Hiking the Appalachian Trail #3
Springer Mountain to Mount Katahdin
100 days, 2,100 miles, 2010
March 4, 2010 to June 12 = 101 days
This thru-hike was a completely different experience than my AT hike last year because of the early season. It often seemed like a different trail, so the overall hike was not a repeat performance, by any means. But again, I enjoyed it very much. And once again, I learned SO much. It seemed like every day, lessons seemed to come at me from every direction. I started on March 4 on Springer Mountain, in 14 inches of snow. The shuttle driver had to put chains on his 4WD vehicle to get to the start. This year I was an AT front-runner, meaning I was far ahead of the crowd of north-bound thru-hikers. This was because I started somewhat early (March 4) and because I was among the first to punch through the Smokies. The Smokies (aka Smokeys) were a bottleneck for early starters this year. I hiked in two feet of snow in the southwestern Smokies, and 5 feet of snow beyond Newfound Gap. Nevertheless, I hiked through the Smokies in 3 days. Before that, the hiking was a bit slow at the start while waiting for the right conditions. After that I picked up the pace, and averaged 25 to 30 miles a day. I was among the first to get through the Smokies because I waited until the snow had consolidated before going through. Lots of hikers tried to slog through too early and the vast majority of them turned back. But when the conditions were just right, I got through in only three days. Then I started putting down high mileage days, and didn't take a zero day for the next two months. But being a frontrunner had certain disadvantages. There were a three or four hikers ahead of me, whom I never met because they stayed ahead of me. So the last time I actually met a thru-hiker was in mid-Virginia, and I didn't see another one for the remainder of the trip. So my hike was a solo experience to say the least. Last year I enjoyed the company of other thru-hikers, but this year I actually had to phone a couple of them to touch bases every now and then. And of course I talked with Jenny almost every day (Thank you, Jenny, for being my distant yet constant companion this summer). I never experienced loneliness because there was always so much to do and admire along the way. But I did miss the thru-hiking community, and how they bolster each other and enrich the hiking experience. As a frontrunner I found nearly all the shelters empty. As usual I preferred to sleep in my Spitfire because it is much more comfortable. But I did stay in two shelters. The same applied to the hostels; I was the only guest in most of the ones I stayed in. In fact, I was often the first thru-hiker they had seen so far this year. The weather this year was much different than last year's nearly constant rain, it seemed. The trail was mostly mud-free this year, even in Vermont - can you believe that? But I experienced a wide variation in rapidly changing temperatures. Sometimes it was so cold I could see my breath and other times the weather was hot, sweaty and buggy. And I never knew what was coming next, so I had to carry a heavier load of clothing and a two-layer quilt for those sometimes frigid nights. My baseline pack weighed about 9 pounds. Incidentally, I used a quilt with Woodland insulation, not Alpine insulation, and made up for the difference with warmer clothes worn underneath the quilt when needed. And talk about blow-downs - they were everywhere, from Georgia to the 100-mile wilderness in Maine. Some sections had been cleared, (Thank you trail volunteers!) but about one-third of the trail had not. On one mountain in Virginia I estimated about 800 blow-downs. Hiking in a storm that day was a challenge. All this aside, I hiked with early spring from Virginia onwards. It seemed like I was hiking with the blooming trilliums. I saw them everywhere from Virginia to Maine. This was my third A.T. thru-hike, and during the previous two I white-blazed throughout, never straying from the official route. But with this one I sometimes hiked where I wanted, as opposed to where the trail led. This is called blue-blazing, and I saw some very nice county that I had not seen before. But I don't necessarily recommend this. I think everyone should hike his or her own hike, and make their own decisions. For after all, the A.T. has no hiking rules. How does one spell "hiking"? F-R-E-E-D-O-M. But having had this experience, I think next time I will stick to the official route for the entire distance. I think the white-blazed, official route is superior to most of the blue-blazed alternatives, at lest for my present frame of mind. Jenny writes: I flew into Bangor, Maine, rented a car, then drove north and west to Baxter State Park to join Ray for his celebratory climb of Katahdin at the completion of his A.T. thru-hike. The next morning, just after sun-up, we set off climbing Mt. Katahdin. As I hiked along behind Ray, I noticed something about his gait and his movements that I had not paid much notice to before, on our previous long hikes together. Even though the trail was rough, with roots and rocks to step over or around, Ray seemed to just flow along the trail with no effort at all. His gait was so smooth and steady - and a bit slow, I thought. I was ready to race up the trail and get to the summit. Ray, however, after 3 months of thru-hiking, knew - his body knew - that the slow, steady, smooth pace was the most efficient for this type of terrain, and for going the distance day after day. It was a beautiful thing for me to watch. He looked incredibly strong and fit and so at home and at peace on the trail.