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Post Thru-Hike Question Roundup

2011 October 4

Appalachian Trail

When people find out we have recently completed the Appalachian Trail, they immediately have a lot of questions. Some are familiar with the trail and/or backpacking and some are surprised to find out there’s a trail that stretches from Georgia to Maine. We have found that regardless of their experience, we tend to answer a lot of the same questions. We figured we could help everyone out a bit by getting them out there and answered as best we could. That way we can have more gratifying conversation about our experiences, having picked this low-hanging fruit.

 

1. Was it amazing?

If you, in fact, expect us to sum up quitting our jobs, living out of a tent for 5 months, walking 2000 miles, and having thousands of wonderful experiences in a single word, then…

Yes. It was amazing.

2. How does it feel to be done?

It feels both great and terrible. The hike was absolutely amazing (see above), and we loved living that way for so long. It was simple and freeing. The hiking itself got old after a while though, and we missed our family and friends. So the finishing and coming home part was something we looked forward to. However, “normal” life is busy, loud, and complicated. Hiking did provide a unique perspective on the busy-ness we experience in our daily lives though, and how to prevent life from owning us rather than vice-versa.

3. Describe your typical day on the AT.

Dinner at a typical shelter. L to R: Chopper, Iron Mike, Supa Chef, The Conversation, and Professor

The sarcastic and simple response: “We walked a lot.”

 

We would normally set our alarm for around 5:30 so we would hopefully be up and stuffing our sleeping bags by 6. Sometimes that turned into 6:30 or 7, but when you’re hiking that just means a few less miles that day. From there we’d pack stuff up and cook some breakfast. Even if we were having a cold breakfast like honey buns or pop-tarts we still had to have our coffee… or at least Muggle did. She got a double shot.

Once we got rolling, we were on the clock. We preventatively took rest and snack breaks every two hours. Normally it would be one break, then lunch, then two more breaks before dinner when we stopped for the night. But in general, we would walk a lot, with little breaks for eating. :) In Pennsylvania we took a lot more and longer breaks because of all the food available. We were hiking on average about two miles per hour up until New Hampshire, and we’d walk about 10 hours a day with around 2 hours of breaks and lunch.

We spent a good portion of our day hiking alone, crossing paths with thru-hikers or day hikers depending on where we were. Then we would meet up with larger groups in the evenings at campsites or three-sided shelters, cooking and talking until dark.

4. Did you carry a gun?

No. That would be silly. Have even met my wife? She would have accidentally shot herself. Or worse, me.

Muggle taking it all in. She made it!

5. What surprised you the most?

Honestly? That we finished. We started out assuming we’d finish, but it started getting tough. Then boring. Then tough AND boring. When Muggle started having serious foot issues in Massachusetts we started talking more and more about going home. But she certainly persevered and stuck with it even through the pain. She is no doubt a very strong woman.

6. What was your favorite section of the trail?

It’s really hard to narrow it down. There were a number of great towns along the way, each with its own flavor of activities and AT Hiker attractions: Hot Springs, Damascus, Narrows, Waynesboro, Kent, Great Barrington, Glencliff, Rangeley, Stratton and Monson are some that come immediately to mind. We enjoyed our time in those towns and so many others, it’s hard to pick. We also really loved the land we got to see. Virginia because we saw spring blossom to life. Connecticut and Massachusetts for the New England feel, New Hampshire for the incredible White Mountains, and Maine for it’s beautiful wilderness and serene lake-side camping and swimming.

I guess the cheater’s way to answer would be to say our favorite part was the walking. The very act of going slowly through this countryside through weather that comprised three of the four seasons, meeting great people along the way. If we had to choose a single place to visit again it would probably be the White Mountains, believe it or not. For all the trouble they caused us, they were stunning. Beyond that, it was actually because they were hard that we enjoyed them. It was a struggle, and it was just walking anymore. We also didn’t get a chance to see the crown jewel of the trail, Franconia Ridge, as it was shrouded in fog and strong wind the day we climbed it. The high huts region is where we already plan to return.

A very close second was the 100 mile wilderness in Maine. It was quiet, remote, full of water and beautiful! The trail was tough in there, but we picked up some speed and could take time to sit and enjoy the lakes and weather! We were lucky to be done before the rain started to hit hard, and far before Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene hit.

7. What was your favorite thing about the trail?

L to R: Iron Mike, Muggle, Tobasco, The Conversation

Easy. The community.

