Category Archives: Appalachian Trail

Goodbye to the AT

Day 7. After a good night’s sleep I ate breakfast with a couple guys in their 50’s that were test hiking to decide if they could handle the AT. They had hiked most of the LT before and said I’d love the northern section other than a few specific climbs. We talked a bit about gear and they were entranced by my $8 canister stove w igniter. After eating I packed up quickly and was walking by 7 am. Looking at the map the morning looked to be a rough one. The trail climbs 2,400 feet in just over 4 miles to top out at the Killington. The grade up the mountain turned out to be very smooth dirt. Easy on feet. Good as they are sore. The area was also toad central and they were acting as if they owned the trail. None hopped out of my way. At most they might walk a few steps to the side.

Killer view from Killington

Killer view from Killington

The climb up Killington was tough but doable as the trail wound up the mountain. Just a couple short scrambles over boulders. After passing the trail to Shrewsberry Peak, the trail got nice n smooth, even somewhat flat the rest of the way to the peak. After a few photos at the top, it was time to start dropping in elevation again.

If any purists are still reading this, prepare to be upset. I was soon once again following blue blazes, but this time on purpose. The Shelburne Pass trail was the historic LT and AT up until 1999 and is a more direct path to the Inn on the Long Trail than the new route. To follow the “new upstart” official LT to the Inn (and my next re supply box) I’d have had to walk farther and add a mile of road walking. My thought at the time was, “That ain’t happening.” Since I’m an old guy, it seems fair to walk the old route. HYOH.

Inn on the Long Trail. A welcome sight and great spot to relax

Inn on the Long Trail. A welcome sight and great spot to relax

I arrived at the Inn at about 12:30 for a ten mile day. My resupply box was actually there! Happy day! No more microwave Mac n cheese cooked without a microwave. The Inn is a neat, rustic old place and I got a room for the night. Had plenty of time to clean up, do laundry and arrange my new supplies. An Irish pub on site had Guinness stew, giant burgers and cold beer. Made for a productive afternoon.

After the burger settled, time to try the stew. More than a little better than freeze-dried.

After the burger settled, time to try the stew. More than a little better than freeze-dried.

My schedule had me taking the next day off. The weather said go, but my feet said stay. The decision was put off until the morning.  Dropped off a couple extra items into the hiker box. Noticed some big bags of oatmeal and instant potatoes. They looked like the food Dave and Paul were trying to palm off on me way back on my 2nd night on the trail. They also got a resupply at the Inn and must have decided to lighten the food load right away.

Breakfast was included with the room and I got an omelet, sausage, hash browns, toast and OJ. Should hold me for a couple hours. The weather called for a beautiful day followed by days of rain. It would be tough to leave a nice Inn and walk out into miserable weather. The decision was made. Skip the zero day and head out while the getting was good. I hit the trail about 8 am.

From the Inn, the most direct route is to continue on the Sherburne Pass trail for just a short distance until hitting the AT. Then follow the AT SOUTH for about a mile to where the AT and LT split. At that point, it’s northbound on the Long Trail again, but the path is no longer shared with the AT. Early on the LT only trail has a nice dirt tread. Less wear and tear exposing the rocks and roots? Definitely less hikers on the trail through the day.

The trail had no big climbs or drops on that section, but it was a tough day. May have been because I was scheduled for a zero day. Weather was too good to skip, sunny and cool however, body may have been planning on the zero. Also, trail was a tunnel of green with no big views.

Not quite as comfortable as the Inn, but a welcome sight regardless.

Not quite as comfortable as the Inn, but a welcome sight regardless.

Arrived at Sunrise Shelter at about 6:30, completing a 19+ mile day. The shelter was empty when I arrived. Steam from England, Ben from Belgium and couple from California rolled in a little later. Steam had walked 19 like I did, the others 14, but all agreed it was a tough day.

Appalachian Trail or Colorado Trail?

If you’ve ever backpacked at all, you’ve probably thought about hiking the most famous long distance hiking trail in the world, the Appalachian Trail, or AT. Of course, that thought might have been, “no way in hell,” but you thought about it nonetheless.  I’ve thought about it as well. I’ve even gone so far as to do a little research on what hiking the AT would entail. Beyond a little Internet study I’ve read a couple books about hiking the trail. As of right now, my Kindle contains 24 books written by successful AT thru-hikers.

Luckily for you, there is no need to read that many books. While the writing styles and abilities vary considerably, the information in the book is surprisingly consistent. Nearly every book makes the same main points. Here’s my take on every book ever written about the AT.

