The decision basically determines whether or not they’ll be making it to Trailfest in Hot Springs, 18 miles away. It’s Friday night, and camping here means that they won’t make it in time to partake in the Saturday festivities — free food, games and story swapping.
Trail festivals and stopovers in town are popular, but nowadays they’re far from being the only respite from solitude available to A.T. hikers. According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s estimates, nearly 900 people completed a thru-hike in 2013, with more than 2,000 starting the hike in Georgia. By contrast, from 1964 to 1988, the number of thru-hikers finishing the trek from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine fit comfortably under 200, numbers staying below 50 until 1974.
With the release of the movie “Wild” in 2014 and “A Walk in the Woods” last fall, the folks at the ATC have been scrambling to prepare for an expected 30 to 60 percent increase in the number of people setting out to thru hike this year.
As Walters — a 59-year old hailing from Salt Lake City, Utah — said, his friends at home have declared that he’s “out of his cotton-pickin’ mind.”
“’You’re going alone?’” they’d ask him. “’Yes,’” he’d reply. “Me and the 4,000 people here. You couldn’t be alone if you wanted to.”
There’s no number yet for how many people started or are expected to finish the trail in 2016. The ATC is still crunching the numbers, though there were definitely more hikers starting in February than is typical, and preliminary calculations indicate that use is up about 30 percent over last year — a significant spike, but less than the 60 percent worst-case scenario.
“We hope to have better and better data going forward so we can make important decisions about how to deal with what’s happening,” said Morgan Sommerville, regional director for the ATC.
Plenty of trail traffic
There are definitely a lot of people on the trail, the three hikers agreed. The other pack-bearing people who filed off the trail with the narrowing of daylight concurred.
“I was surprised it was so crowded with people,” Dung said, adamant that he’s glad to be done with the portion of the trail that winds through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Park regulations require hikers to stay at the shelters, and they’d regularly be crammed with 20 people inside the structure and another 30 or 40 camping in tents outside.
“I’m happy to get out of the Smokies,” said Dung, whipping out his phone to show pictures of the snow that had blanketed the trail for much of his walk through the park.
About 10 people wound up staying at the Roaring Fork Shelter that night, a sharp departure from the crowds of 60 Dung had experienced in the Smokies and a lot less than the caravan of people embarking from the trail’s start in Georgia, where the privies would sometimes be used to the point of overflowing.
“Every shelter that I stayed at in Georgia, I would say there’s 35 to 40 people around the shelter,” said Josh “Fish” Fisher, of Rome, Georgia, as he unpacked his stove and prepared for dinnertime.
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All kinds of people, too. Super-fit, experienced outdoors enthusiasts embarked alongside overweight, overpacked people who had never spent more than a night or two on a trail in their lives.
“I was kind of shocked at how many people had never spent more than two nights camping in the backcountry before,” said Walters, who started the A.T. last year but had to step off near Hartford, Tennessee, after a knee injury. He had just gotten back on the trail to resume his place from 2015. “Then they decide they’re going to walk 2,200 miles.”
Last year, he recalled, there were a couple of guys who didn’t even make it through the first night. Clad in cotton clothing and bearing an assortment of firearms, they’d realized quickly they were in over their heads, leaving their stuff at the shelter and coming back later with a vehicle to collect it.
“I was surprised there weren’t more lightweight backpackers,” said Melanie “Gamel” Harmon, 60, from the Knoxville area. “There were a lot of people who were overweight.”
As she spoke, she offered around a package of candy Peeps, gleaned from her last mail drop package. One of her seven reasons for wanting to hike the trail — listed on a typed document she keeps for encouragement in weak moments — is so that she can “eat whatever I want and as much as I want and not gain weight.” Harmon retired from her career in social services on March 23 and started the trail on March 25 — a similar story to Dung, who retired from his job in Long Island, New York, on March 4 and started hiking on March 22.
Cultivating mental toughness
But physical preparation is only part of it. Ben Cross, a Texan who started the hike on his 29th birthday, is doing the trail partly to lose weight. He wants to shed 60 pounds by Mount Katahdin. He lost 10 in the first week but hasn’t weighed himself since. Bathroom scales aren’t common items on the trail.
“I’ve read that first you get physically tough and then you get mentally tough,” Harmon said, “so I think people who are going to make it have a mental attitude that it won’t necessarily be fun.”
“It’s just if the pain is worth it to you or not,” added Walters.
Now 255 miles into the trail — just over 10 percent of the total distance — the crew gathered at Roaring Fork Shelter as darkness fell had a taste of how to answer that question.
“I think you have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable,” Fisher said.
There are those moments, Dung said, when it’s been raining all night and rain still falls on your wet tent and wet pack and wet clothes in the morning, and as you shoulder the waterlogged load smelly and wet you wonder why — and if — it’s worth it. But then there’s the riot of flowers just beginning to erupt in mid-April, which Dung documents carefully with his phone camera every time he comes across a new bloom. The freedom of living with everything you need for six months strapped to your back. The stripping-down of possibilities and necessities.
And all of those are very individual experiences.
“The rule out here is, hike your own hike,” said Angel “Cash Money” Santana, of Bloomfield, New Jersey, taking a pit stop the next morning to speak with a reporter.
While hikers will sometimes buddy up for hours or days at a time, by and large they expressed a preference for hiking alone, experiencing the miles of snowy or sunny or leafy or bare-branched trail on their own. But by the same token, most said they enjoyed the camaraderie present at the trail shelters where they’d share the night with other hikers.
“I like the combination of the solo experience hiking during the day, then the camaraderie (at night),” Walters said.
“Out here, we’re sort of all equal,” said Harmon. “It’s how you treat each other and being in the same environment together and experiencing the same challenges. I don’t know where else that occurs.”
“Last night a couple other hikers and I stayed up at Max Patch overnight,” said Santana. “We saw the sunset and sunrise, and it was amazing to be able to see something like that. The camaraderie is something I’ve never experienced before.”
Of course, it’s quite possible that not all hikers feel the same way. Of the 10 who slept at Roaring Fork that night, three hikers swiftly disappeared to their tents, keeping to themselves rather than joining in the swapping of stories and trail talk at the picnic table.
The night got quiet, fast. That’s not always the case, Walters said, with some people definitely treating the trail like a “walking party.”
“There’s a lot of people who smoke a lot of weed,” concurred Hyde.
As far as whether that contingent of “partying hikers” is as bent on making it to Maine as people like Harmon, who have been fantasizing the thru-hike for 40 years — she has already hiked the whole thing in sections — it’s hard to say.
“I haven’t really conversed with them,” Santana said of the partiers. “They’re kind of in their own group.”
Still, he stands by the “hike your own hike” rule. If some people want to enjoy the trail with the help of substances, he said, that doesn’t have to impact his own journey.
A changing experience
The trail experience today is different than it was when the route was more wild, less traveled and farther from roads and telephones.
“You could go for days and not see a single person,” said 71-year-old Dave Patrick, a resident of Damascus, Virginia, who hiked the trail in 1990. “You get a lot of time to think.”
These days, the trail is most definitely a social experience. It’s different and it’s changing from what it once was. But the value is still there, at least according to the trail-weary hikers still intent on pressing through the miles to Maine.
“In some ways, this is a pilgrimage,” Harmon said. “Every day I am reminded of the simplest things in life that are incredible.”