Sunday, January 8, 2012

Trail Towns

There are many tiny towns out there along the Appalachian Mountains that must get the majority of their income from hikers passing through. Especially the ones in Maine. Especially Monson, Maine. There are certainly several other larger towns where the AT influence acts as a blip on the radar screen for the locals. We literally walked through towns that had banners saying “Welcome Hikers” and some where people clearly thought we were just hobos passing through.

What does it take to be a trail town? Well, first you need to be relatively close to the trail. In some cases the trail literally walks down the streets and there are white blazes on telephone poles to guide you. In other cases you need to find a ride for 10-20 miles in order to reach a place with a motel, foodstore and post office. Trail towns are listed in the AT guidebooks, with all the amenities it offers and a list of which hostels, hotels or local businesses are “hiker friendly.” Translation: they don’t mind your stink. Hotels are often listed that offer “hiker rates” and any local Trail Angels have their phone numbers listed.

Here is a list of places that we stopped:

*-We just stopped for some food or the post office, but kept on hiking

**-We just spent the night and maybe got dinner

***-We had a full town resupply visit

Monson, ME***- It’s amazing I made it here. I remember running to the road when we finally emerged from the 100 mile wilderness and being so excited. Monson is one of those 1-block long towns. There are two hostels here and we stayed at one on the lake. It was full of other southbounders that we met in the wilderness and everyone had a great time celebrating the first milestone. Sol’s mom came and met us for our zero day and took us to Greenville to visit the outfitter where I got a new pack and shoes. We ate at this surprisingly good BBQ place in town. Also noteworthy is Shaw’s breakfast. This is the other hostel, and for $7 (if you’re not staying with them), you go and get a breakfast of eggs, pancakes, potatoes, bacon, juice and coffee. You just say a number, like, “2”, and you get two of everything. Or say “8” and you’ll get 8 of everything. It’s pretty awesome.

Me sitting at the Lakeshore House in Monson, ME. All I wanted was a pepsi and doritos.

Stratton, ME***- Another 1-block town, most people stop here. Normally it’s a ski town, but in the summer it’s overrun with hikers. There were a number of restaurants and a couple hotels.

Where we stayed in Stratton, ME. Note the sign: Hot Men Wanted

Andover, ME**- This was our first impromptu stop. We had a really rough day of hiking through the southern mountains of Maine and we had a choice. We either were going to push ourselves going 15+ miles a day, or we were going to run out of food before Gorham. I knew that I couldn’t do the long miles at that point, so we decided to go into Andover for a night and just get dinner there and continue the next day, rested and with plenty of food. We had to call my mom to call the hostel in town to arrange a pick up from a logging road because our phone was being finicky. It was all set and so we walked down to the road and waited. They never did come for us…it was half an hour…45 minutes and they weren’t showing up. In the meantime 3 NOBOs came and were waiting for the same hostel to come for them only half an hour later. A girl also drove up with a 6 pack to do some trail magic. She hiked NOBO the year before and worked nearby. She offered to drive us into town and told us there was another, unadvertised hostel option in town that she stayed at. In the end, the hostel we called showed up for the other three hikers and it was just a miscommunication that originally screwed it up, but we said we’d go with the girl to the place she was talking about. Best decision ever. We came upon this amazing house and hostel called The Cabin run by the sweetest older couple, Honey and Bear. Honey’s family has been involved in the AT community for over 50 years. The first thing they did when we walked in was shove pancakes, shepherd’s pie and brownie sundaes in our faces. Win.

Sol in front of The Cabin in Andover, ME

Gorham, NH/Tamworth- Really we were picked up by Sol’s dad and hung out in Tamworth, NH. But Gorham does have a nice hostel for hikers.

Glencliffe, NH*- We just stopped by the post office, which was .2 mi off the trail to pick up some food. It’s worth mentioning because this is where we got an epic hamburger and large pizza. Also the post master gave us the rest of her footlong subway sub and some ginger ale. If anyone reads TIME magazine, you might remember Glencliffe from the article about post offices that are being closed down. We signed the petition to keep it open while we were there.

The Pike burger from Glencliffe. Two grilled cheese sandwiches, two 1/3 lb patties, cheese, bacon, lettuce and tomato.

Hanover, NH/White River Junction, VT***- The trail walks through downtown Hanover but we stayed at a hotel in White River Junction. Hanover is AWESOME for hikers (except that it’s hard to find a place to stay). Many of the businesses along the main drag offer hikers free stuff: free pizza, coffee, pastry, bagels and more!

West Hartford, VT**- Another one where you hike through “downtown”, which involved a few houses and a general store. A signmaker lets hikers camp in his backyard , so we did that. The general store had an amazingly delicious deli, so it was a win all around.

The deli in West Hartford, VT with a sign by the signmaker

Killington, VT/ Waterbury Center***- We stayed a night at the Inn at the Long Trail, but then spent most of our time up at the GMC headquarters in Waterbury Center, hanging out with friends.

