The changes begin even before the hike.
First, there is the statement of intent."I'm going to hike the Appalachian Trail," you say, trying it out. Your neighbors say, "What's that?" Your family says, "Why?" Your friends shake their heads and plan a farewell party. People ask if you're going to take a gun, and you wonder if you should. They ask what you're going to do if you see a bear, a rattlesnake, a lunatic, a skunk. You have no idea. They ask what you'll do if it rains. "Get wet," you answer, trying to joke about the fact that you have no idea what it means to be wet for a week. You pack up your life, put it away in boxes, and you marvel at how much stuff you own that you need to do something with. You pack your hiking gear and hoist it up and realize it's too heavy to lift, let alone carry. When your colleagues at work make plans for the next few months, your thoughts drift to ridgelines. You stop your magazine subscriptions, you find someone to take care of the car. You pack 20 boxes of food and supplies to be shipped to you along the route. Soon, you realize, you'll be stepping off the edge of your known world. And you wonder.
Can I do it? Will I?
A thru-hike is an enormous physical feat, its day-in day-out demands comparable to the training of elite athletes. In the five-and-a-half to six months it takes the average hiker to complete the AT, he or she will carry a forty-or-so-pound pack 5,000,000 steps and climb and descend 470,000 feet of elevation. (Figure 83 marathons and 400 trips up and down the Empire State Building.) But a thru-hike also challenges the mind and spirit. After all, it's emotional strength that gets you through a week of rain when your socks smell like toxic waste and your clothes feel like used dishrags against your skin.
It's a challenge a growing number of people accept. According to the Appalachian Trail Conference, the number of people starting a thru-hike each year has ranged from 2,000 to 3,000 in recent years. But some outdoor magazines are predicting that millennium-year motivation plus recent publicity about the trail might result in more than 10,000 people taking the plunge this year alone!
Whatever the exact figure, one thing has remained constant over the years: the vast majoritysomewhere between 70 and 90 percentof people who try to thru-hike the AT do not finish.
In 1989, Roland Mueser, a thru-hiker and retired physicist, did an extensive survey of 136 AT thru-hikers. (His findings are recorded in a fascinating book, Lessons from the Appalachian Trail). Mueser found that of the non-finishers (85 percent, in his study), 35 percent lost interest or became homesick. Time commitments to jobs or school forced another 25 percent off the trail. Sickness and injury derailed 17 percent. 10 percent couldn't stand the weather. And 10 percent ran out of money.
It's the aches and pains that form the basis of thru-hiker dialogue during the first couple of hundred miles. According to Vernon Vernier, a retired physician and two-time thru-hiker whose trail-related health articles are available at GORP.com, medical complaints run the gamut from blisters to broken bones, giardia to Lyme disease, and all manner of scrapes and gashes. In the early days, the most common complaints are blisters (when un-broken-in feet meet un-broken-in boots) and muscle aches (when formerly sedentary bodies haul an overstuffed pack up and down mountains all day).
Of course, you don't have to be a thru-hiker to slip and fall or drink bad water. Where a thru-hike differs from a shorter trip is in the day-in day-out stress, and this is especially true on the AT, which is, mile for mile, tougher and steeper than its western cousins. (The Pacific Crest Trail, for instance, is graded for stock use. Just imagine riding a horse through Mahoosuc Notch!) I don't think I could have completed my AT hike had it not been for a pair of adjustable, shock-absorbing walking sticks to ease the stress on my beleaguered knees. Other hikers use Ace bandages or braces.
Aches and pains accompany many hikers all the way to Maine. But somewhere, usually in North Carolina, their bodies get used to the new regime. Prospective thru-hikers start thinking of themselves as thru-hikers. You can see it in the way they pack up in the morning, knowing just where everything goes. You can see it when they walk, easily stepping over and around rocks and roots without having to argue with gravity over every single step. Bodies that staggered up Georgia mountains now move comfortably through the North CarolinaTennessee Balds. Packs that were stuffed full of "just-in-case" items have been stripped to the bare essentials. And now, they're the ones whizzing past you, flying uphill.
They're also the ones who, according to a postcard printed by 1989 thru-hiker Carol Moore, come into a trail town and order the left side of the menu for breakfast, a large pizza with everything on it for lunch, fried chicken and French fries for dinner and then fill in the holes with snacks and desserts.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication