For hikers, our packs our the center of our lives. We carry every single thing we have in our packs, and how much you like your pack can make your hike a wonderful thing or a terrible time.
I was talking with a very good friend of mine who is on her way to the Philippines in two weeks, and she asked my advice on her pack choice. She could either take her older external frame pack, a massive 80 Liter item, or a smaller internal frame 70L. She’s not really doing much backpacking, it’s more for base camp haul in/haul out – but she’s still worrying about it quite a bit.
So we talked about it – hikers can talk for hours about their gear. My biggest piece of advice when it comes to packs is to put all your stuff in it, and see how it carries the load – in other words you do the opposite of what comes naturally, which is buy the bag first and fill it up.
I hiked with a Granite Gear Blaze 60L pack in 2013 for over 2,000 miles. By the end of the trail, the back plate had broken completely once, was shattering a second time, it had a hole in the main compartment and water bottle web was completely gone. But it got me to the end, and I still use it today.
This pack took me all the way to the end. It never let me down completely ever. I didn’t always treat it as well as I should have, and it didn’t always treat me well either, but it was good. It shared my adventures and came with me everywhere.
Something my friend said though made me think.
I use the same logic when picking a mate. I see how they fit in my life and how they carry their load.
True statement. Finding someone to share your life with, and picking a backpack out are similar things if you think about it!
- Packs carry your life when hiking long distances. Your mate carries your heart. Both are capable of damaging you if they fail in their duties.
- Packs can be flawed of have a defect, just like your mate. When your pack breaks, you try and fix it – always carry your needle and thread, duct tape. Make-up sex and long conversations are the equivalent I think in relationships.
- Packs can come with guarantees, showing how much the company is willing to stand behind their product. Your mate can come with a guarantee too – in the form of a life-long commitment to you – either via marriage, another social contract or just a promise.
- You get to pick your pack, the same way you get to pick your mate – out of hundreds of other options. Some feel good, others don’t and you never really know if you’ve made the right choice until a hundred miles in.
In the end though, people out preform packs in one major area – they can grow and change. They may get worn out with you, but they don’t get thrown away – not really. Not the good ones.
But then I don’t throw out any of my packs either – I’ve sent a few off in Viking funerals, but I’ve never tossed one.
I have too much respect for my pack – broken or not
“Oh look at this one! It’s a (long sounding latin name I still never remember.)”
I heard about Damselfly long before I ever met her.
“Did you hear about the new chick that got on the Trail in Harper’s Ferry? She’s pretty hot! Smart too! She’s hiking with Uncle Buck!”
“I thought you said she was smart. Why is she hiking with Uncle Buck….”
When I met Damselfly it was really in passing into Duncannon PA. I had made it to town for the Billville hiker feed and a weekend of fun and zero days. She was stopping in town for 1 day to meet up with her step-dad, who wanted to hike with her for a week or two. He was leaving his car at the Doyle.
I don’t even remember what really sparked the conversation, but I’m pretty sure it had something to do with her gear, and how it looked heavy from where I was, drunk and leaning out of the second floor fire escape door.
“No worries! Shakedown in 3 minutes or less guaranteed to lighten you by 5 pounds or an ice cream novelty!”
Her step-dad had all manner of interesting heavy things. His pack was… heavy. More than a little heavy. Possibly very. He had a solid core air mattress that weighed more than my shelter and all my sleeping gear.
Damselfly was a little better off, and she lost a few things there that helped. I tried to convince them to stay another day and enjoy the hikers and the festivities. But she wanted to hike. She wanted to hike a lot.
It was the first person in awhile I had found who was still eager everyday to get up and hike. Maybe it was because she still had fresh legs, she didn’t know what the score was, or how monotonous it had gotten. Or how PA sucked.
She was happy to be there. It was like being in Georgia all over again. For her it was.
I told her I’d catch up to her in a few days. When I did it was 100 degrees, awful bugs and terrible terrain. He step-dad had gotten off the trail already and was headed home.
But you couldn’t keep Damselfly down. Even through all the awfulness of PA when I hiked with her, she was smiling and happy. She never expressed a moment of true despair or negativity. Sure she bitched a bit about the rocks, heat and bugs – but the whole time she did it she was smiling. Happy to be out in the world, in the woods and not at her old job or in school anymore. She was alive and unstressed.
It was like watching a bird fly for the first time. Beautiful.
