More Hikers Than We Expected--March 15
January 1, 1970The first two weeks of our Appalachian Trail journey have shown us that this will be a social experience as much as it will be a walk in the woods. Although we started about a month before most thru-hikers (those who are hiking the entire trail during the course of a single trip), the trail registers indicate that there are more than a hundred ahead of us. We are deliberately going no more than 10 miles a day, a pace slower than most hikers do after about a week on the trail, so we are being passed by half a dozen or more people each day. Because we may only meet them for a few minutes before they move on, we often learn only first names, or “trail names.”
It is a diverse group out here. Middle-aged Flower Lady and Cedar, who own a greenhouse and plant shop, are hiking back to their home in Maine. College students that have taken a semester or two off to hike the trail abound. Lisa (trail name of “Rudabaga”) is a French major at Emory University in Atlanta and Mike is a student at the University of Connecticut. Alana is from Iowa and just finished a stint with Americorps, where she built houses with Habitat for Humanity and worked with inner city youth. Her brother, David, will be going to Columbia, South America, after he finishes the trail to teach English and other subjects to second grade children. Recent college graduate Lindsay is headed to Maine with her father, Craig.
However, the trail is taking its toll. Blisters the size of quarters and half dollars have forced some people off the trail, while packs with way too much weight in them have caused others to have knee, ankle, or foot problems. Although they may have dreamed of doing the trail for years, some were just not mentally prepared for its rigors, such as temperatures dropping into the teens at night, a gain and loss of several thousand feet in elevation day in and day out, cold air being blown about by 25-mile per hour winds, and walking through rain storms that last more than 24 hours. Mary Ann has been laid up in a low cost motel for close to a week waiting for infected ingrown toenails to heal. Jim, a missionary who had just returned to America from Tanzania, appears to have dropped out two days into the hike, while Robert, who was carrying close to 90 pounds on his back, has not been heard from in more than a week.
Then there is PawPaw. The retired pharmacist from Florida is putting all of us to shame. It was just one newspaper article that got him interested in doing a thru-hike. Despite having had almost no experience with backpacking in the mountains, and having taken a tumble that necessitated several stitches in his forehead, the 89-year old is moving at a constantly steady pace and making more miles per day than some hikers who are five to six decades younger. If Pawpaw makes it all of the way to Maine, he will be the oldest person to have thru-hiked the A.T.
The trail has been kind to Laurie and me. We have only had one day of rain in two weeks, and the pains in my left calf and Laurie's left knee are beginning to subside. Our four-legged companion, MacAfee of Knob (“The Amazing Appalachian Bouncing Dog”) is showing few signs of any aches, and wakes up each morning (after spending the night in his own sleeping bag) eager to begin the day's adventure. It is truly a joy to see him trotting down the trail, his tail wagging, and his nose twitching to a myriad of smells that are unknown to us. Despite his advancing years, Mac still walks close to twice as many miles a day as we do.
We camped more than a mile above sea level on Standing Indian Mountain just after entering North Carolina a few day ago. The summit is known as the “Grandstand of the Appalachians” for its far-reaching view of wave upon wave of Blue Ridge Mountains stretching so far south that we could make out what our route had been for the past week. Just before we bedded down, the sun spread wondrous streaks of yellow and red across the western horizon. At the same time, the waters of Lake Chatuge reflected this fugacious atmospheric display, making it look as if someone had poured liquid silver and gold over the landscape. When I answered the call of nature a few hours later, a half moon shone brightly alongside Orion, the Big Dipper, and scores of other twinkling stars, while the lights of Hiawasee, Georgia, sparkled in the valleys far below us.
This is just one of the rewards we have received so far for hiking the trail.