The AT experience won’t be left behind
It’s been nearly eight years since Amy “Willow” Allen passed through Western North Carolina as a tired-and-hungry AT through-hiker. But her journey didn’t end at the summit of Mount Katahdin.
“It isn’t something you leave behind,” she said. “Once you become part of that community, it is part of who you are.”
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Even with the trail behind her, Allen works hard to keep the spirit of the Appalachian Trail close by. In 2012, the Black Mountain resident published Summoning the Mountains: Pilgrimage into Forty, to tell her story, and she’s looking forward to sharing the experience at Franklin’s 6th Annual April Fool’s Trail Day this weekend.
It was 2006 when Allen stepped off from Springer Mountain, a divorced single mother looking to rediscover herself.
“I think I maybe had something to prove to myself,” she said. But it soon became apparent she wouldn’t be doing those 2,180 miles alone.
There were the other hikers, the good-hearted folks whose “trail magic” made food and soda appear along the trail and also her two teenage sons, each of whom joined her for a big chunk of the miles.
That turn of events happened inauspiciously enough, when the older of the two, then 16, got suspended from school.
“I insisted on instead of him sitting at home on suspension, he was going to come out on the trail,” she said.
So, Joseph joined his mother during his suspension in April. The trail called him back for summer break, and he ended up logging over 600 miles — including 80 through Shenendoah National Park, when his 13-year-old brother Grayson joined in.
“I feel like it was my last little hurrah with my son before he turned into a young man,” Allen said.
Through the privacy of trails shaded with hickory or curtained with pine, Allen and her son got to know each other in a whole new way. He got a schooling in cause-and-effect — if he decided he didn’t feel like stocking up on water at a refilling station, he quickly learned that no one who had lugged their own water for miles would want to share — and she saw the way he internalized her goal of finishing, eventually becoming her biggest cheerleader.
In some ways, he’s the reason she finished the trail.
“There was a point in Connecticut when I wasn’t sure if I could be able to go farther,” she said.
Her body was so in need of calories that it had consumed all of her body fat and begun metabolizing muscle. It’s a process called ketosis, and it means that hunger and nausea occur simultaneously.
“I had told Joseph, ‘I think that when you leave the trail for school, I will go with you,’’ she said. “Hearing the devastation in his voice was enough to make me reconsider, because I realized how important it was to him.”
A new community
And by pushing on, Allen, who is 5’ 2’’ and already weighed less than 100 pounds when she started the trail, gained something that far outweighed what she lost in body mass. She came home with a sense of self and of accomplishment, with the validation that comes with having reached for a goal and attained it. She gained a new name — Allen now goes by her trail name, Willow — and she gained entrance to a community she strives to remain a part of.
“You just can’t find a better or a simpler way to unite people than having a common cause like that,” she said.
Some hikers were making the trek to learn about themselves, while others were doing it to experience nature or to raise money for a cause close to their heart. Still others had set it before them as a physical challenge, racing ahead to set records and push their bodies to the limit. All hikers, though, share one key quality, and for Allen, it’s a quality that’s addictive.
“It’s just that free-spirited kind of personality that the hikers have,” she said. “You can see it in their eyes. There’s a glow, there’s a vibrancy there.”
That spirit is invigorating to be around, and knowing that each of these people is pushing ahead to reach a dream elevates that feeling all the more. In the years after Allen finished her hike, she pitched in from the outside, working “trail magic” — the term hikers give to the meals, snacks and other gifts trailside residents spontaneously offer — in the form of spaghetti and burgers cooked along the roadside where hikers are known to pass through.
“Anytime somebody has something to offer you, you’re so grateful for the opportunity to take in more calories,” she recalled.
Allen well remembers the hunger, the sore feet and the stressed knees that accompanied her on the trail. But she’ll never forget the generosity of the people who live alongside it, and the way they restored her faith in humanity.
“There’s just not many places in our country anymore where you see that openness and trust,” she said. “It’s irreplaceable.”
When Allen published her book in 2012, its pages became her way of staying involved with the AT community. She uses Summoning the Mountains to tell her story and as a vehicle for conversation with other people who are passionate about the trail.
“It’s something that I never really get tired of, talking about hiking,” she said.
For Allen, that’s the attraction of the festivals that ignite through AT communities this time of year, both now and in 2006, when she took part in the Hot Springs event as a through-hiker.
“The main draw for the hikers is being able to gather in one place and exchange stories of their getting there,” she said.
Often, the hikers will see each other one or two at a time over a period of hours or days. The festivals offer the chance to gather, recoup, swap stories and, most importantly, eat.
“You just want food,” Allen said. “You want anything and everything.”
This time, though, Allen will get the chance to enjoy the Franklin festival rather than pushing on to make up miles, as happened in 2006. And she’ll do it with the new name and the new identity she’s kept ever since descending Mount Katahdin as a successful through-hiker.
“It was the one thing,” she said, “that just instilled a sense of self in me that was unthinkable and undeniable.”