As many of you know, Zach Davis (a.k.a. The Good Badger) will be thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail in a few weeks. With the help of our mutual friend Josh at CampingGearTV Zach got in touch with me with questions relating to the trail; how to prepare for it, how to wrap your head around it, and most importantly, how to survive it.
Since we have been going back and forth for a while now, and have had some funny little conversations (Tokyo Drift, Erin Andrews, and things unable to be spoken of) he came up with the idea that we should share our conversations. As Zach puts it on his opener to this point/counterpoint post, he is his mothers child. And his mother likes to worry. A lot. So here I do my best to ease is woes, and rest his worrying mind.
| Point | HOLY-SHIT, MIND SCENARIO #1:
I love hiking. Something about the combination of spending significant time in nature coupled with moderate physical activity is enough to make every cell in my body break-dance. That being said, there is one component of a hike that I’ve grown accustomed to: the end. No matter how long the day hike is, the end point is either in sight, or just beyond the next summit, or the following. To me, there’s comfort in my senses recognizing the end.
Backpacking the Appalachian Trail, however, I predict that looking out to the horizon will offer only feelings of, “there is no end”. Assuming you can see four miles ahead (which is probably a stretch), that’s not quite 0.2% of the journey. With no relative end in sight, being an experienced hiker in no way mentally prepares a long distance backpacker.
On the Appalachian Trail, how do I look onto the horizon without my heart exploding?
| Counter-point | Ian Talks the Good Badger off the ledge #1:
There is no denying it, it will seem endless, it will be painful, and it will suck. That being said – it’s a blast! While you may have everyday struggles, you will figure out what works for you to overcome those struggles. For me, it was picturing the final end; reaching that worn down wooden sign on top of a magical mountain somewhere in Middle Earth.
….alright, maybe not that magical, but by the time you get there you will think you’re in some fairy tale, especially when your beard will begin to rival that of Merlin.
So we digress…
Back to the main issue: I kept my eye on the prize, and when times were tough I pictured myself there, and it gave me that jolt of energy needed to overcome that day, and put a few more miles behind me.
While that worked for me, my buddy Andy could never picture the last moment of the trail, or he would start to go insane. What he did was give himself goals. The good thing about the AT is you go through 14 states, that in itself is at the very least 14 challenges, and 14 victories (so long as you defy the likes of all the creatures out to kill you – see: last scenario).
You will quickly learn what you need to do to overcome the feeling of endlessness. In fact, you will start to love the feeling that whatever happens, you will be walking. Life seldom gives you the chance to only have a single thing to do, and the AT allows you to focus on yourself, and not worry what to do the next day, week, or even month… because you know. You will be exploring yourself, your surroundings, and enjoy being alive, mainly because you have nothing else to do.
| Point | HSMS #2:
It’s been raining for three consecutive days. Every inch of my existence and belongings are wet, except for my soul, which is dry, decrepit, and hollow. Falling asleep is more so your body’s reaction from fatigue related to chronic shivering than a state of restfulness.
John hates the Good Badger, the Good Badger hates John. My meals for the last three days have been wet Snickers, wet trail mix, wet peanut butter, and the whiskey I smuggled with me from the previous trail town that John doesn’t know about and causing him to wonder why I’ve been repeatedly singing Ace of Base all day. (Another baby = all that she wants).
What supernatural factor prevents me from going on a crazy, naked, crying, flailing rampage through the campgrounds?
| Counter-Point | ITTGBOL #2:
Three days? You should be so lucky to only have three days of consecutive rain. Try three WEEKS – that’s what we had in Virginia. While I started about a month and a half earlier than you, you will still hit rainy season, and you will get wet. This is why I have told you that everything inside your pack, which is under you waterproof pack cover, must be in waterproof stuff-sacks (editor’s note: thanks to Innate, this is one area we won’t fail at).
