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Brian "Gadget" Lewis
Begins: Feb 25, 2010
Date: Tue, Aug 3rd, 2010
Daily Distance: 0
Trip Distance: 2,179.1
Entry Visits: 3,782
Journal Visits: 96,698
Guestbook Views: 51,507
Guestbook Entrys: 105
Some Final Thoughts
Apologies in advance for a particularly long entry here ...
On the whole, the AT was more or less what I expected it to be, but of course there’s no way a person can anticipate the realities, the gritty details (both good and bad), and the personal encounters along the way. I think the biggest “surprise” to me about the trail was how dangerous it felt to me at times in New Hampshire and Maine, though perhaps this feeling is related to how recent those experiences were. The one thing I felt least prepared for was just having enough traction in my footwear on smooth rocks and roots in those states. This wasn’t a matter of “boots vs. shoes”, just whichever type of footwear is chosen for walking the AT in those two northern states should, IMO, have maximal surface area contact between the shoe/boot soles and the ground surface. That wouldn’t actually help much with the all the exposed tree roots, I guess, but might make the smooth rock surfaces a little less treacherous (?).
Looking at “downsides”, the AT indeed doesn’t have the magnificent views of some western trails and other places, though there were some notable exceptions (not least of which was the very last day on Mt. Katahdin, or at least what I was able to see from there due to weather). The AT has a great deal of “difficult” trail, i.e., relatively low quality trail surface. More often than other trails I’ve been on, trail on the AT seems to “fight back”, making the hiker work harder for the miles walked. And of course there are some specific issues to the AT such as the risk of tick-borne diseases (Lyme, but also other variants such as what Lucky contracted), and humidity of a type we don’t typically get out west.
There are definitely “upsides”, of course (!). It’s very nice to have relatively little food and water to have to carry on any given day --- lots of good water sources (yes, despite my bout with something like Giardia), and food resupply options are plentiful and relatively close at hand. For the most part the trail is extremely well marked and easy to follow. And the various trail towns have a lot of character, with a lot of wonderful hostels and related types of places --- such as the Doyle hotel in Duncannon PA, the “Mayor’s” house in Unionville NJ, or Elmer’s in Hot Springs NC. There’s also a lot of history along the trail, particularly if a person were paying attention and looking for that sort of thing, but even if not sometimes historical stuff practically smacks you upside the head as you walk by (figuratively speaking --- only a rock in Maine and a couple of shelter roof timbers actually did smack my head …). And there are a lot of AT-specific traditions, and just a whole lot of people hiking the trail plus lots and lots of people that “understand” about the trail and related culture.
Starting early this year was a bit of an adventure, not only due to snow (in all of its various incarnations) but from the blowdowns (downed trees, tree limbs, and large brush across the trail). Starting early had some real benefits too --- beyond just a sense of increased adventure. It meant a trip that turned out to be relatively bug-free, and with generally good weather after we got out of the snow, and perhaps less competition in limited cases for limited services (hostel beds or just being able to wash clothes in a hostel right away, etc). So I don’t regret the early start; once we walked into Virginia it felt very much as if we had “paid our dues” so that going forward things got a lot easier. And they did.
I certainly didn’t enjoy every moment of the trip, and I no doubt grumbled more than I should (not only to myself but, to my shame, to others on occasion) --- but it was a worthwhile adventure, one that I’m glad to have had. Of the two thru-hikes, I remember the PCT more fondly, and of the two I’d be more inclined to walk at least parts of the PCT again, but the AT has a lot of unique “character”, and is the natural place for long distance backpacking adventures for folks that live towards the eastern side of the U.S. Nevertheless, and FWIW, if a person wanted to do just one thru-hike, I would suggest that it be the PCT, whereever they happen to live. It’s more difficult in some ways and easier in others, but my feeling overall is that it rewards a person more for the effort and pain, it takes about the same time to walk, and has more variety of climates and experiences along the way.
I want to thank --- lots and lots and lots of people, of course. First my wonderful wife, who puts up with me being gone for months, and has already given me the green light to attempt a CDT thru-hike next year (2011). As on the PCT, she really earned her trail name of “Goodstart”, jumping onto the AT in the Shenendoah N.P. and doing 20 mile days from the start.
Thanks also to the many volunteers who work hard on the AT each year, whether doing trail maintenance or working for ALDA or the ATC organizations or for their local trail clubs in other capacities. The great people who maintain a whole lot of hostels along the trail --- yes, these are “for profit” organizations, but I have a hard time believing there’s that much profit given the rates that these people charge. In the vast number of cases there feels like there’s a lot of “love” there, and not just a cold business transaction.
Thanks also to all of the trail angels; I encountered less of this factor on the AT than on the PCT, partly due to an early start (less “trail magic”) and partly due to different traditions --- more inexpensive hostels on the AT, less trail angel homes open for stays. But the trail angels I did encounter are the same fantastic kinds of people that do similar things in the west.
