Day 128 – Dropping Like Flies

The thru hiker drop out rate tracked by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) shows only 20-25% of those who start an AT thru hike go on to finish. I’ve passed many milestones and plan to summit Mt Katahdin in early October, …and surprised each time someone I’ve met decides to leave the trail for good. Even though it’s taking much longer than I expected, anyone who is near me on trail has plenty of time to finish before Baxter state park closes for winter.

Many hikers quit in the first couple weeks and another wave quits before the second month. That was expected. There are so many of us at the start we couldn’t know most of those who quit, but it was clear our numbers were thinning as I moved into the third month. I saw fewer hikers each day at different break and campsite areas. It even started feeling like no one else was on trail, as I would go hours without seeing another northbound thru-hiker. We can literally hike just a half mile apart and not see each other for days. Other times, we catch up with fellow hikers at a rest spot when suddenly everyone chooses the same off trail space or shelter to take a break or camp for the night.

Lately though, word is spreading fast when someone quits the trail and it’s catching me by surprise. Somehow, I had it in my head that those who made it past Harper’s Ferry and had their photo taken at the half way check-in at ATC headquarters would be hiking all the way to Maine. As we approached Harper’s Ferry, and spent time there avoiding the rain, I realized a lot of people were leaving the trail for good right after they checked in at the ATC.

Many hikers were people I knew that seemed very capable of finishing, but each had something pulling them off-trail. Some were simply tired of doing the same thing every day, particularly when it kept raining all the time. Others cited aches and pains that wouldn’t heal, or running low on funds. A couple hikers seemed just plain homesick after two to three months on trail.

It seemed every couple days word came around about who was leaving trail and why. It was unsettling, and I did my best to spend time with people who were working to stick it out.

A friend and I hiked out of Harpers Ferry into Maryland and there we ran into two more hikers quitting that very day. It sounded one was determined to leave and the other was leaving because she would no longer have a hiking partner. That is happening a lot: one hiker leaving soon after their hiking partner went home. I was glad Wingman would be rejoining me on trail as soon as he came back from visiting family, as hiking on my own isn’t as appealing as I thought it would be. I had invitations from other hiker friends to join their tramily (trail family) and could go along with them, but I know they hike very differently in pace, distance, and days off from what works for me. I planned to hike near them for a little while though, to keep me connected to the trail life.

Wingman rejoined me just a few miles into Maryland and we three went another fifty miles and passed the true half-way marker, where I was sure anyone that reached it would stay on trail unless injured, sick, or bad news from home. I was wrong again. Over 1300 miles into the journey, a hiker talked about leaving and an hour later turned around on the trail and headed back to the last road crossing to catch a lift to the airport. He said it wasn’t fun anymore and he didn’t want to “waste” time doing something he didn’t enjoy.

His reason for quitting is actually the one that scares me the most. I don’t want to fall into the trap of giving up just because it’s very unpleasant. Lots of goals require long stretches of physical and mental discomfort and this is definitely one of them. I want to prove to myself I will finish regardless of how much my idea has lost its sparkle.

It’s hard to find joy in the trail some days though. Other times I hike along happy as can be for awhile and then find myself weary of it before heading into a neutral zone – all in the course of a couple hours!

As the pointy rocks continued to litter our path, the boulders became harder to climb with our packs and poles, and the rain made all of it more treacherous, I realized I needed a good break. We planned to take one after fourteen straight days of hiking, but moved it up a couple days. It was a great idea to move it up, and when Mountain Dew suggested a third day off, we took her up on it. We originally had six hikers planning to take zero days (zero hiking mile day) together, but the rain drive three of them to start a couple days earlier than us. Wiki said if she hadn’t left trail right then for a break, she was about to leave for good. She hasn’t posted since she headed back on trail a couple days ago, but I’m hopeful she is still heading to Maine.

Wingman and I are headed to Fort Montgomery, NY and will be in Connecticut in just a few days. Crossing state borders is always a lift of spirits. Then we have a couple other nice milestones before reaching the White Mountains where Marc is going to pick us up and drop us off each day for a week of slackpacking, which means only carrying what you need for the day. Having Marc visit plus slackpacking to look forward to will help us keep our focus on the trail and making decent mileage.

The Whites are really tough – and a bit dangerous – so I’m glad to have the extra comfort and support from Marc. In the meantime, I’m still on trail and hoping to hear my remaining thru-hiker friends are still on trail, too!

