McAfee’s Knob is said to be the most photographed point on the AT, and with good reason. It’s incredibly beautiful and breathtaking. A jutting point of rock from the cliff-side and a sheer drop into the valley below.
Buckeye, Atreyu and I decided that we wanted a sunset and a sunrise on McAfee’s Knob. This was an ambitious proposal the required a 16.3 mile day up and down 2 significant and 1 medium sized mountains/hills, a stop at Dragon’s Tooth (another amazing sight) and a small resupply and stop at the 4 Pines Hostel. All before sunset.
Somehow we managed it. It’s still one of the most incredible achievements in my mind.
Starting off at the Pickle Branch Shelter, we got an early start which was quite a feat in itself. Buckeye is a habitual late sleeper now that he’d gotten used to his hammock, but he was actually the first one up. We beat feet the 4 miles to Dragon’s Tooth with a few others in town and made it up the craggy torturous path to the summit. A clear, cloudless day greeted us – with views for miles.
We stayed for almost an hour on top of the Tooth. Around 11am we decided it was time to get moving – and wouldn’t it be nice if we could have some real food for lunch? You’d better believe it! So let’s roll on down to the 4 Pines Hostel and go to the amazing gas station up the road for pizza! So we did.
One of the best things about hiking with Buckeye and Atreyu? They are never short of conversation or song. They are strong, fast hikers but they have fun everyday together. Sometimes they hook the little portable speaker up and play techno, or indie. Sometimes there are long involved conversations about women, philosophy or politics. But even when they disagree they respect each other – it’s a rare thing to find friends like these.
4 Pines is a converted 4 car garage run by Joe. He’s a hell of a guy – he took me in the previous year when I was freezing after Sandy and fed me fresh venison, gave me a pile of blankets and said “go nuts with the wood stove.” So when we made it to his place for lunch he took us down to the gas station. Pizza, slushies, chips, hot dogs, beer. The whole nine yards for lunch. We played a little cornhole (beanbag toss for all you Yankees) and seriously contemplated if we wanted to do another 10 miles. “We could stay here tonight and make it a short day tomorrow…”
The other great thing about Buckeye and Atreyu? They never shirk from a challenge. At 3:30 we finally got going. The terrain between 4 Pines and McAfee’s is ridgeline and rugged. You hug the tops and dip down into the saddles, gaining and losing 100 feet sections of altitude every 1/4 mile. You climb and scramble in places.
We made it to the McAfee’s knob parking lot just before 7pm. The sun was starting to get lower in the sky – sunset was around 8:15 and we still had almost 3.5 miles to cover to the top. So we beat feet up the side of the mountain. The trail is well maintained, and a fairly easy climb until the last mile or so when you start going up steeply. We were on track and on pace.
Until we found a cell phone.
Atreyu: “It’s gotta be the cute girls we passed on our way up, about 10 minutes ago!”
Buckeye: “Maybe. But they’re probably already back at the parking lot by now. We’re going up.”
Spice: “So… what are we doing? Sunset is so close!.”
At that moment, the phone rang. Atreyu answered it. “Yes we’ve got your phone! I’ll bring it down for you!.”
Buckeye + Spice: “You’re going to do what?”
Ateryu: “I’m going to take my pack off and run the phone down. You guys keep going, I’ll meet you at the top.”
Spice: “If you do that, we’ll take your pack with us. I’ll wear it on the front and double pack it.”
So off Atreyu bounded, down the path we’d just come up. Buckeye strapped Atreyu’s pack onto my chest. I’m sure I cut a ridiculous figure in that moment, hiking up the mountain side with two packs on. But if it meant that Atreyu could catch up with us faster, it was worth it. Atreyu managed to catch up with us a mile from the summit, which was good because I was DYING carrying two packs together.
And we made it. All the way to the top for sunset. The three of us almost were running by the time we got there, because we were so sure we were going to miss it. But we didn’t. We’d managed to push a 4 mile and hour pace or more by the time we’d gotten to the top. That’s a feat for any extended period of time. It was all worth it though.