Damselfly got her name because she’s an entomologist. She’s a bug person. A really really smart bug person. She knew the names of everything that was around – and even gave me the official latin name for the “no-see-ums” and biting gnats that plagued us in PA. Of course I don’t remember what they were, but she knew them. I remember camping with her one night and she knew all sorts of things about the fireflies that came out to play.
Sometimes you hike with someone who has good stories to tell. Someone who provides humor or life lessons through their tales. Other times your find people who have such a vast knowledge and intelligence on a subject(s) that you are awed by them. Others have the positive, always sunny attitudes that just lift your day.
Damselfly was all of that. Every single day I ever spent near her was a good one. She made the day better – instilled knowledge and positive feelings and love with every step and word, despite the pain she had and was dealing with. It left me in awe of her mental and physical fortitude. It made me a little jealous.
I knew she’d get to the end.
She’s a good person to be around. She’s one I miss quite a bit.
Life never was the same. And everyday I’ve been thankful for that fact.
The holidays are two-sided affair for many people. It has promise of family, and the love they bring. But it also has the promise of family, and the stress they bring.
Usually I fall into the second category. Stress. When I’m with primary family – mom, step-dad, brother, dad and his girlfriend… its stressful for me.
It’s only gotten worse since I’ve hiked.
It’s only really gone off the deep end since I came back and been living with my mom and step-dad.
My mom has been supportive of me during this time, my recovery and reintegration. But she never really has understood what I’m talking about, or the obstacles I’ve been dealing with. Its not to say she hasn’t been empathetic, she just doesn’t actually listen to what I’m saying. Not really.
So she suggested we go to a family counselor.
“Your son is broken” was the second thing the counselor said when mom came into the room.
I think it finally hit her – having someone else tell her.
Because since I’ve been back, I have been broken. I’ve been mired in a funk. Brought down by post-trail depression, heatbreak and physical pain.
Post-trail depression is a real thing. It happens to every long distance hiker. It’s easy to see why – you spend everyday living with people, sharing everything with them. At the end, you are ripped from your family and shoved back into a world where at best people don’t understand what you just did. At worst, they look at you with disdain.
So how do you deal with post-trail depression? There are lots of people who have ideas and theories about it.
I’ll let you know when I’m finally over it myself. Because it’s a long long road back from it.
And I’m not sure where I’m going from here.
I’m not sure. But it’s my journey. And I’ll keep walking the whole time.
Walking solves all my problems
There have been a moments so far where I have actively feared for my life. I was run off the road on a major highway when I was 20 by a man who wasn’t paying attention. In the 15 seconds that took, everything was instinctual because it happened so fast. I had no moments during the act to think about what was going on – only afterwards did I look back and reflect on almost dying.
The Madison Gulf Trail descent I did however, gave ample time to consider my death.
In the White Mountains, you spend the majority of your time far above tree line, exposed the whole time to the elements and the storms that routinely roll through.
Luckily there are Huts run by the Appalachian Mountain Club (here after referred to as AMC – or Appalachian Money Club) that allow thru-hikers to stop and rest at, dry out a little and sometimes, if you’re lucky, spend the night. By spend the night, I mean they take 2 hikers, let them sleep on the floor, do some sort of work for stay and require them to be out before any other guests are up. Or you can pay $124 to spend the night (prices vary by day of the week and whether your an AMC member, but it’s always over $100)
When we arrived at Maddison Spring Hut, Roadkill and I had been walking in the freezing rain, high wind and visibility out to 25 feet. It was 1:30 in the afternoon and we were already exhausted, Roadkill was near incoherent, hypothermic and we were both wet. We were able to get inside the hut, take our packs off and at least change out of our sopping wet clothes for a bit, but the inside of the hut was as cold as outside. At least we were out of the wind.
Two bowls of mushroom soup apiece and some coffee helped the situation, but we were still left with the weather issue. According to the forecast, hurricane force winds were predicted through the evening above treeline, with bad visibility, rain and lightning. Not weather you want to be above treeline for – and the descent from Madison was completely exposed for 2 miles, down the Osgood Path.
I looked at the maps that were available at the hut, and decided to ask the AMC employee there if there were any alternatives.
“Hey – I know it’s still kind of early, but what are the chances we can get a work for stay tonight at the hut here?”
“None- it’s too early and I can’t take you.”
“Not even if it’s a life threatening issue? I mean, we’re wet, frozen and she’s a bit hypothermic. You can’t make any exceptions?”
“Nope – best I can say is there is a campsite a mile away off the AT that you can stay at, it’s got trees.”
