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 36 – It’s Tough

We interrupt this regularly scheduled post to bring you an important announcement about upcoming weather on the AT:

Rain and more rain. RV’ers east of us are being evacuated right now as rain continues. We’ve been hiking in it three days and were glad when Wingman told us there were bunks still available at Greasy Creek Hostel. We cut our hike short a couple miles and took the side trail .6 miles to the hostel, and we are drying out quite nicely. Stud has his truck here, so he took us to a diner where we filled up on a good hot meal and came back to a fire in the wood stove and movies on roku in CeeCee’s main house. CeeCee even offered free glasses of Merlot. Great idea!

Tomorrow we plan to slack pack 12 miles and stay here again as the rain is predicted to be even harder and all day.

Slack packing is when you take only what you need for a day hike and a shuttle picks you up and brings you back to your stuff. At this hostel, they drop you twelve miles north and you hike southbound back. It’s much faster, and we are excited to have a chance to make miles in less time.

I can now say only 6 days of the 36 I’ve hiked have been the kind of weather someone at home thinking of hiking would actually say “Yes, let’s go for a hike!”

There were two nice days I was off trail to meet Melynn and to watch my niece, Charlotte (#17), play lacrosse at college not far from the trail. They are first in their conference and whooped the opposition. Great game! The other 28 days…. let’s just say if I invited you to hike any of those days you would have said “Heck No!”

Never the less, most thru hikers still come to camp happy they are hiking the AT and I am definitely in that group!

I just know the trees on top of the mountains will eventually leaf out with warm spring days. Right now the trees are not even pushing bud. One day soon I won’t believe it was cold for so long, but now the last freezing night was only five days ago when we awoke to 27 degrees, frozen water bottles and wind so cold and harsh I thought the left side of my face was heading for frostbite.

So, the rain is terribly unpleasant and it’s hard not to be too cold or too hot as you fend off rain in rain jackets and pants, while your inner core temperature shoots up with the effort of hiking mountains, but… it hasn’t been lower than 43 degrees or so since that last very cold night five days ago. The “warmer” temps give me hope we will soon be hiking in sunny days with spring all around us.

In the meantime, I hope Melynn isn’t too bummed out about the rain as it looks like we have a few more days of rain before the sun will come out and give us a day anyone would be glad to say “Yes, let’s go for a hike!” If anyone else wants to join me for a few fun days in the trail, check out my tracker on the mail drops page and let me know when to look for you!

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AT Dream

After years of talking to potential hiking partners about hiking the Appalachian Trail, it became clear no one I knew was really serious about hiking all 2,189 miles of it in one season. I realized I was going to have to tackle this goal on my own and that’s when I fell into limbo. Without anyone with whom to coordinate, I didn’t know when to start this long hike. My husband suggested going sooner rather than later. His reasoned the longer I waited, the better the chance I would never go at all.

I took a hard look at what would be different about hiking in 2018 instead of a  year or two later. The only disadvantages for going the very next season all had to do with money. Saving more money for the trip and current financial obligations  were at the heart of every reason to wait. I’m a certified financial planner, with decades of experience helping people reach financial goals. I know a thing or two about money, and two things I know for sure. First, you can always use more money. Second, you will always find a way to have money for what you truly want.

I fretted about it for a few more days, and then decided my husband was right. If I waited a few more years trying to have “enough money” it was likely my dream would stay a dream and I would never go. It was time to set a date and figure out how to make the money work out.

I chose March 2018 and began researching how to prepare. Ironically, within a week I had a bona fide hiking partner also committed to go the entire distance! Ten days after she joined me committed for the entire journey and now we have a third partner who will hike at least the first month. I spent all those years searching for a hiking partner, when all I needed to do was commit to my dream and state my intention to those around me.

A couple months later the financial end worked itself out, too. I found ways to cut costs and to save more money. I was inspired to spend less on everyday items. Over time I became inventive in earning a little bit extra here and there. Now I have both a team and “enough” money. Funny how the definition of enough changes when it is no longer an excuse, but a part of your mission.

Whatever your dream, making it part of your life comes when you commit to the dream and take action. For me, the turning point was choosing a date and declaring I would go. I don’t know what it will be for you, but I hope you take the steps to make your dream become your life, too.