The Inn at the Long Trail. Best french toast I've ever had!

Manchester, VT***- One of the best hostels on the trail. It’s a full house that is clean and well stocked just for hikers. For only $20/night, you have a bed, full use of the house, laundry, shower and a pint of Ben and Jerrys.

Bennington, VT***- My dad and stepmom visited us here so we stopped and hung out for a day.

Williamstown, MA*- There is a Mexican restaurant named Desperados in this college town, which the trail walks right through, that gives free food to hikers. Literally, anything on the menu is free and you buy your own drinks. We just stopped for dinner and hiked on to camp in the woods. It’s one of those things you find out about by word of mouth on the trail.

Great Barrington, MA**- We made an impromptu stop because we were soaking from 3 days of rain, tired and wanted a break.

New Milford, CT/Croton on Hudson, NY/NYC/Sparkill***- We spent our time hiking through CT and NY staying with family and friends on the way. We were in NYC for Hurricane Irene, which was never hit as hard as they feared.

Delaware Water Gap, PA*-Another case where you walk into town (you actually go over the I-80 bridge into PA). We stopped and ate at the pie store, where we have our well-known True Love photo, and hiked on to a shelter for the night.

Wind Gap, PA/Lake Meade***- We walked down into town at Wind Gap where my dad, Sandy and Vicky met us and took us to our family friend’s lake house for the weekend.

Hamburg, PA***- We weren’t planning to stay in Hamburg. We had a package to pick up at Port Clinton, which the trail walks through, and is 3 miles from where we ended up staying off the highway. Our plans changed when Trop. Storm Lee wouldn’t stop raining. We were soaked after 4 days of rain, the trails were flooded and we were often hiking through ankle deep water. We joined a couple of other hikers and split a hotel room to dry out and recuperate. It ended up being smart because the rivers were so swollen further along the trail that they were impassable and towns were flooded.

Duncannon, PA***- This town is FAMOUS on the trail for a few reasons. It’s here that you cross the Susquehanna River and walk through downtown for a couple of miles to get from one ridge to the next. The first thing you see heading south are about 4 strip clubs. Then you get into town and there are banners welcoming hikers and people are really friendly. Then you stay at the Doyle, which is a 100 year old hotel that is so disgusting, only hikers and vagrants stay there. It costs like, $25 for a room + $7.50 for every extra person. The saving grace is the restaurant/bar which has the cheapest beer I’ve seen on the trail. And the food is good. And you figure it’s got to be up to code or else it would be closed down. I can’t imagine how the rest of the hotel is up to code, but I don’t want to know.

The outside of the Doyle in Duncannon, PA

Boiling Springs, PA*-We stopped by the post office and grabbed a beer at the pub before hiking on.

Waynesboro, PA/Lake Meade***- Another case where our friend Phil picked us up, we went to the lake house and met my dad and watched football that weekend.

Harpers Ferry, WV*- This is where the Appalachian Trail Conservancy is located. Plus it’s a super cool historic town. We stopped at the ATC to register ourselves as thru hiking southbounders, grabbed a package from the PO and got pizza before hiking on.

Sol walking in to the ATC in Harpers Ferry, WV

Front Royal, VA***-An unexpectedly awesome stop. It’s the town you hit before you enter Shenandoah NP. We hiked for 24 miles in the rain to get to town. Then we were picked up, all soaking and smelly by a really nice woman, and she gave us a ride into town. We decided to treat ourselves to a Super 8 rather than the really sketchy, but really cheap motels. The next day we planned to run some errands in the morning, take our time and then hike out. We went downtown only to discover that there was a Brews and Blues fest going on. We ended up checking in to the Quality Inn downtown and going to the beer fest. It was awesome, and there was some really great music.

Taking a photo of ourselves at the Brews and Blues Fest in Front Royal, VA

Waynesboro, VA***- We were here for day 100 on the trail, and we ran into a bunch of our favorite hikers. We had a great Chinese Buffet with Soway for lunch. Like, amazing. And cheeaap. Then Casper and Scotch decided to stay an extra night to hang out. We all got our errands done during the day and then went through A LOT of beer at night. It was fun for Sol and me because we met during the summer before Senior year of HS working on a trail right outside of Waynesboro, and our group would come into town there to resupply.

Montebello, VA**- Another case of an unplanned stop that was just what the doctor ordered. We were in the mountains in Virginia, and it was about 2 days after Waynesboro, when the cold hit. Our plans would have had us sleeping above 3500 ft for the next two days and snow and freezing temps were in the forecast. As we were freezing our asses off having lunch above 4000 ft, we looked in our guide to see if there was a way out. And thankfully, there was a B&B just a few miles away. We arranged to be picked up and had such a wonderful time at the Dutch House. It was so cozy and warm and the food was sooooo good. The weather looked equally crappy for the next day so we decided to slackpack about 16 miles so we wouldn’t fall too far behind, but decided to stay the night at the B&B again. Plus it was Sun/Mon so there was football.

