Grit and wonder: 2015’s thru-hikers reflect on trail hardships and thrills
If the stack of boxes piling up on the counter of the outfitter store at Nantahala Outdoor Center is any indication, thru-hiker season is coming fast. The parcels of food, reminders of home and creature comforts are welcome diversions from the travel-light lifestyle on the Appalachian Trail, where miles are many and luxuries are few.
“A lot of people ask about what you’re thinking about [on the trail],” said Youngblood, an 18-year-old hiker whose off-trail name is P.J. Coleman, as he sorted through his just-opened box of mail drop goodies. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, you’re thinking about food.”
His buddy Gadget, 20, who’s also known as Robert Smith, holds up a hard-candy caramel in shiny gold wrapping. Those individually wrapped sugar rushes are the key to making it up the hard hills, he says. For his part, Youngblood has a stash of Now-and-Laters and Sour Punch Straws.
Don’t forget the coffee, peanut butter and trail mix, chimed in Jessica “Lemon” Romain, who was taking a zero day to recover from a rolled ankle. And also, those reminders of home. Mom’s cookies, a handwritten note, anything with a personal touch.
“A mail drop just reminds me I have people at home who support me,” said Youngblood, who chose to do the trail rather than going straight to college. “That’s what keeps me going.”
Shane Shelley, who works at the outfitter shop, has seen that sentiment play out again and again. He recently handed a package to a girl who opened it to find, in addition to the food she herself had packed, some postcards from her mom. The find made her teary.
“Something to get in their stomach but also to get in their heart,” Shelley said of the boxes. That day alone, they’d gotten 14 boxes delivered and will probably work up to 40 by the time thru-hiker season peaks.
Peanut butter ostrich
Daniel “Sticks” Condon, 22, wasn’t expecting to find any mail as he descended the trail to NOC. He’d decided not to do the mail drops, deeming them “more complicated than it needed to be.” But after spending miles craving a hot shower and a candy bar, he conceded he might be wrong about that. Trail miles are hard miles, especially when the spring rain keeps coming down, and a boxful of minor luxuries can do wonders for motivation.
That’s not to say that Sticks has gone entirely without edible novelties. His sister met up with him the week before to celebrate his birthday, bearing gifts of “weird meat.”
“I think I’m the first person to ever try peanut butter with ostrich,” he said.
It’s a meal with calories, and that’s a plus. But during a recent foray into Franklin, Sticks found out the hard way that not all calories are good for making miles.
“That was the day I learned that while one beer can make a hike a little better, three or four beers don’t,” he said.
Two sides of a coin
Weather that’s sunny and 70 pretty much always makes the hike better, said Jon “Navigator” Labi, taking a break from a strenuous uphill near Standing Indian Campground on Saturday. The Tallahassee resident had gotten his fill of rain since starting the trail 19 days earlier and was happy to see the sun rise that morning.
“It makes you appreciate days like this, for sure,” Labi said of the rain.
But hikers are quick to clarify that rainy days aren’t necessarily bad days.
“I don’t think I’ve had a bad day so far,” said Scott “Slavedriver” Solomon, 42, resting under cloudy skies at NOC with Youngblood and Gadget. “Every day is uplifting.”
In the course of six months on the trail, you’re bound to catch some rain and cold with the warmth and sunshine. It’s all part of the trail’s thumbprint, opposing sides of an inseparable coin.
“You get into a zone and you’re going one foot in front of the other,” said Gadget, “and you get to that view, that vista.”
“I think I’ve been learning a lot more here than I would in college,” Youngblood said.
The elements are worthy teachers, but much of the trail experience comes from the people who travel it and surround it.
“All day you’re just hoping you’ll see the friends that you’ve made, but even if not you’re going to meet so many more people,” Youngblood said. “I think it’s really the people that make this trail.”
The hikers keep each other company, share food, bestow trail names, help with injuries and pass advice – as, for instance, in the case of a diagram that hiker “Code Red” sketched in the leather journal at the Rufus Morgan Shelter, 0.8 miles from NOC.
“The roof leaks in at least two spots — choose your sleeping space carefully,” the note beside the diagram reads. “There were only two of us so we slept like this and stayed dry. Luckily we didn’t find this out the hard way!”
The AT is both an exercise in self-sufficiency and a lesson in interdependence. Yes, thru-hikers carry their world on their backs, must keep putting one foot in front of the other to move it further down the path. But sometimes they need help — a burst of sugar, a word of encouragement, a reason to keep going.
That’s where “trail magic” comes in, the hiker term for the random acts of kindness that pepper the trail with surprising frequency.
“The kid was 13. He was there with his parents,” Gadget said, recalling a recent appearance of magic at Wayah Bald. “His parents had attempted the AT in 2009 and they’d got to Virginia and the husband’s knee blew out, so they stopped.”
But their commitment to the AT didn’t end with a blown-out knee. They were there with their son to hand out goody bags of homemade cupcakes, hardboiled eggs and beef jerky to tired hikers. A welcome gift, the group at NOC said, especially the protein-packed eggs.
