It’s time to wake from our delicious food comas. REI hath spoken: the stores are not calling, so we must OptOutside.
Dirty shoes and chilly cheeks. Burning quads and aching lungs. Dried leaves crackle underfoot. Nature porn so vibrant, super-cool pink sunglasses are called out of retirement. Yup, it’s all that.
I don’t know about you, but I slip into a sort of hiker trance after a few hours. My legs move me along the trail, while my mind drifts. I relive vivid memories, watch stories play out on my mental big screen, and slowly work through the issue de jour. This usually works out well, but occasionally I wonder if I might be missing opportunities to get to know other hikers.
When I look back on some of the more memorable moments of my recently completed Appalachian Trail hike, its my encounters with extraordinary people that stick out best. These people happen along at just the right moment, and often enough, that it’s hard to believe it’s coincidence. I’ve never properly thanked them for their role in helping me to become the near-perfect specimen that I am now.
Sharing these vignettes is my tribute to a few of the extraordinary hikers I’ve met in the mountains somewhere between Georgia and Maine…
Midway through the 100-mile wilderness, I passed my 4,000th mile of long-distance hiking. A 50-mile hike sounded like a great way to celebrate. The former probably qualified me as an experienced hiker, while the latter suggested a few cracks in my hat holder. I’d summited White Cap Mountain the night before and my guidebook told me that aside from a few little bumps and river crossings, my path would slope gently downhill. Trail gossip promised stretches of red-carpet – red for the fallen leaves that blanketed a spongy, sculpted trail. I was tickled, wiggling-to-Tim McGraw-while-hiking tickled, to find that this time, both sources were accurate.
I arrived at Potaywadjo Spring Lean-to by early evening as planned. Satisfaction with the 23 miles I’d traveled so far took a distant second place to an urgent curiosity about the fabled quality of “Privy #2,” reputedly the best privy on the AT. I shrugged my pack off onto the edge of the shelter and said a quick hi to a solitary but familiar face before racing up for a privy tour.
I returned feeling relieved, and a little stunned. The solitary but familiar face belonged to Sunset, who nodded knowingly. “Pretty nice little privy isn’t she?” he said.
“Hey Sunset. Almost doesn’t feel right to just call it a privy does it? I mean, there’s a wheelchair ramp, a skylight, AND A DECK!” I said.
“Yup, the Maine maintainers sure know how to put together a nice privy. Would you hand me that stick?” he said, pointing a weathered hand towards a twig just beyond his reach. I handed it over and joined him at the side of the fire-ring to watch him build a twig tipi. Within moments, he conjured a fire into existence. We sat silently for a while, watching baby flames reach for the bigger sticks.
“If you’re planning to stay in the shelter, you might want to hang your food before it gets too dark,” he said without looking up. “The shelter log is full of entries from people that have new holes in their gear from the mice. Based on the amount of mouse droppings I had to sweep out, I believe it too.” His soft, syrupy South Carolina accent forced me to lean in and pay attention while he spoke.
I told him I was planning to hike on into the night, but resisted the urge to share the reason for my “victory lap.” Sunset, who got his Trail name from his hometown rather than as a reflection of his position in life, has taken long distance hiking to a whole new level. He completed his first AT thru hike in 2002, when he was in his mid-fifties. Then he hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. Then he hiked the Continental Divide Trail. Those that survive all 7,900 miles and 22 states are awarded the Triple Crown. Then, Sunset did it all again.
I’m reminded of Shakespeare’s warning: “heavy is the head that wears the crown.” I wonder what it must be like to have earned a Double Triple Crown. But Sunset doesn’t wear the crown. He doesn’t count the “little trails” like the 1,000-mile Florida Trail or the 300-mile Long Trail. He loves to hike, and he loves hikers. When I accuse him of being a habitual hiker, he says “Nah, now Billy Goat, you know Billy Goat right. He’s a hiker. Plans to log 50K by 80 and he’ll do it. I’m still a pup by those standards.”
When it comes to hiker categories, if there is such a thing, I proudly lump myself in with the “reflectors.” Reflectors are the group of generally retired hikers that are on the AT to stop and smell the roses, look back with fondness on the mountain of accomplishments behind them, and prove to themselves that they can still accomplish more challenging tasks than carrying a week’s worth of Ensure in from the Winnebago. On the other end of the spectrum are those that I call the Aspirants. These energetic youngsters are on the cusp of greatness. Careers and families of their own lie ahead. But before that, one more epic adventure, or maybe two… This March, a 14-year old named Keppy began a journey to become the youngest hiker to complete the AT “solo.” Keppy soon became Special K. She went through the same gear issues and adjustments to living in the outside that we all went through, but Special K did it without many of the advantages I take for granted. Fortunately, Keppy’s incredibly supportive mom packed up a camper, 9- and 12-year old siblings in tow, and left Nebraska to support her from the sidelines. I couldn’t bring myself to ask Special K how much she weighed, but I would be surprised if she topped 75lbs in the rain, which meant she was carrying roughly ¼ of her weight on her back every day. She’d never reserved a hotel room or driven a car. What must it be like to sleep shoulder-to-shoulder in a shelter with a dozen snoring, dirty grown-ups with all their talk of escaping crazy exes and irritating coworkers? And why would a 14-year old rather do this than hang out at home with friends, limitless access to TV and free maid service?
