Post-Trail FAQ

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The Grayson Highlands, VA were hyped to me for 1700 miles on my thru-hike.

Hey folks, its been a bit. I’ve managed to reintegrate into society, and have had the opportunity to answer many questions about the AT. This has given me the chance to attempt to talk about my hike in a couple of different ways, with varying degrees of success. It turns out that packaging the experience of a six month, two thousand mile journey into a handful of words is a bit of a challenge. It doesn’t help that most people are asking the wrong questions, though it’s not much of a surprise since living in a city and living on a trail are pretty different experiences. However, just because a question seems to me to be focusing on the wrong things doesn’t mean it’s not worth answering, so here is a quick post-trail FAQ:

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When I came through in October, it was raining so hard I couldn’t see anything.

Are you some kind of superman?

Not at all. I’m generally healthy, but I’ve never considered myself to be athletic, and while I had been camping and trekking before, I still learned quite a bit while on the AT. What I am is stubborn, so when I decide I want to do a thing, it takes a lot to change my mind. It took me a while to hit my stride, but once I did I had become a very average distance hiker.

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I decided to come back in the spring to see what I had missed.

Do you think I could / should do it?

Nope. If you have to ask, you probably won’t like it. It’s an absurd thing to do with your time, and no one can provide the motivation but you (do it though, it’s amazing). I don’t remember how old I was when I learned about the AT, but I do remember thinking that I’d give it a shot at some point. There is also no predicting who will enjoy it, much less who will finish it. I met people who were missing limbs, people even less athletically inclined than I, people multiple times or even half my age, and they had all been on trail longer than me, on track to finish. Some had even hiked it already, and were back for more. If you think a thru-hike sounds like fun, then go for it, but if not, well, you’re not wrong.

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I woke up to wild ponies grazing around my tent.

Was it hard?

Yes. Yes it was. I’ve touched on some of the reasons in previous posts, but I can expand a little on the subject here. Something like 70% of people who set out to hike the AT drop out for one reason or another. Most are simply unprepared, but many get sick or injured, or just decide that they’d rather be doing something else. I knew from the start that losing interest wouldn’t be a problem for me, but I was afraid for the entire hike that I’d catch Lyme’s Disease, twist an ankle, or suffer some other injury that would prevent me from continuing. There is definitely an element of luck involved, but I was fortunate enough that the worst injuries I sustained were a few scratches and bruises. The closest I ever came to quitting was in North Carolina, when the days were short and the nights were so cold that I had to wear my coat inside my sleeping bag. But at that point I was so close to being done that quitting wasn’t a serious consideration.

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Was it fun?

Yes. No. Sometimes. I’ll come back to this one.

Did you see any bears?

Yup. I saw ten or eleven, and heard several others that I didn’t see. This question is usually asked as a part of a bigger question about danger, but that is a big enough subject that it deserves it’s own post. So for now, yes, I saw bears.

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How did you manage your supplies?

This question touches on one of the biggest misconceptions about the AT that I’ve encountered. Most people think the trail is deep in the wilderness, but this isn’t the case. It’s in the woods, sure, but lights from nearby towns are visible from the mountains for almost the whole way. There are isolated sections, but the trail crosses numerous roads, cuts directly through several towns, and it is rare to be more than a ten or fifteen minute drive from a gas station, so resupplying was rarely a problem. Bounce boxes, or the practice of mailing prepackaged supply drops ahead is a technique common in most of the stories written about past hikers, but many of those people were hiking before credit cards were as universally accepted as they are now. I did use a bounce box a few times, and I met some hikers who used mail drops as their preferred method of resupply, but most of the time getting supplies was as simple as hitchhiking into town and going to the grocery store.

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It was well worth the trip.

Were you all by yourself?

This is another question that is rooted in a misconception about the trail, and while at first I would answer “no,” the next question is usually be about the people I started with. It turns out that the question should have been “Did you hike with people you already knew,” and the answer is “Not after the first week.” But this question is problematic. It implies that hiking the AT is even more challenging if you don’t bring a buddy, and that’s simply not true. The trail is full of people, and even with the high attrition rate, it’s rare to go for even one day and not see anyone. There is an extremely strong community, both on and off the trail, and the level of support hikers provide each other is a large part of the reason that many are able to finish at all. I met a few couples that began together, but the vast majority of the people I met bonded through the shared experience of the hike. This actually leads into the next question…

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What did you learn about yourself?

Honestly, I wasn’t expecting to learn much. I know myself pretty well, and while it was the longest, the AT was not the first time I’ve been far from home in a radically different environment from the one that I’m used to. On the other hand, it was the first time I’ve been able to regularly and effortlessly spend an entire day by myself. It turns out I can be almost talkative when I only speak for an hour per day at most, and I found that I enjoyed the company in camp much more than I was expecting to. So now I just need to find a way to maintain that silence to speech ratio in the real world. I’ll be sure to write about it if I ever figure that one out.

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Why?

And now we come to The Big Question, and it’s a tricky one. Why hike for more than 2000 miles at all? It can be fun at times, but it can also be miserable, and it never really gets easy or stops hurting. The simple answer is that it’s satisfying. Every day consisted of exercising, eating, and sleeping, and if the weather was nice, maybe a nap on top of a mountain. The only things to keep in mind are immediate needs: food, water, and a warm, dry place to sleep. It’s also not just a runner’s high that lasts for months at a time. When I’m at home, I can rank pleasures across a spectrum, but when I was on the trail, the tiniest luxury was overwhelming. Food never tastes better than when you’re hungry, a sleeping bag is never more welcoming than when you’re cold and tired, and there is no way to match the tranquility that comes from a walk in the woods. Sure, there were days that hurt like crazy, but our bodies weren’t meant to sit in comfort day in and day out. We were built to move, and think, and explore, and a long hike gives one the opportunity to live that way, but without the risk of disease or large hungry predators (for the most part).

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Would you do it again?

The AT? Absolutely not. But I have a list of at least 20 other long hikes I’m going to try instead.

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