Nina Baxley: AT Thru-Hiker

Wingdale, New York

Date: September 5, 2000
Miles hiked: 733.9
Miles remaining: 1,433.2
Location: Wingdale, NY

A couple of weeks ago in Vermont, I hiked 17 miles from the summit of Bromley Mountain to the summit of Stratton Mountain. Why? Was it because Stratton Mountain has a cool gondola that will take you into Stratton Village? No. Was it because Stratton Mountain has awesome sunsets? No. Was it because my friends Firebreather and Fall Girl were also hiking to Stratton Mountain? No. Why, then? Why would a perfectly rational thru-hiker race 17 miles up and down mountains on the Appalachian Trail?

ICE CREAM. I knew there was ice cream at the snack bar on Stratton Mountain, and I knew the snack bar would close at 4:30. All day as I raced along the trail, my thoughts centered on reaching that summit by 4:30. Ben and Jerry were calling.

In my last update, I mentioned that Vermont was a time of physical and mental transitions for me. I didn't write much about the physical changes then, but they've been pretty significant. I've begun hiking more and faster miles, and with those increases have come a huge increase in my appetite—especially for ice cream.

Before I go on, I need to explain something about myself. I'm a chronic dieter. I've been a dieter since I was about 14, early in my career as a pudgy teenager. Although I haven't officially been"on a diet" in years, I'm a habitual scrutinizer of food labels. Most foods don't make it to my kitchen unless they're low-fat, low-cal, no-sugar-added, or—ideally—all of the above.

A thru-hiker, who easily burns 5,000 or 6,000 calories a day, gets hungry. It's a common thru-hiker practice to down a pint of Ben & Jerry's ice cream when getting into town. Until recently, I couldn't make myself do it. Instead, I would down a pint of Ben & Jerry's low-fat yogurt. The ice cream I got at the snack bar on Stratton Mountain, however, had more than 20 grams of fat per serving. And it was GOOD! It was MUCH better than the usual low-fat, low-cal, no-sugar-added frozen yogurt I've been eating all these years!

I've learned over the past few weeks that I NEED the fat and calories. That's probably one reason I've begun craving ice cream on the trail. My body needs those calories and fat grams! My mind, which for years has viewed"calories" and "fat grams" as something only slightly less disgusting than big, brown, juicy roaches that fly, has really had to adjust. And the more miles I hike, the more my mind must accept that it's not just OK, but necessary, to have fat and calories—lots and lots and lots of them!

In Vermont, I hiked several days with two other southbounders, Firebreather and Fall Girl, who regularly hike well over two miles an hour. "Average pace" for thru-hikers is about two miles an hour; before southern Vermont, I was averaging about 1.6 miles an hour.

When you hike with Firebreather and Fall Girl, however, you have to hike at least 2.5 miles an hour, or they'll leave you in the dust (or the mud, as was often the case in Vermont). Because I enjoyed their company, I found myself keeping pace with them, mile after mile.

I was hiking fast. I CAN hike fast—when I want to. I don't always want to, but it's nice to know I can do it!

I hiked three 17-mile days in a row in Vermont, and I hiked my first 18-mile day in Massachusetts. I'm averaging about 14 miles a day, and a "low-mileage day" for me is any day in which I hike less than ten miles. I'm still not a "fast" hiker, and I'm not a "big mileage" hiker either, compared to other thru-hikers. But I am—compared to how I was. The easier terrain, the nice weather, and the fact that I'm in better physical shape than I've ever been in my life, have all resulted in my ability to hike more and faster miles. I feel so STRONG; it's as if I'm a different hiker than I was two months ago.

And the trail seems like a different trail. Its changes, like mine, have been slow but significant. The tough mountain treks are all but gone, for one thing. Also, the spruce trees of Maine and the gnarled evergreens of the White Mountains are past; as I hiked into Vermont and through Massachusetts, the forests became primarily broadleaf.

There are still some evergreens, to—the Massachusetts woods, rich with hemlock and white pine, were stunning for me. The hemlock is my favorite tree, with its blue-green needles, which turn reddish-brown when they dry up. The forest floor takes on that reddish-brown tone when carpeted by the hemlock's soft needles. I love that color. And, when accented by the bright green of ferns and lichens, the grey-green of mossy tree bark, the grey and white of rocks, and the dark, shiny green of late-summer leaves, the forest is so beautiful. And it's so much more beautiful than a postcard, because it's all around me, accompanied by the distinct sounds and smells of the southern New England woods.

