We’ve hiked 870 miles of the Appalachian Trail. That’s more than one third! (By 140 miles if you’re looking for specifics.) Bill Bryson, considered an authority on the AT based on his wildly popular book A Walk in the Woods, only hiked a third of it. The Proclaimers won millions of hearts with their grand romantic gesture of writing a song about their willingness to walk a great distance for love… only 500 miles. When we first discussed hiking the entire AT, we debated doing it in 3 major chunks over 3 years; that might have allowed us to keep our jobs but still feel seriously accomplished about our annual mileage. All of this to say: One-third feels like a big deal!
Fear not, the trail keeps us humble. (Falling down regularly is a good way to avoid getting overly confident.) The statistics on thru-hike attempts that end in the first few weeks are intimidating, so we’re ecstatic that we’ve made it this long and this far. If we break an ankle tomorrow and have to head home early, we’ll still be awfully proud of what we’ve accomplished this summer. The following are some of the most memorable experiences from these 870 miles. Fair warning, this is not a “favorites” list; many of these are happy memories, but they’re not all sunshine and rainbows. (Actually, none involve rainbows. 97 days of living outside, many of them rainy, and we haven’t seen a rainbow.)
Our first two days on the trail were beautiful. Then the rains came… and stayed for 11 days. Thanks to some impressive gear, mainly our Oboz boots and our Clark Jungle Hammock system, we stayed blissfully dry…at least for the first 8 rainy days. By day 11, Lindsey was cooking a blister, but Travis was quick to fix it up and neither of us has had one since. (Knocking on wood as we type that.)
On May 21st, we hit two major milestones: 100 miles and 501c3 status for Tenderfoot! We realized both of these things shortly after crawling into our hammock after our first 15-mile day. Exhaustion turned into giddiness and Lindsey may have disturbed every hiker in camp as she tearfully and incredulously announced each achievement.
501 Shelter was a much-anticipated place to spend the night: Rumor told us that it had 4 walls and a door (rather than the usual open 3-walled structure), and it was so close to a road that a local pizza place routinely delivered. The day before we got there, we encountered a trail angel handing out chips and cookies at a trailhead. Lindsey had been craving Fritos but happily settled for the salt-and-vinegar that Ice Man offered. (Some trail angels serve up trail magic on a regular basis and are inevitably christened with a trail name by thankful hikers.) Not only did we get pizza at 501 shelter, but Ice Man showed up with Fritos, having gone out to buy them specifically in the hopes of running into “Songbird” on his hike that day.
Delaware Water Gap is the last stop in PA before the trail merges with I-80 to cross the river into New Jersey. We timed our arrival perfectly– The local Presbyterian church runs a hostel and the congregation serves a potluck dinner every Thursday for hungry hikers. That meal, shared with open-minded and open-hearted parishioners, was like the warmest of hugs.
While waiting out some rain (more rain, what a surprise!) on our second day in the Garden State, we ran into three women who had just spent the night in the lodge of a closed camp. “It’s a mile off-trail and looks totally run-down, but it’s on federal lands now, so they can’t really tell you not to camp there. Plus, it still has electricity, so you can turn on the lights and charge your phone!” We got directions and headed that way. Todd Lodge turned out to be the last structure on a road that ran through not one, but two camps. The first was still bright with fresh paint and well-manicured landscaping, and we half expected to see campers come streaming out of the dining hall. Eventually, though, as we followed our directions to “just keep going”, the buildings looked more and more sad and the trail became quite overgrown. We passed a half-burned building, unlabeled, a rotting pool house with inflatables still inside, plenty of KEEP OUT signs, and a beach with overturned canoes, long-forgotten. We were starting to get pretty creeped out and considered aborting our mission, but we saw one more structure through the trees and alas had arrived. We kept the lights off the whole time to avoid being detected, we shared our food with mice, and we slept poorly, but we left the next morning feeling like we got away with something cool.
New Jersey is surprisingly one of the most heavily bear-populated states on the Appalachian Trail. We’re told this is due to development condensing their habitat down to the corridor between major highways and the Delaware River. We saw our first bear as we left the deserted camp, and it was a relatively uneventful interaction: bear crossed the road, glanced at us, we sang loudly, bear slipped silently into the woods. A week later, however, we surprised (and were surprised by) two bear cubs playing in the middle of the trail as we crested a hill. They went running in opposite directions, we scrambled backwards, one reversed course to follow the other…and then they sat at the top of the hill, watching us in the hopes we’d go away. Moving forward on the trail would have meant moving closer to them, and we didn’t know where Mama Bear was, so we were stuck. We stayed that way for 20 minutes: clapping, banging our hiking poles together, singing, and trying to scare them away while they sat, scared to move, and hoping we’d go away.
Unlike 501 Shelter, Brinks Shelter had no reputation that preceded it. It should have. We planned to stop in for lunch and to collect water from the stream, but plague-level mosquitoes cut our stay short. Lindsey went the .2 miles to the water source and had to stop along the way to put on full rain gear to cover as much skin as possible. She emerged 15 minutes later making unintelligible noises and wildly slapping at her hands and face. She climbed the hill out of the shelter area while 4 liters of water (an extra 8 pounds) swung from her pack and Travis followed, smacking the hordes of mosquitoes that covered her from head to toe. She still calls it the worst 15 minutes of the entire hike thus far.