“It does restore your faith in humanity,” Gadget said.
Navigator had a similar experience at Tray Gap, near Hiawassee, Georgia.
“I was craving a Mountain Dew, and damned if they didn’t have a Mountain Dew sitting right there,” he said.
Coffee, too. What else could a hiker need?
“It gives you the motivation to keep going,” Navigator said.
There is lots of going still to do. About two weeks in, thru-hikers passing through North Carolina are just at the beginning of their 2,189-mile journey. Those coming into Franklin and NOC have yet to pass through the elevation undulations of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, make it through the sticky heat of July in the mid-Atlantic or navigate the steep ascents and rocky descents of the White Mountains in New Hampshire.
Injuries will take some out of the running, while the mental challenges will get others. But when asked whether he planned to make it to Katahdin this fall, Navigator’s answer came quickly: “Come hell or high water.”
Because, along with the challenges still to come are the pinnacle moments — the perfect views, the personal epiphanies, the unwavering camaraderie. And those are moments worth sticking around for.
“I feel like the trail breaks you down into your true essence,” said Youngblood, “makes you into the person you were already meant to be.”
At the end of the trail, he hopes, that person will be there, waiting to start exploring the future.
Celebrating the AT
Every year, trail towns and businesses in Western North Carolina anticipate the influx of thru-hikers that stream through the area between late March and late April. Take a look at what’s planned to celebrate this year’s crop of thru-hikers.
Franklin will try something different this year from its usual April Fools Trail Days event, spreading Appalachian Trail-related events from March 27 through April 25 rather than clustering them all together on a single weekend. The change came from a desire to compliment the events that businesses were planning throughout hiker season, said Bill Van Horn, co-chair of the Franklin Appalachian Trail Communities Committee.
• March 26 — Off-trail hiker Jenny Bennett will share her novel The Twelve Springs of LeConte and discuss her experience climbing the mountain via each of the springs that drains it, 6 p.m. at the Macon County Public Library.
• March 27 — Bob Plott — and one of his hounds — will share the story of the Plott family and hound, a tale with roots entrenched in North Carolina history and culture, 10 a.m. at the Macon County Public Library.
• March 27-28 — The 11th annual April Fool Hiker Bash at the Sapphire Inn will feature food, live music, a hiker talent show, backpacking education and games. Activities begin at 6 p.m. each night. Ron Haven, 828.524.4431. www.hikerfoolbash.com
• March 28 — Three Eagles Outfitters will hold an anniversary celebration and AT appreciation day featuring sales and free drinks. 828.524.9061.
• March 28 — Outdoor 76 will host an information session on the various trail systems in Macon County, noon to 2 p.m. “The AT, a Local Treasure” will help participants plan a great next hike with friends and family. 828.349.7676
• March 28 — Lazy Hiker Brewing Company will host the Thru-Hiker Chow Down, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., with the Nantahala Hiking Club as a cosponsor to feed the hikers. The meal will include chili dogs, chips and homemade goodies — but no beer, as the brewery is not yet open. 828.369.1983.
• April 1 — A documentary sharing highlights from the career of legendary conservationist Aldo Leopold and illustrating his vision of a community that cares about land and people will be screened at 6 p.m. at the Macon County Public Library. “Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for Our Time” will be provided by NHC.
• April 2 — A 50-minute National Geographic documentary, “Appalachian Trail,” will take viewers off the beaten path of the well-traveled ridgetop route in screenings at 2 and 6 p.m. at the Macon County Public Library.
• April 4. Outdoor 76 will host Thru-hiker Appreciation Day, inviting townies to rub shoulders with trekkers as they step off the trail en route to Mount Katahdin in Maine. 828.349.7676.
• Through April 11, First Baptist Church will host free pancake breakfasts for hikers, 7:30-8:30 a.m. 828.369.9559
Nantahala Outdoor Center
Nantahala Outdoor Center will celebrate thru-hiker season with a two-day bash April 3-4 for long-distance and local outdoors lovers alike.
The weekend will kick off with a 7 p.m. showing of “The Long Start to the Journey” by Chris Gallaway, an Asheville filmmaker who thru-hiked in 2013. Saturday will begin with a gear repair and vendor fair, which will run 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The OBOZ Hiker Olympiad will be held 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and a Leave No Trace game, corn hole and camp games will be held at 11 a.m., noon and 1 p.m. respectively. The day will conclude with music and a spaghetti feed for hikers.
Hot Springs will hold its annual Trailfest April 17-18. The full lineup of events for the weekend includes all-you-can-eat spaghetti and pancake meals, a climbing wall and low ropes course, a talent show, live music, a bonfire and drum circle to close out the weekend — and plenty more. A full schedule is online at www.hsclc.org/newsevents/trailfest.html
Fontana Village will hold its Hiker Haze “weekend” March 25-26, and a dedication ceremony March 26 will commemorate Fontana Dam’s designation as an Appalachian Trail Community. Games, karaoke, music, speakers and a guided hike will all be part of the activity. www.appalachiantrail.org/ or www.fontanavillage.com.