticut.

I didn’t take any zero or near-zero days and only had two or three that were under 20 miles. There was only one thing on my mind, getting home.

The plan was to take a few days off when I got back to Connecticut. I had a few errands and a lot of nothing planned, then would head back out on the trail with my dad slowing me down for a few days. After finishing the state, I planned to spend a few days at Greenwood Trails summer camp, where I’ve spent the last four summers as a counselor.

The trail between Port Clinton, PA and the Connecticut/New York border consisted of a lot of unique experiences. Pennsylvania continued to be a rocky pain in my ass, and New Jersey wasn’t much better. Looking at a map of the state, it doesn’t seem like it would be difficult, but many of the relatively small ascents were rock fields that would give PA a run for its money. There was also a surprisingly large number of bears. I saw more in New Jersey, and closer up, than I had the entire rest of the trail.

Any rock formation I have to vault myself over while wearing a pack does not count as a trail.

I ended up ducking off the trail for a night while at High Point State Park. It started raining when I was about four miles from the shelter, but heavy enough to soak me through. I knew from the trail guide that Mosey’s Hostel picked up from the park office and I decided that between the rain that day and the probable wet night I’d have the next day, I wanted to start off in dry clothes. A warm bed, shower, set of clothes and breakfast later, I made the right decision.

It was a good thing I got the park headquarters when I did, because the New Jersey state legislature didn’t pass a budget the next day, and it closed, trapping any hikers who showed up the next night in the rain until Mosey showed up.

Thanks, New Jersey.

The next night at Wawayanda Shelter was an interesting one. It was a long day, 25 miles, and all I wanted to do when I got there was make a quick dinner, lay out my pad and crash. When I got there, however, I found a few pairs of section hikers hanging out in the shelter overhang, and a freaking tent set up inside; a huge Wal-Monstrosity.

I asked politely, but tersely, for the people in the tent to move it, since the rain had stopped a few minutes prior. A little bit of unsolicited advice: read up on trail etiquette before heading out. The shelters are for everyone, especially in the rain, and putting up a tent inside one and taking up that much space seems selfish and disrespectful, even if that wasn’t the intention. For these folks, it was an honest mistake, but it still shows a lack of preparation that I find a bit worrying.

Most of the rest of New Jersey and New York passed in a blur. The weather seemed to switch between cold and raining to hot and muggy on a day by day basis. I think I saw more people in the span of a few days on the week of Fourth of July than I had on the rest of the trail, and almost none of them were thru-hikers. Mobs of people were at Bear Mountain and the various state parks I stopped in along the way. Now that summer is in full swing, the mosquitoes have been voracious, as well. The hours just before sunset and just after are a flurry of motion, trying to get everything done as quickly as possible so I can dive into my tent or get moving.

It was kind of weird to be passing through other people’s traditional summer day when mine are so atypical. The smell of charcoal, barbecue and sunscreen brought back so many memories, I seriously considered just joining a random family at the beach. I opted against that. Probably for the best.

There was one great day along that stretch. My friend, Kyle, joined me for a day. It was great to have someone to talk to about things other than the trail. All hikers talk about the same things; how far they’re going, when they started and what food they want to eat in town are at the top of the list.

After months of that and a few days of almost no other hikers, talking about Connecticut politics, movies, memories from college and reporting practices was a welcome respite. So, thank you, Kyle.

Kyle Constable, Ace Reporter.

Kyle met back up with me to finish Connecticut and do the first few miles in Massachusetts. It was a great throwback to our section hike last year, and it’s just nice to spend time with the guy. He’s always positive and down for a bit of adventure.

After a day at home, Dad and I headed back out for four days. The plan was to do the whole state in four days, but we had to stop in Salisbury instead of Bear Mountain. Yes, there’s another one in Connecticut.

We were moving at probably a little less than half my regular pace. It was a nice rest for me, but I don’t think Dad thought that. It reminds me of how far I’ve come since starting. There are things I take for granted, or do by muscle memory that I had to explain or wait for him to figure out. I wanted to be frustrated, but I remember when I had to work my way through all that three months ago.

My dad, Al. He stuck it out like a champ. Next time, we’ll do the whole state.

It was great hiking with Dad, even if it was only a short time. We haven’t got to spent as much time together as I would have liked in the last few years, and it was great to just hang out. Dad got to experience a bit of what it’s like to be a thru-hiker and I got a bit of a break. Hopefully, we get to do it again soon. Though, next time he’s carrying his own tent.

After hiking the state, I took a couple days off. After only one day off in two weeks, I thought I earned it.

Greenwood Trails is a second home to me. I’ve had some of my fondest memories and met some of my best friends at the camp, and I was excited to get back to it, even for a few days.

This place always feels like home. It’s one big, crazy, amazing, somewhat dysfunctional family. It’s always great to visit for a few days.

It wasn’t all rest and relaxation, though. The days were spent running high-ropes elements and lessons in go-karts and outdoor cooking. I even got the chance to run my favorite activity, “Terror of the Deep,” which involves flipping kids out of boats in the lake. I fell right back into my role as “Nature Nick,” and I loved it.

