There are two reasons why I cannot thru-hike the Appalachian Trail in a single year, Pickles and Tucker. My 15-year-old gray striped tabby and 13-year-old Siamese/Tonkinese are the sweetest, most adorable kitties — faithful fuzzy companions and loving four-legged children. To leave them for six straight months (albeit in the great care of a wonderful cat sitter) is unthinkable. Kate and Sam have left home. Nick is gone. I will not ‘disappear’ on them. In addition, I have some previous commitments this April that should be honored, and I will want to work in some Smokies trails to keep my park goal on track.
Knowing one long trek from Springer to Katahdin is out of the question presents the opportunity to craft a unique experience. There is not a correct way to section hike this trail. Variations are endless, reflecting the time, interests, and resources of each hiker. In a perfect world, my AT desires are to experience the trail sequentially, follow the seasonality of the trail south to north, and remain within the general flow of thru-hikers. Since a section hike cannot accommodate all three wishes in a timely manner, I have opted to sacrifice hiking sequentially and concentrate on seasonal flow.
My early consideration to study the trail’s natural history and work on a nature journal plus my April schedule conflict led me to cut the trail into eight roughly equal lengths, each comprising around 273 miles over three-plus weeks. A March start in Georgia will put me at the front with early thru-hikers. By the end of the month, I’ll be in Hot Springs, NC, one/eighth of the way. (I’m redoing the section through the park.) I’ll return home to snuggle my kitties and discharge my duties. At the end of April, I’ll start section three in Virginia (skipping section two) and hike three more weeks. While many of the early thru-hikers will likely be ahead of me, I should still have plenty of serious hiking company.
At the end of the third section, I’ll come home for three weeks, then return to the trail in southern Pennsylvania in mid-June to combine sections five and six (the flattest part of the trail) for a five-week blitz through the mid-Atlantic states.
In 2014, I’ll hike section two in April, section four in late May, and finish with sections seven and eight in late July through early September. Combining two northern sections each year will save travel expenses, give me a chance to test myself on trail for longer stretches, and provide a better feel for the true thru-hike experience.
By the time I reach the double-section hikes in summer, I hope Pickles and Tucker will have learned in three-to-four-week doses that while Mom may be gone a long time, she does come home again. I place my trust in their unwavering faith and love.
This plan allows me to journey north with the seasons and enjoy or suffer whatever weather variances may occur these two years. I’ll have a relatively consistent view of the trail from early spring in Georgia to early autumn in Maine providing the opportunity for a northbound, natural history exploration. Even though I am no longer compelled to turn this adventure into a busman’s holiday, working each day on a predetermined project, I know my instinctual curiosities will sniff out plenty of natural wonders to investigate.
I have developed a detailed plan for the first section and am drafting plans for the other 2013 sections. My gear list undergoes constant scrutiny, and I am working out logistics for food and fuel. I am staying physically active, including winter hikes, yoga, jogging, and strength training, to maintain form, conditioning, and stamina.
In January, I plan to visit the park and complete several trails in the Smokemont area. Backpacking fully loaded will test my mettle for March with a few spare weeks to correct any deficiencies. I’ll have some trail entries for the blog too.
Periodically, the reality of hiking the AT solo breaks into my consciousness, and I become nervous and scared. To tame this understandable reaction and resist any urge to call off the hike, I break the task into small bits mentally and force myself to stay focused on March. It’s just three weeks in the Southern Appalachians, close to home, through the Smokies, a place I know well. An even smaller bite, seven days, gets me to the first resupply and stopover in Hiawasee. Anything is doable for seven days, right? Eight more days and I’m at the next resupply overnight in Fontana with Nancy and Jeff at The Hike Inn. Another eight days and I’ve notched one/eighth of the trail and am headed home. Compartmentalization — sanity rests along this path.
One day, one week at a time, chisel away at those 2,184 miles. Stop if I must, keep going if I can. That’s the only expectation. Success this March and the anticipation of May weather should ease things considerably thereafter. By the time I hit New Hampshire and Maine, I’ll be as seasoned a pro as the best thru-hiker and ready for that final ascent in Baxter State Park.
I do plan to write about my AT experiences here. I’m also planning to tote that titan camera. These entries will not be as detailed as the park trail accounts, but perhaps those of you following my excursions in the Smokies will also enjoy my disjointed leapfrog up the Appalachian Trail.