Glasgow, VA*- After leaving Montebello, we had hooked up with our friend Sam (Link), and 3 dogs decided to follow us from a house by a spot that the trail crosses the road. We hiked with the dogs for 20 miles and managed to meet the owner in Glasgow so he could pick them up. We went into town and went to the PO and a diner for lunch. Then we had a really really really hard time getting a ride back to the trail that afternoon. First off, everyone was wearing orange shirts and we were confused. I thought maybe there was a fall festival that all the towns people were participating in. Turns out they all worked at some mill in town and it was a requirement to wear orange. They sure as hell weren’t picking us up. We began profiling cars. Subarus should pick you up. Pick ups should pick you up (just throw you in the back). Honda Elements should pick you up (and one finally did). Put Emily out in front to try to get a ride, hide the two guys. Don’t ever expect a single female driver to pick you up.

Daleville, VA**- The trail crosses right by an I-81 interchange. It was the most awesome interchange ever. It had hotels, restaurants, grocery store, outfitter and everything you’d want right within walking distance. We loved it here. Sol bought his new smart phone at the Verizon store here.

Pearisburg, VA***- This was a pretty crappy little town, but it had an amazing Mexican restaurant that we ate at 3 times within 24 hours. It was also the beginning of our quest for the 60 oz margarita. We zeroed because we needed it, not because it was nice, and the morning we were leaving half the town had no water…the half we were in. So that was a pain. Luckily DQ still made us an awesome (and fresh!) breakfast of eggs, bacon, biscuit and hashbrowns that they had to pass to us through the drive thru window.

Sol walking down the street in Pearisburg, VA. Note the water main related construction and the awesome Mexican restaurant on the right.

Atkins, VA**- Talk about crappy town. The trail literally walks right past it and no one knows anything about hikers. There is one crappy hotel that is right by the trial but 3 miles from the PO. We managed to get a ride out to the PO after about half an hour, but never got a ride back and had to walk with our box of food. They definitely thought we were hobos. The town didn’t even have a food store. But it did have an awesome southern style diner restaurant where Sol got a lb burger and loved every oz.

Damascus, VA***- Damascus is known as THE AT trail town because it has Trail Days. We had been hearing about it for 100’s of miles. Maybe it was just too built up, but we didn’t find anything really special about it. Yeah, there was a good outfitter. We spent most of our time at a pizza place, which was the only bar in town, watching football, eating and drinking beer with other hikers. We actually went for lunch, stayed through dinner and managed to stay through a bartender shift and never got charged for the first half of the day. I should clarify that this place was the only place to watch football that Sunday because the rest of the town lost their cable.

The hiker hostel we stayed at in Damascus, VA

Hampton, TN**- We stayed at a hostel that was right on the trail run by a trail legend, Bob Peoples. He drives you into town for a dinner run, and otherwise you’re on your own in the bunkhouse.

Outside the Kincora hostel run by Bob Peoples in TN

Roane Mountain, TN**- Another hostel/B&B that was possibly the best breakfast on the trail. This is the place that we stayed before “The Worst Day Ever”.

Erwin, TN***- This is where we went after “The Worst Day Ever”. Three words: Beer. Pyramid. McRib.

Hot Springs, NC***- We zeroed here and had a great time. This is also a well known trail town where you walk through the downtown, on the level of Duncannon and Damascus. We spent our first night at Elmer’s, which is an old Victorian house full of antiques run by an old minister that has a penchant for Buddhism. We slackpacked the next day and came back to stay in the local motel that had chickens wandering around the parking lot. Elmer’s was full and the cabins associated with the Hot Springs resort were full because of a poetry society meeting and a Civil War reenactment all on the same weekend. But the motel was great. They had a legendary trail outfitter and an awesome diner (where we ate 4 meals.) Then Sol’s friend, Cosce, came to visit the next day and we got bbq and he dropped us off back at the spot on the trail that we left off.

Inside Elmer's place in Hot Springs, NC

Gatlinburg, TN***- We stayed here for a looooong time. We were hanging with Link and waiting for Scotch. We got there a night earlier than we expected and the three of us were splitting a hotel room that cost a total of $33/night. We spent 3 nights here. We spent our days watching tv, being lazy and walking around the hot mess that is Gatlinburg, getting free samples and eating good food. It was probably the only time I will ever appreciate this town. It’s too kitschy and overblown. But it’s an awesome playground for hikers that crave civilization. As Link said, it’s a great trail town for hikers who want to actually do something. As oppose to all those hostels that there are books and a light, or those 1 block long towns with a convenience store and some houses.