I've started noticing some familiar trees, too—some of which I haven't seen since I lived in Virginia. In southern Massachusetts, I saw my first sassafras tree. Boy, was I excited! It was like seeing an old friend. I had the same feeling when I saw a white oak several miles later. And I've started seeing mountain laurel. The maples here are abundant, and there are hundreds of feathery ferns gracing the forest floor. I can only imagine how beautiful these woods must look in autumn, when the leaves change color. That's something I still have to look forward to on this thru-hike: autumn!

But for now, it's summer. Parts of Massachusetts and Connecticut felt like Louisiana: HOT and HUMID. I'm often drenched in sweat even before I start hiking in the morning, and I have to take constant breaks, as the heat saps my energy amazingly fast. One day, I went through six liters of water.

Last Saturday started out badly. I had been drenched that morning; a thunderstorm had hit just as I was packing up my tent. My pack, loaded with wet gear, felt like lead. As I hiked into Salisbury, CT, the heat and humidity were unforgiving. I was dehydrated and weak, and felt like I might pass out. It wasn't far into town, but I tried hitching; the 0.8 miles between me and Oscar's Ice Cream Shop seemed like 100 miles in that heat.

A car pulled over. I was overcome with relief. Someone was going to offer me a ride into town!

"Is this the Appalachian Trail?" asked the women in the passenger's seat.

"It's right back there!" I said with a smile.

"Oh. We missed it, honey," the woman said to her husband, and they drove off.

My heart sank. No ride. More road walking in this hot sun.

When I got to the ice cream shop, I learned that their freezer had broken the night before. No ice cream. But they did have soft-serve and root beer, so I had a root-beer float. It wasn't low-fat, low-cal, or no-sugar-added. And it was GOOD!

Soon, I was back on that hot road, and it was like I hadn't even had a break. Again, I felt like I could pass out from the heat.

I didn't even try to hitchhike. I just walked.

A car pulled over, and an elderly woman in the passenger's seat opened her window. Luckily, she didn't ask me if this was the Appalachian Trail.

"We would like to give you a ride back to the trail," she called out to me.

Have you ever felt so touched by someone else's kindness that tears came to your eyes? Well, that's how I felt right then. Dale and Mary Lou Purcell, the couple that picked me up, had no idea how much their offer of help meant to me.

But their generosity didn't stop there. On the way to the trail, they convinced me (with much arm-twisting, of course) to come home with them to Falls Village so I could dry out my wet gear, wash my clothes, and take a shower. Once I was there, they convinced me (with more arm-twisting, naturally) to stay overnight.

So that night, as it poured rain outside, I stayed at the Purcells' home. I played their grand piano, ate ribs and corn on the cob with them and their daughter, and watched a movie. Oh, and we had high-fat, high-calorie vanilla bean ice cream with high-fat, high-calorie roasted pecans for dessert. And it was GOOD!

Mr. Purcell brought me back to the trail the next morning, and I was sad to leave him. He and his family were so kind to me, and I found myself wishing I could stay with them longer. I often have that feeling when I part from friends—trail angels and hikers alike—that I have made on the Appalachian Trail.

I love this trail. I'm building such a store of good memories out here. The Appalachian Trail is so many things for me. It's about walking slowly and noticing every flower, but it's also about being strong and fast, enjoying the endorphin-induced high and the sense of accomplishment that result from hiking 10 miles before noon. And it's about eating all the ice cream I want, and not having to worry about my weight!

It's also about people. It's about hikers I've befriended on the trail, such as Firebreather and Fall Girl, Isis and Jackrabbit, Matt and Blue Skies, Tenbrooks and Molly, and O.D. and Bugbiter. It's about Swamp Eagle, Nimblewill Nomad, Honeycomb, and Belcher, and it's about happy coincidences. It's also about the non-hikers who bring so much sweetness to my thru-hike. The Purcells, Dan Quinn and Eliza (and their ferret!) in Vermont, Tom Levardi in Dalton, the Cookie Lady and her husband in Massachusetts, Joan Carter in Sheffield, Steve Johnson and Debbie Luxenberg at Benedict Pond Bob Hall in Kent, Beth Fogle (and her cats!) in Wingdale . . . those are just a few of the non-hikers that have helped make my thru-hike such a rich experience during the past few weeks.

I'm in love with the Appalachian Trail and all its gifts, and I'm in love with my life out here. Life is good. Onward to Georgia!

What is she carrying? Check out Nina's gear list and pack weight
See the trail dispatch archive for previous weeks.


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