Appalachian trial.

The world is a very simple place for thru-hikers of the Appalachian Trail. Each day there is just one task: walk north. (Or south, for those of that persuasion.) There are few supporting tasks necessary — eating, obtaining water, finding a patch of dirt to sleep on each night — and they’re pretty trivial. The physical geography of the world narrows to a single dimension, a line with neither width nor height, stretching 2,170 miles from Georgia to Maine.

Entering the world of the AT seems a bit like entering Harry Potter’s non-muggle world. There are a few Platform 9 3/4s where access is possible, including Springer Mountain, Mt. Katahdin, and perhaps spots like Harper’s Ferry or Damascus. It’s easy to forget that the trail weaves along the entirety of the eastern seaboard, dodging towns, paralleling highways, existing within close proximity to thousands of homes, businesses, and people. Trail maps only show roads if they’re crossed by the AT. Guidebooks only mention towns if they’re close to the trail and sell a few groceries.

Mountains South of DamascusLiving on the east coast, I occasionally have the experience of encountering the trail from my car. I’ll be hurtling down a highway at 65mph and then — wham — I’m smacked in the brain with the realization that I’ve been here, only traveling perpendicular and at something closer to 3mph. And then it’s gone, my three-second glimpse of Hogwarts reduced to a memory.

It was in this regard that spending the past weekend at Trail Days was a little mind-blowing. Wearing regular clothes, bearing no frame pack, I got in my car and drove 4.5 hours south on 81, got off on 91 south, and emerged at the post office in downtown Damascus. I had driven to the Appalachian Trail—I’d discovered a portal. Not just a portal to the physical trail, but to the culture. I spent three days with old and new friends, 2006 thru-hikers and my ’96 brethren. We talked about gear, reminisced about miles gone by and plotted how we’d escape “the real world” to reconnect to the magic of the trail.

Blaze in Downtown DamascusHiking at the age of 17 meant that my first experience on my own in life was hiking the AT. Cooking for myself meant lighting a fire and putting on a pot. Owning possessions meant having to carry them, so acquiring something new meant jettisoning something old. Work meant writing a blog entry for each day’s hike. I had to become entirely self-sufficient.

After breaking my feet (eight times), I shut off the AT from my life. I put away most of my books. My trail journals and photographs were packed up. I haven’t been able to bear doing anything with my trail journals. I unsubscribed from the Appalachian Trail Mailing List. I didn’t go to Trail Days, ALDHA Gatherings, or the Pine Grove Ruck. In retrospect, I think I did so because I had to. With permanently broken feet, backpacking isn’t possible for me. And yet I learned that formative six-month less that backpacking is what my life is, or ought to be. So rather than tantalize myself, I’ve denied myself access to that part of my life.

I’m not sure I can do it anymore. Trail Days reminded me how much I am a backpacker. I don’t love backpacking any more than, say, Catholics love Catholicism; I am backpacking. It’s not genetic — it’s learned, as I learned it ten years ago.

So I’m going to get my feet fixed. I’m going to clean up my gear. I’m going to finish that 76 mile section from Port Clinton to Delaware Water Gap. There is no inner peace in my asceticism. It’s time to stop pretending otherwise.

Published by Waldo Jaquith

Waldo Jaquith (JAKE-with) is an open government technologist who lives near Char­lottes­­ville, VA, USA. more »

17 replies on “Appalachian trial.”

  1. Stress fractures. I started off with a 72lb pack. In terms of strength, I had no problem carrying it. But my metatarsals couldn’t take it, and after a thousand miles one of them cracked. I waited a month, started again, and broke my other foot by favoring the injured one. I kept walking on them for another hundred miles, summited Katahdin, healed again, and repeated the cycle several more times. Now I need orthopedic surgery, though I’m looking into a non-invasive option. The good news is that I have my base pack weight down to 18lbs.

    I’m a stubborn bastard. :)

  2. Fabulous. Get yer feet fixed. I know you need to fill in those gaps, and I know why. You’re as obsessed as I was. Again. Fabulous.

    And would you PLEASE finish your journal.

  3. Waldo is actually lying. He broke both his feat in a dancing accident in a strip club in New Orleans. Waldo, lying is unhealthy.

  4. What is “something Waldo has in common with Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro,” Alex?

    Except I’d give you much better odds than 50/50 on getting back on track. :)

  5. I hear that. It is amazing how many people come off the trail, and sever all ties completely. People have told me that adjusting to life on the trail is hard. Adjusting to life after the trail is 10 times harder. I find Trail Days to be some strange mixture in between: not quite real life, but not quite hiking. It’s partly liberating, and partly frustrating. Glad to hear you are finishing up your lost miles. That seems like the right thing to do.

  6. You probably already know this, but:

    1) The Port Clinton>DWG section of the AT is Pennsylvania’s most difficult, and where the term “Rocksylvania” can trace its roots to.

    2) This section is a piece of cake compared to the Whites in NH or the AT in Western Maine or the climb up Katahdin–which I think I recall you’ve already done. You should be just fine.


  7. And it’s the rocks that destroy my feet. In 1998 I switched from hiking in sneakers to using a boat-like pair of boots; the soles don’t even flex. I hope that’ll help. While the Whites and Katahdin were rugged, I’d had 1,000 (and then 1,300) warm-up miles to prepare for them. :) Now I’m going in fresh. I think eight days will be enough to cover that distance. I feel pathetic doing less than 10 miles per day, on average, but I’ve got to remember I’m not a thru-hiker now — I’m just a guy going for a long walk.

  8. Keeping your daily mileage down will be a good thang. For more reasons than foot preservation. Nothing pathetic about it.

    To be honest, the only really wicked part of that section is between Wind Gap and DWG–that’s where my feet barked the most in response to the sharp pointy rocks embedded everywhere that you can’t avoid stepping on or twisting your ankles. But at 10 MPD, that’s only a couple days. The other six days aren’t that horrible.


  9. I’m glad that your not putting this goal away forever. It’s nearly impossible to get so close to accomplishing something and then give up when it means so much.

    You either have to finish it, or be in denial forever.

    I’m convinced you’ll do just fine.

  10. 72LBS?! WHAT?! Surely you’re typing that dyslexically (i just made that word up). You mean 27lbs! right?

    When i first hiked the AT I made the mistake of having too heavy a pack too. But my definition of too heavy was 40lbs. I can’t even comprehend 72lbs.

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