I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail from March 30, 2013 to October 7, 2013. All 2,185.9 miles of it.
You may have some preconceived notions of the trail but if all of it came out of the well-known book “A Walk in the Woods” by Bill Bryson, let me be the first to say you have no idea what the AT is. While the book is very comical, Bryson doesn’t capture the true beauty of the trail and its people. Reason being that Bryson had no idea what he was signing up for. If you want to gain knowledge of what it’s going to take to complete a thru-hike, ignore Bryson’s book and start using the well-known and very efficient search engine, Google (or Bing for you Microsoft heads). I had multiple friends thru-hike in past years and the advice they gave me cannot be understated. Everything I needed to know, they could tell me. And that’s what I hope to help you understand with this piece. As well as some extra-curriculars.
No need to go to a Boy’s & Girl’s Club on national television and announce you are taking your talents to Springer Mountain, Ga. to begin your thru-hike, but at the same time it should be a huge deal. My decision was made and I choose not to tell anyone for about two weeks to make sure this was a serious thought. This decision came after some research on the trail to get a grasp on of what it’s all about. The research had only just begun. The other aspect is to decide how you want to accomplish your thru-hike, whether you want to go north to south, south to north, or a combination of the two. Northbounders or NOBOs can expect a more traveling party feel with 15 to 20 people at every campsite for the beginning part of the trail, that is until the partiers realize they have to hike and the numbers will decline. Southbounders or SOBOs can expect far less few people and a very difficult start to the trail.
In my opinion NOBO is the only way to go. The trail gets more and more beautiful as you hike north. For SOBO you start with such incredible hiking only to head south over smaller, less scenic mountains. Springer Mountain (southern terminus of the AT) compared to Mt. Katahdin (northern terminus) is like comparing a candle to the sun.
As I’m preparing to leave in March, November rolls around and it turns out my good friend of about 13 years, college roommate, the whole nine, decides he’s going to join. This was going to make life easier and harder on the trail. Knowing he would be there during the miserable times was a plus, we could crack jokes about how awful it was to help get through it. Him being there as someone I can talk to about anything was a big plus. On the other hand knowing he would be there all the time was going to be somewhat of a negative. Too much of one person, as everyone knows, can take a toll. However, we’d already lived together in college for three years so we knew how each other operated. Those years were crucial for our functionality out on the trail, or else we would have been at each other’s throats. Be careful who you hike with, I’ll leave it at.
Once you’ve made this decision, tell you sister, brother, mother, cousin, barber, mechanic, everyone. Put that peer pressure on yourself to make this that much more important. The best part about doing this is people are going to doubt you can do this. I loved doubters.
As a NOBO I have no choice other than to write this from that perspective. SOBOs have a much different trail experience due to the fact they go the wrong way. There are thousands of hikers that attempt thru-hikes every year and the numbers are increasing with every year. Most people will start sometime in March or April. Not being a fan of the cold we started late March knowing we, more than likely, wouldn’t deal with too much cold weather. With thousands of hikers starting, the trail is a busy place at the start. Some of these hikers are serious about their hike game, but a lot of them are out there for the party experience. Early on hiking groups are formed, the true slackers drop out. There are people that dropped out on Day 2 of their five-to-seven-month journey.
Training for the AT is not necessary. Will it help? Sure, but the only way to get in the shape you need is to just get out there and do it. Wildcat Mountain in Georgia absolutely kicked our ass on Day 5. In hiker shape it’s like walking to your mailbox and back. Physically the beginnings are not easy but mentally it’s a honeymoon. All your work and preparation has led up to the moment of stepping foot on the trail and once it happens, it’s bliss. The first few weeks it was the happiest that I had been in years. But that wears off.
When that blissful feeling fades and the honeymoon is over, most hikers will enter a state of being known as the Virginia Blues. This is after hiking through all of Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. Virginia is the longest state on the trail and can take a strain on hikers mentally. One thing to know, the blues will occur, it may not be in Virginia, but it will occur. It happened to me somewhere in North Carolina. Being from North Caroline we stopped and took a few days off around Day 25. Little did I know the trail basically does a semi-circle around my hometown.
For about two weeks we would hike and yet we were still a stones throw from my house. This mentally can be very frustrating. It felt as if we weren’t getting anywhere. Being close to home was not fun for me, I wanted to be north, hike uncharted territory, get away, and travel. The blues set in.
The blues have many different effects on hikers. Some can’t handle it and they’ll drop out. It’s imperative to do the things that you know will put a smile on your face. Find happiness in something that has nothing to do with the tall order in front of you. For me it was sports. The NBA playoffs were starting to heat up, pun intended, but also the College World Series had my attention due to my alma mater, North Carolina State, competing. We had a new objective: Hike the miles we needed to do for the day but have that day end at a sports bar to catch the game or games. Towns are closer together than most think. First game we made it a mission to catch Game 7 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals. We check our map for that day and sure enough in 20 miles there’s a town.