That’s the great thing about working at camp. After a while, it just feels like the natural thing. The kids and staff welcomed me back as if I’d never left. It’s like a big family.

By the time this is posted, I’ll be back out on the trail again, but right now, I feel like I could stay at camp for the rest of the summer. I need to peel myself away quickly, like a Band-Aid, or I’ll never leave Winsted.

That’s one of the hardest things about hiking the trail. Hiking for so long means missing a lot of the things that mark the year. Camp has been such a big part of my life for so long, that a year without it feels empty somehow, even when it’s filled with such a grand adventure as this.

It’s almost like I’ve stopped hiking because I want to, but because I want to finish the trail and DON’T want to quit. I know that’s just my nostalgia and comfort at the routine of camp talking, but it doesn’t make it any easier to leave.

Regardless, the trail is still there, and Katahdin isn’t getting any closer on its own. As John Muir said, “the mountains are calling and I must go.”

1,293 miles on the Appalachian Trail: Pennsylvania rocks!

June 28

DELAWARE WATER GAP, PA

It’s not the longest stretch of trail in a state. It doesn’t have the highest mountains or the craziest elevation gain. The weather at the time most pass through is pretty mild, but, make no mistake, Pennsylvania was one of the toughest states to hike through so far.

Sure, the Smokies in North Carolina were challenging because of the rugged terrain and difficult weather, and the more than 500 miles in Virginia can wear on a hiker, despite the pleasant trails, but after hiking through the 229 miles of Pennsylvania, I and the chewed up soles of my feet, can attest that it was a difficult journey.

The state looks innocuous enough on a map. There’s lots of flat ridges and short gaps between them. What the maps don’t say is that about half of those flat miles are over boulder fields and rock-strewn trails.

It might not look too bad, but these rocks are about person sized.

Each piece seems jagged and angled with the sharp side aimed at the most tender part of the descending foot. The rocks are placed far enough apart that splits and tedious balancing acts are often necessary to get through them.

There was about a mile and a half like this, then flat trail, then back onto the rocks.

Even when rock-hopping isn’t necessary, the sharp stones are common enough on the trail that hear expletives shouted from stepping on one or tripping over it.

One thing that really annoyed me about it, was that all the trail looked the same. The views were nice, sure, but after the sixth or seventh patchwork quilt farmland nestled between verdant valley slopes, it stops becoming necessary to go off trail to viewpoints.

The views from the rocks were really nice, they just all looked about the same.

That, and the rocks all look the same. Pictures on Facebook or Instagram just look like rocky trail, not the sharp, point deathtrap they really are.

Not all of Pennsylvania was bad, though. Lots of the trails are on old forest service roads or through nice, tranquil forests.

Do not trust these even, smooth paths. They serve only to lull hikers into a false sense of security before the rocks ambush them again.

The state didn’t seem to be able to make up its mind about more than just the condition of the trail. Weather, also proved fickle in Pennsylvania.

My time in the state started beautifully. I spent much of Father’s Day at Pine Grove Furnace State Park enjoying a swim and some ice cream. Shortly after, several miles from Boiling Springs, I was caught in a terrific summer thunderstorm.

Again the weather cleared for a few days, until a week ago, when I was again raving a storm to Hertline Campsite. I made it to the site before the rain, but ended up storing a wet tent for my hike to Port Clinton.

I set up my tent to dry in the afternoon sunlight, but several hours later, the sky opened up again, making the decision to camp in the hiker shelter in town for me.

The last few days of hiking have been some of the best. Clear skies, a light breeze over the ridges and cool enough not to overheat during the day and to warrant warmer sleeping clothes at night.

I guess it averages out.

Being in Pennsylvania also has a “home stretch” factor. For the first time, I can pick out almost when I’ll be back in Connecticut, my home state. I’ll start passing by places where friends and family live. The idea of my own bed for a few nights is going to driving me a little faster through New Jersey and New York.

I got a little touch of home, already. My parents came to Port Clinton as I passed through and gave me the best zero day yet. A few good meals, a soak in the hotel pool and a trip to Cabela’s are always welcome distractions, especially with parents not seen in more than two months.

These guys are the best.

I even got to spend some time with extended family I haven’t seen in a while. Thanks for coming down, Bob and Marion. It was great seeing you.

And Chochi Annie, thank you so much for reading!

It was nice to feel somewhat like a human being again, but for the past few days and until I hit the Connecticut border, it’s trail shelters and cheap hostels for me.

It’s odd to think it’s been almost three months on the trail. I feel like my body and mind have changed so much on a journey that’s only a little more than half done.

I’ve lost weight and I’m sure my legs are stronger and I’ve got more endurance. However my feet and knees feel terrible and any flexibility I had before the trio is pretty much gone.

I also think I’m better able to withstand difficult and boring tasks. It might be some kind of mental endurance, but more than once I’ve just put my head down, squared my shoulders and trudged through the rain. I don’t think I’d be able to do that three months ago

Tomorrow starts New Jersey and state number eight of the Appalachian Trail!