Link in Gatlinburg, TN

NOC, NC**- We had a great dinner and some good beer (see Trail Dating). We picked up our package for resupply at the outfitters. The only complaint is that the “coed” bunkhouse was just a tiny room with a bunkbed. It’s normally a big rafting and hiking basecamp, but we were passing through when it was after the season so it was pretty dead.

Franklin, NC***- Our last real town stop. The town has the famous Ron Haven. He owns almost all of the hotels in town, along with some other knick-knack stores. During the summer (when all the NOBOs are coming through) he does a lot of shuttling to and from town. As a hiker, you kind of get sucked in to staying at one of his places because that is what you have the most info about. We did that the first night and it was a dump so we changed for our second night over to the Microtel on the other side of town. This is also where we were trying to find a place to have a beer and were asked if we were “members” when we walked into a bar before being kicked out. Luckily there was our good ol’ Mexican restaurant down the street that had great food and margaritas. Except that Sol bit down on a pebble in our nachos…but they were delicious. Link and I met Ron Haven the next day at the thrift store that he owns. He said “Have you heard of Ron Haven?” “Yeah, we’ve heard of him”, “What have you heard about him?” “Oh, that he owns those hotels—“ “Well, I AM Ron Haven.” Greeaaat.

Leaving the Microtel in Franklin, NC

Walasa-Yi, GA**- Literally about 30 miles from Springer Mt, this was our stop just for the heck of it. It’s just an outfitter and hostel that is in a gap in the middle of nowhere along the trail, but when we walked through one afternoon in November, it was packed with people. A lot use it as a starting off point for hikes in the area. Plus the outfitter is famous/awesome. It’s best known for the multitudes of northbounders that come through since it’s their first stop. They famously will go through your pack and tell you what you need/don’t need or sell you new stuff. The hostel is run by this old eccentric named Pirate who will cook you dinner and offer you beer if he’s in a good mood. Luckily he was and we got cornbread, chili and pie. There were some awesome, fat, cute cats hanging out too. We watched Road Warrior on a tiny tv. It was a great stop. Just what we needed at the end of the trip.

Some of the guys watching Road Warrior in the Walasa-Yi hostel, GA

Saturday, January 7, 2012

500, 1000, 1500, 2000

If you ever wondered what it is like to walk 500 miles, or 1500 or 2000, I guess I can give you an idea. You might think it gets exponentially cooler as you walk further and get those benchmarks. Or at least increase in coolness in a linear fashion. Maybe for some people it does, but for me…not so much.

500 miles: This is in Vermont for SOBOs. There was a little piece of wood with 500 burnt into it to let NOBOs know that they have only 500 miles until the end. SOBOs have appropriated this sign as their “I’ve gone 500 fucking miles!” mark. The sign isn’t official or anything, it was just put there by some local trail angel. This trail angel was also kind enough to leave a cooler with a bunch of soda and ice every day. When we passed through, it was late morning and the sodas had just been refilled. It was suh-weeeet. I remember feeling so incredible for walking 500 miles. I mean, 500 miles…that’s soooo long! This was by far the most exciting mile mark for me. It took us about a month and a half to go that first 500. The other ones went much faster.

Sol's excited (and less hairy) face at being 500 miles deep.

My excitement at 500 miles down.

1000 miles: This was somewhere in Pennsylvania, a little before the half way point (which had a gigantic, new, official sign). There was no sign. There was no soda. [Interestingly enough there is a 1000 mile marker for NOBOs that some nice individual put on a piece of wood on a tree. When we passed that it was further along the trail in PA and it meant we had 1000 miles left.] When you walk 1000 miles, it’s only natural to start thinking “What the hell am I doing?” I mean, you just walked 1000 miles. And you’re planning to continue another 1,182 miles? It’s the first time that the whole endeavour seemed ridiculous. I think it hit us then because we had gone far enough for the entire thing to seem possible, but we also hit the amount of mileage that is just too long to even fathom. 1000, 2000, 3000, it’s all just so high. We had walked longer than you can drive in a day.

Sol with the 1000 mile sign left for NOBOs.

Now I've only got 1000 miles to go.

Me with the halfway point sign, somewhere between our 1000 mile mark and the NOBO's 1000 mile mark. Actually, halfway between those.

Sol with at the halfway point. Gigantic sign.

1500 miles: This occurs in Virginia. The trail is in Virginia for over 500 miles, so it’s hard to feel a strong sense of progress until you pass through it. We were hiking with two other SOBOs at that point (young men, of course). We hit the 1500 miles point right after a town visit so everyone got some variation of fermented sugars to celebrate. We had a great fire that night and finished off a couple bottles, and everyone got decently buzzed, if not drunk. It was more of a reason to celebrate than an actual feeling. 500 miles had a feeling of greatness, 1000 miles had a feeling of ridiculousness and 1500 didn’t have a strong feeling that I remember. There were no signs, but our guidebooks let us know which landmarks are at which mileages, so we knew.