That town ended up being Blacksburg, Va. which took two hitches of 10 miles each to get there but we did it right in time for tipoff. Within 10 minutes of being there we’re drinking beers and talking to a guy who offers us a place to stay for the night. Success. Knowing hitching in the dark 20 miles from the trailhead would be close to impossible we accepted. We ended up staying in his music studio behind his house. He helped us for the sake of helping. He became the first of many trail angels along the way. For the next couple weeks our hiking schedule depended on the NBA schedule. We ended up watching Game 1, and Games 4-6 of the NBA Finals. For 5 and 6 we zeroed (hiked zero miles) for two days in town just to watch those games. Game 7 of course was a must-watch.
There was only one problem: We just spent two days in Waynesboro, Va. to watch the last two games and by the time Game 7 rolled around we were deep in the woods without a town nearby. We tried to hitch 25 miles back into town on the famous, tourist-infested Skyline Drive. We sat by the road for three hours with no luck.
To add salt to the wound NC State was playing out hated rival UNC in a CWS rematch. That night, with no phone service to check the score, all I could do is lay in my tent without a clue what was going on. We woke the next morning, found phone service, and realized that not only did State lose but the Heat won. Two Ls. At the same time it was a bit of relief, not being an MLB fan, we no longer had to plan our hiking around sports. Until Week 1 of the NFL. Overall, the Virginia Blues were nothing, thanks in part to LeBron James.
At this point we’ve done the first three states and are finally finishing Virginia, the longest state on the trail coming in at a cool 550 miles. Since thethird day on the trail we had been hiking with a guy name Seabiscuit (he was as fast as a race horse and pissed like one too). Seabs, as we liked to call him, was from Connecticut. He invited my buddy and I to come to New England to celebrate July 4. My friend and I had never been that way so we of course accepted. When we reached Harpers Ferry, W. Va., known as the mental midpoint, Seabs’ dad came and scooped us up to take us north for a nine-day gallivant around New England. There, we went to Connecticut to hang with his friends, Massachusetts to check out the Basketball Hall of Fame, Rhode Island to hang out with his family on their island home, New Hampshire to hang at Seabs’ fiancés lake house. A great interlude.
The relevance of this short tale? Nine days is a lot of time to take off the trail and it can be dangerous for some. Long-term it extends your finish date by at least a week. Mentally it’s been known to knock people off the trail because people fall back in love with their forgotten luxuries. For those two reasons some people would never even consider getting off the trail for that long a period.
Screw that. It was an amazing chance to meet some awesome people and see amazing places. I even discovered where I want my wedding to eventually be held. That’s right the Basketball Hall of Fame does weddings. If an opportunity comes up, don’t pass on it.
Our next pit stop came shortly after that and we went to Port Deposit, M.d. to visit a fellow hiker’s family. There, we went to her and Joe Flacco’s alma mater, the University of Delaware. We were fortunate enough to meet these people who made not just an impact on our trail adventure, but our lives. What other thru-hikers can say by trail’s end that they had been to every state on the East Coast during their trip with the exception of Florida and South Carolina?
PA, NJ, & NY
Pennsylvania was awful. Triple digit heat, bugs, and rocks made Pennsylvania my 14th favorite of 14 states on the trail. The heat was dangerous, the bugs were annoying, and the rocks were painful.
The people were incredible. Everyone we met in town was really nice to us and the other hikers. We also met the Green family who were some of my favorite people on the trail. We trudged through PA–as the natives call it–it wasn’t fun but if we wanted to obtain our goal it had to be done and that’s the way we chose to look at it. Right before we left PA our friend picked us up and took us back to his apartment in Brooklyn. Going trail to New York City was a cool experience for someone from Weaverville, N.C. who’s never seen the bright lights.
Once back to the simple life, we were entered New Jersey within a few days. Jersey was shockingly beautiful. I kept wondering where the guidos were but there were none to be found. There were boardwalks but not the ones filled with neon tank top spring breakers. These were above marsh, surrounded by cattails. Jersey was a much needed change of scenery from PA and it gave me a new perspective of the state. After that it was on into New York. The two states are very comparable so it was more happy hiking. The highlight of New York was the people we met, more specifically the Timers. Erin and David took us in off the street and gave us a place to stay. Erin baked us muffins, David bought us pizza, we did laundry, and stayed up late drinking beers with the couple swapping stories. The next morning Erin even slacked packed (she drove our packs up the trail while we hiked with day packs) us 18 miles. I will always love the Timers. The imagery is rugged individualists breaking the chains of day-to-day city life by taking on nature. But the reality is that when there’s no cellular data, the people behind the touch screens shine.
Beside the massive amounts of Patriots and Red Sox fans, New England was spectacular.
By this point the trail was transforming into that pretty girl I fell in love with down south. The rocks were gone, the mountains were growing, and the heat was wearing off. Once again I had the wrong perception of states up north. In Massachusetts we went through a town we dubbed the North Asheville, Great Barrington. Great in part to its famous hippie bar, the Gypsy Joint. This place took me right back to going out on a typical Friday night back home. Great music, great beer, great atmosphere. The night was capped with a 2002 thru-hiker offering us a place to stay for the night. Rich was straight off “Mountain Men.” A self-sustaining farmer living in a small cabin with no electricity or plumbing. It was incredible to see someone living like that in 2013. Rich took us in knowing exactly what it’s like to be in our situation. By this point we were starting to feel like we’ve made a real dent in the trail but we knew the real hiking was only just beginning.
