Lessons on the Appalachian Trail
By Maia Kenney, Class of 2012
I’ve not been satisfied lately with my answer to the question “Where are you from?”
…”I’m from Colorado”, I would reply; “but I’ve been living in Indiana for the last few years…well, four, if you must know.” To sum up my citizenship alone takes ten minutes, so how could I qualify in a single word where I’m from? “Where have you come from?” “Today? Or in general? – well I hiked here from Georgia, but today I started, oh, fifteen miles back down the AT.”
Scared witless as I say goodbye to my dad and hike on alone
To inform someone I don’t know and won’t see again of the exact nature of my journey is a daunting project, one I’d usually avoid, but you, dear reader, are probably either a former classmate or my grandma, and thus an attempt is worthy of your attention. Prepare for a messy recap of my experiences of the 141 days I spent on the Appalachian Trail. I haven’t fully comprehended what happened to me out there, and I don’t expect much closure during the tumult of moving to Europe with my boyfriend Arne. I hope writing this piece will help me organize my thoughts, and that in some mental chronological/spatial filing cabinet I’ll reopen next summer will sit the answer to that first question, and others.
Despite what my strolling boyfriend says, hiking is walking. How strenuous it is and what you carry, how far you go and why you’re doing it may define your walk as a hike. Yet the semantics matter and I felt a deep, relentless and painful joy in my single moment of clarity amidst the chaos on the summit of Katahdin as I realized – I walked here. Me. I walked here from Nowhere, Georgia and I’m nowhere now, great 360° views up here and a long drive tomorrow. The great and miserable thing is that drive and the preceding shower, negating all I’ve accumulated in dirt, miles and body odor in half a day. In a blur of Facebook likes of my unrehearsed Katahdin pose. A cynical thought: maybe this whole hike was just a very long and painful ploy to get 100 new Instagram followers and a bumper sticker saying My Summer Was Cooler Than Yours or I Hiked The AT And All I Got Was Lyme Disease And Beyoncé Thighs.
Epic view from Wayah Bald
But then I remember my first month on the trail. The open sores on my heels and the heavy pack, the will it took to get through the mostly awful first 170 miles, and the lightness I felt running up into the Smokey Mountains when I sorted out my gear problems. Then the roaring hunger that hit me on Good Ole Rocky Top, Tennessee as I realized I didn’t have enough food for the next 50 miles so of course I sat and calmly, apocalyptically, ate everything in my food bag but a ramen and a Clif bar. I can say now that I empathize with the indignity of begging as I relied on the kindness of strangers for food that week. Life became simple; once I took care of outstanding health and (relative) comfort issues I was free to just think, walk, move. Nighttime unleashed strange dreams of family and old friends and daytime brought hours of uncomplicated rambling thought punctuated by desperation for snacks! I did not stress about work or being on time or showering or social engagements. In fact, time was replaced by space as the continuum I lived in, which I relished as an opportunity to start and stop as I wished. Seeing the AT as a time-line as well as a physical line came with lessons I learned while forced to control my character development myself.
The most photographed spot on the AT: McAfee Knob
Lesson 1: When everything you are is funneled into physical exertion, your only assignment is to stay alert – food, rest/shelter, and water are the only direct links to well-being. The mind is freed and emptied. For the first 1000 miles I avoided technology for entertainment, preferring to hear my own voice belting Pocahontas accompanied by the birds. Did you know that birds stop singing before a storm? I love and fear a silent forest. Achieving oneness with the trail is very hard. It involves accepting that the AT has several universal characteristics:
- It’s hard as hell. Rocksylvania, the Virginia Blues, the White Mountains, the Smokies, Southern Maine, the 100 Mile Wilderness combine physical harshness with a true mental challenge. Barring injury, the trail is very doable, but tell that to a discouraged hiker lugging a full 35lb pack up a 40% grade out of town, or worse, down the same. To be successful you have to be stubborn, tolerant of serious discomfort, and driven by low-grade insanity.
- The payoff often feels minimal (see: Rocksylvania), as vistas and good terrain are elusive and have to be worked harder for than seems worthwhile. I often wished I was on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) instead–not a healthy thought when you have 800 miles more to go.
- It’s crowded. Yes, you could hike all day alone, but you’d still see other hikers and, if you don’t want to you never have to camp by yourself.
Ghost the dog, who led me up Sugarloaf Mt on one of my loneliest (and happiest) hikes on the AT
So, through the long hours, miles, snacks, boredom, discomfort, pain, and engaging conversations with like-minded nuts, the ‘perfect moment’ is a stealthy beast. Conscious, aware enjoyment of a hidden glacial lake or a spiderweb in sunlight is such a giddying experience that it felt unfair to myself to not pay attention all the time. I tried hard at first to stay alert and constantly open to zen-like experience. I used to waste time living for the weekend, and I’d waste the weekend just as blithely. But you don’t want to feel like you are wasting time when you are hiking because you are making the conscious effort to move forward in space – time – with the intent to give yourself pleasure (and if you’re not having fun, you can so easily go home). I learned to not kick myself when I stopped early, tired or cajoled by a friend… #noregretstho. When I hauled my tired legs up Mt Lafayette on a shockingly sunny day and saw what I’d missed the days before, hiking Mt Moosilauke socked in and blowing rain, I knew I had a perfect moment. I’d had so many, and maybe I caught some small enlightenment in those long months. I definitely relaxed, became quieter.