I first met Special K in Southern Virginia, after she had sorted through a daunting array of gear issues and pack adjustments (most long-distance hiking gear is not designed for petite young women). I lounged inside the shelter, snacking on my second cliff bar before dinner, resisting the urge to help her with her camp chores, prompted by laziness energy conservation rather than as a nod to her independence. She didn’t need it anyway. She hung her bear bag expertly and sauntered back to set up her sleeping bag near one of the walls. Out came her tiny food bag, and she removed a Zip-Lock containing a packet of dehydrated-something and a Snickers. She set up her stove at the edge of the picnic table and started cooking. The camp conversations continued around her, albeit without the normal spice that you would expect, while she remained focused on her tasks. A few other hikers asked the typical “How’s your hike going?” questions and she answered timidly.
I didn’t speak with her directly that night. The next morning, she had already left by the time I got out of my cocoon. I chalked it up to another interesting sighting, like seeing a bear or Trail Magic with cold beer.
I didn’t need to refer to my Trail journal to recall the date of our next meeting. It was the summer solstice. In the hiker world, that’s Hike Naked Day. It was scorching hot. I was alone. No one would be forced to endure me out of uniform. I would never, never, never consider streaking through the woods, but part of this hike (for me) included pushing myself to do things that were outside my comfort zone. So… off with all my gear except my hat and my pack.
My anxiety levels were so high, a panic attack was a real possibility. For the first hour or so, I peeked around bends before proceeding. I wasn’t afraid of seeing other thru-hikers; they should either be participating or at least tolerant, but I wouldn’t want to subject any unsuspecting day-hikers to an overdose of raw nature. I could ruin the being-out-in-nature part of hiking for someone that was hoping for a chance to get away for the day. And I was naked.
I was miles away from the nearest road crossing or town. Chances of contact with real-worlders was minimal. I eventually relaxed. The chaffing from my pack straps ceased to annoy me and I loved that I could appreciate full exposure to faint breezes. Maybe I’d get rid of my farmer’s tan.
A few squirrels scurried away from me, but otherwise no contact with witnesses. Awkward sunburns were becoming a factor. I was exhausted, more from the anxiety than the elevation changes, but I was triumphant. It was time to get dressed and stop at the next shelter.
I approached the shelter fully dressed. Thank ya Sweet Baby Jesus I was dressed before I got to the shelter. Special K sat with her legs swinging slightly as they dangled from the edge of the shelter platform. Next to her was a woman that I didn’t recognize. They weren’t talking, just gazing in my direction. I hadn’t seen Special K in weeks. What if she’d seen me? I thought about turning around, hiking on to the next shelter, but they had already noticed me, and besides, I hadn’t done anything wrong. What if she’d seen me!
I tried to act casual, but was undoubtedly awkward. After pitching my tent, I made several clumsy attempts to hang a bear bag. The rock kept slipping out of my sloppy knots as I tried to throw it over a limb. The two women watched, their bear bags were already secured. Frustrated, I picked a limb that was just over my head, tied the cord to my food bag and heaved the whole thing over.
“If you want, you can share my line.” Special K said when I came back over to fix my meal. She still spoke with a deferential, mousey voice and held her head down and to the side. But she met my eyes.
“Thanks. But I’m sure it’ll be fine,” I replied, looking over at a food bag that dangled about chest level. “The bears in Virginia are shorter and have bad balance anyway,” I said. She laughed.
I’m sure my embarrassment was a factor, but she exuded confidence as we chatted. She met her mother, younger brother and sister regularly at road crossings and town stops. Her dad was going to be joining the crew soon so her whole family would be sharing in the journey. Yes, she already had plans to make up the school she was missing, and Yes, it was hard, but she was having a great time. She replied patiently to the litany of questions, her practiced answers suggesting that she was repeating answers she’d given many times before. Before I got a chance to ask she said, “You’re getting ready to ask my least favorite question, aren’t you?”
“Umm. What’s your favorite part of the Trail so far?” I asked, reiterating the question I was usually asked.
She smiled, still holding her head down, but meeting my eyes more fully, “I was waiting for you to ask me why I wanted to do this? I always get asked that one.”
“Ha. OK. So, why did you decide to hike the Appalachian Trail so young?”
“I’m hiking the whole Appalachian Trail on my own because I want to be the youngest person ever. I know I’m going to do it sometime, so why not do it now, while it will be something special, that no one else has ever done before.” She still held her head down and away, but she met my eyes fully.
I listened to her candidly continue to explain her reasoning. Special K was obviously one of those rare people that heard the voices telling her what she can’t do, what she should do, and refused to accept it. She was going to reach for the improbable, and her family was there to support her. She is Special.