Two Months on the Appalachian Trail
One hiker’s experience on the northernmost section of the East’s famous footpath.
My hike has barely started, and already I’m sweating profusely. I’m breathing heavily. My glasses are fogging up. My backpack weighs 48 pounds but seems heavier. A mosquito attacks me and I immediately regret my decision not to bring bug spray. When I take out my binoculars to look at some barn swallows, my friend Josh, a nonbirder, teases me, asking whether there are any “yellow-throated South African quarry fowl” in the area. Meanwhile, he cracks jokes about how we’re almost out of water and that he may have to drink my blood.
That early June morning, Josh and I had taken the Metro-North Railroad from Grand Central Station in Manhattan to Pawling, New York, just a few miles from the Connecticut border. “Be safe, have a great trip,” the conductor told us as we jumped off the back of the train directly onto the Appalachian Trail, a 2,178-mile footpath that runs up and down mountainous terrain, from Georgia to Maine. My plan is to walk the trail’s northernmost 741 miles, a journey that should last two months. Josh is joining me for the first five days, my wife will meet me for three days in Vermont, and my brother will accompany me for the final nine days. Otherwise, I’ll be alone, with no one to help me if I get lost or sprain an ankle.
Keeping my pack light is key, but that’s hard because I’m carrying most of what I’ll need for two months. I have a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, water, food, clothes, a pack cover, a small camping stove, maps, rope, binoculars, a water filter, a first-aid kit, and a bear-resistant Kevlar sack. Everything is made of synthetic material (cotton doesn’t dry fast enough and is too malodorous). I leave my watch and cell phone at home. My only possessions that require batteries are a headlamp and a satellite emergency notification device. My camera doesn’t even make the cut. Still, I’m lugging more weight than most hikers on the path.
Josh and I spend our first day, which is sunny and warm, hiking through meadows filled with wildflowers and sections of young deciduous forest. Sometimes we talk amiably, while other times we walk silently. Sometime around 6 p.m., after 9.6 miles, we pitch our tent next to one of the three-sided log shelters that appear periodically along the trail, and go for a dip in the nearby Ten Mile River. The waist-high water is clear and soothes our sore muscles. Back at the campsite, we steer clear of a hiker who’s carrying a machete, and chat instead with a guy from North Carolina whose trail name is Insane. On the trail, for some reason, real names are virtually never used. In a thick southern drawl, Insane recommends that our trail names be Mudflap and Riffraff. From the look on his face, it’s obvious what Josh thinks of Riffraff, and he says I might be settling by even considering Mudflap. We mull this over while cooking dehydrated corn-potato soup and watching the fireflies flash in the twilight.
The next morning, I wake up to a wood thrush and veery chorus. “Hey, Mudflap, how’d you sleep?” Insane asks. I decide to stick with his suggestion. It makes me sound like someone who answers everything with a grunt. Josh, meanwhile, chooses Nutella Knee-Highs as his trail name. We break camp, walk along the river for a while, and climb through a grove of pine trees. Mountain laurel, its pink and white flowers in full bloom, lines much of the way. Right after lunch, we meet “Silver Fox,” our first through-hiker. Unlike us section hikers, Silver Fox has walked all the way from the start of the trail at Springer Mountain, Georgia. Despite being almost twice our age, he is moving extremely fast. Other through-hikers similarly blow past us, moving about twice our speed. “We’re either fat, or they’re on steroids,” Josh says.
We’re burning between 4,000 and 6,000 calories a day, so it’s hard to keep our energy up. I get on a regular regimen of oatmeal or Pop-Tarts for breakfast; dried fruit, carrots, chocolate, beef jerky, nuts, peanut butter, crackers, or the biblical backpacker food matzo for lunch; and ramen, couscous, macaroni and cheese, or freeze-dried meals for dinner. This cuisine tastes mediocre, but offers a lot of calories for the weight and doesn’t go bad easily. The trail never strays far from civilization, so it’s possible to re-supply in grocery stores every few days, even dine in a restaurant once in a while. But because I’m constantly hungry and craving strange foods, I spend an extraordinary amount of time thinking about the things I would do to a chunk of sharp cheddar. Josh hungers for a hamburger on a toasted bun buttered beforehand—an unlikely admission from one of the healthiest eaters I know. I catch him ogling candy bar wrappers in a dumpster while he chugs a Powerade. “Brominated vegetable oil never tasted so good,” Josh says, looking at the ingredients label.
On Day 5, Josh and I part ways. His timing is perfect, because for the next four days I trudge through rain. As I cross from Connecticut into Massachusetts, nearly everything in my pack is wet. I also fall on slippery rocks and crack my walking stick in two, scraping my hand, elbow, and side. My mood brightens in Beartown State Forest, however, where I see more than a dozen red efts, two beavers uprooting marsh plants outside their lodge, and a great blue heron spear a large fish. The following night, I stay in a cabin right on the shore of totally undeveloped Upper Goose Pond. About 10 other long-distance hikers are there, and I listen to them exchange trail gossip and talk about such pertinent matters as the most effective ways to urinate at night without getting up. In the morning I wait for them to leave, go down to the pond, strip off all my clothes, and swim in the pristine water. As I dry off, a kayaker comes around the bend. Luckily, he isn’t perturbed by my nudity. “Beautiful day,” he says. I have to agree.