In contrast to the other two North/South long distance trails in the US (PCT and CDT), the AT is very social – especially if you’re heading North with the vast majority of other thru-hikers. The hikers care about each other, check for each other in the log books in the shelters and make sure, to the best of their abilities, that the other hikers are safe and taken care of. It’s beautiful to have taken a day or two off for injury, and when you hit the trail have people say things like, “Oh good, I wondered what happened to you guys! I knew your foot was hurting – I hoped you didn’t quit without saying goodbye!”

Since after a certain point most hikers are capable of walking roughly the same number of miles a day, you eventually work into a “bubble” of hikers traveling from camp to camp. While you may not be WALKING together, you end up the same place for the night. So you get to see a lot of the same people off and on through the hike, and you have a lot of time to sit and relax together, talking to them about all sorts of things. It turns out food and time are two great ways to build relationships.

In addition to the hiker community ON the trail, there is also a wonderful group of OFF trail people (we call them Trail Angels) who aren’t currently hiking the trail but love hikers and help them out. Sometimes they just drop off coolers of food and drinks by the road, sometimes they’re grilling burgers somewhere, and sometimes they want to stop and give you a ride into town or back to the trail. We call those sorts of things Trail Magic, and they are truly magical. Despite Muggle’s trail name, we got to experience a good bit of trail magic and some were phenomenal, simply put.

8. What was the best experience?

Kenny and Kathy Munsey

It’s really hard to narrow it down because we experienced so many amazing things, but one does keep coming to mind. Meeting our new friends the Munseys.

We met them at Dragon’s Tooth as we were passing through, and they were out on a (tough) day hike. We stopped to enjoy a little Trail Magic a past thru-hiker had hauled up there, and we struck up a conversation. On our way back down the other side, they stopped and offered us a personal card with their contact information on it. “In a few days you’ll get to Daleville. When you get there, give us a call. We’d be happy to put you up.”

Uh. What?

This was our first what we like to call “personal” trail magic. From someone specific, for just us. We said our goodbyes, and the remainder of our hike down we weighed the pros and cons of their offer.

Muggle: “What if they’re psycho killers?”

Survivorman: “But if they have a comfy bed and good food, is that so bad? Maybe I can defeat them with my hiking poles.”

Muggle: “I’m sure they’re not really, but it seems so… awkward, don’t you think?”

Survivorman: “Yeah, you’re right. We’ll call when we get there and just turn them down. We ought to at least let them know we came through the area safely.”

Muggle: “But then they’ll know exactly where we are out in the woods, all alone!”

Survivorman: “That’s a risk we’ll have to take for good manners.”

Yes, I think the conversation went roughly like that.

When we got to Daleville a few days later, that’s exactly how it started, too.

Muggle was really sick though, and needed to see a doctor. We went to find a place to stay and found out, of all weekends, this was the weekend of Virginia Tech’s graduation. Nearly 60,000 family and friends of the graduates had descended upon Daleville and basically any town with a hotel within a 60 mile radius. Not too bad in a car, but on foot that’s an impossible situation.

Oh yeah, and it was cold and rainy, and the forecast called for more of the same over the next two days.

Looks like we’ll have to cross our fingers and call the axe murderers.

Kenny and Kathy came straight out to pick us up where we sat just killing time at the local coffee shop. They took us back to their home in Buchanan (pronounced “buh-CAN-un”, you Yankee), fed us, and allowed us free use of their entire upstairs. Muggle slept like a dead woman on the mend, and the next day we decided to take them up on their offer to slack pack us for the day so we could sleep another night at their house.

About halfway through the day though, Survivorman had a fever and couldn’t hike any more… so back to the Munsey’s house early! He slept all afternoon, woke up for a fantastic dinner with our new friends, then went back to sleep for the night. Muggle stayed up a while longer to talk to Kenny and Kathy, and Kathy exclaimed: “You guys are just plain worn out. You need to stay through Monday!”

In short, I think we did stay through Monday. Even though we were sick and they had other things going on, they jumped right in and helped us out. They didn’t just help us out, they took care of us. They made us feel welcome, and they made us not want to leave!

9. What was your least favorite section of the trail?

We think every part of the trail had redeeming qualities. There was always something great about where we were, so finding a least favorite is almost as difficult as finding a favorite. It’s kind of like asking someone who is eating a king size candy bar which part was the worst. But if forced to choose, our first inclination is to say Pennsylvania.

The terrain in Pennsylvania was either flat and boring or flat and rocky, and the weather was pretty hot too. We just kind of blew through it at a pretty quick pace. But Pennsylvania had a LOT of town access for good food and regular resupply. So even though the walking wasn’t great, we still had a really good time there.