I’ve heard people say that they don’t derive any pleasure from accomplishing miles or getting somewhere. That they don’t measure their achievements by getting to X place by Y time. That may be all well and good for them most of the time, but I’ve never been able to subscribe to that theory. Getting somewhere, achieving something in the face of adversity, pushing yourself to the limit and winning – there is something valuable about that to me. Getting to McAffe’s knob for sunset was such an achievement. We all felt it and we were all filled a beautiful glow that night.
Amusingly, the photos from sunset? Completely outclassed by the photos from the sunrise the next morning.
When I read things like this, it makes me reevaluate what I want to do again. I think about the Trail everyday. Things will happen and I’ll flashback to a moment. I’ll smell something and remember an instant. Everyday.
I think about the Trail every single day.
It changed me – and I’m not sure if that change makes me fit for normal society anymore.
When I read of new hikers who are coming to grips of the realities of the trail for the first time I think about how we have a tendency to build things up. Put things on a pedestal.
I once heard a story from Baltimore Jack. Of rain that lasted for forever. Grown men would wake up hearing the same sounds that had put them to sleep. The constant drumming of rain on the tin roof. It brought them to tears when they looked outside and saw the grey clouds and constant water cascading from the skies. He said it was one of the wettest springs on the AT – and he saw more people break from the rain than he’d ever seen before. People just gave up and went home.
I can understand that. I sympathize – there are few things worse then getting up for the fourth or fifth day in a row, putting on wet and cold socks with the utmost trepidation. “If I pull them on slowly, they’ll warm up a little more than if I pull them on quick and shock my feet.” Hearing the squelch of water as you shove your feet into your shoes. Packing your things up haphazardly – it doesn’t really matter anymore, everything is at least damp already. The rain jacket has as much moisture in it on the inside as it does the outside, why bother putting it on. You’ve stopped trying to avoid the puddles and small lakes that form on the AT because the whole trail has turned into a river.
You think you’ll never be dry again. I know how it feels. I’ve been there.
It’s odd because looking back now I recognize the same feelings of despair in that scenario of rain that I had with depression. Trapped. Drowning. Overwhelmed. Too tired to care anymore. How do you keep going when it’s like that.
I think some people are just built a little differently. No matter how depressed they get, how awful the situation gets they keep going. I’ve heard some call it “dogged determination.” People have called me stubborn. It’s been described as a coping mechanism, or protective trait. Some call it strength or mettle. But whatever you want to call it – these people just keep going.
They don’t lie down and die, and they don’t seem to ever quit. And when they do quit it’s because they are literally so run down, so ragged that they just don’t have the energy anymore.
I once read a psychology theory that postulated we can all endure only so much. Our capacity for suffering, for the negatives in our life are like a glass for water. It’s only so large. The more things we have going against us, the more water fills that glass. We can only handle so much before it all spills over. You can make your glass bigger by doing positive things, having good friends to share the load or have coping strategies. But there is always a finite amount you can take. Eventually you reach that.
The people who broke down and cried on the 5th day of rain had just reached their limit. Their glass was full. That was all.
What’s the take away from all of this? I’m not really sure honestly- lord knows I rambled on in this post, but I wonder if there really is an answer. On one hand, we’ve gout our dreams, and we want to pursue and accomplish them. But we should always be realistic of the moment, of the adversity facing us. So what should we do? I don’t know. It’s something you’ll have to make up your mind about yourself. I follow this simple advice.
Don’t ever quit until you’ve been completely and fully miserable for 48 hours. Then give it another 24 hours of staying someplace with a TV and Ac/Heat. If you’re still miserable – then you can quit. Because it’s not something you can fix with pizza, Chinese food and beer. And if you can’t fix it with those things, you may be well and truly screwed.
I had a long discussion this evening with SingleGirlHiking about the Great Eastern Trail (GET), a 1600 mile long trail from Alabama to New York.
The pull is great. It is strong.