You will learn very quickly, that when you attempt to fight the AT, it will defeat you. It will crush you, and it will make you cry for your mommy. So, you accept it. Accept the fact that you are going to get wet, you will get into camp with shriveled finger tips, and soggy socks. As long as everything is in waterproof stuff sacks, even if you fall into one of the 30 foot long river crossings you have in Maine, all your items will be dry, and you will appreciate the simplicity of having a warm, dry, soft set of clothing to change into after a hard days hike.
There aren’t any supernatural powers preventing you from doing any of those things… in fact I believe I did them all! I was going to link proof of the naked part… but decided the younger readers in the audience would probably benefit from not seeing my tookus (however, it is in our Picasa album… we were in New Hampshire… the link is on our website… Godspeed.)
Oh and another little tip. Most of the towns you go through in the first month or two are dry counties. Meaning no alcohol. Pack accordingly, or take small, slow sips of what they give you – don’t go blind please, moonshine is no joke!
| Point | HSMS #3:
Apparently, the seemingly endless tree-cover overhead and surrounding certain segments of the trail has awarded the AT the nickname, “The Green Tunnel”. Everyday, for dozens of days on end, you wake up, and walk what feels to be the same exact terrain as the day before. It’s the hiker’s version of Groundhog Day. From my reading, the monotony associated with these stretches cause many to throw up their white flag.
Again, what supernatural factor prevents me from going on a crazy, naked, crying, flailing rampage through the campgrounds?
(In case any other aspiring 2011 thru-hikers are reading this, I do not have a propensity toward naked rampages. I just don’t completely write off the possibility is all.)
| Counter-Point | ITTGBOL #3:
The Green Tunnel is an excuse for people who can’t cut it to get off the trail. There are three points of the AT where most people get off. The first 30 miles, where people realize “oh wait… this isn’t a day hike”. Make it past there, and you’ve already gone further than 25% of the people who attempt it. The next is in Virginia where the “Green Tunnel” is. By this point the weather is turning, trees are sprouting leaves, and everything is turning green. After over a thousand miles, people get tired of walking and want to quit, but don’t want to say “I’m a whiny baby who doesn’t like hiking anymore” so they say “I’m a whiny baby who can’t deal with green everyday”. The entire East coast looks the same. With the exception of certain areas (New Hampshire and Maine mostly) you will be dealing with the same scenery. However, when you set out to do the AT, you didn’t do so to see the world, and see all the beauty it has to offer, you said something more along the lines of wanting adventure, taking a mini retirement, and experiencing life. While most of the AT is beautiful, breathtaking, and exciting to look at… there is a lot that’s not. At all.
This adventure is about you, your life, and your story to tell. You will eventually only remember and talk about the amazing things that happened to you on the trail. While you will understand it wasn’t always fun and games, it will feel that way because it’s an adventure not many people even attempt. The excitement of saying you were able to walk up the east coast, and a distance which is over twice the length of the UK, you won’t even think of those green trees that you saw, everyday, for 4-6 months. It’s the adventure which will drive you, and the trail isn’t out to defeat you if you accept it. You will learn to go with the flow, say oh well, and move on, and you will be able to successfully hike the AT.
| Point | HSMS #4:
The following excerpt is from the internationally renowned best selling author Bill Bryson’s, “A Walk in the Woods” – a book about his journey through the first quarter of the Appalachian Trail.
“The woods were full of peril. Rattlesnakes and water moccasins and nests of copperheads; bobcats, bears, coyotes, wolves, and wild boar; loony hillbillies destabilized by gross quantities of impure corn liquor and generations of profoundly unbiblical sex; rabies-crazed skunks, raccoons, and squirrels; merciless fire ants and ravening blackfly; poison ivy, poison sumac, poison oak, and poison salamanders; even a scattering of moose lethally deranged by a parasitic worm that burrows a nest in their brains and befuddles them into chasing hapless hiker through remote, sunny meadows and into glacial lakes.”