2000 miles: This was at a gap in the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee. Again, no sign. For NOBOs that particular spot isn’t anything special, just 182 miles from the start. As you may gather, all the signage is NOBO biased. I hope to someday go back and put up signs of everything special from a SOBO perspective. We were hiking with our friend Sam, and we all stopped, took swigs of tequila and some photos to commemorate. The feeling of 2000 was pretty mighty, but more ridiculous and unfathomable, as you might imagine.

Sol agrees and adds: When he got to 2000 it was like “Eh, it’s like twice as much as 1000.” But he is proud that we made our own celebration for 2000.

We made our own sign at 2000 miles

Friday, January 6, 2012


The following is based on my very biased opinion regarding who reigns supreme between NOBOs and SOBOs. First, I’m sure you remember that NOBOs and SOBOs are distinguished by which direction they are hiking on the Appalachian Trail. In the world of thru hikers, NOBOs start in the winter/spring on Springer Mt. in Georgia, and finish in the summer/fall on Mt. Katahdin in Maine. Contrarily, SOBOs start around the beginning of summer on Mt. Katahdin and finish on Springer Mt deep into fall.

Then there are those flip floppers. They start as one and flip to the other [insert standard Romney joke here]. I think they most commonly start somewhere in the middle, hike north, and then flip south for the end. They tend to retain a douchey-ness associated with northbounders.

As you might well imagine, the relationship between NOBOs and SOBOs is quite complicated. [Btw- I sure do hope you all are pronouncing this right. Noe-bow and Sew-Bow.] There are several reasons for this. First of all, most people hike north. It’s the direction that Earl Shaffer thru hiked for the first time in history back in 1948. Plus, summiting Mt. Katahdin at the end is way more epic than hiking up Mt. Springer. So, like I said, most people hike north. When we passed through Harpers Ferry, WV and visited the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, they had over 900 people claiming to be northbound thru hikers for 2011 and only a little over 50 southbound thru hikers for 2011. Granted, there were still more southbounders to come after us, so I figure the number was more like 100. Still, we’re talking 9-1. And we saw a high percentage of those hiking north, so take it from us, there were A LOT. We saw NOBOs from the first day we were on the trail. Around VT and NH we passed through the northbound “bubble”. We had been warned about this phenomenon for some time. Somehow a high density of northbounders managed to be chunked together over a 4 day span and there were days that we passed 50 people hiking the opposite direction. At this time in the hike, you’d arrive at a shelter and there would be 20 people there because northbounders were coinciding with the southbounders and it was a cluster. We saw the last of the regular season northbounders in CT. However, we even saw some non-traditional north bound hikers down in TN when it was getting late in the year. They planned to hike as long as they could before the weather just became too unbearable. (Crazy).

NOBOs and SOBOs have very different experiences just based on the fact that northbounders are with other hikers alllll theeee tiiiime, and southbounders are much more scarce. But there is another reason that they don’t see eye to eye. While we were hiking around Hamilton Pool today in TX with our friend, Linda Owen, she commented on the fact that the trail we walked down to get to the river looked completely different when we returned on it in the other direction. She hit on a very important point. Yes, northbounders and southbounders both hiked the AT. They both saw the same towns and the same mountain views, but the majority of the time they were just hiking on a trail, and they never saw the same thing as the other. The viewpoint you get from walking one direction is biased. You see one side of every tree, rock or bush. So in a very fundamental way, NOBOs and SOBOs have two very distinct experiences. I think everyone hiking the trail comes to this realization at some point. I mean, you have a LOT of time to think and I’m going to go ahead and assume that this crosses everyone’s mind. And I’m sure it’s a pretty profound feeling moment when they think of it. And I don’t mean to suggest that the fact that everyone realizes it makes it less profound, but it is funny to think of how badass each person probably feels at that moment. (Especially if you know them).

The NOBO-SOBO relationship is further colored by the fact that NOBOs, for the most part, are running into SOBOs in the far northern section of the trail as a result of the seasons that people hike. So as a southbounder, you’re running into northbounders after you’ve hiked 0-700 miles and they’ve hiked 1500-2200 miles. There is an unavoidable superiority complex. Northbounders have experienced more, made it further and are ready to let you know it. They interact with you like they assume you’re not going to make it the whole way. They give you tips about your gear or what experiences you’ll have in the future. They tell you how your body will change, your appetite, your mind. They tell you all of this as if you haven’t been affected at all by whatever portion of the hike you’ve completed. And let me tell you, you are changed by the first week. I think they forget that. I try not to forget that when I interact with other hikers, especially weekend or section hikers. People are changed every time they backpack, but if you do it for too long you forget.

Obviously it’s all about perspective. There is a strong degree of relativity involved…as is well expressed through the AT mantra “Hike your own hike”, however there is also a component of objective truth. I think there is a common experience that is unchangeable. At the core, hiking just “is”, and something about it is the same for everyone, but this truth is veiled by all these other consequential factors.