I justified it in my mind as well. The flu study I’m in the running for would pay for 4 months of hiking without any problem. I could be the third person ever to hike the GET on foot (no yellow blazing, no skipping for this one…). I could escape again to the wilderness and walk. Be free and whole again.
It’s a strong feeling. Being whole like that again.
I’ve felt good about myself before. In college I felt like I belonged, felt loved and accepted. I was loved and accepted, with many friends. They felt like family.
But out on a trail, I feel Whole. It’s hard to explain. Everyday I felt born again, every person I met never questioned who I was, or what I was doing. There wasn’t judgement on how I lived my life. My actions spoke for who I was, and nothing more.
I romanticize the Trail life quite a bit. I know I do. I remember how terrible the climb down the White’s was when I almost died. How it never stopped raining in the south for days. The feeling of dampness and wet that never went away no matter how much sun you got. The hunger and disgust when you had nothing but chicken ramen to eat that night. The pain of a 25 mile day.
But I have never felt more alive. More complete. More myself than I did out there. I had purpose and drive and love. Love for the people around me, the trees that grew over me and the smell of dirt and pines.
I can smell that freedom now when I close my eyes. I may be physically sitting in a basement in Virginia, but when I close my eyes I am in Maine or Tennese. Vermont or North Carolina. New Hampshire. I smell the pines, feel the dirt, pine needles below my feet. Feel the wind whistle around me and carry the scents of the forest while it tugs on my hair. It is as real to me in my dreams as it is to someone standing there.
Because I’m still standing there in those places. They never leave me. Even when I’m sitting in a basement in Virginia, crying a silent tear. Because of where I am, instead of where I am meant to be.
Sometimes you need a little extra push to make it.
There’s no shame in that. We all need a little help, sometimes more than a little. Help can come in all different forms, shapes and sizes. You may not even realize it’s help until far after the fact. But however it comes and finds you, it helps you to keep on going.
Ron Haven, of Franklin, NC Budget Inn fame gave a little help at the PA/NJ border. He’d given material help down in NC, shuttling us all around town to the grocery store and buffet in his mini bus from the motel. He told stories and gave advice, made us laugh and helped us to remember to be happy – that while this was difficult it wasn’t something that had to make you miserable.
So when I saw his business card slid into the visitors map at Delaware Water Gap’s Sunfish Pond, he reminded me that even people we met only briefly were still thinking of us, pulling for us to finish. We had never left his thoughts. We were his friends and he was happy for us.
Why do some people keep going when other get stuck in a rut or are unable to complete? The AT is full of this question – some people get off after 10, 20 or 40 miles. Others make it to 500 and leave. More still find themselves close to the end and remove themselves from the Trail. Few actually finish.
Sometimes it’s not a question of want or desire to complete something – there are things that can stop one from finishing far beyond your control. A girl I knew in TN/NC (actually we stayed in the Budget Inn together…) named Genie made it to Damascus and found she had stress fractures in her Tibia. She tried to rest it for two weeks and came back, only to have it fully fracture and took her off the Trail. She had done 1000 miles of the AT as a section in 2011 and was determined to finish. She’s going back out there again this year.
But for most, the decision to leave is a mental one. The reasons are as varied as the people who leave. Some are tired, angry, sick or just plain exhausted. Some built the journey up to something it wasn’t and now upon realizing the truth can’t handle it. Others found what they were looking for and decided that was enough.
The people who stay though, who keep going always have that nagging thought in the back of their head. “I’m here by choice. I could go home anytime.” What stops them from going home?
Some are just stubborn people.
Like everyone else out on the AT, Ron Haven had his quirks and stories. Stories were that he was a former wrestler turned businessman turned county commissioner. Perhaps he was just a guy who owned a motel and learned that the hikers needed help – and started helping. Maybe he really was Jack Black’s second cousin. His history didn’t really matter to us – what mattered was he was there. And like everyone I met onthe AT, Ron Haven made a bigger impact in the small amount of time I was near him then most people in my “real world” back home.