(Sorry, no photos of the bears nor the mosquitoes. We’re not trying to get eaten by anything, large or small, while we snap a selfie.)
Sheer rock surfaces and poorly marked trail made NY our least favorite state so far, but there were two redeeming factors.
1. Being relatively close to the Big Apple, the trail crosses roads fairly often in this state. At seemingly every crossing, hikers are greeted by delis run by clever people offering hiker deals. Blazes are the paint marks on trees and rocks that mark the trail; different colors denote different things. The AT is marked with white blazes, and side trails are blue. When someone cheats and skips trail miles via car, it’s called yellow-blazing. In some areas it’s accepted for thru-hikers to “aqua-blaze” the trail by kayaking parts where a waterway runs parallel to the AT. In New York, hiking the AT is known as deli-blazing.
2. West Mountain Shelter is .6 miles off trail, an unheard of – and horribly inconvenient – distance out of your way. However, with the promise of a NYC skyline view, we opted to put in the extra mileage. #worthit
We happened to be in CT for Lindsey’s birthday and decided to splurge for a night in town. We were lucky enough to be the only guests at Cornwall Bridge Inn for our middle-of-the-week stay, so we had their pool, hot tub, breakfast nook, and reading room all to ourselves. It was pure delight to escape the Hiker Super-Highway and have our first truly quiet, solitary time in 6 weeks.
Travis’ birthday is 4 days after Lindsey’s and we had crossed another state line by then. (New England is so rewarding that way – frequent border crossings make you feel like you’re making serious progress!) After a birthday breakfast of rehydrated pineapple upside-down cake, we hiked in 110° heat to a pond where we cooled off. While there, we met a couple who became the most incredible trail angels we’ll probably ever encounter. They shared their lunch with us — full of fresh produce and homemade goodness, and then they offered to let us stay at their house that night. Sure enough, when we finished our mileage that afternoon (a grueling 10 miles in the heat), they met us at a road crossing and took us to their lovely home in the Berkshires. We got showers, did laundry, and snacked while they made lasagna. They even had an ice cream cake in their freezer, which they cheerfully pulled out and stuck candles in when they found out it was Travis’ birthday. In the morning, we chatted over a 3-course breakfast about the months-long road trip they went on when they were young and broke and in love. We hope to be them 40 years from now.
Upper Goose Pond is another one of those shelters that’s far off-trail but worth the work. It’s a beautiful, 2-story cabin situated on a large pond with a dock and free canoeing. Volunteer caretakers spend a week there at a time, hauling potable water in by canoe, and making morning coffee and pancakes for the hikers. We plan to return as caretakers sometime and do some trail magic: we’ll pack in chocolate chips, blueberries, and real maple syrup, and really make those pancakes shine…or cause pre-diabetes.
North Adams was the last town we visited on our way out of Mass. We weren’t planning on stopping, but Travis loves himself a good (and bad) Chinese buffet. When we discovered a bikes-for-borrow stand at the the trailhead, there was no stopping him from pedaling toward over-stuffed contentment and eventual self-disgust. His dreams were shattered, however, upon our sweaty arrival: Closed on Tuesdays.
Hitchhiking is a legitimate form of transportation in Vermont, so reliable that a local told us she often thumbs her way to work. We hitchhiked twice: into and out of Manchester Center, a lovely if expensive tourist town that had exactly what we needed– a laundromat with loaner clothes so we could wash everything in our packs and walk around town in borrowed style. On our way into town, we were picked up by a man whose puppy escaped the vehicle as we were loading in…and it ran across a 3-lane highway. Travis gave chase, eventually catching the dog with the help of several motorists who angled their cars to corral the dog toward the berm. When that excitement ended and we were alas on our way into town, we discovered that our poor driver had recently had a stroke…and should not have been driving. It was a terrifying 5 miles. On our way out of town, we were picked up by a generous woman who offered us Twisted Teas…then popped the tab on one of her own as she drove along. She explained that she was driving between jobs and needed some refreshment to make it through a very long day.
Some days we just don’t feel like hiking. After an 8-mile morning and a nap in a farm stand’s yard, we were dragging ourselves back to the trail. We passed a house, a barn, and a man on a mower: “You guys know about the secret hostel?”
“It’s upstairs. Check it out and stay if you’d like, I’m going to keep mowing.”
We followed his gesture and climbed the steps into the loft of his barn, only to discover….full-size beds! Electricity! Christmas lights! Wifi! We quickly decided to end our day short, and the fun just didn’t stop coming. That evening, the owner of this donations-based hostel drove us to a pub that was hosting live Irish music. We didn’t get to bed until 11:30, three hours later than our usual, but it was worth every tired step the next day.
This list represents only a handful of the hundreds of big events and micro moments that have made the last 3 months unforgettable. We didn’t include any of the visits we’ve had from some of you, but that’s only for the sake of brevity. The rare times we get to see familiar faces and hug people who know us and care about us…this is what keeps us going. We love, and perhaps even need, reminders that people are at home cheering for us. We’re so deeply grateful to those of you who have driven all the way to the trail, tolerated poor communication/haphazard planning as we hiked through no-service zones, and tracked us down at random country road crossings.
Finally, our tally sheet as of today:
Falls: Lindsey – 6, Travis – 3
Record number of days between showers/laundry: 13
Visitors from our real lives: 9!