That being said—hiking SOBO is way better than hiking NOBO. J I know I’m contradicting what I just said, but the sameness of the experience be damned. There are too many elements that layer on top of the base truth of the experience to make them in any way equal. I preferred hiking south because: you get the hardest part of the trail done in the beginning, which makes the rest of it seem like a breeze; you are less crowded, yet there are enough people that you are not lonely; the Smokys are less likely to be impassable due to snow; and you’ll hit the south in the fall rather than the summer so the temperatures will be much more bearable. Plus you won’t be a douche.

Sol would add: When we ran into the flip floppers when we were headed south, he remembers feeling that he was trying his hardest to not act like a “NOBO” to these newly southbound hikers. Translation: We were scarred enough by the people who were dicks to us in the beginning that we tried not to act like a dick to those we met as we continued, even when we had hiked over 1500 miles.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A Typical Day

Even though we were all hiking, the hikers we met all had different routines. Some started before sunrise (usually old people), and other started way late (usually stoners). Some hiked 10 miles a day (usually old people and stoners) and some hiked nearly 30 miles a day (crazies). Some cooked a breakfast (usually old people) and others didn’t even cook dinner. You get the idea.

Here’s a very generalized skeleton of what a normal day hiking was for us. It took a couple of weeks to really settle into this routine, but it was pretty similar the entire time.

We woke up around 6:30-7:30 am. This varied only when we got lazy toward the end of the trail, before the time changed, and we realized we could start hiking at 9-9:30 am and still make good time. However, it changed back to this time when we lost an hour of daylight at night and gained it i the morning. We were moderate in our waking up time. Then I’d get up almost every time and start boiling water on our stove to make coffee. There was a period in the first few weeks when we didn’t carry coffee or have anything hot in the morning, but we found ourselves gouging on coffee whenever we were in towns because we missed it so much. I’d have dreams about coffee. And it’s not healthy to go from not drinking coffee for 4 days to drinking 5 cups in one day in town. We decided to just start carrying it. It was awesome, especially when it started getting really cold in the morning.

Sol waking up in the Smoky Mountains

For breakfast we were pretty lame. We both love breakfast when we get to go out to a diner type place, but if we’re on our own we don’t really care. More often than not we ate pop tarts. If not pop tarts, then a granola bar or the “power cookies” that Sol’s mom sent us. Somehow we never got sick of pop tarts. We’d switch it up and get strawberry sometimes or cookies and cream, but still pop tarts. We actually knew a hiker that made it from ME to VT and then skipped to PA and hiked for another 2 weeks before dropping out for good that ONLY ate pop tarts. He was in his 50’s, fit and a really nice guy that we got along with very well. But the pop tart thing was crazy. He’d eat pop tarts for breakfast and dinner and snack on Luna bars and almonds during the day. He was like a pop tart spokesperson. He always said the pop tarts were a trifecta of 1. Color, 2. Variety, and 3. Fun.

After breakfast we started hiking within an hour and would go until lunch. We usually tried to hike about half of our mileage for the day by lunch. We usually took a small break to snack after a couple of hours of hiking. From the very beginning of the trip I realized that I needed to eat about ever 2 hours. I could push it to 3 hours, but that might make my blood sugar dangerously low. And we can’t be having that!

Snack time in Shenandoah NP

Lunch was our biggest break. Since Sol and I were always hiking together, we’d stop and chill and take a good half an hour. We’d often try to make it to a shelter that was between 7-11 miles away, since that would be around lunch time. If there was no shelter at a convenient distance we’d choose a scenic spot to eat. I’d say 9 out of 10, if not 99 out of 100 times, I was the one that said “I’m hungry, let’s stop for lunch.” Sol would almost always be like “Good, I’m hungry too.” And I would always wonder...why didn’t he just say “let’s stop for lunch.” Sometimes I’d wait and not say anything for a while around lunch time, trying to wait him out to see if he’d propose stopping, but he never did and I always gave in and said something first.

After lunch, we’d hike for another 5 or 6 hours until we arrived at the spot that we were going to camp, or the shelter that we were aiming for. At the shelter we got into the distinct habit of Sol getting our water. We’d have to refill our water two or three times everyday. Once in the morning before hiking, usually sometime in the middle of the day, and then once at night when we got to our shelter in order to cook and hydrate. Sol hated that we fell into this routine, but like I said, he was in charge of figuring out where the local water source was (a stream or a spring), walk to it (sometimes it was as far as .2 miles away), and fill up our water bottles. I’m not 100% sure how I pulled this off, I think it’s because I always cooked. Plus I was always more tired/weak. I couldn’t handle collecting water or my one shred of mental stability might snap.

