Life on the Trail

I’ve begun the process of transcribing my trail journals. Re-examining my thru hike from the outset carries its own rewards, but I mainly want to document them legibly for future use (sleepy, shivery nights produced some pages barely recognizable as human language). As I’ve read the journals, my thoughts about the trail have swerved from life lessons and Big Moments onto the routines that formed over time. I’ve been asked by several people what it was, exactly, that I did every day. Fair question! Here’s my best attempt to encapsulate the daily activities that comprised 5 1/2 months of living in the woods.

The Lookout, Vermont
Sunrise atop The Lookout Shelter, Vermont.
I woke without an alarm around 6am to the sun mid-rise. First order of business: hit up the privy if I camped near a shelter or head into the trees to dig a hole. Some people hiked miles to the nearest privy before relieving themselves, which is madness. I often had a frantic enough scrabble as is.

Searing pain shot through my feet every morning the first time I put weight on them. The feeling only lasted a handful of steps but damn did it hurt. It’s a common occurrence, referred to as a hiker hobble. It took a couple weeks after the hike for the sensation to fully go away. Ditto for feeling all of my toes on a regular basis, which is to say numbness was a semi-frequent travelling companion. I spent a week in Virginia feeling very little of my left foot.

My morning routine lasted about an hour/hour fifteen. In order of events after my bathroom trip: fetch my food bag, change into hiking clothes, break down my tent, bandage my feet (a necessity more often than not), eat breakfast while repacking my bag, filter some water, hit the trail. Except for a handful of mornings when I felt motivated to boil water for oatmeal, breakfast consisted of Pop-Tarts, handfuls of Cap’N Crunch’s Oops! All Berries cereal, or Pop-Tarts. Mostly Pop-Tarts. You can’t beat four breakfasts for $2 and they’re calorie dense.  When I packed them poorly in my food sack, I “ate” them less than “shoveled crumbs into my beard and occasionally down my throat”. My favorite flavor is still Brown Sugar Cinnamon (duh), but the surprise MVP is Hot Fudge Sundae. Who knew!

I hiked the first few hours of the day in silent reflection, appreciating the smells, ambient noises, and tactile qualities of wilderness in the morning. I frequently spent this time articulating why I was hiking that particular day. Focusing on the end goal of Maine was too much to wrap my head around, so having daily or weekly personal motivations brought clarity and resolve. This might be as straightforward as mulling on something hitting me in the gut that day, like  “forgiveness”. Or maybe establishing a thought goal, like “ways to translate these new interpersonal skills into networking in my career”.

Invariably, my mind would wander in, around, and away from these thoughts. The aim was never to regiment or constrain my brain. The practice simply helped to ground me in the moment, especially on mornings when felt restless or overwhelmed. In practical terms, it was worthwhile having positive, productive thoughts when embarking on a daylong hike through rain.

I carried a daypack of snacks to eat while on the move, filtering water, or taking a quick break. My proper food bag was buried at the bottom of my pack (80% of your pack weight should be supported by your hips with the remaining weight spread along your back and shoulders) so it was important to have easily accessible food in a side pouch. At peak hunger, my daily snacks were 5-6 anonymous-tasting bars (granola, fruit and nut, protein, meal replacement, etc), 2-3 candy bars, a pack of cheese sandwich crackers, a honey bun or other baked good, and some trail mix.

My favorite bars were Kind Bars (expensive, but they taste like real, unprocessed food), Nature Valley XL Protein Bars (8 bars to a box which was too much to carry at the start and barely enough at the finish). Snickers are the perfect bite. Every bite, every day). Weeks in, I struggled to stomach the taste and texture of most meal replacement bars like Cliff Bars, but I continued to choke them down for calories and nutritional content. The thought of eating a granola bar now, even one I liked, makes me queasy.

I stopped to enjoy lunch at a shelter, comfortable log, or pleasant view around 1pm or the 10-12 mile mark.  Lunch took the form of a basic carb, cheese, and meat “sandwich”. Bagel thins, crackers, or smooshed English muffins fit the bill, though I eventually stopped prioritizing space-saving considerations and started buying whole loaves of crusty bread when available. A loaf of ciabatta was worth the bulk to have food I actively looked forward to eating. Same thing with family size bags of BBQ chips. “Refrigerate After Opening” notices on bricks of cheese (preferably a stiff, sharp white cheddar) and pepperoni became faint suggestions. Realistically, if eaten within 3 days, they went down just fine. By day 4 they were maybe a bit…sweaty. Listen, it’s a trashy way to live. Jerky was welcome but expensive. I often settled for whatever was on sale, unless I found bacon jerky, in which case Take My Money (I learned exactly where every Walmart carries its bacon jerky and was all too frequently crushed to find the slot empty). A fine dessert of Skittles to follow.