Now that would have been 45 minutes walk just for a campsite exposed to the cold and rain. The night before had been cold, the night before that had been frozen (as in frost on everything frozen) and if we were wet, that could be a death sentence.
“Ok then, if you won’t let us stay what’s the easiest way off the mountain? I know Osgood is exposed the whole way down… and if there is lightning and hurricane winds, I don’t know how I feel about doing that all the way down. Do you have any suggestions?”
“Well you could go down the Madison Gulf Trail. It goes down to tree line really fast.”
“Have you hiked it before? Is it doable?”
“Sure I hike it all the time! Piece of cake.”
And right here was my first mistake. I took advice from someone who wasn’t a thru-hiker. I trusted someone who wasn’t actually hiking all day, and who I knew was probably spending most of his time smoking up. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s the same way I don’t trust day hikers measurements of miles or time.
“So all we have to do is take the Madison Gulf Trail and it’ll get us below treeline really quickly? And it’s not too bad difficulty wise?”
So we left Madison, putting on our wet clothes again, saving our dry stuff for the end of the day. According to the map, it was about 3 miles down the Madison Gulf Trail to reconnect with the AT. “No Problem!” I thought. “We can be in Gorham tonight if we want, it’s only 2:30!”
How wrong I was. My second mistake was not turning us around when we hit this
We couldn’t see more then 2 or 3 dozen feet. We slid and scrambled down wet boulders, the descent at more than 45 degrees, the rocks offering no purchase. There was no sign to warn us of this, the blue blazes were few and far between. It was hell.
But we did get to treeline quickly. I saw the tree come closer out of the fog and rain and thought “oh thank you God. Trees, all this stupidity is over now, no problem.”
It was the beginning of the real hell .
Once we were in the trees the trail got different. Not better – sometimes worse. The rocks and roots and trees were at an angle, everything was wet and there were more than a few times we weren’t sure whether we were still on the trail. We’d be teased by a blue blaze every so often, just as we were teased by flat trail every so often. Every 20 minutes or so, the trail would level out, we’d walk on normal dirt and I’d give a sigh of relief. The end was here, finally! No. Not at all. Just a tease.
The worst was yet to come. The part that almost killed the two of us was yet to come.
We saw a nice flat spot – perfect to camp in even below us. We finally climbed down to it – YES! The end! Where does the trail go? Oh, here is a blue blaze down to our left. We followed it.
Right to a a 50 foot drop down a waterfall.
There is no way this is the trail, but there is a blaze here! How do we get down? We were standing on top of a cliff with a 50 foot drop, a waterfall and no visible way down.
There looked to be handholds in the middle, where a large house sized boulder jutted out of the face. There were trees on the right side, maybe the path was there. I took my pack off and decided to investigate. I was able to spider climb the 10 feet to a small depression just short of the edge, and it did indeed look as if this was the way to go.
“Ok Roadkill, I think you can butt slide down here slowly, get to this depression and then slide over to the right and get down. I’ll stay here, spread eagled to help you.”
She started to slide down, slowly, hands splayed on the rock trying for any bit of purchase. Then she started to slide faster and I saw her face – she had no control.
10 feet isn’t that far. Not really. She started sliding and I saw it in an instant – she’d go over the edge and fall 50 feet. Die.
My hand let go of it’s tiny hold in the rock. My arm shot out and somehow got between her back and her pack, and I grabbed her straps. She stopped inches from the edge. I saved her.
My heart started beating again.
She slid over and was able to get down to the trees on the right. I breathed again. Now it was my turn. I had to climb up and get my pack, and try and slide down the way she had. Without loosing control. Without someone to catch me.
I started butt sliding. I slid faster and lost control as well. I was going to go over. That would be the end of me. I somehow jammed my right foot into a crack and stopped my slide.
My left foot was over the edge.
Roadkill finally got to breathe again when I got down. This is what the drop looked like from the bottom.
We finally got to the AT as darkness fell. I was exhausted. I was angry, tired, hungry. I was spent.
I sat down just past the Osgood bridge and cried.
I should be dead. Roadkill should be dead. We wouldn’t have been found for weeks probably. No one used this trail. We found out later at the AMC visitor center that this trail wasn’t meant for descents – it clearly said to ascend it only. Not to take heavy packs on it. Not to do it when wet, or in bad weather conditions, with wind or rain. Pretty much not to do it ever.
And we were sent down it by an AMC employee.
I’m lucky to be alive, and I was lucky to have saved the girl I was in love with life. We both should have been dead.
We made it to Gorham the next day. I spent most of the day either in the hotel room trying to stop shaking, or eating at the Chinese buffet.