I’d begin making dinner once I got water and Sol would bring out the whiskey that he carried with him for at least 130/152 days we hiked. We’d chat with the other hikers we met at the shelter, or if we were alone, we’d put on our am/fm radio that we got in Front Royal, VA (always to NPR or some classic/80’s rock station). We would rarely make fires if it was just the two of us, but once we started hiking with Sam we had a fire every night because he needed it to cook on. Also, since I cooked, Sol would wash our one dish with his finger and some water.

Prepping for dinner in NY

We’d go to bed whenever we were done with dinner, had enough whiskey and got bored. Sometimes this was ridiculously early like at 6:30 pm, and sometimes we were able to push it until 10 pm. It really depended on how exhausted we were and how entertained we were. Then we’d repeat.

So this is how we managed to make it the whole 2000+ miles. This kind of routine allowed us to hike a good distance everyday and not get very burned out. Every once in a while we’d get an interruption and adjust, like the time that 3 dogs followed us for 10 miles before we realized that there was no way they were just going to ‘find their way home’. Or the times that we decided to push it another 3 miles to get to a road to go into town. And then there were all the days that we hiked into a town, which we tried to keep to 10 miles or less so we’d have an extra half day there.

The day with the dogs in Virginia

As you can see, life pretty much involved hiking, eating and sleeping. Visits to town basically involved tv, eating and drinking. Come to think of it, since finishing life has pretty much been a “town visit”.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Trail Dating

A lot of couples meet on the trail, and oftentimes these couples only exist on the trail. Even though there is a disproportionate number of men and women, couples form quite often. Really...since there is such a disproportionate number...hormones are all ablaze. Especially in the 20 something hiking group. Just spit balling here, but the male to female ratio hiking is probably near 10-1. A more conservative guess would be 7-1. Then count out those females that are hiking as a couple already, like me, and you have a small population of available women for trail dating. (We’re going to count the girls who have boyfriends back in civilization because, from our experience, they function under the rule “out of sight out of mind”.)

Despite the odds, a lot of couples form. It provides a lot of gossip, which is basically all we have besides the rocks and trees, so we love and hate it. We spent a lot of time speculating whether two people that we knew from the beginning of the trip in Maine were hooking up. The girl had a boyfriend and the guy was clearly in love with her from the moment he met her on the trail. They began hiking exclusively together for the last half of the trail. We’d run into them in towns where they split hotel rooms. They’d also do crazy stints like hike for 50 miles in 22 hours. A lot of contradicting impressions...I guess only they know the truth. Either way, at the end of the hike her boyfriend picked her up and they left together.

This is a pretty good example of the main characteristics of trail dating. It involves doing a lot of hiking together, sharing hotel rooms in towns and usually ends while hiking or as soon as the hike is over.

Once we were hanging out in a town around the outfitter taking a zero. There were a bunch of books in the outfitter written by people who hiked the trail. It all seemed like the usual stuff...all about the “journey”, the animal encounters, the bad weather, the sore muscle, the worried parents...all stuff that we were pretty sick of hearing of day in and day out. I opened up a book by a girl who titled her book after her trail name, Cinnamon. By just flipping to the middle of the book I found an excerpt that stayed with me for the rest of the trail.

It was Cinnamon talking to her mom on the phone. She was a single female, thru hiking north and she had just graduated high school or college or something. She had made friends with a group of hikers and had a big crush on this guy named Manhattan. She was telling her mom how they were “kinda trail dating”. Her mom, understandably, asked, what the hell is trail dating? She told her mom “Well, you know. It’s when you hike together during the day, or plan to meet at the same shelter at night. Or one of you will say ‘you wanna go grab water together’.” Gross. Lame. Totally gross. Needless to say Manhattan ditched Cinnamon and just started hiking faster than her.

By that definition, Sol and I were trail dating with our friend Sam for 800 miles, which we enjoyed telling people along the way.

There are some great love stories that come out of the trail. We met a middle aged couple that met while the guy was thru hiking north. He made it about 30 miles to the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) in NC where he met this woman who lived locally. She honed in on him immediately and the next morning in the restaurant the waitress sat them next to each other. The rest of the story involves him hiking up to ME and her meeting him with a RV to support the end of his trip north. They got married a year later at the place they met. Then we met them while we were hiking through the NOC and stopped in for a beer, dinner and a bed. They recognized us as thru hikers, told us their story and bought us all a beer. It was awesome.

Trail Lingo

As with all subcultures, there is a whole jargon associated with the hiking culture and an even more specific vocabulary linked to the Appalachian Trail. The best way to learn the language is to get on your hiking boots and immerse yourself in it. We’ve been in and out of the outdoors/hiking culture for the past several years while we were in AmeriCorps and doing Trail Crew, but there was a lot left for us to learn.

Here’s an attempt at a mini dictionary:

Hiking Styles:

White blazing: Hiking on the AT. It refers to following the white blazes (rectangular white markings that mark the trail, usually on trees and rocks).

