BY ELSA BACKSTROM
A continuous footpath from Georgia to Maine, the Appalachian Trail attracts thousands of avid hikers each year.
I have wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail (a 2,174 mile footpath from Georgia to Maine) since I first heard about it a year ago. But leaving Iowa was a bit like leaving the embrace of a lover. Growing up in the Midwest, I have come to feel attached to the Gatorade-colored sunsets, lace-like snowfall, and general comfort and friendliness the state offers.
Fortunately, I found the motivation to start this trek, and on March 1st I found myself hiking a mountain in Georgia. I knew the facts when I started: it takes an average of 6 months to complete, less than 25 percent of people who intend to hike all the way to Maine do, and there would be long stretches where I wouldn’t see another soul.
Facts, however, only tell part of the story. There is no statistical way to represent how much fun it is to be hiking out here. I have hiked for a month now (although it will be two months by the time this is published) and I have traveled about 300 miles. Every day poses a refreshing adventure and spectacular views. This is not to say every moment is blissful; hiking 20 miles a day, going for weeks without a shower, eating nothing but energy bars, and having every joint and muscle sore gets old fast.
But your down day will be another hiker’s up day, and out here you connect with people deeply in a short period of time. So your mood can be instantly elated from a friend’s pleasantness and good fortune. My days consist of walking and walking: I spend about 10 hours hiking from a mountain top to a lake or from a bald to a luscious waterfall. When I first started hiking, I noticed the air, the birds, and the trees with a more acute awareness—everything felt fresh and different. Now I feel more at home in nature. I’m not so surprised by its beauty and find myself more comfortable with the other creatures out here. They too walk among the mountains and valleys from day to day looking for food and shelter. Their bodies are more accustomed to it, and mine is becoming more habituated too.
Most people start hiking in average shape and push themselves to make 10 miles before the sunsets. It took me two weeks before I stopped thinking of miles in terms of trips around the Fairfield reservoir, which is how I got in shape. But if you tipped the whole lake to a 45-degree angle and then walked it, it would still be nothing like hiking out here up a bald challenged by ice, wind, rocks, and a heavy pack.
I now conceptualize miles as trips up and down a bald, and after compromising with my body for two weeks, I can hike 20 miles before the sunsets and not feel like a pool of drool in the morning. My body has adapted to the routine amazingly. It’s inspiring to me how astoundingly strong and simultaneously fragile bodies are.
Now that my back seems to have completely adjusted to the 40-pound pack, I no longer spend evenings mentally examining my pack for any extra weight I can discard. This is good not just because I appreciate the mental space, but also because I had started asking everyone I met how much they weighed. Among hikers, this question is understood as pertaining to pack weight; but new hikers don’t always interpret the question correctly and I was definitely in danger of getting slapped soon. Although there would be some humor in avoiding the wild boar, snakes, and bears only to get attacked by an offended woman, I much prefer to avoid that scenario.
I have encountered bears, deer, and boar when I least expected to. I was bemoaning my rain-soaked state and trudging through the mud when a gorgeous teen bear meandered across the path and glanced at me from about 15 feet away. We didn’t have time for much of a visit because he was too shy to stay and talk. I started to sing in case momma bear was close (it’s important to make noise to avoid startling bears). At first I found myself singing “this is the climb that never ends. It just goes on and on, my friends.” But I realized that seeing the cute bear had put me in a more pleasant mood, and I wanted to celebrate the wilderness, so I had to change my song selection. I find myself singing more frequently out here than I do in “the real world,” partially to keep myself company and also because I’m not sure how else to express the pleasantness or occasional unpleasantness of hiking except through song. I’ll find myself singing Bob Dylan or the Jefferson County Green Band or some song I haven’t thought of for years.
In the snow I noticed that my song selections are usually more melancholy, whereas during sunsets and at a great view I find myself selecting songs that express amazement.
There really hasn’t been a day that I haven’t seen an inspiring sunset or a peaceful majestic snowfall. It’s an unusual opportunity to have this much beauty and so much alone time to soak it in. In my non-hiking routine I sometimes crave solitude and the space to think my own thoughts; out here I wonder if I will run out of thoughts to think because the peace and quiet of the woods can be wonderfully overwhelming.
Hiking for six months isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I recommend it to anyone who will listen. Even if you don’t want to hike the Appalachian Trail, enjoying the wilderness in whatever way you can is completely worth it.
Find out more from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.