Hiking the A.T. - Part 3: People

20. Januar 2013, 19:50

“It’s not about the miles, it’s about the smiles”, people say when they talk about the Appalachian Trail. And they are right: It’s all about the people you meet along the way.

It’s day 7 on the trail now, April 21st, and I have to think about those words a lot. Last night that saying took a little setback for me, when for the first time we met people on the trail that we actually didn’t like. People who we didn’t want to share a smile. People who make us want to hike farther and faster today, to avoid them at the next shelter.

at the trail

Everyone who is hiking the A.T. is part of a community from day one. A community of funny and serious, crazy and wise, ambitious and relaxed, young and old, lazy and hard working, fast and slow, nice and not so nice, but altogether amazing and interesting people. And while they might sometimes be as different as night and day, and although they wouldn’t greet each other on the street if they met in regular life, here they share at least one thing: They have decided for one reason or another to spend the next months hiking the A.T.

Students, seniors or unemployed, job quitters, recently divorced or just the occasional adventurer. It’s almost like a summer camp in the woods, only spread into dozens of shelters along the way. You get thrown into that group of people like in a group of stranded castaways, and it’s almost impossible to avoid them.

It started in Atlanta, when we got picked up from the staff of the Hiker Hostel, the place from where we would set out for the A.T. It’s easy to spot other A.T. hikers when you sit in a train station. Huge backpack with poles and pots hanging out of the pack, hikers shoes, hikers cloth.

So we met Michelle, Dana and Randy, who were also waiting for the pick up, right away: “Hey, what’s your name?”, “Going to the A.T.?”, “How many miles are you planning?”, “How heavy is your bag?”. Within minutes you are in a conversation as if you knew each other for many miles. It’s because everyone has done the same things for the last few months: weighing gear with the kitchen scale, hiked miles for training and to walk the boots in, calculated food rations, studied the A.T. guides for many nights. We all became A.T. experts, we all are students on the same subject, and now we want to share our knowledge.

Standing Indian Mountain

Seven days later we have met dozens of those people along the way: Gram Man, Camel, Haystack, Johnny Rocket, Flash Gordon, Pittsburgh John, Badger, Josh, Ryan, Snail, Tortoise and so many others. It’s a great community, and it changes every day: You never know, who you will meet at the next shelter, new or known faces. Some hike faster, some hike slower, some drop out and some join in later. Sometimes you hike with someone for days, then loose him for weeks, just to see him unexpectedly a month later sitting on a forest clearing having lunch. And it’s like you’ve never been apart.

At the end of our journey my brother will tell me: Maybe the special thing about those friendships on the trail is, that you never know whether it’s your last goodbye when you leave the shelter in the morning. When you see someone you know later, camping at the same shelter, or pouring water at the same source like you, you always share a warm, big welcome. And you feel happy, because you could not count on it.

On day 7 though, we are on the run from other people. We just met a couple of stupid 40-something year old guys at the shelter last night, who took the whole shelter for themselves, talking loud and drinking much. They were boasting about their hikes, telling hunting stories and showing around their big hunter’s knives. They also say some pretty racist things, make fun of other people, leave their stuff and food lying around everywhere. At the end we decided to hit bed early to get up as soon as possible the next morning, to get some miles between us next day.

And so we hike and hike, miles and miles, running away whole day. As we hit the 1600 meters high Standing Indian Mountain, we are astounded by the great view over the land, but we don’t stay for long afraid they might catch up. It will be a long day, almost 25 miles, but when we arrive at the shelter at last, we are happy. We made sure to never meet those guys again.

at the shelter

As we prepare our dinner in the evening, tired and hungry, we spot someone hiking down the path toward the shelter. It’s almost dark now, hard to recognize the face, and for a moment we are afraid, it could be one of those belligerent fellows. But no, it’s Pittsburgh John, a guy with a tarp and a great attitude, who we haven’t seen for a couple of days. And as he approaches us, we shout a loud welcome: “Hey, where did you come from just now?” He smiles, and so do we.

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Hiking the A.T. - Part 2: Rain

21. Juli 2012, 22:42

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“Thanks for taking that poncho to Keith”, Gary says to me, as he drops my and me brother off at Dicks Creek. “God bless you”. Then he gets to his van and drives to his Hostel, as we walk back onto the trail and into the rain. The rain that’s been pouring for 16 hours now.