  1. The author was woefully unprepared for the rigors encountered.
  2. The hiking was much more difficult than imagined.
  3. The shelters were often crowded, dirty and full of mice.
  4. Privies along the way can be nasty.
  5. It rained…. A lot. Plan on being wet for days at a time.

    View on the AT

    View on the AT

  6. At times, the mosquitoes or other bugs were unrelenting.
  7. There’s a significant chance you’ll get Lyme disease and/or West Nile disease.
  8. There are some amazing views, but much of the time you’re hiking in a “green tunnel.”
  9. Six months of hiking can get surprisingly difficult on a psychological basis; also difficult on any relationships back home.
  10. There will be tough times when it takes tremendous willpower to keep from quitting.
  11. It was a wonderful experience.

And these are people that finished. Not many books have been written by those that quit the trail. You have to wonder if their viewpoint would tilt more towards negativity.

As an alternative to what was starting to appear to me to be a 2,000 mile plus slog, I started looking at the Colorado Trail; 500 miles through mountains from Denver to Durango. For me, at least while I’m sitting in my warm, dry house, the Colorado Trail (CT) offers the challenges and benefits of a long distance hike while avoiding some of the hardships of the AT.

  1. Only about 150 people attempt the CT each year (compared to 3,000 on the AT), so crowds on the trail or at prime camp areas should be non-existent. (Downside – Don’t get hurt; you may be on your own. Fix that snapped femur with duct tape and a stick. You did bring duct tape, didn’t you?)
  2. There are no shelters to be disappointed in. (Downside – There’s no shelters to use for things like…..shelter. When it rains, you’re getting wet.
  3. There are no privies to be disappointed in. (Bonus – your leg muscles will get stronger from squatting.)
  4. Much less rain and bugs. (Hard to find a downside there, other than it may snow instead.)
  5. The highest point on the AT is Clingman’s Dome at 6,625 feet. The average elevation of the CT is over 10,000 feet. You’ll spend significant time above tree line with amazing views nearly every day. (Downside – There’s a lot less oxygen up there. At its high point, 13,271 feet, there’s  40% less air than at sea level. Also, when it does rain/snow that high, there’s typically lightning and you’re the tallest thing around.)

    Common view in Colorado

    Common view in Colorado

  6. The plan is to be done in 5 weeks. A long hike to be sure, but short enough to see light at the end of the tunnel during a bad day. (Assuming the bad day isn’t Day 2.) Of course, that’s still plenty of time to see how I look with a neck beard. Plus, at my age, that may even be enough time to grow a nice crop of ear hair. We’ll have to wait and see on that one, but I’ll let you know if I’m successful.

And, it would be hard to beat singing John Denver songs to myself as I hike in the Rockies; provided I can suck in enough air to do anything beyond panting and wheezing.

 “I guess he’d rather be in Colorado
He’d rather spend his time out where the sky looks like a pearl after a rain…”

John Denver

While it appears the decision has been made, perhaps a test hike on the AT would sway me. Here’s how it went.

Yea, I walked (on) the Appalachian Trail

Over 3,000 people attempt to walk the Appalachian Trail (AT) each year. Generally, only about a quarter of those actually finish the 2,000 mile hike from Georgia to Maine (or vice versa). About the same percentage give up by the time they reach Neel Gap, just over 30 miles from the southern starting point and home of the famous Mountain Crossings Outfitter. The reasons they quit are many, but often center on being poorly prepared, poorly equipped, or the hike “just isn’t fun anymore.”

The experienced staff at Mountain Crossings has saved many a thru-hiker by way of their pack “shakedown service.” Hikers that stagger the first 2-4 days from Springer Mountain with packs full of unneeded (like jars of mayonnaise) or overly heavy items (iron skillets) can get a new lease on their hike’s life when a successful thru-hiker goes through their load; getting rid of all non-essentials and selling replacements for poorly chosen gear. Each year, Mountain Crossings helps ship literally thousands of pounds of extra gear back to hiker’s homes while the hikers themselves continue north with a significantly lighter pack and wallet.Mountain Crossings

As I was considering a thru-hike in 2014, I thought a test run on the AT last fall would be a prudent idea. Rather than carry extra weight for any length of time, I thought I’d start my hike at Mountain Crossings. Packed for 4 days, I gave my 30 pound pack to Squirrel (not his given name) for inspection.

