A [brief] escape

Lyn Widmyer, an ATC volunteer, stands with her son Nick before he sets out on his hike along the Appalachian Trail in Virginia//Photo and text courtesy of Lyn

In 1996, writer Bill Bryson attempted to hike all 2,200 miles of the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) He failed. But he succeeded big time with his humorous account of the trip. His book, “A Walk in the Woods,” quickly became a best seller and inspired a lot more people to hike the Trail. The upsurge in hikers was called the Bryson Bump.

Another Bryson Bump is expected in September when the movie version of the book, starring Robert Redford, premiers. In 1996, when Bryson attempted his thru-hike, 334 people joined the 2,000 mile club, the official roster of those completing the entire A.T. between Springer Mountain, Georgia and Katahdin, Maine in less than a year. In 2014, the list expanded to 714, an all-time record. The Bryson Bump is expected to inspire even more hikers in 2016.

Some thru-hikers (those who complete the entire Trail in less than a year), are disdainful of Bryson because he “only” hiked 200 or so miles before ending his quest.

Benton MacKaye, founder of the A.T., would not share their disdain. He envisioned the Trail as an escape for “toilers in the bee-hive cities along the Atlantic seaboard.” Harried urban dwellers could escape to the Trail for a day or a week, but McKay never thought people would thru-hike the Trail all at once. In 1948, World War II veteran Earl Shaffer became the first to report a thru-hike. He wanted to “walk the army out of [his] system.”

Only one in four hikers who attempt the entire Trail actually succeed. Most hikers complete different portions of the Trail over a longer time period. My first day volunteering at the A.T. Visitors Center in Harpers Ferry, WV, an elderly woman appeared and announced she had just completed the Trail. We all cheered. How long did it take you? I asked. “Nineteen years,” she replied. For two decades, her husband drove her to different locations on the Trail and then retrieved her days or weeks later.

Clearly, Bryson was a bit naïve thinking he could hike the rigorous Trail with very little preparation or hiking experience. In “A Walk in the Woods,” Bryson realizes his quest is over while sitting in a shelter in Tennessee looking at a map of the A.T. He writes,

“All that we had experienced and done—all the effort and toil, the aches, the damp, the mountains, the horrible stodgy noodles, the blizzards, the dreary evenings, the endless, wearying, doggedly accumulated miles—all that came to two inches on the map. My hair had grown more than that. One thing was obvious. We were never going to walk to Maine.”

For someone like me, who considers a stroll along the C&O Canal towpath a major hiking event, Bryson’s decision to abandon his quest is very understandable. When I see thru-hikers at the Visitors Center loaded down with 45 pound packs, exhausted, hungry and reeking of sweat, I know even section hiking the Trail is not in my future. But my fascination with the A.T. only increases with each hiker I meet.

I agree with Bryson’s description of the Trail:

“There is the good old A.T., still quietly ticking along after six decades, unassuming, splendid, faithful to its founding principles, sweetly unaware that the world has quite moved on. It’s a miracle really.”

Experience the miracle. Park near the A.T. Visitors Center and walk into Harpers Ferry National Historical Park on the Appalachian Trail. The hike is less than a mile.

Now that’s my idea of a walk in the woods.

The ultimate post-thru-hike re-entry program

Rocky Top Trail Crew members show their enthusiasm along the Appalachian Trail in the Great Smokies//Photo courtesy the Rocky Top Trail Crew blog//Text by Leanna Joyner, Trail Resources manager

Near the end of a thru-hike, or just afterwards, there’s a flood of mixed emotions: pride, elation, and for some, there’s confusion about what comes next. The camaraderie, present-moment focus, the healthy physical exertion, and time outdoors doesn’t have to conclude when your hike finishes.

RockyTop_LogoSeveral thru-hikers of the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) are already planning to join the Rocky Top Trail Crew once their hike ends. Rocky Top Trail Crew enables hikers to experience the Great Smoky Mountains from a different perspective by working and camping on the Trail during 8-day sessions.

Here are the top 10 reasons why a hitch on crew is the perfect transition into life after the trail.