The White Mountain National Forrest is 122 miles on the Trail and it’s a game-changer.
Those were some of the most gorgeous, life-threating, exhilarating, difficult, miles on the trail. The mountains make you think that you’re Frodo and Mordor is around the corner. There are no trees above 4,500 feet. Being exposed on top of a mountain is the coolest thing you’ll do or the most dangerous. It is completely up to the weather. With the stretch being over 100 miles it’s almost a guarantee that hikers experience both the good and the bad.
September 8 was not a good day after a heartbreaking loss to the Seahawks. After a DeAngelo Williams fumble when we’re knocking on the door to take the lead late in the fourth. Classic Panthers, but the next day forced me to forget about it. September 9 included a three mile ridge walk above a treeline while the sun was going down.
Watching the sky turn from blue to all sorts of reds, oranges, and purples as we walked was one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen in my life. Four days later on, Friday the 13, we had our bad day. The night before we got poured on, leaving all of our gear wet. With not enough food to sit and wait on the sun we were forced out of our tents and hike. We hiked soaking wet through wind and rain all day. This hike included going up and over Mt. Washington. This mountain once held the record for the highest winds ever recorded on Earth. When I say we were hiking through wind and rain, I’m not talking about a cute May shower, I mean I may not come out of this with all my fingers and toes.
Hikers have lost their lives doing this exact same thing. I was legitimately scared for the first time on the trail. The night ended in a hut (a vacation cabin for tourists in which thru-hikers can do work-for-stay) and if it didn’t I don’t even want to think what would have happened to us.
The next day we hiked into town to get a much needed hotel room. After a relaxing Saturday, the Panthers were up to no good once again. With us playing the nearby Bills I thought, just maybe, it would be the Fox game. Nope: Redskins at Packers. I had to settle for phone updates. After the Bills and their rookie QB drove 78 yards with a minute left and no timeouts, my phone somehow survived after a slam on the bar.
The good thing was the Panthers couldn’t get any worse and the hell day was behind and there couldn’t possibly be a day worse than that. Positive thinking, it’s the only way to survive out there.
The end is near
After the Whites we had a sense of accomplishment and were fast approaching our ultimate goal. Maine was right there in front of us and we were excited about not just the 14th and last state of the journey, but home was in the near future. Hiking talks turned into all the things to be excited for about home, and there were a lot. Top vote getter was probably Bojangles and the biscuits that define their brand. By this point it was just time to get home.
At the same time it was hard because Maine is one of the most wonderful states I’ve ever been to. Week 3 rolled around and after a 38-0 whooping of the New York Giants, home looked even sweeter. We continued on putting up big miles every day not willing to take days off or hike any less than 15 miles. The hiking was like walking in watercolor paintings.
Foliage in Maine is second to none. Maine quickly became the favorite of the 14 states. Before we knew it we were at the base of Katahdin. Most people lay up if the weather is bad on top of the mountain so they have their perfect picture of the end. For us the seventh was our finish date and as long as they were allowing hikers up the mountain we were going up. The weather on top of the mountain was intense. It felt like Mt. Washington with the wind at a good 50 miles per hour trying to blow us straight off.
Didn’t matter, it’s Katahdin, the mountain we daydreamed about for six months. Once up there at the finish line, staring at the summit sign, tears slowly rolled down my face. If it was the NBA Finals it was an MJ Father’s Day, moment instead of a 2012 LeBron arm waving jump around. I composed myself, hugged my trail bro Coon, snapped some pictures, and got the hell off the mountain.
Once off the mountain and in the hotel room the feeling of ecstasy couldn’t be touched even after learning the Panthers lost 22-6 to the Cardinals.
Post-trail life has been good to me but it has its drawbacks. The Panthers are 5-0 since being off the trail and are now making a huge playoff push. Socially, the trail has been known to change some people. For me, I don’t think there’s been much change. But ask someone close to me if I’ve changed and I’m sure they could pick some things out. One thing I’ve noticed in others is that people aren’t quite as generous and honest as the hikers I got accustomed to. That fact alone has left me missing the trail.
On the downside, I can now be put into the same economic class as the average college student. This, of course, is not true for all hikers but I put all my money into the trail. With the job market as it is–and the fact that I spent 2013 mostly walking–you can probably imagine my struggles to get back on my feet. Enduring so many different struggles of the trail it’s hard to complain when living under a roof, having a car as transportation, and eating cooked food. It’s nice to be one of many familiar faces now, but the love that I have for that trail will never go away and I will always find myself daydreaming of hiking on that glorious path. If you’re thinking about thru-hiking the AT let me be the first to say you can’t do it.
– Jared Reggi