(Part 6)

Trail maintenance

     The AT would overgrow and disappear if no one trimmed weeds and branches and sawed up all the fallen trees. This work is done by volunteers who belong to one of several clubs, each responsible for a long section of trail. Many of these volunteers are older folks and retirees. They also do things like build and maintain small foot bridges, and conduct landscaping so the trail doesn't erode down a hillside.
     The ATC guidebooks identify the clubs. Many have websites and some lists the names and telephone numbers of the officers. Details about conditions on the trail can be obtained by e-mailing or telephoning such club members.
     Additionally, in some spots college students are hired (under one of several programs) to walk trails (not just the AT, but side trails, too) to keep an eye on things.
     Hike far enough and you will run into people from both groups.

Leave no trace

    This is a hiking "ethic." It mainly means leave no trash. Every scrap of garbage we create must be carried out with us. We don't toss it down outhouses (except for TP), we don't leave it in fireplaces and we don't leave it in shelters. If we do, some trail club volunteer is going to have to clean up the mess.
    It also means we don't do things like make a fire ring out of rocks in the woods and leave it intact when we depart. Those who are quite fastidious about LNT include those who complain about poles leaving scratches on rocks. They also insist you should walk right through a big mud puddle instead of walking around it, creating new footprints. Would I walk around a puddle? No comment.

Trail magic

    This term describes incidents in which folks living near the trail either leave for or deliver to hikers food and snacks. For example, you might arrive at a spot where the trail crosses a road to find a styrofoam cooler containing canned soft drinks.
    This kind of thing only happens (as far as I know) when the main group of northbound thru-hikers passes through an area. The thinking being that thru-hikers are an emaciated bunch and could stand some extra calories. However, those who leave this stuff do not discriminate (that I am aware of) between ambitious thru-hikers and the more wussy section-hikers (like me). Also, as near as I can tell, those who leave the stuff are not necessarily people in the trail maintenance clubs.
     Twice I was at a shelter when someone came up the access road to deliver food. The first time it happened, I was covered with dirt, sweat and dead bugs and so worn out I could hardly see straight. The next thing I know this gray-haired lady was barking orders at me to take the hotdogs, cauliflower and broccoli she was carrying in big tupperware dishes. For a few seconds, I didn't know what the #$*%$ was going on. Her husband accompanied her; I thought they were on a picnic. My friend and I then thanked them profusely and told them we had earlier met thru-hikers who were sure to be arriving any minute. But mom and pop -- no doubt disgusted at what a dunce I was -- packed up and left.
     The other time it happened, a fellow delivered canned Pepsi and some candy.


     Most cameras that shoot APS film are very light and take great photos. Unlike a digital camera, an APS camera will go months on a single battery. I carry a Canon Elph.

Stuff sacks

     The sleeping bag, as mentioned earlier, gets stuffed into a stuff sack. No need to roll the bag up (particularly if it's down) -- just mash it into the sack any old which way and all will be fine.
     Although no stuffing may be involved, "stuff sacks" are also used to carry other things, like clothes, a cookpot and stove.
     If a hiker takes the time to learn to sew, he or she can make stuff sacks out of sil nylon that will be strong and extremely light. (There is a lot of info on
www.thru-hiker.com for do-it-yourselfers.) This is a particularly helpful talent when one discovers most of the stuff sacks sold with tents and sleeping bags are in reality too small. That is, they can only hold the tent or bag if it is very tightly compressed into the sack. No problem for the amateur tailor -- just make sacks that fit.
     One can buy his or her stuff sacks, but putting stuff in plastic trash bags or big ziplock freezer bags also should work.


Where's the easy part?

     My hiking has been in the middle of the AT.
     I gather the really tough parts of the trail are at each end -- New England and the southern end, through Tennessee. Maryland is considered fairly easy because the hills aren't too tall. The Shenandoah National Park is considered easy. I think that's mainly because the trail there is mostly nice and smooth. Unlike everyplace else, which is rocks and more rocks, all piled on top of rocks.
     There's a spot in Virginia called the Roller Coaster. The trail goes over about 11 adjacent hills averaging nearly 500 feet up and down for each hill. I met a northbound thru-hiker who told me it was the toughest piece of trail he'd been on yet. I also once met another NB thru-hiker who was so dreading climbing the next 2,000-foot mountain that she wrote half a page whining about it in a journal at a shelter, and she went to town and rented a room rather than tackle the hill. Yet she then climbed it, finished the whole AT and sent me a photo of herself at the northern end.
     I mention all this because of the psychological factor. I hiked the Roller Coaster in both directions, north and south, and the 2,000-footer that had the woman spooked. Neither is that bad. I've been at places I thought were far worse. I think the moral of the story is any given section of the AT is a private hell just waiting for the right person to come along and get tormented. On the day you are worn out, the AT will smell your weakness, and strike.
     Luck will be with those who feel they have something to prove, those who are stubborn, and those who are eager for challenge and adventure. The AT will test your patience. Much of the time you're staring at nothing but the rocks in front of you, to keep from falling on your butt. The AT can make people bitchy. On my first trip, I did a paltry 40 miles in five days. I became one of a million or so people who learned the AT is tougher than I thought it would be. I spewed expletives nonstop and couldn't wait to get off the accursed thing. The night I did get off, I immediately began planning my return.
     On another trip, I hiked with a friend -- very athletic and young enough to be my son -- and we agreed in advance we'd try to do 20 miles a day. We did 17 miles the first day. (And compared to the Roller Coaster, it was nothing.) That night he announced he was worn out and he wasn't going to hike 20 miles the next day ... and he might not even hike 10.

Training to hike

     Mountains and rocks and more hills and more rocks.
     Probably the best training one could do for the AT is load up a pack and hike up and down mountains like that. Sadly, great expanses of the U.S. have nothing like that.
     The only thing I can tell you with conviction is one needs to start walking at least weeks in advance to get ready for the AT. Walk fast, like 4 mph. Do it in any hilly area you can find, however modest the hills. Wearing a small pack with about 15 or so pounds in it would be a good idea. If you can only spare time for two miles a week, it's worth walking those two miles.
     My point is the mere act of walking without falling over on the AT will place stresses on the feet, ankles, calves, knees and thighs unlike those created anywhere else. If one isn't prepared, the hiker could get so sore it could take a week to recover.
     Youth guarantees no immunity. I have talked to folks in their 20s who tore tendons in their feet, or had their feet swell up so badly they had to leave the trail for a few weeks.
     Those who can't or don't walk as far as they want on the AT can simply return later and walk some more. No one is keeping score.
     I got a nasty surprise one year when the only training I did was riding my bike as fast as I could, and running uphill. When I arrived on the AT, my legs got real sore real fast, and they stayed that way.
     If you hike 15 miles every day, it will take 145 days to walk the entire AT -- nearly 5 months. Those who want to dawdle and sight-see every day might have trouble averaging 8 miles a day.
     If it is your intention to actually hike on the AT, be prepared to do or die. Metaphorically, anyway. Either that, or give up entirely.


     A - Most thru-hikers and some section-hikers have "trail names." These are nicknames they use on the AT. Sometimes they pick their own name. Sometimes other hikers will bestow the name, usually to poke fun at something the recipient said or did. For example, if a guy fell in front of others, they might start calling him Gravity.
     B - June 21, the first day of summer, is called "Nude Hiking Day" on the AT. Don't get your hopes up, men. If you see an attractive young woman hiking nude on the AT on June 21, stop and see me when you get home. I'll give you a $100 bill. Because it's a sight you will not see. And if you do see it, bring me a photo. That would be worth $100.

Table of Contents
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6

The Bent Stick