  1. Retrace part of your hike: The Smokies are beautiful, but early spring thru-hike starts often means missing the views and expansive perspective gained from some of the highest and most remote sections of the entire A.T. You’ll get to return to the Smokies in time to see the fall colors in their full effect in September and October and squeeze out the very last bit of good weather before the snow flies and puts the Trail to bed for the winter.
  1. Camaraderie: Live and work with the salt of the earth. Whether reuniting with Trail friends or other volunteers on the crew, you’ll forge the kind of memorable relationships that will last a long time.
  1. “Repair the Rut”: If you ever found yourself frustrated with a trench of trail, this is your chance to make it better for those who come behind you. Be part of improving the type of trail conditions you were annoyed by the most.
  1. Get a behind the scenes look at the management of the A.T.: The Trail doesn’t just exist. It’s constantly evolving and shifting, and it requires a host of management partners, from volunteers, to Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) staff, and land management agencies. Get a glimpse of how all the pieces and partners fit together by being a valuable piece of the puzzle to protect the A.T.
  1. Learn new skills: By the end of your hike, you’ve stepped over, on, or around thousands of steps or waterbars. They are the corrective action for the number one enemy of the trail: water. These erosion control features repair entrenched trail by slowing the flow of water or by getting off the trail. Learn the “how” and the “why” behind these structures. You’ll know it well enough by the end that you can teach someone else.
  1. Continue your outdoor experience: If your experience hiking this year makes you feel like you may only ever want to live and work in the backcountry, trail crew provides a great job skill training opportunity and resume builder. Add conservation, natural resource protection, and teamwork to your skill set as you ease your way back into the workforce.
  1. Get all you can eat without tacking on those post-trail pounds: Keep your trail physique and gain upper body strength and conditioning while enjoying all the food you can eat. Did we mention you don’t even have to carry that food up the mountain to the backcountry site? Our equestrian volunteer and partners help us carry some of the heaviest equipment and supplies to the worksite on this rare horse-accessible portion of the A.T.
  1. Put your worrying mind at ease: With your backpack on, your focus is solely on the trail ahead. On crew, you can focus just on the task at hand: crushing this rock, lopping this brush, or placing the most perfect stone step. With concerted focus, your mind releases unnecessary chatter and your body produces measurable results.
  1. It feels good to give back: Altruism releases all kinds of fabulous feelings. Bring yourself and your contributions of sweat and effort to Rocky Top Trail Crew to leave a lasting impact. Plus, you’ll be delighted to plan a return visit long into the future.
  1. Earn a free t-shirt: While no one on crew cares a bit if you’re stinky as you work alongside them in your hiking gear, at the end of your crew session, you’ll appreciate having a fresh t-shirt to slip on. You’ll walk away with a t-shirt in acknowledgement of your effort and making you as a great guardian of the A.T.

Convinced that you are a good fit for the Rocky Top Trail Crew? Access the crew schedule here and email Leanna at ljoyner@appalachiantrail.org with any questions.

A (not-so) ‘Wild’ gal

Ellen Gass on the Appalachian Trail//Photos and text by Ellen Gass, guest blogger

Let me start by saying that I loved “Wild.” I loved the book. I loved the movie. I loved the way they captured many of the struggles and fears that hikers, especially solo female hikers, have while backpacking. And, it gave me a sincere appreciation for the fact that my toenails fell off on their own without having to rip them off.

After returning from six months on the Appalachian Trail (A.T.), one of the questions I get a lot (after “How was it?” – a question that is impossible to answer in less than 45 minutes and without a 400-plus photo slideshow) is “What did you learn?” or “How did you grow as a person?” There are, indeed, a lot of things I learned. For example: porcupines will eat your shirt if you leave it out to dry on a bench at night. Most hikers carry at least one or two things they could do without, luxury items you might say. I learned that a shirt is not a luxury item. A shirt is something you need. I also definitely grew as a person. Confidence abounds after keeping yourself alive in the woods for months at a time. However, I have found that people seem to be looking for a more of a “Wild” answer.

Now, many people who spend time on the Trail do have “Wild” experiences. The Trail is a great place to heal, grow, and learn about yourself. I have been blessed to spend more than 10 years hiking and working on the Trail. It has changed me, but those changes have been slower, more gradual. So this fall, making my way from Katahdin to Springer, my Trail experience was more of a vacation than a spiritual journey. That’s to say, while every so often the thought, “I bet people think I’m contemplating the meaning of life right now” would cross my mind, the actual meaning of life rarely did. The expectation that spending so much time in the woods will lead to spiritual musings, an understanding of who I really am (other than a very hungry hiker), and an enlightened sense of self, is so pervasive, though, that I’d like to give you a taste of what really happens in the brain of a long distance hiker.

I found that sometimes, when I’m hiking . . .

  • I use my trekking poles as a microphone and dance down the Trail.
  • I throw my snot bandana over my shoulder and pretend it’s a cape and I’m a super-hero flying down the Trail.Photo2
  • I pretend I’m a NASCAR driver banking on the downhill turns (no one goes fast on uphill turns). But only on the left turns – on the right turns, I pretend I’m a Formula One Driver.
  • I pretend the ground is lava, and I have to jump from rock to rock in order not to burn up.Photo3
  • I pretend that I am one of the elephants from Salvador Dali’s paintings, and my trekking poles are my long spindly front legs. Then I take giant tromping steps.Photo4
  • I wonder if I can climb that, then I check to see if I am right.Photo5
  • I wonder if it’s too soon to have another snack break, or if you can eat too many sour gummi worms. (Answer: You can’t.)
  • I wonder if I have been hiking for too long . . . nah!

From idly dreaming about long hiking trips to working seasonally, then full-time for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, Ellen is excited that she had the opportunity to turn her on-again, off-again flirtation with the Trail into a fully committed relationship this past summer and fall when she spent six months hiking more than 1,700 miles of the AT.

With a few miles left to go, Ellen is happy to say that she is not done, and is still hiking the Trail (albeit not on the Trail these days). Stay tuned for the full story and the rest of Ellen’s hike in a future issue of A.T. Journeys, and in the meantime, check out her blog here.