The leaves are starting to turn. Fewer thru-hikers are celebrating at the summit of Katahdin. The primary hiking season is ending. I managed to squeeze in a very short day hike on the AT earlier in September, but that looks to be the last of the year. It’s looking more and more like I won’t even take the boat out again this season. So, what do prospective thru-hikers do in the off-season? In the “dreaming” phase – or even the planning phase – there are many trail journals to read. There are now fewer active adventures to read vicariously. The AT class of 2020 is starting to limber up their fingers with pre-hike journal entries and a few of those will be interesting. And I suppose there will be gear review wrap-ups of what was popular this past year or previews of new gear coming out for next year. But to be honest, gear research is getting mundane. Nevertheless, I will refine my gear prospectus.
This also should be a time to reflect on the reasons I want to thru-hike the AT. I have a list already, but I am not sure I am ready to share that list. So, my conclusion at this point in time, is that this point in time is tricky. The initial joy of starting this journal and even hiking a few miles on the AT has passed. An actual thru-hike attempt is still years away. In metaphorical terms, I made it to Neels Gap. Neels Gap is around the 31-mile point from Springer Mountain. I have hiked 25.7 miles on the AT this year. Many hikers get a “gear shakedown” at Mountain Crossings at Neels Gap. I will scrub my 2019 gear prospectus. I am not staring physically in the face of the 2000 miles left to go; so, it’s easy to say, let’s push onward. But it does seem daunting to still wait several years. So much can happen in six to seven more years. A lot of potentially negative things, especially health-wise. I haven’t really thought about my age being an issue. Because it isn’t right now. But in a few years, that could all change. The window is closing. What I don’t know is how big is the window. The things holding me back now seem out of my control. The irony is that is one reason I want to thru-hike: to get back control of my life. The “golden years” are supposed to be happier, less stressful. I seem to be at times the unhappiest I have ever been in my life and stress seems to keep mounting. Maybe a thru-hike isn’t the remedy. Maybe it’s the equivalent to a child’s wish to run away and join the circus. The warm summer south winds are giving way to the cold winter west winds here in Maryland. But the answer my friend, may not be blowin’ in the wind.
Like a sailor to a siren, like a moth to a flame, it’s difficult to resist these end of summer and clearance sales by REI. They certainly know how to market gear. In the last week or so, I’ve received emails from REI informing me of no less than four different ways to save money right now on gear. There are sale prices on the already discounted gear in the Outlet. There is the End of Summer clearance sale. There is the upcoming Labor Day sale. And the queen siren of all, a $100 REI credit for applying to their credit card. What makes it worse, several items on my thru-hike prospectus are discounted. The temptation is great. Even if I tell myself, a thru-hike is years away, I am tempted to buy gear that I think would make a good interim solution for section hikes. REI put a storm inside me; I wanna head for a safer harbor. The temptation is so great, I am not even looking at the same lures from West Marine, my favorite for boat gear. A logical head will prevail and I will resist, but only because I know that more sales will eventually come along. If nothing else, this has planted the seed that researching gear and waiting until the right moment - meaning sale - to purchase will be an effective planning strategy. (Credit: "Sailor To A Siren" song by Meat Loaf)
It’s been almost a week and a half since my son and I completed our short section hike of the AT in West Virginia. It took about two days for my legs to fully recover. The first day after reminded me of the day after a marathon, but we walked 6 miles less over 2.5 days - oh well, not really that bad considering I hadn’t hiked or carried a pack in over 20 years! I also captured several small lessons-learned to guide a future thru-hike. Every short hike hopefully will yield some useful lessons - or at least confirm some ideas. It is no surprise that the biggest lesson - I already knew this, but there is nothing like a practical lesson - getting pack weight down to its lightest possible is the goal. Really, getting base weight under 20 pounds and total skin-out-weight down to under 35 pounds remains my ultimate goal. A lot of experimentation remains with the Big 3 systems; however, I confirmed several small items on my prospectus that if I were going to commit to a thru-hike today would definitely be on the packing list. In addition to lightening the Big 3, food choice and weight needs a little experimentation. We ended up not eating over 3 pounds of the food we each carried - way too much! We never went into calorie deficit during such a short hike; so, thru-hiking might alter the equation, but consumables clearly are a huge variable that needs to be refined. To an experienced hiker, none of these lessons are earth shattering revelations; actually, even for me, they are not a surprise. Nonetheless, lessons are best learned from practical application - nothing like carrying a heavy pack for a couple days to push one to spending a little more cash for a lot less weight. TLDR: click here for specific comments/lessons for each piece of gear I carried during my August 2019 AT Section Hike in West Virginia.