So keep going friends. When you feel as if the world is too much, the miles are weighing you down, just keep going. Left foot. Right foot.
Because any day out here is a better day then one in the office.
One of the biggest things that new hikers on the Appalachian Trail are worried about is their trail names. A trail name is how you identify yourself to other hikers – it’s a pseudonym that will follow you around forever and have stories attached to it. So naturally, everyone wants a cool name and some are tempted to give themselves one.
I say this out of love – don’t give yourself a trail name. It’s not who YOU are on the trail, it’s who you THINK you’re going to be on the trail. Those are two very different people. In fact, they are such wildly different people that you’ll sometimes wonder who that other person is.
I can think of a handful of people who have given themselves trail names before they got on the trail who actually embodied their trail names, and that had more to do with who they were as a person than anything.
Plus, you want a great story to go along with your trail name right? You don’t want to have to give the answer “oh, well it sounded cool so I picked it.” No! You want an awesome story, like Talker has!
Talker’s name relates back to his hike, and the person who he is. Imagine if he’d chosen a name before hand, like “Strider”. It wouldn’t have reflected the man who he was – a sleep talking, hilarious young man.
My name relates back to my first hike and the spices I was carrying in a novel way. Little Spoon’s relates back to his off-hand comment about how he “sometimes like to be the little spoon in bed”. Chuckles got hers because you could hear her laugh for miles, and she was always laughing. Snakebite got bit by that snake and Fire Eater went after the bacon in the fire. It’s who they were, are.
I know you’re anxious about trail names. I know you want something cool. Don’t take the easy way out – wait for it. It’ll be awesome. If you do get one you’re not comfortable with, you don’t have to take it. You can say “no, I’m not okay with that name” if it’s something that disturbs you or puts you off – that’s fine.
But artifically creating a name for yourself, when you don’t know who you’re going to be? I would advise against it. Especially not Strider. Because every time I meet a “Strider” I make it my goal in life to rename them.
Strider became Slider this year. Strider became Hatchet. Strider became Slowpoke. Strider became Nap Time.
So wait for your name. Have adventures. Do silly things. Carry silly things. You’ll get an awesome name. Promise.
When it comes to gear, long distance backpackers will talk for hours upon hours. We love all aspects of gear, and love seeing what others are carrying and why. It’s important for us, because we use it everyday.
So now that everyone has taken all the extra stuff out of their pack, lets put some things in that they’ll want for various reasons.
- Extra zip-lock bags. You can never have enough of these (especially the larger ones) and they weigh nothing. Use them for food storage, waterproofing electronics and maps, putting books or clothes into – even a pillow or waterproof booties over your socks when you’ve got wet shoes. There are few things zip-lock doesn’t solve.
- Make sure your headlamp has a red or green light on it. You don’t want to be “that guy/girl” in the shelter at night waking everyone up to go pee. Plus, red lights are a much lower power and draw less battery, making your headlamp last longer. It’s much easier to read with that red light at night without disturbing EVERYONE ELSE. If you don’t have a red light on your already purchased headlamp, some colored cellophane and a pair of binder clips can work. There are also very low cost red light only lights that are sold as clip ons, or aftermarket cheap lenses that snap one. But seriously – don’t be “that person” in the shelter.
- Watches are a controversial thing out on the trail, but I find they come in handy. There will be a few times when you’ll want to get up early to see a sunrise, or you have to leave in order to get to a post office before closing. Sure you could turn your phone on to check – but why waste that batter power? Snag yourself a cheap waterproof watch. Get a kids one if you can – they are always more colorful and fun.
- Pen or pencil. In fact bring two. There are some shelter logs where the pens are dead or have wandered off, and you’ll want to leave an entry. Shelter logs are one of the best things about the AT – you get to hear from people you’ve never met and you’ll learn to love them from their entries. The pen is also helpful if you want to leave a note along the trail for someone behind you – you’re going into town and are staying at XYZ hotel. So use an old guidebook page that you’ve already walked over, write a note on that, put it in a zip-lock (you ARE carrying extras right?) if it’s raining and head to town.
