Back from the Appalachian Trail

Back from the Appalachian Trail

A few loyal blog readers have inquired about how the rest of the Appalachian Trail trip went. I addressed it in today's column in the N-G.

Perhaps I was too negative in the column. Only once did I take my walking stick and whack a rock and scream, "I hate you, damn Appalachian Trail rocks!" And I never cried. Never. Really.
But it sure was slow going, although I must admit that Mark and I -- well it was really me because Mark always was pretty fast -- were moving pretty swiftly by the end of the trip. We did 17 and 18 miles, respectively, on our last two full days. Maybe it just takes more time for me to reach my, ahem, stride.
Anyway, the AT is still a great place to meet people and to hear some great personal stories, not just about backpacking but also peoples' reasons for going on the AT.
If anyone has questions about hiking the AT, I'd be happy to answer them. I'm just a lowly section hiker, but there might be people who want to do what we're doing -- walk 100 miles or so every year (or just once) and see what it's like.
It's not like anything around here. That's for sure.

Sights and smells from this year's Appalachian Trail hike

I suppose it says something about me that my favorite day of our recent backpacking adventure on the Appalachian Trail was the day we took off and went to a baseball game in Baltimore. That day I had a crab cake sandwich and a Bloody Mary at the ballpark. My feet didn't hurt, my back didn't ache and I didn't smell too bad. It was a beautiful day.
Hiking the trail this year wasn't as much fun as it had been. It was still a good way to get away from civilization, experience nature and take stock of things. But it's going to take more than the promise of a baseball game to get me back to the trail. It was hard work and I'm just too old, too out of shape and too cranky to do it anymore.
The good news is that my trail buddy, Mark Gerhart, and I hiked farther and faster this year than ever. We did 120 miles in eight full days and two partial days of climbing up and down mountains in northern Virginia and all of West Virginia and Maryland. Our previous best was 80 miles last year. It seems almost comical now that I was so proud four years ago when we hiked 40 miles of southern Pennsylvania. That is, we drove 1,300 miles just to walk 40 miles. But that's when gas was $1.50 a gallon.
With what we've hiked in four years, I've completed 270 miles of the 2,100-mile trail. I've done the easiest 13 percent of it. Just wait, I've been warned, until you have to do Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire. They will suck the life out of you. At the rate I'm going, those are the states I'd do when I'm in my 70s. Not much chance of that.
Mark, on the other hand, has now done more than half of the AT, everything from Georgia to southern Pennsylvania. He's younger and in better shape. There were days on the trail this year when he was moving so swiftly that he was about a mile ahead of me. And it wasn't because I smelled so bad. He could finish the trail in five or six good years.
Here's the truth about the Appalachian Trail. Most of the time it isn't pretty. You're in a forest 98 percent of the time so there's nothing to look at but trees, plants, rocks and bear poop. (We still haven't seen a bear; we figure it's because we smelled so bad that the bears had a two- or three-mile warning.) There are too many huge rocks to trip over, stub your toes on and slowly clamber over. The accommodations are uncomfortable. You sleep on a wood floor or worse, indoor plumbing is rare, you often have to purify your drinking water, and I still haven't found a place along the AT that serves Bloody Marys or crab cake sandwiches.
To get anywhere, you have to walk. And about half the time you have to walk uphill. Walking downhill is no picnic either because it often means shin splints or blisters. You have to take everything with you [–] clothes, food, sleeping bag, cooking utensils, stove and fuel, water, water filter [–] and that adds up to 35 pounds or so in your pack. That often means a sore back, a sore neck or sore hips. Or all of the above.
If it rains, you get wet. If it's cold, you freeze. If it's hot, you sweat and you stink. The best shelter we stayed in this year had a shower rigged to run off the water of a nearby stream. The water was chilly and it wasn't entirely clean but it was refreshing.
Speaking of the smell of the wild, I was self-conscious about my BO until the night a young woman came straggling into our campsite. "Sorry about my smelly feet," she said as she removed her hiking boots. "Oh, they can't be as bad as mine," I joked. Wrong. Those dogs must have been dead; I had to turn the other way to talk to her.
But, as usual, all of the backpackers we met on the AT were good people with fascinating stories. Most were through-hikers headed to Georgia. By the time we met them they were more than halfway to their goal and were planning to finish on or near Thanksgiving Day. They would have much to be thankful for.
Many times they told us of days earlier this year when there were so many people on the AT that the shelters were well beyond capacity and people had to sleep on or under picnic tables or on the ground. There's fear the trail soon will become even more crowded.
Word along the AT [–] the trail does have its own remarkable pipeline of gossip, urban legends and real news [–] is that Paul Newman and Robert Redford plan to make a movie about hiking the trail, based on Bill Bryson's 1999 book, "A Walk in the Woods." It turns out the rumor mill was right. When we got back I found a story confirming the trail tale. "That might be something for Paul Newman and me, if we're not too old. That's if Paul can hang on long enough and we can get him on the Appalachian Trail before he gets into a wheelchair," Redford was quoted as saying.
If that happens, all the hikers on the AT cautioned, the trail will become wildly popular, and even more crowded.
So I may have a good excuse to give up this ordeal. I'll need to quit it to get away from civilization.

Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Sundays and Wednesdays. He can be reached at kacichnews-gazette.com or at 351-5221. He also writes a Web log that is accessible at news-gazette.com.

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