Navigating the Hiker’s Triangle

Max Patch

The rain and fog have abated. Either that or I’ve just temporarily climbed above the cloud ceiling. There is a huge meadow. No trees. In fact, the tallest non-hiker object in view is a fence post with white blazes on both sides that confirms we are still on the Appalachian Trail. 360 degree view of wrinkled ridge lines that change from green to blue to purple to slate grey as they approach the fuzzy horizon. Picture Julie Andrews spinning around gracefully as she sings about “the hills are alive with the sound of music.” Now put a pack on her. A curious amount of hair on her armpits and legs, and add a fragrance that repels everything but flies. It’s exactly like that. Simply gorgeous. This is Max Patch.

I was sitting down next to the fence post. Enjoying the view (which has already become code for catching my breath), and trying to decide whether I want to fly the kite that a Trail Angel left for adventurous hikers to play with, when another group of hikers came up behind me.

“Dude, you said there was supposed to be hot dogs and beer up here!” A pudgier hiker accused to the hiker leading the pack. They all sloughed off packs and assumed the “enjoying the view” position. Candy bars and trail mix materialized as they realized that grilled hot dogs and beer weren’t on the menu for lunch. Nobody was happy, and it looked like the leader “professor” was going to be held responsible.

“Hey, there is usually someone up here with trail magic, especially on weekends. I guess the weather turned them off.” He said between bites of Snickers.

All this talk about hot dogs and beer made me kinda want some too, and now I was getting pissed at this “professor” dude. Who did he think he was teasing us with the promise of hot dogs and beer, when all we get is whatever we have in our packs, and a grassy spot to sit for a few minutes. I was totally a grown-up about the whole thing. I didn’t say anything, just looked contemplatively off into the distance. Besides, I had never met these hikers before. But I have to admit, it was even more cruel as I realized how far away the next town was- and with it, hopes of hot food, cold drinks, warm beds and double showers and clean laundry. The next town was almost 20 miles away!


Max patch

Disgruntled hikers on the summit of Max Patch

The next town was not just any town. It was Hot Springs, NC, and was the first town that the trail went through. The white blazes in Hot Springs were actually AT markers on the sidewalk. If you wanted to hike the AT, you had to go through Hot Springs. If you were a human, you had to stop in Hot Springs for at least a day.


Hot Springs

A long and seemingly endless series of switchbacks led us towards, then past, then back towards Hot Springs as we descended to lower elevations. Sounds of traffic taunted us almost an hour before we poked our heads out of the woods to the sight of Laughing Heart Hostel. Our friendly hostess with the most timid voice I’ve heard from a human being (a friend who was on a break from a yoga retreat) showed me to the bunk rooms, just last several private rooms that looked tempting, but unnecessary as I just needed a flat surface to sleep on after I got my town chores done. 2 showers, a laundry room, a kitchen with a full hiker box (items that were free for the taking, usually clothing but sometimes good food from hikers that decided they were done hiking), and refrigerator filled with sodas (honor system again).

Deets had arrived shortly after me and we wandered down to the pub that was right on the AT for dinner and beers. It’s an awesome trail right?

The night ended too quickly and I was seriously considering taking another day off (to explore the town, not to be lazy) when the timid hostess told me that I could have the private room to catch up on some writing since it had a desk. Done. There were several more meals, an amazing nap, absolutely no sightseeing, and far less writing than a day in a room with a writing desk should have prompted. But I did get a chance to Skype with Monica. She was still proud of me for making it this far, and everything was going well back in Romania. It was a great day off.

Lovers Leap
I’ve made it out of the Hot Springs vortex (barely). I would like to say that I was fired up to get back on the trail. However, scorched trees and charred earth peppered the landscape for the first 8 miles outside of Hot Springs as a result of the fires in late April.



Wild fires scared wide sections of the trail for about 8 miles. Patches of green were already sprouting. I know it’s macabre, but this created the impression that little vegetable children were left unattended to fend for themselves amidst a mountain of dead parents.

The leafless tree corpses created some gorgeous views, especially around a rocky outcropping called Lovers Leap (a poor soul jumped to her death after being rejected by her lover). Melancholy. And the climb was no joke. Gasping for breath, occasionally inhaling fragments of ash, I thought, Yup, jumping over the edge from here would definitely do it.



It’s a long fall down to the French Broad River from Lover’s Leap

For some reason, I began to think about math. Not the complicated calculus level stuff, but practical algebra and geometry. Triangles and vectors and numbers small enough I could work with them in my head.

I can see those of you in the back row texting right now because it seems like this is the beginning of a boring lecture, and you may be right. But this Sheldon Cooper level daydreaming led me back to a shift in my hiking perspective.

While in Hot Springs, I was dreading the 2500 feet in elevation climb that lay before me. I didn’t mind the 3/4 mile stroll along the French Broad, but the rest made me question the sanity of walking AWAY from a cozy bunk at Laughing Heart hostel and the nearby hot food and cold beer.

This led me to the Hiker’s Triangle. I’m not suggesting that this rates the level of an epiphany, but it sure helped me to make it through the rest of the day.

See, when I plot distance on the x axis, and elevation on the y axis, I imagine three different levels of hiker satisfaction.


A. Daydreaming and singing along with Rhianna as I stroll along the banks of the French Broad River.

B. Character building

C. Hiking is just stupid. And everybody does it should be put out of their misery.

The last C day I had was climbing Blood mountain. Only the call of a microwaved hamburger and a cold Mountain Dew kept me from stopping at the “quitting tree.”
I know there will be more Level C hiking days like blood mountain and Lover’s Leap in the future, and now I’m ok with that. If it weren’t for those C days, the character building days would become Quitting days. And if all my hiking days were riverside strolls, I would probably get bored, fly back home to Monica, and try to pretend that I didn’t really need to hike to a better version of myself after all.

I also recognize that several other factors besides the distance from a welcoming trail town and elevation, including weather, time, and complications from the “real world” can shift an A day to a C day, but I can’t draw a 6 dimensional triangle without rotational video. Besides, I’m a hiker. I’m gonna keep it simple.


  • Reply Monica July 7, 2016 at 8:53 am

    Indeed I’m very proud of you, and from what I saw, most times the positive experiences take over the miserable conditions you have to put up with, which become so insignificant and not as often mentioned in your stories. But u better not come back till u conquer the whole AT or u will be sleeping on the couch 🙂
    Happy hiking !

    • Reply Gabriel Burkhardt July 11, 2016 at 5:45 pm

      Thanks for putting up with my whiney updates on the hard days love, for continuing to support and encourage even though we miss each other like crazy, and… I’m definitely finishing the whole AT. I’ll be done sleeping on uncomfortable surfaces for a long time.

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