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!