Day 113 – Lost and Found

I’m often asked how the trail is marked and if people get lost along the way. The answer to both is yes, although it’s far easier to follow this 2,190 mile trail than you might think. The AT is marked by white blazes for the entire length of the trail, and you find blazes in the woods, scrambling over boulders, walking under an interstate or crossing through a trail town.

Of course, I’ve become lost (and found) again regardless. Sometimes a helpful addition is added which makes it easier, like this one telling us to u-turn under the bridge:

Other times, the helpful arrows didn’t help me at all. A set on the boulder at the top of a summit confused me into taking the wrong path, which turned out to be neither north or south on the AT. I quickly came to a cliff edge and realized my mistake. Once back at the boulder, I managed to take the southbound path and was heading downhill in the wrong direction when I came across two men I thought looked like the men I met at the last shelter. Sheepishly, I turned back around and followed them back up. They were Kodak and Q, section hikers who I ended up hiking near for a few days and Kodak became a friend. (He met back up with us much later to bring an evening of trail magic to us in Shenandoah!) Unfortunately, once at the top, I picked wrong again and was at the cliff edge. We all went back to the boulder just as Hank Hill strode by and picked a different path. We waited a few beats and followed him. Finally, I was free if the vortex holding me at that summit!

The blazes also point the direction of a turn. A double blaze means either turn right, turn left, or go straight through an intersection of paths. This first photo below tells us to go straight and the next one to turn right:

The only other time I was lost was when I left my tent late into the night and we were not at a shelter. The camp was bordered by two rivers close by on either side, so I thought I could follow the river back. I didn’t realize one river flowed into the ground and I had stepped over it at that point. I tried three times to find my campsite and could not. Luckily, my headlamp caught the site of our food bags hanging in the trees, so I knew I was close. Finally, I just tried going the opposite of what I thought was correct and voila! my tent reflectors glowed back at me in a few steps.

Other hikers told me to always take my phone at night, so I could use my Guthook app to bring me back. That’s a fantastic idea, because the app has a red arrow tracking me offline, as well as showing me the trail. If I camp off trail, I can at least find my way to the AT footpath. This is what the screen looks like:

Apparently, the app has rescued many hikers after a midnight potty break. I never leave my tent without my phone anymore.

There are blazes marked in other colors, too, primarily blue for water source or shelter paths. Yellow is used to mark other trails, and red blazes or stripes tell you where the National Forest boundaries are so you do not hike into private land.

After twelve hundred miles, I have found the trail is often tough to follow, but usually quite easy to find.

Day 95 – Family Focus

It’s wonderful to have something special to focus on when your slogging through the miles everyday, and my favorite is meeting up with Marc, Davis, and Ann. They visited in Harpers Ferry last weekend and my excitement built as the weekend neared.

There are many hours during some days when hiking is simply pushing yourself to keep going, rather than feeling the miles fly by. That’s when it’s especially critical to feel the pull of something good to keep you moving along. I had these three to keep my focus positive:

We all pick daily mileage goals and usually have a couple spots picked for camping that night. Basically, you can pitch your tent anywhere along most of the route, so its enticing to stop early some days. Knowing you have someplace to be by a certain date on down the trail can make it easier, as long as you don’t make it into a grind.

I had to let go of my goal to reach Harpers Ferry by the time they arrived and instead figure out how to find a shuttle driver to Harpers Ferry once I was out of Shenandoah National Park. It was so much more fun to hike after I reduced the pressure on myself, had the shuttle lined up, and could enjoy the hike while anticipating their visit.

One lesson made clear on this journey is you can easily turn your dream into a trap by making up rules and schedules which are only in your head, like “I must be there by….” The reality is I can usually jump off trail at the next road crossing by having a shuttle driver meet me there, and then drop me back when I’m ready.

It’s a great life lesson, too. Much of the pressure I feel, is put upon me by myself. I don’t need to add pressure to my journey or arbitrarily create schedules when they aren’t needed. Right now, I’m trying to remember that wherever I am on the trail is exactly where I need to be, and no other expectation really matters.

In the meantime, I’m glad to have perks and extra encouragement from friends and family to help me stay focused on moving forward to Katahdin. It sure helps the daily grind be the daily hike instead.

Day 83 – Rainy Days

Today is the first day I actually came off trail because of bad weather. I hiked 7 miles before I came off and was thoroughly soaked and cold. It had been raining since 1 PM the day before, and I decided to go to a hotel where I would be warm and dry. It turns out many of my hiker friends did almost the exact same thing today.