Definite thanks to all of those that posted to my guestbook along the way, as well as those that took the time to read at least some of my (typically verbose and frequent) journal entries; while I wasn’t very timely about responding while on the trail, that sort of feedback is very encouraging and much appreciated.
Many thanks to those that offered to help me out along the trail, and particular and heartfelt thanks to the two for who it worked out that they could help: J.B. in NY, and my friend Steve R. in NH --- friends that help out on the trail are true friends indeed!
And now the hard and perilous part --- mentioning some fellow thru-hikers by name and hopefully not forgetting anyone (!). Lucky and I hiked together for about 1400 miles before I got off-trail in NY due to ~Giardia --- I’ve since caught up with him by phone, and I can only say that I can’t imagine what the trip would have been without him. He’s a great companion, a self-effacing man with a lot to teach and with an incredible depth of knowledge and intellect. It was a priviledge to hike with him on two different long trails.
Lumbar was also a real inspiration; like Lucky, he has a very strong “deal with it” mental toughness, so that he handles adversity with aplomb and has fun almost regardless of how challenging conditions are. Both of these guys are, IMO, real “trail addicts”. Despite my intention to hike the CDT next year, I’m not sure that I’ll ever be as hooked on hiking as these two. It was very good for me to hike with them so many miles this year.
On the “other end” of the trip, the folks I remember best are Moose, Flameboy, and Mage --- as I think Mage said, one always remembers the people that they started a trail with and finished a trail with. Walking down Katahdin with Mage went quickly with some wonderful conversation. Flameboy too was great fun to talk with, I think in part because we’re about the same age, and he’s inspiring in how strong a hiker he is --- at my age --- and with less months of on-trail time to strengthen up. Moose is, well, Moose, somewhat defying easy description, but he was fun to spend time with and a great example of how the trail can throw together such very different types of people who “connect” because of this one thing (thru-hiking) that they share so intensely.
Another set of people I’ll recall fondly are those “SNOBOs” who went through tough early conditions, and particularly those I went through the Smokies with: Snowwhite, Lion and Snowplow (later changed to Rooster). Subby, who I met on just my fourth day on trail. Cowboy, yet another unique individual who it was great fun to meet and spend time with. Appleseed and Branch who started the same day that we did and that we kept seeing for well over a thousand miles --- young folks that are IMO incredibly mature and “together” for their ages. Or for almost any age for that matter. Shlep, Cygnet and Cakon (plus Subby too) who were so welcoming when three of us came in late to an already crowded shelter in early March. And shortly after the Smokies it was a pleasure to meet the Picnic sisters (Bou and Fro), who I saw on and off for quite some distance along the trail, the last time in New York.
I met Karma, Full Pint, Tic Tac, and Spring Chicken in late March, but saw the latter two multiple times later in the trip --- somehow it’s always a lot more meaningful, or at least fun to run into a thru-hiker that you had encountered first some hundreds of miles earlier, and those two were great guys (and Tic Tac’s sister was pretty impressive in keeping up with him when she joined him for a stretch). Cake and Stilts were a lot of fun over the relatively brief stretch that we encountered them, and they (like the Croquet Boys) subsequently put in some impressive average miles to finish the trail strong.
Thanks to Alpine who was fun to meet and briefly hike with, but who also was on trail after he finished to give trail magic in the form of doughnuts (in the hundred mile wilderness)! To Donner who I shared a somewhat unique moose encounter with. Specs and Twigs, very nice guys who inadvertantly helped me get into a trail town when it might otherwise have been so very difficult (and Moose did the same with his cell phone, just 10 trail miles later).
I closed my PCT thru-hike comments by saying that I think that a thru-hike is do-able for a reasonably healthy person, that one doesn’t need to be superhuman or some kind of extraordinary hiker, and I still think that’s the case. Certainly external life issues or major injury or the like can throw even the most determined hiker off trail, but this particular thru-hike was for me somewhat more of a test of my “will to continue”. If a person can work through the basics of doing a long-distance hike and wants badly enough to continue (enjoying themselves along the way will certainly aid in that) --- then I think that a whole lot of people could thru-hike if they wanted to (enough). Ironically, it seems that the more miles I hike the less impressed I get by long distance feats (feets?). Perhaps that’s a normal reaction to “actually doing it” in any endeavor.
Gadget's AT Journal
The Appalachian Trail (A.T.) is more than 2,175-mile long footpath stretching through 14 eastern states from Maine to Georgia. Conceived in 1921 and first completed in 1937, it traverses the wild, scenic, wooded, pastoral, and culturally significant lands of the Appalachian Mountains. Learn more: www.appalachiantrail.org
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