It was as close to death as I’ve ever come. I have no desire to repeat it.
One thing I have a lot of from this trip is video. Moments that I was able to save. They tell only snippets of what happened, but sometimes when you string them together, they tell more of a story then you ever thought.
So this is an attempt at a story. Just like these writings are trying to tell a story. I hope you enjoy it
I had a story about a hiker named Talker awhile ago. When we were in Lincoln, NH and Spoon and Chuckles’s family put a feed on for us (all organic, all local spaghetti dinner!) which was delicious. In the process, we heard lots of stories. One of them, was about slap bets Talker had lost.
People who haven’t hiked a long distance trail like the Appalachian Trail always talk about mileage, pack weight or weather. Those who have finished a long distance trail, they all talk about the people and the experiences they had with them. People make the journey.
These are trail people. They understand you, and you understand them. They get it – all of it. Sometimes it feels like they can read your mind. You live with them everyday and share everything.
Even on the bad days, a day with your trail family is magical.
The other night an old friend of mine called me up and demanded I drag myself out of the hole I’m living in and come to her place for dinner. She’s known me for years, dated me once upon a time, and is one of those people who knows everything about me. During my Soouthbound AT Hike she drove 4 hours to come see me in PA. Changed her schedule for me, bought me all the lunch I could eat and then tossed in some groceries too.
One hell of a lady
When AT Thru Hikers get home we usually have a hard time reconnecting, reintegrating. We are detached from the people we knew before at home, because we’ve done something so different from anything most of them have ever experienced that it can become hard to relate. We isolate ourselves often, because the people we’ve come back to just don’t get it, are so focused on their little slice of the world that we don’t understand anymore. Think of it like this – why would a hiker who has lived the last 6 months out of a 60 liter pack care about buying more stuff. The new car, that expensive pair of shoes, the big screen tv – we don’t really care about these things anymore.
The closest thing I’ve come across to long distance hikers and those like them are returning vets. They get it. (No, I’m not comparing the trials both have faced as alike – the isolation is the same though)
So when it was demanded that I leave my house to hang out with her, and a few other people I went. It’s good sometimes to leave your comfort and go be uncomfortable – especially when you know it’ll do you some good.
Sometime during the evening we got on the topic of girlfriends, love interests and partners. Like with any other group of friends, we like to know what the others are all into – “But is the sex good?” is a generally accepted question in my circle of friends. When one of the guys said he hadn’t asked the girl he’d been pining over for a bit out, I kinda lost it a little.
“If I can drag myself out of my depression and the hole I’m living in, to come out and see you, eat tacos, get lotto tickets and snag depression ice cream cones, you can ask a girl out!”
Later when I’d gotten home I realized something – it was the first night since I’d been back where I didn’t feel the sharp knife of loss when I was with people. I wasn’t thinking “Man, I wish Roadkill was here, she would have loved that joke.” Instead I was just thinking of me.
Beyond that though, I wasn’t longing for my trail friends and family when I was with other people. I was okay with where I was in that moment, fully there and not with half of my head in the mountains somewhere.
Hikers become so close to their tramily (trail + family) – we share everything with the people we’re with. There are perhaps 3 people in the “real” world who know everything about me, but with my trail family, they know everything. You hike long enough with someone, you tell everything and learn all. Keeping a secret while hiking with someone is to me, impossible.
The people who become your tramily are people you like – who you chose to be with and stay around. They get you, and you get them. You don’t always agree – hell sometimes you bicker all day long, but they are yours. And you are theirs. It’s strong bond of love, and when you don’t have them anymore you long for them to be there. It’s a tragedy that we’re all so far apart usually.
Even when I was in my relationship on the trail, in love with a wonderful girl, I still missed my tramily. I wasn’t with them a lot when I was with her, because she had a different hiking speed, and a different desire of things to see and do. I had made a decision that she was important to me, and as a result I missed time with my tramily. I don’t regret that, even with the way things ended up with her, but I do miss the times with the tramily.
When people ask me what the best part of the Appalachian Trail was, I say without hesitation – “The people I met and the friends I made who became my family.”
Talker always holds a special place in my heart.
I met him in passing just north of Erwin, TN while I was hanging out with Rob Bird, but I never actually talked to him until Kincora Hostel. He had been hiking with Johnny Thunder, Burgundee, Saga, Delorean, Skittles and Rambo. They are all pretty awesome people, but Talker is special.
