All posts by Michele Kiefer

Be Prepared

When I was a kid I wanted to be a Boy Scout, like my big brother.  Well, that and an astronaut.  Yeah, I was that girl — you probably know the type: kinda dorky and uncoordinated, completely lacking any hint of feminine grace; the one who didn’t get the memo on how girls were “supposed” to act.  Although to be honest, I have to credit my mother with never having sent that memo.  Yeah, it was the late sixties and maybe the times they were-a changin’, but let’s be honest — the world still expected girls to stay in their place and act like…well, girls.  Girls did NOT play baseball, football, or hockey; they played with Barbie, not G.I. Joe, and when they wanted to play camping, they were expected to stay in a little pup tent in the front yard and have tea parties with their dolls…not stage amphibious assaults on the beach and capture the neighbor’s hill with toy machine guns.  Mom would just shrug her shoulders, and dad would shake his head…but the truth is I never once felt any kind of pressure or expectation to “just act right and be normal.”  (Actually, I think mom was the prototype counter-cultural tomboy in her day, and today at 80 years old is still tougher than a lot of men I know…I like to think I didn’t fall too far from that tree.)

Well I couldn’t be a Boy Scout, of course.  Mom did try her best and found me something that was at the time the next best thing a girl my age could hope for: she signed me up for Blue Birds.  I think I lasted two weeks.  Maybe.  Maybe not even two weeks.  I mean, we were sitting around some lady’s house, drinking lemonade and knitting.  KNITTING.  Seriously?  I wanted to know when were we going to go camping and hiking…when were we going to learn how to paddle a canoe, or build a fire, or gee, I don’t know…just GO OUTSIDE??  Knitting?!?

Yeah, so I quit Blue Birds.   I don’t think mom ever blamed me for that one.

But the point is, I’ve always enjoyed the outdoors, and in spite of the Blue Birds trying to subvert my interests into a rather ugly scarf (or was it supposed to be a placemat?), I’ve had a lot of fun adventures hiking, camping, and canoeing over the years.

You may have noticed that I didn’t mention any experience backpacking.  Well actually, I did go backpacking once — for about five days at YMCA camp in fifth grade.  I got to borrow my brother’s Real, Genuine Boy Scout backpack, and for one brief shining moment in my life, I was the leader of the pack — I was the one who knew how to make a fire, and set up a tent so that it didn’t fall down in the middle of the night, and I was the one who could read a map — thanks to my big brother, who I think probably pitied me a little after that whole Blue Bird thing.  It was only five days through the woods and farm country of western Wisconsin, but for those five days I was the one who could hike all day and enjoy it.  It’s not much, but it’s the only backpacking experience I have.

The Boy Scouts motto is “Be Prepared”, and when it came to planning this hike, boy was I going to be prepared!  I’ve researched and studied and read everything about the AT I could get my hands on.  I bought enough new stuff to equip a platoon of Marines…then learned what things actually worked (or rather, what worked best for me) and ended up replacing a lot of things and buying more.  I can’t tell you how many types of hiking shoes I’ve experimented with over the last couple years.

But beyond just equipping myself with “stuff”, I was going to be the best damn prepared hiker on the AT!  I was going to have my house in order, literally and figuratively; I was going to have myself in shape for hauling a 40+ pound backpack through the mountains, and I was going to be well practiced by having several shakedown hikes on the nearby Knobstone Trail (which, by the way, is actually a pretty good little AT facsimile….)  I was going to have a number of mail drop boxes put together and organized perfectly so that my roommate wouldn’t have to do anything more than take them to the Post Office .  And oh yeah — I was going to blog all of this whole experience, sharing what I’ve learned and showing all my wonderful preparations.  I was going to be prepared!

Well I’m not.  Not nearly.

I’m leaving TODAY, and although I can say that I’m packed (well with the exception of a couple small odds ‘n ends…like my first aid kit.  Oh yeah, and money….), the fact is I feel horribly, sickeningly unprepared.  I’m not nearly in the physical shape I wanted to be (something gross like 20lbs overweight), and I didn’t get the practice hikes in like I wanted to.  My house is most definitely NOT in order, and my maildrop boxes have yet to be filled and organized (although the research on what to send, where, and by what date has been done.)  For crying out loud, I just wrote my first post on this blog last night!

I’ve made a minor profession out of procrastination — if it can be done, I can be late doing it  — but this really takes the cake.

But there’s no turning back now.  Well, maybe there is; maybe a sensible person would indeed turn back now.  But, well…yeah, no.  I never said I was sensible.  I said I was stubborn, remember?

Late tonight I will leave on a train from Indianapolis, heading for Washington, D.C.  From there, I take another train up to Boston…where I will catch yet another train to take me up to Portland, Maine.  There I will transfer to a bus that will take me to Bangor, where [yes] I transfer to another bus that will drive deep into Maine and drop me off in the little town of Medway.   And at Medway, I will finally be picked up by a shuttle that will take me to the Appalachian Trail Lodge in Millinocket, where after two solid days of traveling, I am going to crash in an exhausted heap.

And mind you, I still won’t be even close to the trailhead.  One thing about getting started on an AT thru-hike:  this trail gives new meaning to the phrase “You Can’t Get There From Here.”

Early Saturday morning, I’ll be shuttled another hour or so into Baxter State Park and dropped off at the base of Katahdin.  I’ll register with the friendly neighborhood ranger, and then set off to hike up what is said to be the most difficult five miles of the entire AT.  When I get to the top, I’ll turn around and come back down the same way — thus beginning the first five miles of what I hope will be a 2,185 mile journey to Georgia.

So — I have a lot to get done, and need to stop rambling on here.  I’m planning on keeping this blog updated throughout my hike; I have a nifty little WordPress app on my nifty little smartphone, and should be able to send updates whenever I have cell phone service (or whenever I’m in town with wi-fi.)  I’ll be pecking away on one of those asinine little phone screens, so don’t expect this same high level of thoughtfully composed, quality writing.  As I’ve said, I’m somewhat challenged when it comes to doing even big, important things in a timely manner, but I will try to keep this blog updated on a regular basis.  I will try my very best.  I make no promises and give no guarantees.  Hell, I may not have anything interesting to say — I mean, you don’t really want to read “Got up, ate, walked, and then walked some more.  Ate and slept; more tomorrow….”  At the very least I’ll try to post a photo or two.  But I hope I can bring you along on this trip of a lifetime so that you can enjoy it with me.

Please keep your hands and feet in the car until the ride has come to a complete stop.

Here we go, ready or not.



Wait, you’re doing what?

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.