We’ve been keeping out of the rain for most of the time so far, thanks to Gary and his hostel. The Bluberry Patch Hostel is one of those magical places on the trail. Gary has been a thru-hiker in 1991, and he is running the hostel for a while now, as a ministry. Which means: Instead of paying, you give a donation, if you can. And it means: on the table is a bible, and at breakfast, Gary says prayer.

When we heard that a big storm front was approaching the Appalachians from west around evening, we had packed our stuff fast last morning, and almost ran up and down the hills. We were planning to leave the trail anyway, to hitchhike into the next town for resupply our food and stove fuel, so we tried to be early and got there around 2 pm.

The Bluberry Patch Hostel is located between Dicks Creek and Hiawassee and offers 8 bunks for hikers. And it has a nice little porch, where we sat and watched the rain start, as we cleaned our boots and sorted our backpacks. To save on pack weight, we hitch to a town to resupply every 2 to 5 days on the trail, and also use that break for shower, laundry, and a nice hot meal.

For resupply we didn’t have go to the supermarket this time, though. We had prepared a pack of food back in Atlanta, and had sent it from there to the Bluberry Patch Hostel. Such a mail drop, as it is called on the AT, can save some time and will help you through spots, where there is a Hostel, but there are no or only expensive shops.

Maildrop

Oats, dried fruits, nuts, sugar, cereal bars, coffee and tea, candy bars, noodles, broth, mashed potatoes, that is our basic food. We always try to get some fresh fruit and vegetables, too, when we hit the little towns. We don’t have any of those in our mail drop, but we find something else that is crucial as well: another roll of toilet paper. We didn’t want to send the denaturalized alcohol (Spiritus in German) for our stove via mail, but fortunately Gary offers some at his hostel.

Gary’s place gets crowded now, and at 4 pm, we all hop in his car to drive down to Hiawassee. Although we are good on resupply, we still are keen on the visit to that little town, because there is a hot meal waiting for us. And even better, it’s an all-you-can-eat-buffet, which means hiker paradise. Two hours later we are stuffed and happy as hikers can be. When we come back to the hostel, we find a great surprise waiting for us: Johnny Rocket and Flash Gordon, two real fast (and real nice) hikers have arrived. As the rain keeps pouring, we keep sharing our stories of the last days and talk late into the night. It already feels like a hikers community.

from Georgia to North Carolina

The next morning brings more rain, but also great breakfast: Pancakes, sausages, scrambled eggs and hash browns. Gary has it all prepared and calls us into his guest room, welcomes us along with his wife, and says prayer. He makes sure to give thanks for the weather. Although the rain is annoying to us hikers, it was needed for the land. And it’s not even that bad. When Gary was hiking the AT in 1991, 30 out of the 40 first days were rain days, he tells us. So we’ve been actually doing great so far, having only 1 rainy day in 6 days total. And rain isn’t even the worst you can get. “More people drop out in Virginia, when it gets really hot”, says Gary. Also, you can get snow, hail or thunderstorm. It can get really nasty. And it can get really cold.

But rain can be dangerous, too, if you are not prepared for it. You need rain gear, and on a day like this, even the best rain coat will leave you wet, as Ralph and me will experience. So you also need clothes, that don’t soak, and that dry pretty fast. Keith, who stays with us at Gary’s place, doesn’t have any of those, doesn’t need them, he says, because he wants to travel light.

Gary noticed that, when Keith left early this morning, and when he drives us to the trail a little later, he can’t stop talking about it. “I am worried about Keith” he keeps saying over and over again. So as we say good bye, I take the poncho Gary found in his home and take off to the woods. It’s one more thing to carry on, but I make sure, that after 8 hours of walking in the rain, as we arrive at the shelter were Keith is staying that night, Keith takes the poncho.

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“P.U.D.s, that’s what I like to call it”, says Gram Man from Ohio, as he squeezes his water filter for the last drop. “Pointless ups and downs, that is.” We are on the Appalachian Trail (A.T.). 2181 miles from Georgia to Maine, passing 14 states, two national parks, breathtaking mountain ridges, deep green woods and some of the most beautiful scenery of the United States. But for us, today, it just feels like a lot of pointless ups and downs. The A.T. seems to take every peak and hill it can find on the way to Maine, and we’re only three days in, 43 miles, sitting at a camp fire at the Low Gap Shelter, and we are tired from all those climbs. For 50 year old Gram Man, it is almost over, he is only hiking the A.T. for a couple of days. I will be hiking for 4 weeks, but some of us, like my brother Ralph, or like Dan and Alex from Detroit, they are in for the whole thing. Although they don’t like to say that, “hiking the whole trail”, they rather say “I am attempting to hike it”. Because it is hard. And from the 1500 to 2000 thru-hikers every year, not even half of it will finish it.