I often ate meals alongside fellow hikers, friends and strangers alike. It was fun seeing how other people combined the same meager ingredients. Think along the lines of peanut butter and uncooked ramen wrapped in a tortilla, or Fritos and cheese mixed into a pouch of tuna fish. I started adding an avocado to my first post-resupply lunch after stalking someone else’s meal prep.

I filtered water 3-4 times a day. Water sources and their seasonal reliability were marked in my guidebook (I need to write a post about using the book and how it’s the only thing you need to plan the entire trip). Sources ranged from streams to ponds to barely flowing trickles. Prior to training for the hike I had never filtered water outdoors. I was wary before taking my first sip, but honesty and truly, it tastes fantastic.

Ice cold mountain spring water is as heavenly as every bottled water commercial asserts. A surprise highlight of the trip.

A liter of water weighs 2.2 lbs, which adds up fast. I chugged my fill at each source and left with about 2L, less in areas where water was plentiful. Sources in the mid-Atlantic states infamously run dry in the dead of summer. I ran out of water exactly one time, on a blisteringly hot day in Pennsylvania, portioning my final few swigs hours. It was incredibly stressful. I erred on the side of carrying too much water after that. Sometimes you play the lottery and hike on to the next source, hoping it’s flowing, because the current one is a mile roundtrip off trail.

My stomach dropped when I read that I’d be hiking upwards of 20 miles a day, every day. It seemed inconceivable, even during the first month when I averaged 10-12 miles a day, no small feat in itself. But eventually things just…click. Your body molds itself into a machine meant to do exactly one thing: hike. You require fewer breaks and maintain momentum for longer stretches. I cruised at a comfortable 2-2.5 miles per hour, covering more ground throughout the summer as the days grew longer.

Just as my body acclimated to the physical demands of the hike, my mental focus sharpened to allow for a consistent increase in mileage. At some point, a simple but significant realization dawned: All I have to do today is hike. That’s it. I seldom thought about the finish line because that was for a future day. And that day would come. But at any other given moment, I had exactly one responsibility. Keep. Hiking. The enormity of the undertaking melted away when this worldview sank into my bones.

I spent about 70% of my overall trip travelling in a group. Be it with one friend, a couple people I recently met, a full trail family (tight knit groups that form organically along the way), or some combination thereof. This isn’t to say the other 30% was spent totally alone, I just wasn’t concertedly working to camp and head into town with others. Even when I was with a group, I hiked the vast majority of my miles solo. I learned my lesson early about pushing too hard to keep up with someone whose pace was naturally faster. You need to move at whatever sustainable momentum the day calls for.

That said, countless wonderful hours were spent conversing while on the move. You share an immediate affinity with fellow thru hikers; an unspoken understanding that no matter how different your life circumstances, you are both committing every muscle in your body and emotion in your heart to the same wild pursuit. This connection, combined with the freedom and empowerment of the experience, allowed for sincere, forthcoming conversations of great depth.  I will never tire of hearing stories of what brought people to the trail.

Nothing beats a heart to heart in nature, but three hour talks about The Dark Tower are pretty great, too. Plus, captive audiences to proselytize horror movies people should be aware of, and why video games are the most significant emergent artform of our time; my true intention of the hike. Mission accomplished.

Friends
Tall Boy and Small Step, two of my favorite people to hike with.


Somewhere during the course of my marriage, I lost a full appreciation of my own company. Spending hours, sometimes days, by myself in the woods reminded me how much I fucking love being with alone with myself. Thinking about memories and stories that make me laugh out loud, corkscrewing my mind around things that confound me. Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time with me knows that I talk to myself. What better place to do it than the middle of nowhere? Even when I was miles from the nearest person, I rarely felt truly alone.

I listened to several podcasts over the course of an average day, which is no different from my my regular life. I’m a big podcast guy. I downloaded episodes in bulk when in town and listened to them with my phone in airplane mode to to save battery. With one earbud in and the volume turned low, I could soak in the world around me and enjoy one of my favorite pastimes to my heart’s content. They especially kept me company when I was in pain and during long bouts of shitty weather.

For fellow podcast fans, some of my regulars on the trail were Anna Faris is Unqualified, Nancy, My Favorite Murder, Reply All, Pop Rocket, Oh No! Ross and Carrie, Linoleum Knife, Giant Bombcast, and the much anticipated third season of My Dad Wrote a Porno, one of the funniest artifacts in all of culture. If you have even the slightest appreciation of some good old fashioned dirty humor, you mustmustmust give it a go.

I initially relished in disconnecting from the toxic farce of American politics while in nature. About a month into the hike, I realized two important things: I was incredibly privileged to live this way of life, and I was falling deeply in love with the breathtaking beauty of my country and the generosity of the community surrounding me. I couldn’t stay willfully blind to the very real, present threats posed by the vile actions of the Trump administration and the flames of hate being fanned across the country. Three podcasts that fed my hunger for political awareness were The Daily, Pod Save America, NPR Politics.