10. What was your least favorite thing about the trail?

McAffee Knob, shrouded in fog

For us, I think it was the fact that we had a schedule. When Muggle was struggling with injuries, every extended stop to heal or see a doctor stressed us out: “If we stay here another day, we’ll have to average X miles a day to get done in time!” With extra time, we would have been more likely to take a full rest while her foot healed, rather than pushing on and eventually fracturing it.

Aside from just the injuries, there were several places we would have enjoyed staying an extra day, or waiting a day to visit some of the more picturesque locations. A good portion of our pictures on those days were fog-filled or cloudy and people a day or so behind us had a completely different experience. In that regard, we were hurried by our schedule.

11. What was the worst experience?

Crossing Hump Mountain in North Carolina. To those who are familiar with the mountain – don’t laugh. We crossed Little Hump and Hump Mountain the same day there were hurricanes in southern North Carolina. We had between 5 and 10 foot visibility through the intense fog, and sustained 70MPH winds with gusts up to 100MPH. Hump Mountain is also the longest grassy bald walk on the Appalachian Trail. No trees, nothing to duck behind, just us and an 8 inch deep rut called the trail.

Due to the fog, we had no idea if it was better to go back or go forward. We didn’t know until after it was the longest bald on the trail, so we just pushed forward. There were times we were literally lifted out of the rut/trail and blown sideways. Muggle actually decided it was safer to walk beside the trail instead of risk breaking her leg falling sideways in the rut. Survivorman’s backpack had been blown sideways by the time we made it through and ducked behind a ledge.

For those of you who know Survivorman well you know his calm, mild temperament. On our way across the bald he actually threw a fit. A hissy fit. He started yelling at the wind and throwing his hiking poles, punching the sky. Then we walked 20 more feet and realized it was over. Muggle still talks about that day.

12. What was your biggest obstacle?

For us it was a combination of two things, really. Muggle had spring semester and then summer off from her duties at Taylor, but she had to be back in time for fall semester. That schedule, coupled with injuries complicated our hike quite a bit. In order to finish in time we had to do some big mile days, but too many of those would inflame or aggravate injuries. It was tough to balance our desire to go further with the knowledge that going too far too fast would actually end up slowing us down even more. By the time we got to Maine, Muggle had broken a bone in her foot but was determined to keep moving. She’s tougher than she looks.

 

In the end, we took a bit longer than we planned but we had a great time. Did I mention we finished?

13. Did you ever feel unsafe?

We were never really worried about our safety, nor did we carry any sort of weapon (see #4 above). There were some weather incidents that had us thinking more carefully about our schedule, but there was never a time we felt like someone could harm us or anything like that. For those considering a thru-hike, the best advice is to move on if anyone at your camp site gives you any sort of “vibe.” We never even had to do that.

14. Did you ever want to quit?

Yeah, lots of times. Some days were just awful. Some days we were just tired and cranky. Some days we weren’t sure we’d even finish, so why go on? We will be the first to admit that 2000 miles is a force to be reckoned with. But we had fallen in love with the lifestyle. It was so simple, relaxing, and community-oriented how could we not?

15. Did you learn any life lessons or gain any interesting insights out there?

Honestly, I was surprised to learn a couple things out there that we thought we already knew:

First, we (the universal we, not just Muggle and I) have a lot of stuff. We place importance on that stuff, and we try to protect that stuff. When we came home, there was so much stuff in our house it was overwhelming. It was everywhere! We’re definitely not pack rats, but everything felt packed in, all close together and full. While we do use that stuff in our daily lives, we definitely feel less connected to it, if that makes sense. We’ve been backpackers for a while now and as part of that, we’ve learned to figure out what we truly need, and how to prioritize. We learned that what we have is a luxury, not a necessity. I guess it was more of a re-enforcement of what we already knew: we just learned we can do without. While we didn’t come home and throw everything out, while on the trail we lived out that mentality, and have been trying to apply it here at home as well.

Second, we get stressed or concerned about WAY too much. We’ve learned to relax, do what needs to be done, and move on. I think Matthew 6:27 says it best: “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” We have made an effort to only concern ourselves with actual real life, and not what may or may not happen. That doesn’t mean we don’t plan for things, but it changes the way we plan, and we have learned to hold that plan loosely.

16. You were less than 100 yards away from each other 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for 5 months. How did you handle it?

