No matter how meticulous my A.T. plans, they are only as good as their alignment with actual conditions. Sixteen days on trail in March taught me a few things, and 29 days in May have revealed even more. It’s time for another adjustment.
Thank heaven I’m not thru-hiking, because I have neither the physical stamina nor mental toughness to stay the course for six months. My sincere admiration goes to those who do. It is possible my section hiking plan makes it easier to fall victim to such thinking, but I am honestly grateful I don’t have to find out.
Many days the miles became so arduous it was a real struggle to stay on schedule, though I did reach or surpass my planned stops each day. The mind games and their emotional residue made for some difficult afternoons on trail…but only on trail. Once the day’s walking was finished, the evening/morning camp chores and night’s rest went smoothly without angst or whimper.
I don’t think the hiking itself is the problem as much as carrying the weight. The associated physical drag and exhaustion take a tremendous toll day to day. I must continue to trim my pack weight without sacrificing essential comfort items for sleeping or eating. I carried a lighter sleeping pad and bag but more food including a small jar of peanut butter, eight ounces of olive oil, and more energy snacks. I still lost some weight this time, though nothing like March. Milder temperatures helped.
Terrain is the wild card. More than simple elevation change, the trail’s surface condition plays a significant role. In central Virginia, the dreaded surface is rock-strewn boulder fields and not just brief sections. There are miles and miles of it, flat, uphill, downhill. Every step is a rock — rounded, large, huge, small, tiny, flat, wobbly, sharp, jutting, rolling, embedded, slanted, slick, rough, steep, sloping, crawling up hands and feet, sliding down (once straight down) backsides. I may have reacted more emotionally to the unforgiving terrain, but even hardcore thru-hikers with ultralight packs were griping loudly.
Solitude cuts both ways. Part of the A.T.’s allure is the wilderness escape from modern life. Yet the work of hiking and camping each day often leaves little opportunity to relax or energy to evaluate and reflect. On the other hand, having no one for conversation or commiseration makes those long afternoon miles even longer. In camp, all chores (and gear) are borne alone. I missed both companionship and the luxury of quiet time for reflection.
Thinking back over my six weeks on trail this year, the happy times were seeing spring wildflowers, spotting a snake or toad or Red Eft, lying back in meadow grass, watching clouds sail by, observing parent birds feed their young, listening to Wood Thrushes, discovering unique or picturesque natural areas, and eating Oreos. Hauling 35 pounds up a steep incline, slowly picking my way across an endless maze of rocks, and slipping precariously down sheer rock face never made it to the ‘happy’ list. I know I can’t have one without the other; however, I must increase the proportion of happy times to counter the drudgery. It will require more down time to adequately experience and process what the trail’s surroundings have to offer. A ‘forced march’ feeling is no fun.
What adjustments will I make? First of all, I’m finished for the year. There will be no six-week northern section this summer. I’m worn out, and the turnaround time is too short to recover or prepare sufficiently. Next, since I hiked through the Smokies to I-40 last year, I will not repeat that section. Later this summer, I’ll do some trails in the park and hike the 34 miles from I-40 to Hot Springs, NC, (my intended destination in March) with hiking buddy Mary. Once this is done, I will have completed 589.2 A.T. miles (515.3 this year), more than 25%, plus the 8.8-mile approach trail…not shabby. I can be justifiably proud of this.
Finally, I will return to my initial idea of hiking two different sections totaling approximately 25% of the trail each year for the next three years. Each section will not be any longer than four weeks with more flexibility on daily mileages, plus they will be scheduled further apart for adequate time to rest and prepare. I have found that I am section hiking like a thru-hiker, complete with demands, constraints, and pacing I do not need to meet and cannot sustain. I must learn what it means to “hike my own hike” so I can enjoy it.
Despite this rather negative assessment, there are many fun moments and a satisfying sense of accomplishment on trail — people, places, and experiences I will find nowhere else. I truly am looking forward to exploring more of these and sharing them here. Over the next few weeks, I will post details and photos of my A.T. hike in central Virginia.