In three days, I will start a new phase of this journey – my first section hike of the Appalachian Trail. I had no idea when I started this blog in February, that by the end of the summer, I’d be hiking a section of the trail. There just may be something to the often cited idea that the trail provides. In order to keep this blog at the macro level of planning, I have also started a trail journal – to keep a daily record of hiking – Quiet Man’s 2019 Appalachian Trail Journal. Over the past few months, I’ve been reading dozens of these journals; I have put a few as links under Favorite Trail Journals. The journals are a great source of trail information, inspiration, and entertainment. Many of these journals are worthy of publication in magazines or even as books.
In just over two weeks, I will do my first true Appalachian Trail section hike! A few months ago, I casually mentioned the idea of hiking the AT to my 27-year old son. Matt and I have never backpacked together. We have day-hiked a few times, including along the AT in the Shenandoah National Park, while car camping when he was a kid. He also accompanied me as teenager on several day hikes with World War II Yugoslav partisan and military veterans in the mountains of Slovenia, including a snowy hike up and back down Mount Krn on November 11th for a World War I commemoration. Since then, he has hiked and backpacked himself a bit with friends. So, when he texted me a few days after returning from our European trip to ask how I would feel about taking a 2.5-day trip on the Appalachian Trail, I was quite surprised. Of course, I immediately agreed that it’s a great idea! Although, I wasn’t sure what his mother, my wife, would think of the idea. At first, the idea seemed like pure serendipity. But was it? Maybe it’s trail karma again. I’m still not in the greatest hiking shape; even though I have been jogging a bit in order to get back into running shape. And for over a year now, I’ve been taking daily dose of a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug for a case of bursitis/arthritis in my left hip. Diagnosed two years ago, the pain in my hip would not let me walk more than 10 feet without being almost unbearable and was constant. After physical therapy and starting the anti-inflammatory, the pain is now only occasional and very mild. If I am going to be walking a lot, I also have a prescription narcotic-like pain reliever to use as needed. My wife and I walked a lot in Europe around the cities and archeological sites, including the Mount Olympus day hike, and I did not need to use the pain reliever very much. So, while I know it won’t be easy, I think I can handle the short backpacking trip. I thought my wife (a nurse practitioner) would balk; saying I’m not really in shape yet and still somewhat dependent on the medications. But, again to my surprise, she only asked that the dates for the trip not conflict with potential boating days! She also said she would make sure I had the right first aid kit and meds to take along. Serendipity? Or karma? I have been apprehensive about broaching the idea of a thru-hike with my wife because I am not sure she will be even slightly on board with the idea. More so because of the lengthy time away from home than the physical aspect; she knows I won’t attempt a thru-hike until I am in sufficient physical shape as she’s seen how I trained to run marathons in the past. I even suggested that I might run another marathon to celebrate turning 60 years old and she thought that was a great idea. But a thru-hike? This section hike is going to start in Harper’s Ferry, which is only about 35 miles from my son’s house in Virginia. (It’s about 100 miles from my home on the Chesapeake Bay.) My son suggested we could even visit the Appalachian Trail Conservancy HQ. My son’s husband will drop us off in Harper’s Ferry and my wife is planning on riding along. The four of us will have dinner and then my son and I will start our hike that evening, while my wife and his husband drive home. Maybe I’ll convince her to visit ATC HQ with us. Never know; karma might happen.
I don't have a bucket list. At 59 years old, I have already had the adventures of a lifetime, especially with a 30-year Army career already behind me, a 35 year marriage still going strong, and four years into a second career as a high school teacher. But I still have this deep desire to thru-hike the Appalachian Trial.