There’s something about that trail that attracts hardy souls and adventurous types.
I heard her long before I saw her, mostly because sound — especially when it’s a war cry — carries well in the mountains.
But as I talked to the 60-ish black lady with the tattoo on her forearm and a headband around her close-cropped white hair, I began to realize what I was doing up there on Sassafrass Mountain.
Sure, it was a time of refreshing, some bonding with my two friends who are closer than brothers, of good clean manly fun, of testing our mettle against some seriously uncompromising terrain.
But it turns out my reason for being on that Appalachian Trail hike was to hear the war cry near the summit of Sassafrass Mountain.
To talk to people like the two Canadians we ran across near Three Forks, about five miles into our trek. They were heading due south, just a sniff away from the trail’s end — and from the culmination of a longtime dream. They started hiking the AT in 1993, when I was still in Arizona and my two hiking buddies were still in their 20s.
Among hiking circles, everyone knows what the AT is. The big’un. The mother of all hikes. Stretching from Mount Katahdin in Maine to Springer Mountain, Georgia, this trail takes 2,184 miles. Little of it is on flat ground.
Check this. If your idea of training for the AT is to walk along some hiking trail near you, even with a full pack on, it may not be enough to get you through this hike. Even a 10-mile trip over the Cooper River Bridge in Charleston isn’t enough. Sure there’s incline, but all the pavement is there. It’s relatively smooth. There are no switchbacks on the bridge.
A mile is a mile on the bridge, but it’s a whole different animal on the trail. We usually logged a mile in about 15-20 minutes fully loaded in training, but on the trail that same mile took closer to an hour.
If you think you’re pretty big stuff, take about 10 miles or so on the AT. Start anywhere, but just do 10. It’ll humble you quickly.
Maybe it’s the scenery or the challenge, but The Trail sees plenty of visitors anyway. Some just make it a day hike along part of it. Others will section-hike, starting at one end and finishing at the other, a few days at a time. Other real hardy (and independently wealthy) souls will do the whole thing at one whack, “through-hiking” the trail. If that’s your goal, expect to take at least six months off for this.
Starters and finishers
The three of us — me, Derek, and John — started our first section hike at the southern terminus. When will we finish? No one knows. I may be on a walker when we hit Maine, but we do plan to finish this thing somehow. But there’s no rush.
Derek takes a precarious rest stop.
Our new Canadian friends took 19 years to complete their hike. When we talked to them, they were going at a goodish clip of 15 miles per day and planned to hit the Springer Mountain summit in time for lunch.
“We’ll probably open that bottle of wine we packed,” said one of the hikers, patting his backpack.
Since starting their adventure as younger men, they continued to meet once or twice a year at whatever point they left the trail, strap on their backpacks, grab their trekking poles, and go cut some trail. Most of the time anyway. For about a four-year stretch, they didn’t make it to the trail. Family matters, work, that little thing we call life kept getting in the way. Which, I’m sure, will make that wine extra heady at trail’s end.
“We’re thinking about through-hiking it next,” one Canadian told me. “But we’re still trying to wrap our heads around this.”
War cries from the
turtle snail clan
I finally see the shouting lady a couple of hundred yards ahead of me, making her halting way up the mountain to where the front-running Derek (the mo-sheen, we call him) was taking a breather. Clearly pooped, she leans her pack against a rock to take some weight off. She considers a couple of miles to be a good day.
Outfitted with his trekking poles, John’s ready for the trail.
“I’m of the turtle clan,” she says, citing some Native American — Hopi? — lore. “But now it seems like a snail.”
No worries. Never mind what the doctors say. She has arthritis, wears a brace on one ankle, and the doc told her that hiking the AT was one of those things she should never attempt. But she’s hiking for her own reasons.
“I’m a healer,” she says. She does have that New Agey look and bearing about her; her tattoo is of some spiritual motif and she has religious items in her pack. She swears she generates enough electrical energy to destroy a cell phone. “But now I’m healing me. I keep looking off from this mountain and I say, that’s my past.”
It’s clearly a tough go for her. She decided her pack was too heavy to make the climb up Sasafrass Mountain (elevation 3,336 feet), so she gave some of her food to some other hikers.
But she made it this far, and we talked with the summit within sight.
“You’ll hear me shouting when I get there,” she says.
To the members of my hiking party she’s pretty zingy, from way out in deep left field someplace. But we have to share a unanimous “good for her.” She’s on the trail, beating some odds, achieving a dream.
Just like our two Canadian friends.
Or just like John, Derek, and myself.
Sure, life happens. We have jobs and/or businesses, and sometimes we have an uneasy truce with our work lives. We have expectations to meet, promises to keep. John and Derek both have wives who would probably never join us on the trail. This is, for us, extracurricular activity. The boys’ night out.
For more photos, check out The Column
But for Derek, who grew up in northern California and went to high school in Twentynine Palms in the desert, this is something he’s always wanted to do. And John, well-educated with a good job in hospice care, well, this is also something on his bucket list.
I still think I look like I walked in from the set of Deliverance here.
I first heard of the AT when in my early 20s, and it immediately went on my list as something I had to do before I got too decrepit. A couple of years ago, my friend Rick Moore invited me to join his group for a section hike, and I had to beg off due to a foot injury.
But the Trail grew larger in my mind, so the three of us began training and planning for the hike.
Even though life happens and often it’s a series of busted dreams, there’s no reason for me to give this one up.
The trail kicked our butts. Basing our projections on our training runs, we expected to hit 37 miles in four days. Didn’t even come close.
Epic fail, right?
We’ll be back up there in six months, better trained, better equipped, and a whole lot more humble.
“I think that’s the biggest thing,” the shuttle driver told us as he took us back to our vehicle. “I think (many hikers) overextend themselves.”
He knows a little something about this. He’s driven an AT shuttle vehicle for 23 years, picking up hikers who fall short of their goal and take them to their vehicles — just like us. It’s a living.
He hears hikers say it’s easy to hit 20 miles per day right from the jump, and he believes it’s all a bunch of hogwash.
“Your system needs to adjust to this,” he said. “Through-hikers don’t start feeling right until they hit Neels or Unicoi gap (both past the 30-mile mark), then they get their legs and they’re gone. You don’t eat right on the trail. You don’t sleep right. And if your training is just running on the beach … ”
Gee, suddenly I don’t feel like such a wussy.
Get right down to it, even with the blown expectations, our hike was a success. We went out there and did it. We nibbled at it. We want to continue, hopefully for a bigger bite next time.
We came back with a better idea of how to approach the trail next time. Better training. Strip down our pack weights. Plan around water sources. Come back with a new respect for the big’un.
The epic fail would be if I wrote the whole thing off and never attempted to act on such a consarn idiotic idea again. If I gave up and settled back on the couch.
But I’m just not wired like that.
I’d rather listen to my own instincts than to reason any old day.
Catch me and my friends again in about six months. We’ll have some more trail grime to clean off and some more stories to tell you.
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