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Thursday, October 12, 2000

A Good, Long Walk

By Bob Whittaker
For the Journal
    EDITOR'S NOTE: On April 6, Albuquerque's Bob Whittaker began an attempt to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, from Georgia to Maine. For the next five months he e-mailed dispatches to the Journal from the trail. On the morning of Aug. 29, Whittaker reached his final destination Mount Katahdin in Maine. What follows is an account of his long trip.
    After five months of walking, I reached my destination, only to find my journey was just beginning.
    On April 6, I started on Springer Mountain in Georgia, the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. In the warmth of the afternoon, on that blue-sky day, I had the rare opportunity to celebrate the first day of a new chapter in my life.
    I had just covered the nine-mile approach hike in about four hours and was excited for the 2,167 miles that lay ahead. I was excited about the prospect of walking to Maine, the lessons I would learn, the sights I would see and the people I would meet. And, more than anything, I was excited to enter into a personal rite of passage.
    That first night, I wasn't sure where I was going to camp. I went to the Springer Mountain shelter to collect water and see if I felt comfortable staying there.
    There are "shelters" all along the Appalachian Trail, usually within 10 to 15 miles of one another. A shelter is a three-walled structure with a roof that can generally sleep six to 10 hikers.
    Theoretically, it is possible to hike the Appalachian Trail without carrying a personal shelter (such as a tarp, tent or bivy sack). I opted to carry a lightweight tarp, allowing me the freedom to camp where and when I pleased.
    My tendency to be shy around strangers, and my desire to be alone on that first night, drove me to hike a little further down the trail, where I found a flat, soft spot to set up my tarp and spend the night.
    After eating dinner, as the sun slipped beneath the horizon, I found myself alone. In the dark. In the middle of the woods. Far away from home. Subtle and illogical fears soon began to emerge from the darkness and became entangled with feelings of sadness and homesickness.
    Periodically through the night, I was awakened by the sound of a diesel engine starting in the distance. I was convinced there were some local yahoos with oversized off-road vehicles out in the woods somewhere, and their intent was to make my life miserable.
    The next morning I awoke to the brightness of a new day and my fear and sadness was temporarily replaced with excitement and anticipation once again. Still, I continued to hear the sound of the diesel engine starting in the distance.
    Within a couple of days I learned that the diesel-engine noise I continuously heard was actually a male ruffed grouse. In the early spring the male beats his wings against the ground in a progressively rapid rhythm, producing a sound similar to that of a diesel generator cranking up.
    As my sense of calm grew, I was able to sleep more comfortably while deer snorted or turkeys ran outside of my tarp during the darkness of night. I came to love the experience of sleeping alone in the woods, and I only forsook this experience for the convenience of staying in shelters or a desire to commune with other hikers.
Life unfolds
    On my second day on the trail, spring fell upon the earth, and I walked through the first of many rhododendron thickets.
    The rhododendron is a dense evergreen bush that holds onto its smooth, thick, plasticlike leaves throughout the year. When I first encountered these hearty plants, they were just beginning to sprout their first buds of new growth. I felt privileged to watch the life of the woods unfold as I continued on northward through April and May.
    Numerous times I stopped on hilltops, surrounded by trees with naked branches criss-crossing the view of the valleys below where the foliage had already exploded into life. I found comfort and validation in the realization that growth is a steady progress.
    My eyes would wander up from those low points in the valley to the area on the hillside where the flood of green would disperse amongst the gray of the trees not yet ready to expose their leaflets to the still unpredictable weather. Growth is something that cannot be forced; the buds open when it's in their best interest of longevity.
    In those spring months, the weather at times became relentless. Within my first week I saw snow, and in the first month I saw 20-some days in a row of rain.
    At that point, I was happy to have the extra weight of my warm clothes, rain jacket and Gore-Tex pants. But soon I would find the weight I was carrying extreme for the lightweight backpack I used.
Shedding weight
    The first store I came across, I found myself engaging in the unexpected yet inevitable thru-hiker ritual of sending extra gear home to reduce pack weight. In fact, in just about every town for the next month and a half, I found something more I could jettison by way of the U.S. Postal Service.
    I started with small things: the case to my harmonica, the third pair of socks, an extra book, my fork, an extra roll of film. Eventually, I began to let go of things I never thought I could live without: my Frisbee, my maps, my harmonica, my sunglasses, bug spray. Basically, if I wasn't using an item, it was deemed unnecessary weight.
