North America, Travel Stories

Hiking the Appalachian Trail

“Dead leaves and the dirty ground when I know you’re not around.”

There are dead leaves everywhere. Inside the tent, sticking to my hands, falling all around us. We’ve been walking in the woods for three days and they’re all I see as I descend slowly and carefully down the mountain, muscles tensing as I try not to slip in the mud. Moisture hangs in the air, permeating everything with that smoky damp haze this region is famous for. The air is cooler now and the light has taken on a dim, gray quality. I’m praying we find a campsite before it starts to pour.
No mountain views until you get to the top of the mountain, apparently.

We’re on the downhill slope of Snowbird Mountain, a peak we climbed twice in two days. This should be the easy part of the trail. All of the elevation gain is behind us and there are only a few more hours, a few more miles until we reach our truck and can look forward to a hot shower and some North Carolina barbecue.
Here they are! Those views worth writing postcards (or blogs) about!

I’m a fool to think anything about this hike will be easy. Each switchback walked in reverse brings a small curse from my lips as my knees and ankles protest the extra weight of my pack. I’m beginning to feel desperate and delirious, forcing my body to keep going, losing balance as I step too far to the right and my pack shifts left.

It’s moments like this I have to remind myself that I’m doing this voluntarily. That hiking the Appalachian Trail is something I’ve been looking forward to and planning for months. You see, I’d been warned and cautioned about the hardships of the trail, the physical demands and the exhausting nature of the whole endeavor. I’d been told about blisters, ticks, and bears.

I’d read “A Walk In The Woods” and laughed and struggled with Bill Bryson and Katz. I’d watched National Geographic documentaries about the AT and obsessively studied trail maps. I knew it was going to be tough. But this rebellious part of my personality, this defiant and stubborn side insisted I had to experience it for myself. This happens often, more than I would like it to. There is a derelict part of me that loves to be challenged and stretched, even if it means suffering willingly.

Yep, it wasn’t until the end of the trail until someone properly adjusted my pack for me and I realized it was supposed to be cinched a whole lot tighter.

I sit my pack down on the trail and lay in a pile of leaves with my head downhill and my feet propped up on a rotting log. Right now I hate my stubborn tendency to push everything to the limit. Right now all I want is to lay here and not move. My Dad, who willingly, insanely agreed to go on this hiking adventure with me, picks a pile of leaves up ahead and curls into a fetal position. “Give me five minutes,” he says. Gladly. “Give me ten, or twenty,” I mutter.

We make it to our campsite before dusk and thankfully the rain holds. We joke and laugh about our aching bodies and scheme about ways to improve our next trip. My Dad admits that while his DIY pack is ingenious, he might actually consider buying a real backpack next time instead of using a duffel bag strapped to an external ‘H’ frame. We eat our last  package of tuna and nacho cheese, grateful to only have a half day of hiking the next day.
Still smilin’, still havin’ a blast.

We talk about the strangeness of walking in the woods, of being disconnected from ATMs and convenience stores, of walking in solitude and silence. Neither one of us has had any epiphanies along the way (except for reaching the conclusion that anyone who attempts to do the entire AT from Georgia to Maine must be plumb out of their mind). Frankly, we haven’t had time to think about anything but our sore muscles and whether or not we have enough water to drink before crossing the next stream.

Even our conversations with fellow hikers focuses on survival. “How far back is the next shelter?” “How much further until the peak?” “Did you notice any streams back yonder?” “Watch out up ahead for that big rattler in the middle of the trail!”TheBarefootBeat
Thankfully its mouth was occupied!

We exchange formalities and if we’re lucky they’ll tell us their trail name (Gold Mountain and Rocket are among my favorites). But the need to press on tugs at each of us and after a few moments’ repose, with dazed expressions we keep walking. Up, up, up. And then we turn around and do it again.

We reached one summit during our four day hike and it was breathtaking.

The trail was exactly what I expected. It was as difficult as I imagined, as rewarding as I had hoped. I challenged myself and realized that, yes, I am capable of peeing in the woods and sleeping downhill. I discovered that it’s actually a relief to only worry about immediate needs -warmth, shelter, food. I also realized that I will never sign myself up to climb Mt. Everest. For me, right now, Snowbird Mountain is good enough.


Have you ever done any overnight hiking? What did you experience or discover?

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  • Reply Mark Friend May 30, 2013 at 7:04 pm

    Ok. So I admit it. I have not backed packed or hiked in 30Yrs. Am I Crazy! Must have a death wish. At 57 I should done some prep work before agreeing to the AT. But we have busy lives and when would I again get to Hike with my oldest daughter. Next time I might not make it out of the rocker. Short for rocking chair fer yo city folk. Have to say I liked it if I could just have made my gear weigh at least 30lbs less. And a side benefit was that I kick started my weight loss program and dropped 7lbs in 4 days. All the while eating outrageously. honestly you are really just to tired to care. What do you want to eat? Oh nothing! So I do recommend the AT for all the older folks out there. Might want to get a medical first just to be on the safe side. Unless you love staring death in the face. Oh the pain. What Joy!
    Mountain Man. Padre. (Mariahs’ Dad) PS be careful of the snakes!

    • Reply Mariah June 1, 2013 at 12:28 pm

      You were a real trooper Dad, I think you handled the whole trip better than I did! We had fun, didn’t we?

  • Reply Britany May 24, 2013 at 4:13 pm

    I recently did a good bit of hiking in South America and have really been loving it! I’m looking forward to finding hiking opportunities back at home which will likely include the AT! Sounds great:)

    • Reply Mariah May 24, 2013 at 4:55 pm

      How fun! Where have you been hiking? I want to do some more hiking internationally too, I’ve been thinking of Nepal or Thailand. We’ll see!

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