I’m going to hike the Appalachian Trail.
Yes, the whole thing — starting in Maine and going south to Georgia.
At least I’m going to try.
What, you ask, is the Appalachian Trail? The Appalachian Trail (referred to as the “AT” by all the cool kids) is the oldest continuous hiking path in North America, and is one of the longest in the world — 2,185 miles. Both of America’s other premiere long trails, The Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail, are longer — at 2,663 miles and 3,100 miles, respectively — but the AT is the granddaddy of them all.
The northern terminus is located atop Katahdin, in Baxter State Park, Maine; the southern terminus is at Springer Mountain in Georgia. In between, the trail travels through 14 different states as it follows the crests and valleys of the Appalachian mountain range, one of the oldest mountain ranges on earth.
The Appalachian Trail is hardly a remote wilderness, however. It’s been said that most of the population of the east coast (read as: a freaking TON of people) live within a 3 hour drive of the trail, and nearly 3 million of them visit various parts of the trail each year — especially places like the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Shenandoah National Park, and the White Mountains in New Hampshire. Most of the time, a hiker on the AT is never more than a few hours walking from some sort of town or major road crossing. That said, there are areas in Maine where the trail travels through some of the most remote and rugged terrain in the lower 48 states; a person can hike for a hundred miles without crossing a paved road.
The initial concept of the trail dates back to 1921, but it wasn’t actually completed until 1937, and since then there have been innumerable changes and alterations. It was designated as the country’s first National Scenic Trail in 1968, and is now a unit of the National Park System. The AT is managed and maintained by a truly unique partnership of public and private entities — all coordinated by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) — and includes the National Park Service, the US Forest Service , multiple state agencies, and at least 31 local trail maintaining clubs made up entirely of volunteers.
Every year, more than 2,000 people attempt to “thru-hike” the Trail — completing it’s entire length in one calendar year. Most thru hikers begin in early spring at the the southern terminus in Georgia, and they hike northbound (or “NOBO”), finishing with a dramatic climb up Katahdin sometime in September or early October. NOBOs enjoy a hike with spring, but they also hike with a deadline: Baxter State Park closes the trail up to the summit of Katahdin by October 15th, due to snow and dangerous winter conditions.
A small percentage of thru hikers begin at the northern terminus of Katahdin and hike southbound (“SOBO”) toward Georgia. These intrepid, contrary souls are faced with the most difficult and challenging parts of the trail at the very start — Maine and New Hampshire, where the trail is often remote, extremely rugged and very unpredictable, and where blackflies attack like swarms of crazed kamikazes — however they don’t face a pressing deadline to finish in Georgia by any particular date.
Yes, I’m one of those contrary souls and will be hiking SOBO (although no, I don’t really consider myself to be “intrepid”. Stubborn, perhaps…but not intrepid.)
The truth is, most hikers, regardless of the direction they choose, don’t actually make it the whole way. Numbers vary from year to year, and for different reasons, but typically only about 25% of the people who attempt a NOBO thru hike actually make it; the number is slightly less for SOBOs.
Why? Because it’s hard, that’s why. The trail is over two thousand miles long; the total elevation change is equivalent to climbing Everest 16 times. On average, it takes about five or six months for most people to complete the trail — although some people are able to finish it in as little as four. I will not be one of those people. Injury and illness certainly take their toll over the course of 5 or 6 months, but many hikers struggle more with the mental challenges of the hike than they do the physical beating.
No — WHY are you doing this??
Umm…I don’t really have a good answer for that. Right now anyway. As I’ve prepared for this hike over the last year and a half, I’ve read several books and online trail journals, and it seems like everyone says that they have had “a life-long dream” of hiking the AT. Well, that’s not true for me. Hell, I didn’t even know what the AT was up until a few years ago. My daughter’s-best-friend’s-father had just completed his section hike of the trail (as the name implies, a section hiker is one who hikes the length of the trail in individual sections, over the course of a few – or possibly several – years. Yes, they are far more sane.) I said “that sounds cool”, and went on doing whatever it is I did. But a couple of years ago, while drinking too much beer with my good buddies at the VFW, my good buddy Mike tells me that thru-hiking the AT has always been on his Bucket List, yet he doubted that he would ever really be able to do it. I think we talked about it all night; I was truly fascinated. So I came home and started reading. And reading, and reading some more…and then one night at dinner I idly said to my roommate, “That sounds cool”, and she said “Well why don’t you do it?”
And I sat there without an answer. All I could think of were all the reasons I really could do that: I’m at a time in my life where I’m lucky enough to have the means, the time, and at least a fair level of fitness…so why couldn’t I do that? My roommate is encouraging and supportive, volunteering not only to take care of things at home, but also to serve as my logistical support chief…so why couldn’t I do that?
A lot of people have dreams on their Bucket Lists that they will never realize, and here I have the opportunity to go on the adventure of a lifetime. So the question is, why shouldn’t I do that?
So I’m doing that. I leave for Maine tomorrow.
I’m scared to death.