    Before I began my hike, I familiarized myself with lightweight-backpacking techniques by reading a book called "Beyond Backpacking" by Ray Jardine, a lightweight-backpacking guru. His book not only instructs the reader how to pack light, it also shows how to make a lightweight system (including backpack, tarp, bug-net, sleeping bag/pad and clothes) from scratch.
    Unfortunately, I did not have the time to make my gear from scratch. But, before I left for Georgia, a company called Go Lite began manufacturing lightweight gear fashioned after Ray Jardine's designs, and I bought the whole works: pack, sleeping system, tarp and bug net. Food, water and clothing aside, these things are the core needs of a backpacker, and these core needs weighed about six pounds all together.
    Once this system is adopted, the backpacker makes a commitment to carry no more than 25 pounds. It took me about two months to fully accept this concept and keep my weight down below 25 pounds on a consistent basis.
    Along the trail I learned there are other methods and systems for lightweight backpacking other than the "Ray way." I found gear in outfitter stores along the trail that is comparable in weight and design to the Go Lite gear, and more affordable. By watching and talking with other hikers I began to discover and adopt other methods for cutting weight. I found myself engaging in the ritual of "gear talk," the thru-hiker's equivalent to small talk.
    By the end of my trip I had forsaken my Pur Hiker water filter for chlorine or iodine treatment. I had sent my MSR Dragonfly backpacking stove home and began using an empty potted beef can filled with denatured alcohol for cooking.
    Plus, I began wearing a fanny pack to carry my camera and journal, taking that weight off my back and putting the two things I referenced most within easy access of my fingertips.
A rat race
    With my pack-weight down, I found it easy to walk really far every day.
    Twenty-mile days became a norm. Early on, though, I had to ask myself the question, Why am I hiking so many miles? I began the trip with no timeline, ensuring freedom to "hike my own hike." And yet I found myself pushing forward, trying to cover as many miles as possible.
    In fact, I raced up the trail. I would pass someone and then worry about whether they would catch up with me. To keep that from happening, I would hike fast and far, creating distance between me and those I had passed. I would then start a day intent on catching someone I knew was in front of me, passing them, then leaving them behind.
    During this rat race I would also find myself worrying about what others thought of me, if I was impressing people with how fast I was hiking. To combat these insecurities I would walk faster, working harder and harder to nullify the constant chatter in my head, whipping through my sensibilities like the strong spring storm blows through a sprouting forest, cleansing the life that is not strong enough to make it to the warmth of summer.
    Furthermore, I tended to judge other hikers and their intentions in a way that made me feel superior.
    Then one day, breathing heavily, I stared up at the horizon line, knowing that beyond it stood the last distance of trail before a peak.
    Pushing forward, my thighs straining, I worked my way over the final hump. My mind was a broken record, skipping over the same question again and again: Why do I continue to worry about how I appear to others?
    As I broke above the horizon line, staring ahead at the summit, my legs began to rejoice and accelerate as the grade rapidly changed from steep to shallow. Simultaneously, my mind jumped to this realization: I strive for "perfection" and judge others because I'm not comfortable with who I am now. In this moment of "trail serendipity" my mind joined in my body's celebration of overcoming a challenging moment together.
Pushed to extremes
    For five months I embraced challenges of all types. My body was pushed to extremes, the likes of which I had never before experienced. Concurrently, my mind encountered obstacles which demanded flexibility and an ability to find new ways of thinking.
    As the miles and days passed, my self-confidence burgeoned and I gained a stronger understanding of myself. Metaphorically, I entered the transitional process of shedding my cocoon and learning to fly.
    Those individuals with the vision to propose, promote and create the Appalachian Trail saw the need for nature to play an active role in the lives of modern day Americans. While the ability to run into the wilderness for five months may not be available to all, the ability to escape to a natural environment for a weekend is a realistic possibility.
    I actively encourage all to take advantage of the beauty that surrounds us, always.
    Until we meet again, happy trails.
    Trail stats
    Trail length: 2,167 miles
    Trip length: 146 days
    Days I spent hiking: 127
    Zero-mileage days: 19
    Daily average: 17 miles
    Lowest mileage day:
    1/2 mile
    Highest mileage day: 41.1 miles
    Starting pack weight:
    38 pounds
    Ending pack weight:
    23 pounds
    Wildlife seen:
    Bears 6
    Rattlesnakes 4
    Copperhead snakes 2
    Beaver 1
    Bull Moose 1
    Deer countless

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