Near the start of The Long Trail
It was early August, my first night on the Long Trail and the rain was coming down hard. I had arrived at Congdon Shelter, about 13 miles from my starting point, around 3:30 and was the ninth person in the eight person shelter. It was no problem as I threw my sleeping bag on the dining table once darkness fell. The 10th, 11th and 12th persons in the shelter had less optimal accommodations. They were on the floor, surrounded by wet equipment and getting more than a little damp as the ongoing rain splashed in the front of the three sided shelter.
Joshua from NY was 11th guy in shelter. He was about 22 years old and was on his first ever backpacking trip. Laying on floor and not completely out of the rain, he was talking to anyone that would listen. “I love it outdoors! Everything is so green! I don’t have allergies! This is so wonderful!”
Joshua was pretty entertaining to listen to. To him, hiking the Appalachian Trail, which shares a 100 miles with the Long Trail, was all rainbows and unicorns. However, I am not Joshua. I’m a 57 year old guy with titanium in one of his feet from a failed operation to reduce pain. I’ve spent enough time on trails to know backpacking can be as difficult as it is rewarding. As I write about the trip, I will not gloss over the difficult parts. In fact, I think it would be irresponsible to do so. I’ve seen too many un and underprepared hikers on trails to possibly add to the situation by describing my trip like a visit to Disneyland. Is a long distance hike worth the effort? Absolutely. Is there significant planning and hardship involved to insure a good chance at a successful thru-hike? Absolutely.
So just what constitutes a thru-hike? That definition seems to change depending upon who you talk to. At the end of “A Walk in the Woods,” despite walking less than half its length, Katz declared, “I hiked the Appalachian Trail. I hiked it in snow and I hiked it in heat. I hiked it in the South and I hiked it in the North. I hiked it till my feet bled. I hiked the Appalachian Trail.”
At the other extreme, there are purists that feel that unless you walk every single inch of a trail with no allowance for alternate routes, slackpacking or other assistance, you haven’t “really” thru-hiked. That’s why a hiker often uses the refrain, “Hike your own hike.” It is an easy response to someone wanting to impose their idea of what constitutes a thru-hike onto you.
My idea of a thru-hike? My basic thoughts come from relating a thru-hike to another long term and potentially life changing experience; getting a college degree. Now, no one questions whether you attended every class or correctly answered every question on every test before deciding whether or not you “really” earned your degree. That would be ridiculous. A degree is given for successfully completing the broader requirements/experience of the program.
My requirements for completing a thru-hike are as follows. The hike has to be completed in one season (a fairly universal requirement). The hike must include the beginning, end, major highlights and the vast majority of the trail mileage. Keeping with the educational comparison, when I went to school, a 95 was an A+ and so hiking at least 95% of the trail’s mileage earns an A+: completed thru-hike. Additionally, many degree programs have options and I feel that alternate trails that are widely used count as an acceptable substitute. On the Long Trail, I’m specifically thinking of the widely used blue blazed trail to the popular resupply stop, Inn on the Long Trail. That alternative trail, which was the original route of the Long Trail, may actually be used by more hikers than the official route. I’ll walk that alternate without apology.
And so, if I can get an A+ in covering 95% of the mileage of the trail as well as round out the trail “experience” by being there for the highlights, then I’ll confidently call myself a thru-hiker of that trail. If you disagree, feel free to hike your own hike.