Talker is a wonder person: intelligent, witty, mature and incredibly funny. But he does have a tendency to get involved with silly silly bets. Bets that no one has a chance of winning.
One of those took place in Damascus, at Trail Days.
Our medium of exchange was slap bets and ice cream novelty bets. You could bet on anything and we routinely did. Everything from how many nutri-grain bars one could eat (Saga got to 12 out of her 25 she thought she could do) to where you would end up that day.
At Trail Days, Talker tried the impossible.
Talker took a slap bet, thinking he could eat a 100 pop-tarts.
To be fair, he probably wasn’t in a sober state of mind when this bet was proposed, but he took it without a second thought. The bet was as follows: 100 poptarts before 10pm. He could get up at anytime and start eating, there would be a mix of flavors and they didn’t have to stay in his body for longer than it took to swallow them. He could purge himself anytime.
All this for the opportunity to slap Johnny Thunder.
Talker got up around 8am and decided to make an honest effort to start. He started with fruit flavored toaster pastries around 9am. He didn’t have any water to start, which was the beginning of his downfall.
“These feel like rocks in my stomach. Like a giant brick of awful”
After only 5 pop-tarts, I think Talker started to realize that this might be a bad idea. At 7 he decided it was time to pound some water.
“I need to drink like a gallon of water. Something. Because this is terrible”
At pop-tart 11 he decided he need to puke. He tried. He really did. But he just couldn’t.
“It feels like they are all glued together in there.”
He had consumed strawberry, blueberry, confetti cake and found that he couldn’t get rid of them. This didn’t bring any hope for finishing. He shrugged his shoulders however and decided to press on. Right on into a new box. Of Cinamon.
3 more pop-tarts, more water and another attempt to remove pop-tarts from his system yielded no results. Pop-tart 14 seemed like a terrible idea to have tried to eat.
“If I stand on my head, maybe that’ll help with the puking right? Gravity will help…”
It’s worth a shot right? He got up against a tree, had two people hold his legs and tried to shove his fingers in so he could puke. No joy. No option but to keep going.
He opened a box of fudge pop-tarts.This was a mistake.
Talker somehow managed to eat 17 pop-tarts. We later figured out that if he had eaten all 100, he would have consumed something in the neighborhood of 22,000 calories, enough sugar to put himself into diabetic shock and acquire type 3 diabetes and probably would have been the most miserable human being on the face of the earth.
All this to slap Johnny Thunder
“I’ll never eat pop-tarts again”
5 months later, Talker was again eating pop-tarts in the Hundred Mile Wilderness. He had found the strength to eat those deliciously terrible toaster pastries again. I don’t envy him them.
Johnny Thunder redeemed his slap in a most wonderful way, but that’s a story for another day.
All hikers ever really talk about is food right? It’s top 5 for us (the others being poop, weather, miles and sex) and is without a doubt, the most important of those five. Napoleon is credited with saying that “An army moves on it’s stomach” and that holds just as much truth for hikers as it does for soldiers.
So how did Invictus come to the point where she hated eating instant mash? Pretty much the same way I came to hate eating chicken flavored pasta, pop-tarts, oatmeal, banana chips and several other things. We ate it everyday without fail.
Seriously. I’ll never eat oatmeal again in my life. Ever.
Limited choices on the trail in a fact of life, and you can get tired of anything. Bison got tired of eating Mountain Houses by the end of the trail, and was more than willing to trade delicious chicken tetrazzini for mac and cheese! So when you’re surviving on mail drops, hiker boxes and goodwill in order to finish, you just get tired of eating.
Food is the most important thing in the world. Without it, you’re angry (hangry, it’s a thing – go look it up) and depressed, no energy and you can’t do a thing. That’s why it’s important to vary your food and find things you like to eat.
Hiking a long distance trail is probably the only time in your life that you can eat anything you want. So we take advantage of that: eat all the bacon you want, cake, pie, triple patty bacon cheeseburgers, everything off the Wendy’s dollar menu… you get what I mean.
So go eat! Everything and anything. Enjoy your food on the trail and keep it varied. Pack out a cake, some Admiral Crunch (I’ve decided the Captain needs a promotion) or even a couple of steaks. There is nothing more delicious than eating a steak you’ve cooked on the fire after hiking out of town.
Pro Tip: Carry spices with you. There is a reason I’m called Doc Spice and hint hint, it’s because I carried things like Montreal Steak seasoning all the time.
Food is wonderful. It still makes me happy.
This pie? This pie was like heaven. It would have been good anywhere, but after hiking 10 miles to it? Heaven.