- Needle and thread. Or needle and dental floss. I prefer the later, but it’s up to you. You’ll need to sew something back together guaranteed, whether it’s your pants that blew out in the knee, the shirt that got ripped from a low hanging branch, or an attempt to make your shoes go just a few more miles to town before they die a terrible terrible death. Needle and thread will help.
- A good eating utensil. This is one of these things that for some reason people decide that they have to have “ultralight” which baffles me. This is a piece of equipment that you’ll use everyday, takes a lot of abuse and is pretty important. Get a metal one and don’t look back. The number of plastic/lexan ones I saw broken out on the trail was staggering. I think the $15 I spent in Delaware Water Gap getting a titanium spoon/fork was the best purchase ever.
- Multiple USB outlet plug. There is nothing worse than jockeying for outlets because everyone has their stuff plugged in. If you’re part of the growing number of hikers with more than one thing to charge, get yourself a plug that has more than one socket to it. If you have two things to charge in town (phone and say, steripen) then get a dual plug wall charger. Get a small square one if possible, so you’ll be able to fit it in anywhere. Long cords also help – the weight is negligible.
- Sunscreen for the first two weeks. You never would think you’d burn in early April, but you will. The leaves aren’t out on the trees yet, but you’re hiking enough that you’ll be in short sleeves. and you’re exposed. You. Will. Burn. So bring along a small sunscreen and use it. If you ignore this warning, be prepared to buy the smallest thing of aloe that have (usually 8-12 ozs). Which sounds like a better use of weight?
- You don’t need a big knife or a multitool. Seriously, when are you going to use that screwdriver? All you need is one blade. I got by with a 2 inch blade that cost me $3. Plastic handle. Simple.
- Bring an extra lighter or a small book of matches and keep them dry. When it rains and you spring a leak and your lighter gets wet, there is nothing worse than trying to dry that flint out. Or sometimes your lighter will walk away. It happens. Bring a backup.
- I like athletic tape over duct tape when it comes to wounds/first aid. Peeling duct tape off your body is pretty terrible – athletic tape flexes better and I find it doesn’t rub badly when wet. A little athletic tape (the cloth kind) is cheap and light. Consider it for blisters.
- Bug headnet. Mail it ahead to yourself for PA. You’ll want it there, and by the time you get to a place that sells them in PA, they’ll be sold out
- Bring the camp shoes. You’re probably on the fence about them because you’ve heard so many different things… But the truth is you’ll want them the first day it rains. Why? Because your shoes/boot will be soaked and you want to put dry socks on. But then.. you’ve got to go to the bathroom at 3am. Shove your clean fresh dry socks into wet shoes? NO. Camp shoes! Worth the weight!
- Extra candy. Seriously. You’ll want it. Chocolate. Hard candy. Bring the sugar! Put it in your morning coffee if you drink that, your complete breakfast powder or your protein shake. It’ll help with the flavor.
Fun things. I can’t stress this one enough. You’re going out on an adventure and you should enjoy yourself. By that I mean you want to have good memories, and you want to be a good memory to others.
What do I mean by that exactly?
The people you’ll remember far longer than others are the ones that stand out. Carry interesting and fun things – things that aren’t necessarily useful. I can still remember each and every person who carried silly things.
Things I’ve seen on the trail include: Kites. Pinatas. Wiffle ball bats (with returning wiffle ball). Foam swords. Real swords. Crazy hats. Water guns. Flasks of alcohol. Whole bottles of alcohol. Musical instruments. Plastic figures and toys (dinosaurs, alligators, birds, bears). A platoon of Green Army Men. Bricks. 2 pound mushroom paper-weights. Etch-a-sketches. Crayons. Paints. Chalk.
I could go on and on with this list. But bring fun things. Bring something that makes you stand out in the crowd. Don’t afraid to be a little crazy. You’re out in the woods already!
And don’t forget your sense of adventure!
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
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.”