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But we’ve been doing good so far. 43 miles in 3 days, that certainly is something, and the statistics tell us, that 25 percent of all thru-hikers have already dropped out at Neel Gap, which we passed yesterday. But we are still on our way. Some people start the trail with 50 to 60 pounds backpacks, never hiked before, and then realize after a couple of miles, that it’s not what they expected. Some hurt their ankles or knees on the first day. We hear from a guy, who stopped only after half a mile, not even at the starting point, Mount Springer, put down his pack and said: “That’s it for me”. People had to help getting his pack back to the parking lot.

It’s not what we’ve expected either, that’s for sure, but at least we are ready for it, have trained for it, and took only the most important things with us. Our packs weigh about 32 pounds, water and food included. We are travelling lighter, because we counted every gram in our pack. That is how Gram Man got his trail name “Gram Man” – but I guess, this name could apply to many of us. “At the end, I got a little loose, took a couple of things with me I didn’t necessarily need, but all together, I got it down pretty nicely”, says Gram Man as we all sit at the camp fire now, eating Ramen noodles, freeze dried meals or other hiker food. There are some people on the trail with 20 to 25 pound packs, who use only light tarps for sleeping and use light trail runners as shoes. We chose to have a little more comfort, bigger sleeping packs, a second pair of socks, even a Kindle to read on. And we tend to take a little more water with us than we really need, because you never want to run out of water. That is how Gram Man’s hiker buddy Camel earned his trail name. When everyone else run out of water, he always had some left. But today, we all are good on water, are fed, and when we turn off our lights and head for our tents and the shelter, life is good in the middle of the wood.

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We leave early around 8 am the next day, heading for Tray Mountain Shelter. From there, we plan to get to Hiawassee a day after that. Hiawassee is a little town 11 miles away from the trail. We plan to hitchhike there, to get some resupply, do our laundry, rest our feet, sleep in a real bed. We hike with Randy now, a really nice 30-some year old guy, who just got the same pace on the trail as we have. He only plans to hike for two more days, going back to work after that. He is a section hiker like me, and he wants to do the whole trail piece by piece, week by week, coming back every now and then.

We are only a couple of miles in, when Randy slows down. “It’s my knee”, he says. He didn’t have any problems the whole time, but now, suddenly, the knee aches. Some people have problems with blisters, some with the shoulders, but we will hear from many along the way, that it’s the knees that cause the most troubles. I give him my knee bandage, which I took with me just in case, since I had knee surgery last year, and he keeps on walking with that, slower, but keeping up with us. After another hour, it starts raining, and as we head for the next shelter for a little lunch break, we meet Camel and Gram Man again. “We are heading for Unicoi Gap, that’s where we leave the A.T.”, says Gram Man, “It’s just a mile from here”. At Unicoi Gap, Camel’s car is waiting for him, waiting for him to bring him to Helen, GA, a very German place in the Appalachians, filled with German Restaurants and Taverns. Great German beer, they say. Randy decides to go with them. He was only go one more day anyway, and the knee just hurts to much, he says. As they leave, we pack out our lunch and enjoy the view from the mountain top, as the rain stops and the clouds move further.

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When we arrive down at Unicoi Gap an hour later, Camel, Gram Man and Randy are still there, and also Dan and Alex from Detroit. Camel hands us his last food supplies (“won’t need those dried-frozen meals in Helen”) and a cold beer out of his cooling box. When churches or former thru-hikers come up to the trail to feed the hungry hikers, or put up a BBQ along the way to Maine, people call that “Trail Magic”. Today, here at the parking lot, that cold beer and the extra food we get, that is “trail magic” to us. As we say our goodbyes to Camel, Gram Man and Randy, we all take a picture together and be on our way, heading for the Hiawassee. “We all think of you when we have a German beer in Helen”, shouts Gram Man, as my brother and me head back to the trail, to climb another pointless up and down.

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