Hiking the Appalachian Trail was great for our marriage. For some couples it was more stressful for any number of reasons: timeline, money, physical abilities, proximity and conflicting attitudes, etc. But we really enjoyed spending time together before we left for the trail, we just couldn’t ever get enough time to. We were so relaxed on this trip we only ever argued about stupid things when we were tired. For the first couple weeks after we came back, it felt odd for us to not be able to turn around and talk to each other. Muggle actually started sliding over in bed so our elbows would touch like they did in the tent. We grew so much closer by sharing this experience!

17. Think you’ll ever do it again?

Well, when I first started writing this, I thought probably not. But Muggle just said yesterday she’s ready to go back out! Her broken foot hasn’t even healed yet for goodness sake! So in short, we’re getting White Blaze Fever already. After winter in Indiana I’m sure we’ll be itching to get out on ANY trail. I’m not sure we’ll do a complete thru-hike again, but we’ll be out there lurking, hiking a state or two at a time, living the life once more…

18. What’s next in life?

We’ve both gone back to work. Luckily, both at the places we worked prior to the hike. Our employers are both very flexible and understanding by allowing us to take time off to pursue this dream. So for now, we’re settled back in to what we call “real life” while we dream up a new dream, save for our next mini-retirement, and plan our next adventure. Who knows when that will be!

19. What’s your next adventure?

We’re not sure yet what it will be. To be honest this was such a huge dream for such a long time, being done has left a void that nothing has yet replaced. But while we were out hiking, these were the things that we talked about. If you have any suggestions or want to vote for one, feel free! We’d love new ideas!

  • A cultural hike/pilgrimage across France and Spain called the Camino Trail.
  • A driving/cycling/hiking tour out west to see all the sites the United States has to offer.
  • Day hiking Ireland. You can literally hike from bed and breakfast to bed and breakfast, carrying only emergency gear and lunch!
  • Purchasing a hostel on the Appalachian Trail.
  • Operating an International Hostel (like the one outside Harper’s Ferry) for a season or two.

There are so many things to do and see in the world, and we have a really hard time narrowing it down — we want to do it all! Obviously that won’t happen so we just live and talk and dream and see what bubbles to the surface.

Our hike definitely changed our perspective on a lot of things. While we wouldn’t categorize it as a life-changing event, it certainly caused us to change how we approach life at times.

 

Katahdin

9 Responses leave one →
  1. Cactus Jack permalink
    October 4, 2011

    This is a great write up. I’m gonna show it to some friends! Hope you guys are doing well!

    • October 4, 2011

      Cactus – We’re doing pretty well. The transition is starting to go more smoothly… at first it was terrible! Sleeping, eating, running around… yuck. I’m sure you understand — you went directly back to work when you got back didn’t you?

  2. October 4, 2011

    I’ve loved reading about your adventures, and have learned quite a lot, too!

    I haven’t (maybe yet?) discovered the joys of hiking, so I can’t give you ideas on that. But I will say, that I’m a huge fan of spending some extended time in another country – it’s been a wonderful experience for me. A lot like you described – hard, challenging, beautiful, and amazing all at once.

    And I’ve always wanted to go to Ireland. My sister and I are thinking we’ll go in a couple years…though I don’t know that we’ll be hiking Ireland. :-)

  3. Susanna permalink
    October 5, 2011

    I vote Camino Trail, and then we’ll all have a reunion there :)

    • October 5, 2011

      You guys are hiking the Camino Trail, eh? It sounds pretty cool–and very different from the AT!

      When will you all be there?

  4. Kathy & Kenny permalink
    October 8, 2011

    Sure have enjoyed all of your posts.
    It was such a great experience for us to get to help you guys out those 3 days this spring.
    I guess you’ve figured out by now that, no, we were not axe murderers. :)
    We met a bunch of thru hikers this year, even had a few more stay with us, but you guys were by far our favorite house guests.
    If you ever get back this way, you have an upstairs waiting for you.

    • Elizabeth permalink*
      October 9, 2011

      Kenny and Kathy! So glad to hear you have taken in other hikers. I know they were as blessed by it as we were. Next time we are in the Virginia area (hopefully sooner rather than later) we will give you all a call. We’d love to visit. And the same for you–if you ever find yourself in the Indianapolis area, you have a free place to stay!

  5. Skylar Moon permalink
    October 10, 2011

    Loved reading all your posts . Another great place to hike that I want to do one day is The West Highland Way in Scotland. So if you go to Ireland, you can go to Scotland too ! Although I vote for buying a Hostel on the AT , I will work for you as your Chef !!

  6. April permalink
    October 13, 2011

    Thanks for posting these answers. I enjoyed the information.

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