But the AT is like a river, and swimming it from spring to sea can be monotonous. Eventually the sheer habit of walking and trying not to trip, and missing home and phone service turned me back into a killer of time.
Weird Horse and Peanutbutter crossing the Kennebeck River by canoe
Lesson 2: Even the best things can become terrible with a bad attitude. At one end of the AT hiker scale is Maia, Amazon with killer calves, 32lb pack and a more than passing interest in Zen. At the other is Recon, ultralight now with 700 miles to go, Lyme disease, and an interest in anything but hiking. These ladies balance each other, and they both had good and bad experiences on the trail. I think they only coexisted for the last 50 or so miles of trail…At some point I noticed a smell of hot asphalt drifting from my armpits when I exerted myself on warm days. Chemical breakdown in the muscles? I was the strongest I’d ever been as I strode past the halfway point and into New Jersey, happily clocking 20-30 miles a day, so dedicated to reaching Katahdin that I barely remember those middle states. I even downloaded an extra-long excruciatingly sappy audiobook to pass the time (I listened to Serial finally too, so good). When I got Lyme in Connecticut, however, something changed. I still pushed hard, but my will to finish was less joyful, more machinelike. I relapsed into my competitive old self, loving the trail but sorta missing the point. Recovering from Lyme took some time since I of course refused to take a day off, and Massachusetts and Vermont are sort of blurry. Hard to have fun when 20 miles makes you cry, but I would never consider quitting and I’m glad I pressed on. Somewhere in that time I felt I’d lost the purity John Muir and Benton Mackay envisioned in building long distance trails. I ignored the sweetness of nature and filled my mind with mechanical athleticism, just wishing to complete this enormous feat of endurance and just go on to my next adventure. I drowned out my body’s requests for a break with my take on the Beastie Boys’ ‘No Sleep Til Katahdin’, and became quite irritable, often hangry (I’m sorry, Weird Horse).
Family dinner in Damascus: Push, CrissCross, Sunray, Rubiks, Magic Man, and Fisherman consuming a scary amount of food
The antibiotics helped though. And pockets of generosity from strangers and friends brightened the challenges ahead; I fell back in love with the trail in time for the White Mountains. The untiring Wayne and Julia from Toronto came to hike Franconia Ridge with me- that is still my favorite day on the trail, my friends. Despite the overdramatized claims that I’d literally die in the Whites, I had so much fun with Weird Horse and Nerd Alert that I didn’t care we only made 12 miles a day, that I snapped a trekking pole, that I was sunburned and dehydrated. Stealth-camping atop Mt Garfield, eating dinner looking back at Mt Lafayette, I felt like I’d done the work on myself that I had imagined before starting the trail. If the AT stopped there I’d have been satisfied…but of course, I still had to hike Mt Washington, Wildcat Mountain (which I’m pushing to be renamed Mt Obama), and southern Maine – the hardest terrain on the whole AT. Those just passed in a blur of hungry/thirsty/tired/sore with the only relief being great company and stunning views. The trail seemed endless with 300 miles to go though I’d walked over 6 times that distance.
But of course ends come soon, even if they are longed for. The second half of Maine is my favorite long stretch of trail. I regained that elusive lust for hiking in the Bigelow range, a lesser-known alpine ridge rivaling the Presidentials and any hiking I did in Colorado. Stuffed blueberries in my mouth by the handful, alternating with Skittles and literally anything that had calories, and burned moose poop as incense. The terrain even slacked its relentless assault on my knees and I hiked 20+ days again – in the 100 Mile Wilderness I hiked 33.4 miles with Green Hornet and Bucky! And suddenly I was 10 miles from the base of Katahdin.
Clean Skittle, Bucky, and Green Hornet, my last trail family, as we triumphantly exit the 100 Mile Wilderness
The next morning I hike that distance in 3 hours and, on a whim, leave all my friends behind to rush up the summit alone, a day ahead of schedule. I experience no grandiose epiphanies at my journey’s end,so I treat those last 5.2 miles as just another hike, although the insane boulder scramble in the middle is exceptionally challenging. At the top – well, I’m here. There. Done. Wow, great view, day hikers ask me about my journey, interrupt my almost-tears and it’s so buggy I’m flailing around and ok, pose like twenty times on the famous sign and…leave. 5 miles back down the AT following white blazes that weren’t mine anymore because I actually know the way, I’m a thru-hiker now. The next day I hike up Katahdin again because I don’t have a book to read while I wait for my parents, and because it will rain, I only spend 5 minutes at the summit this time.
Rainbow over Katahdin after my second hike up
It’s over. I’m back where it’s easy to waste time but I’m wary of that now – I missed the Pokemon thing and I’m glad of that. I’ll get back in shape once my knees heal. I’m traveling, in Germany now (last week Amsterdam) and Poland for the whole year. I’ll try to keep writing. I guess I’ve given up on enlightenment for now, but I know that this experience is stewing inside me and the more I talk, think, write about it the more I’ll understand what it did to me. Here’s to the Appalachian Trail.