“Then there were all the diseases one is vulnerable to in the woods – giardiasis, eastern equine encephalitis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Lyme disease, ehilchiosis, schistosomiasis, brucellosis, and shigellosis, to offer but a sampling. Eastern equine encephalitis, caused by the prick of a mosquito, attacks the brain and central nervous system. If you’re lucky you can hope to spend the rest of your life propped in a chair with a bib around your neck, but generally it will kill you. There is no known cure. No less arresting is Lyme disease, which comes from the bite of a tiny deer tick. If undetected, it can lie dormant in the human body for years before erupting in a positive fiesta of maladies. This is a disease for the person who wants to experience it all. The symptoms include, but are not limited to, headaches, fatigue, fever, chills, shortness of breath, dizziness, shooting pains in the extremities, cardiac irregularities, facial paralysis, muscle spasms, sever mental impairment, loss of control of body functions, and – hardly surprising, really – chronic depression.”
“Then there is the little- known family of organism called hantaviruses, which swam in the micro-haze above the feces of mice and rats and are hovered into the human respiratory system by anyone unlucky enough to stick a breathing orifice near them – by lying down, say, on a sleeping platform over which infected mice have recently scampered. In 1993 a single outbreak of hantavirus killed thirty-two people in the southwestern United States, and the following year the disease claimed its first victim on the AT when a hiker contracted it after sleeping in a “rodent-infested shelter. “All AT shelter are rodent infested.) Among viruses, only rabies, ebola, and HIV are more certainly lethal. Again, there is no treatment.”
“Finally, this being America, there is the constant possibility of murder. At least nine hikers (the actual number depends on which source you consult and how you define a hiker) have been murdered along the trail since 1974. Two young women would die while I was out there.”
Can you address that please?
| Counter-Point | ITTGBOL #4:
When I say Harlem, what do you picture? Sketchy, unsafe, scary? You recount stories that have kept people away, and scared people into carrying mirrors so they can see behind them if they dare walk around there.
I’ve lived in NYC my entire life, and lived on the border of Harlem for many years. You hear all the scary stuff, but no one thinks of the rich history it has, the culture, and excitement. It’s easy to show the bad examples, scary things, and pain inducing images anywhere. I hiked the entire trail. I saw one bear. And it was in a cage. In a zoo. Animals are afraid of you, and while you’ll likely see plenty, the chances of anything happening are slim to none. Be respectful – they are sharing their home with you – and you will be respected. Don’t leave candy wrappers laying around, or taunt a bear if you see one. Don’t be ‘that guy’ who gets eaten by a bear because you wanted to see if they actually really do love honey. Treat your water, be understanding of the nature you are in, and you will be fine.
As for the deaths, as you said there were nine murders (with a loose definition of a hiker) in about 35 years. Look up the statistics of the murders in any area in the country for the last 35 years, and lets see how that compares to the 2,200 miles of the Appalachian Trail. People are killed, anywhere, and everywhere – the AT is not an exception. Crazy people are anywhere.
How many battles do you face in everyday life? How many times a day are you frustrated and angry? Put 5 months of all that frustration together, and 9 out of 10 times you’ll have nothing to show for it other than some work, or successful project. However, if in those 5 months you are hiking the AT, at the end of it you will have something only most people would ever dream of – being an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker. The AT is a challenge of mind, body and spirit. While it is hard, what thing worth having isn’t? When in your life will you be able to have one goal every day for 5 months? When will you be able to say, ‘check out my huge beard!’? Yes… most people hike the AT so they can grow a big beard and not get weird looks. ….Okay maybe that’s not accurate, but the fact is you will be a hero to yourself and to the people around you for persevering when things were tough, when things looked impossible, just to prove to yourself that you are capable of doing anything. If you can trek over 2,000-miles through 14 states, you can overcome anything that comes your way in normal life. Don’t be bogged down by the little details. Soon you will see the trail has many things to teach you, accept those lessons, and you will be able to hike the AT.
Thanks Ian, you have successfully talked me off the ledge yet once again. Maybe therapy is your next career path?
I'm always willing to help a fellow adventure enthusiasts when in need! I just want people to have a great experience with what they do -- whatever it may be! For anyone, feel free to contact us at The Dusty Camel for advice, support, or fun!