Music functioned as a great adrenaline boost when I needed to kick my ass up a mountain for bear down and cover some distance. When I listened to music, both earbuds went in and the volumes shot up. I discovered how divorce made seminal music from throughout my life resonate in drastically new, unexpected ways. Arcade Fire, one of my favorite bands, released a new album while I was on the trail. I have many strong emotions connected to their music and it was awesome tying my first listen of their new work (really solid, for the record) to my hike.

I listened to an audiobook called The Troop about boyscouts stranded in the Canadian wilderness with genetically engineered tapeworms that turn them into psychopath cannibals. Right up me alley.

Some days I spaced out thoroughly and couldn’t tell you what happened for hours at a time. There’s more than one way to get lost in the woods. Miraculously, I only wandered off trail a handful of times, and never to the point where getting back was an issue.

I preferred to arrive at my stopping place with at least 90 minutes of daylight to set up my camp and eat dinner before dark. I would stake out my tent, arrange my sleeping gear, change out of my damp hiking clothes (from rain or sweat, always wet), and give myself a foot rub, feebly battling knots. I worked through at least a liter of water at camp between boiling 1-2 cups for dinner, rinsing out my pot, and brushing my teeth. Oh, and drinking. Sometimes I didn’t fully account for everything and wasn’t camped near water, so my choices were borrow from a friend (although people tend to carry just the amount they need because that shit’s heavy!) or eat a dry dinner (more trail mix….yay…..) and ration gulps until I made it to a source the following morning.

Surprisingly, I never tired of the dehydrated Knorr Pasta and Rice Sides I ate for dinner. They’re quite filling and only cost a buck (sometimes majorly price gouged in small town gas stations that know hikers will rely on them for resupply). I rotated through 6 or so flavors that seemed to simmer the best in my little camp stove. My top choices were White Cheddar Queso, Mexican Rice, and Rice Medley. 2 packets of ramen with hot sauce (the sole seasoning I carried) and crackers was always reliable, but required a bit more water. Every once in a while I treated myself to a delicious Mountain House meal (the lasagna and beef stew are great) but at $10 a pop, they’re too expensive for a regular option. Side items might include crackers, chips, cookies, and always Skittles. Incredibly unhealthy items in any other context.

Tall Boy’s dinner setup. Tent pads like this were constructed near some shelters in New England to accommodate for sloped, rough terrain.
Shelters provide a convenient option to camp near. They’re usually close to a water source and not far off traiI, with amenities like a privy, fire ring, and occasionally bear-proof storage so that you don’t have to thrown a line and hang your food. I didn’t prefer sleeping in the shelters, crammed next to snoring people, listening to rats skitter around, unless there was a massive storm pending. But it’s always an option and some people loved it. I had zero issues sleeping in my tent. I actually miss having my own little space every night.

Here are some shelter pictures so you can get an sense of the three-walled structures I’m referring to:


The further I got into the trip, the more my friends and I felt comfortable stealth camping, finding our own campsites away from designated areas. So long as you follow the 7 Leave No Trace principles and you aren’t in a national park, you can camp just about anywhere. Come across an overlook with prime sunset potential? Set up that tent and enjoy. Total freedom, carried on your back.

Filtering water for dinner, waiting for sunset near my stealth spot on Bear Mountain (New York)
The timing of my nightly routine varied greatly depending on who was around. Getting into my tent wasn’t a priority on nights of intimate fireside conversation, watching the sun descend past the pinks and oranges of the horizon. I aimed to journal every day and largely succeeded, though I had a hard time fending off sleep once I cozied up in my sleeping bag. I glacially chipped away at IT, ultimately making it through 700 of 1500 pages. If writing wasn’t enough of a sedative, reading knocked me out cold. I rarely stayed awake past 9:30. 

Me, journaling by headlamp.
I’m a restless sleeper in my normal life, prone to bouts of insomnia. I can’t recall the last time I slept through a night without waking up at least 3 times. We’re talking years. Suffice to say, I never fully acclimated to sleeping in the woods. I find the sounds of nature quite relaxing and I was comfortable and warm enough, I’m just garbage at staying asleep. Sometimes around my inevitable 1am wake-up, I’d give myself a little foot rub and spend some time with IT, hopefully tiring myself out for a couple more hours.

And I’d wake up the next morning, feet aching, profoundly grateful for the chance to do it all over again.

This is the longest piece I have written about the Appalachian Trail thus far. When I reread it, I have a hard time seeing past the truckload of details I failed to mention. I barely even talked about the actual hiking, which, in a “What I did on the Trail” post, is absurd. It hurt my brain enough trying to streamline the thoughts that made it onto the page.

I’ve come to think of this blog as my practice round, learning how to articulate and draw from my experience over the past couple years, in service of a larger project that still swims in my periphery. Thank you for reading along as I piece it together.

 

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