Blue blazing: Hiking on a trail that is not the AT. There are a lot of side trails that parallel, cut off and lead into the AT. These are often marked with blue blazes. Blue blazing refers to hiking on one of those trails rather than the AT for a section. We enjoyed doing this as a change of pace, especially at the end.

Yellow blazing: Catching a ride via road rather than hiking a section. The yellow in yellow blazing refers to the yellow dotted lines on the roads, which look similar to the white and blue trail blazes. It usually is done by hitchhiking from one town to another and skipping a section of the AT. I guess we technically did this 3 times… in NJ, VA and TN. Twice because of weather issues and once because of food shortage.

Green blazing: Bushwacking. Although it takes a really ‘gifted’ individual to lose the trail completely, some really do. Green blazing gets its name from having to hike through the forrest. It’s usually the result of being lost, but it might be done on purpose by some.

Aqua blazing: Using a boat of some kind to travel via river rather than the trail. This is possible going northbound on the Shenandoah River and the Housatonic going south.

Pink blazing: Changing your hiking pace in order to follow a girl. You get the idea with the “pink”. Usually it means that a guy is slowing down his pace or distance every day to hike with a girl; or, in some cases, he yellow blazes to catch up with a girl. It will become more clear why this is common whenever I get around to the Sausage Fest 2011 post.

Pole blazing: I think we were with a couple of people when they made this one up. It’s the counterpart to pink blazing. It’s when a girl changes her pace or skips a section to hike with a guy.

Types of Hikers:

Thru hiker: Someone hiking the entire AT in one go.

Section hiker: Someone who has an extended plan to finish the entire AT in several trips over several years. We met people who were on the 20+ year plan, and some who had the 5 year plan. Quite often these are groups of men who are friends from work or church, although we also saw a lot of guys who are doing it alone with the ground support from their wives. Yes, mostly men.

NOBO: This is a hiker that is hiking northbound on the trail (much more common). Usually it’s reserved for thru hikers.

SOBO: Hikers hiking southbound, like us.

Flip floper: Someone who starts at some point in the middle of the trail, hikes in one direction to the end and then returns to that point and hikes in the other direction to the other end. We mostly met people who started between VA-PA and hiked up to Katahdin in the Spring-Summer, then returned to that point and hiked down to Springer in the Fall. These are people who plan to complete it in one year. We met several people that we passed in VT and NH going north again down in TN and NC going south at the end.

Yo yoer: Why anyone would do this...I’m not sure. It’s when you start at a certain point on the trail, hike to one end, then turn around and hike back.

Day hiker/weekender: These are hikers that are out purely for fun without any goal of completing the trail. Maybe “for fun” is an assumption. A lot of kids and friends were pretty miserable being dragged out by their one enthusiastic hiking friend.


Trail name: A nickname that you receive on the trail. You are not supposed to name yourself, someone else has to give it to you. However, I think probably about half the people name themselves. You go by this name the entire trail, you introduce yourself with your trail name and you sign the trail logs with your trail name. A lot of times you don’t know someone’s real name. My trail name was JTree and Sol’s was Whiskey.

Slack packing: When you hike for a day with a light pack (usually just a day pack), because you will be either returning to the same place at night or someone is dropping off your big backpack at your end point for the day. It require someone to shuttle you or your pack at some point in the day. It’s one of the best things to do once in a while because it feels aweeessooommmee to hike with just a day pack after months of a heavy pack. We did it only a couple of times- in CT with the help of Elsa, in VA when the weather was bad through a B&B we were staying at, and in TN just for the hell of it through the help of another hostel. It usually costs money to be shuttled/have your pack shuttled so it’s a treat. Usually you push for a longer distance since you’re not weighed down.

Trail magic: A treat that is either left for you on the trail by a stranger or receiving some treat from someone you meet on the trail. It could also be a ride when you need it or someone buying you a meal in town when they find out you’re a hiker. We found beer, cookies, crackers, candy bars, etc. in many random places along the trail that someone local left for hikers. The best trail magic was a tent set up on the side of the trail outside of Franklin, NC by a guy who stocked it full of soda, candy, cookies and a stove for making hot chocolate, coffee and hot dogs. Awesome.

Trail Angel: People who perform trail magic. They may do it once on a whim when they meet a hiker, while others basically make a career out of it. There are a few well known Trail Angels that live in towns along the AT and take in hikers as they pass through, or are available to give rides to and from the trail for free.

Zero: A day that you hike zero miles. An off day.

Nero: A day that you hike “nearly zero” miles. The amount of miles that qualifies as a nero varies by hiker, but we considered it as a day of 10 miles or less. Usually we had neros in or out of town.

Triple Crown: Thru hiking the AT, Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trail. It doesn't matter what order you do it in and it doesn't matter how many years apart you do each trail. We met several people who are triple crowners... crazy/impressive.

That’s about it. Now we can talk freely about our trip with any of you and use the vocabulary freely without a bunch of confused looks.