With the gear being fairly lightweight, Squirrel didn’t find a tremendous amount of weight savings. Rather than carry a 1.2 ounce fleece pillow cover, he pointed out that the hood on my rain jacket could be stuffed with extra clothes to make a nice rubbery pillow. Nothing lulls you to sleep like laying your face down on coated nylon. Squirrel thought he hit the mother lode of savings in the toiletries when he spotted a mirror. When I stated that I needed it to put in my contacts, Squirrel suggested Lasik as a weight saving procedure. Unfortunately, none of the staff there could perform the procedure on me that day, so I was stuck with the weight. He also pointed out that my 12 ounce Kindle was a “luxury” item, but with camping alone and over 14 hours of darkness each night, it stayed in the “essential” pile.

Squirrel did provide some excellent advice on packing. By splitting up my tent poles and body, the body could be compressed into a smaller size. In addition, with a new waterproof compression sack purchased for my sleeping bag, he shrunk it from the size of a volleyball down close to the size of a ping pong ball. Pretty impressive, especially if I’m able to ever get the bag back into the compression sack. Squirrel also recommended the purchase of a new pack rain cover.

Although I was carrying the lightest option for water purification, pills, Squirrel enticed me with a new, lightweight water filter. Water could be rendered safe much quicker than the pills, and with the add-on straw feature, I could drink straight out of a mud puddle if so desired. Sold! I finished the “shakedown” with my pack a few ounces heavier than when I arrived, but my wallet $100 lighter.

When the time came to stash my car at the parking lot ½ mile away, I received my first “trail magic.” Squirrel’s co-worker (Chipmunk?) offered to meet there and drive me back to Mountain Crossings to begin the hike without needing to walk along the road; a great start.

The day was cool, but sunny. Heading out the back of the outfitters, I followed a trail winding up the mountain, eager to start following the white blazes that would lead me as far as I wanted to go; all the way to Maine if I decided to.  Fifteen minutes later, eagerness was being replaced with apprehension as I had yet to see my first blaze. This certainly wasn’t what I was used to. At Zaleski State Forest in Ohio, there are spots where the markings are thick enough to see the next six blazes at one time. After seeing one faded blaze in the first half hour, I broke down and checked the location on my phone’s AT app. (Yes, there’s an app for that.) It only took half the battery supply in my phone to pinpoint it, but my location was indeed on the AT, and going in the proper direction.

The trail itself is rocky and regularly contains root tripping hazards. Since it was late November though, the perils were nicely covered by a blanket of fallen leaves; safely out of sight and out of mind. Once up on the first mountain, the views were absolutely amazing.Day 1 view

The topography was slightly different than Ohio as well. Guidebooks for Buckeye backpack trails describe 300 foot elevation changes as grim, epic or lung busters. In this area of the AT, it is not unusual, in a bit over two miles, to climb 1,000 feet, drop back down 1,000 feet, and be looking at another 1,000+ foot climb. A great workout for the calves.

First high view

A few miles into the hike I ran into a southbound thru-hiker. Weed n Feed was stopped for a snack with his dog, Blunt. His favorite part of the trail was the Grayson Highlands of Virginia, where there are wild horses living along the trail. He had a visible reaction when I asked about mosquitoes during the summer. His action plan during one stretch was to never stop walking during the day and immediately set up his tent when reaching a camp area. He’d then spend the rest of his waking hours in the tent, even cooking by just sticking a hand outside to operate his stove. It sounded less than fun.

By late afternoon the wind had picked up and the temperature was dropping. I made Low Gap Shelter with about an hour of daylight left. I left my pack on the picnic table and quickly set up my tent. No mud puddles were to be found, so the filtered water had to come from a nearby clear creek. Once back to the pack to start dinner, I noticed a mouse had beaten me there, chewing through my food bag and a ziplock bag to help himself to some of my trail mix. Great. The remaining undamaged food was hung up in the trees for the evening.

By the time dinner, a lovely entrée of freeze dried imitation Alpo, was finished, the sun was down. Being as it was cold, dark and too windy for a fire, I retired to the tent with my Kindle and a flask. It was 6 PM. The flask was to last three nights, so there was some tough rationing ahead.

At 9 PM the flask was empty.  The Kindle became my sole entertainment. To stay in the hiking mood, the tablet was loaded with several books written by thru-hikers. Reading one book, I absorbed page after page of despair caused by hiking through continuous rain and flooding. It must have been extraordinarily tiring. I know I got tired of reading about it. Eventually, the warmth of the sleeping bag and the song of the wind (and possibly the contents of the flask) lulled me to sleep.

After a full night’s sleep, I lay in the tent, waiting for daylight when I heard the first drops of rain. As I crawled out of the tent, it was raining hard and a heavy, cold fog had moved in, reducing visibility

Day 2 View

to about 50 feet.

Stuffing my wet gear into the pack I thought, “This isn’t fun anymore.” I wonder, could you spot those wild horses from a car?