Hiking in the rain is okay. Being soaked all the way through your rain gear and having wet shoes to wear and a wet tent to sleep in is not so much fun, especially when you’ve been in rain nearly every day of the last 49 days – since the middle of April.

It’s far easier to think of all the miseries associated with constant rain, so I challenged hiker friends to come up with things we like about rain:

1) No snakes when it’s raining, including timber rattlers

2) It’s usually much cooler too, which is terrific for hiking as long as you stay dry enough not to shiver when your core cools down after you stop. (Three of us were shivering so much today we had to pick up the pace.)

3) It keeps the mosquitos, gnats, no-see-ums, sweat bees, and all those other pesky flying insects from swirling around your head and biting you.

4) We don’t have to wear a brimmed hat or sunscreen, but we do pull on the hood of our rain jackets.

5) We are grateful for the additional water sources, as every spring and wet weather creek is full of water. Here in Virginia we have had longer mileage between some water sources, so having unexpected refill spots is very nice.

One of my friends back home suggested quiet time contemplating, which is a plus. However, we usually hike alone for hours and hours every day, so we have lots of thinking time, rain or shine.

Even though we had four days without rain last week and a couple days that it only rained right as we set up camp, when the rain started back again three days ago it was very discouraging. Let me give you some background facts to set the stage:

  • A part of I-40 by the Great Smoky Mtns was closed due to mudslide from rain a few weeks ago.
  • The highway I was picked up from today was closed two weeks ago, because of mudslides across the highway.
  • Virginia set its record rainfall for May this year.
  • Four miles of the AT near Harper’s Ferry, was five feet under water several days ago.

This is my typical day in multi-day rainstorms:

I awake and look around at the wet clothes hanging in my tent. The smell of mildew hits me full force as I dress, but thankfully some clothes are just damp and I put them on hoping body heat dries them quickly. I unzip my rainfly and look out at the mist and fog, glad it isn’t actually raining because I need to run out of the tent for a potty break.

Hurrying back, I carefully plop my hind-end inside the tent door, leaving my feet outside until I can take off my mud covered camp shoes. I try in vain to wipe the dirt and wet leaf bits off my feet before pulling them inside the tent. If it isn’t raining yet, then it’s back outside soon to cook breakfast and coffee, where I huddle on a foam pad placed on a rock or log to keep my shorts dry.

Then I pack up my stuff and put it into my backpack, covering it with it’s rain cover in case it starts raining before my tent is down. Then I take my soaking wet rainfly and stuff it into its bag with the tent, where all will be thoroughly wet until I (hopefully) have a chance to dry it when the sun comes out. Finally, I put on my last dry socks and then put on my wet boots, knowing the boots may soak my socks all the way through.

Now I am all set to make another crucial decision: raincoat or no raincoat? Going uphill in a raincoat is like being in a sauna. Leaving off my raincoat with a gentle rain is the best option, but if it suddenly downpours…, then I am as soaked as if I fell in a river.

Finally I start hiking. It’s 8 am and I am stepping in mud right away, hopping around puddles and looking for high ground when the path is completely flooded. Much of the time I walk straight up running water as the path is now a little creek. Lately, I notice lots of newly fallen trees across the path, tumbled when the saturated earth could no longer hold them. I climb up and over the branches and trunks, thankful none fell as I hiked along.

Rocks and tree roots are especially slippery, so I hike slower than I would like, to keep from twisting an ankle or knee, or stepping into a hole covered by water.

Squish, squish, squish go my feet. I come to a view point. It’s fogged in and I see nothing. Squish, squish, squish and I arrive at a shelter and sit for awhile wondering if the sun will come out so I can dry my tent. I didn’t take earlier breaks because everything was soaking wet, and it’s no fun opening your pack in the rain. Scooting back against the shelter wall, I eat lunch and ask other hikers if they have an updated weather report. Everyone hopes the sun will come out. Then I close my pack, make the raincoat decision for the umpteenth time that day and keep hiking.

As I near the place I want to camp, I mentally go through my packed clothes, assuring myself I have something dry to wear that night for sleeping, and hoping the rain will stop long enough to set up my tent. Muddy boots come off and wet camp shoes are put on. Dinner is made. I check the weather report and say goodnight to fellow hikers. It’s 8 pm and I’ve hiked fifteen or more miles through another wet and foggy day. As I lay down to sleep, I think about how lucky I am to be able to do this hike and am still glad to be on the AT.