One of the books that I have read concerning the Appalachian Trail has really hit home for me. This book is “Appalachian trials: The Psychological and Emotional Guide to Successfully Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail” by Zach Davis.
As its title suggests, this book deals more with the TRIALS of the trail versus being a play-by-play recap of the authors hike.
After reading this book, you realize that probably 75% or more of the ability to complete the trail is purely mental.
I have read multiple books that all state that you do NOT have to be in peak physical condition to attempt the trail. On the contrary, most authors agree that if you show up in decent shape, with the ability to walk about 10 miles per day while carrying 30-50 lbs on your back, you will do just fine. The trail has a remarkable way of turning EVERYONE into a seasoned, fit hiker within the first few weeks on the trail. Translation: you do not have to show up with the physical ability to hike 25-30 miles per day, every day of the week. Over time, the trail will give you that ability.
This book suggests that the Psychological stress of the trail is the main reason that most hikers quit long before finishing the trail. The trail is a Psychological Marathon of epic proportions that few are prepared for. The trail has a unique way to Psychologically attack any potential hikers long before they even step foot on the trail itself.
I can relate.
The trail has been attacking me with my fears ever since I came up with this crazy idea.
My brain is constantly churning…
“I can’t make it!………My feet and legs will never hold up for that long….”
“I don’t have the balance to be walking on small ledges or rocks with a drop-off that will kill you”
“My biggest phobia of my life is FEAR OF SNAKES…..and this trail is crawling with snakes!!”
“What if I get a blood clot out in the middle of nowhere?”
“It takes an act of God for me to just be able to put on my own shoes, here in my house, with furniture and chairs to use for support. How will I put my hiking shoes on inside a tiny little tent?”
“The guide books say there are sections of rock scrambling where you must leap from rock to rock….. how can I leap with two numb legs and a bad foot?”
“Good Lord! Ya mean I gotta POOP in the woods????!!!!!”
I am guilty of something that most all AT Hikers are guilty of. I have spent a lot of time online reading Journals of AT Hikers and have spent a good amount of time watching every AT-Related YOU TUBE video I can find. People who write journals and who take videos tend to focus in on the HARD aspects of the trail. There are few videos of people walking along straight and flat trail through the woods. Most videos highlight the hikers scrambling over boulders the size of small houses, crawling up rocks and hills so steep that they are literally on their hands and knees, sliding down hills so steep that they have to hold onto exposed tree roots to keep themselves from sliding out of control, huffing and puffing up a steep mountain which seemingly never ends, only to point out that they have 7 more such mountains before the next shelter in which they can stop to sleep for the night.
All the while, I am sitting there, mumbling………. “Good grief! I can’t do that!!”
I call the wife and kid in here to the computer, show them videos, and then they too chime in unison “You can’t do that!”
The trail is already speaking to me, whispering.
“YOU!…….ARE AN IDIOT FOR EVEN THINKING YOU CAN CONQUER ME!! I WILL CRUSH YOU LIKE A BUG!!”
Obviously, most of my Psychological fears arise from my physical issues and my lifelong fear of snakes.
Most hikers are fine physically and have little to no fear of our slithering little poison-filled friends.
How does the trail get to them?
Various ways, including:
Body Freezing cold in the southern mountains during the early stages of the hike. Hiking in snow just deep enough to where you cannot easily see the trail, allowing you to twist your ankles on hidden rocks and roots. Temps so cold at night that your hiking boots and water bottles all freeze solid. Hiking in cold rain or snow to where most of your clothing and belongings get wet, causing all of them to freeze during the night.
Endless days of constantly hiking up and down mountains with little respite or flat trail in between.
Hiking endless days and weeks in forest so thick that you cannot see any views, cannot tell which direction you are hiking, with every day seeming to be a carbon copy of every day of the past few weeks.
Hiking and sleeping in the same clothes for days on end. Wet, musty, disgusting clothes.
In later stages you get oppressive heat and humidity that sap your energy and make each day a constant struggle of trying to stumble from one water source to the next.
Bugs! Trillions of bugs! Everywhere! Buzzing around your head, your mouth, all day and night long. Spending half the night in your tent swatting the bugs that have found their way in. Realizing the bugs are only going to get worse as you head north.
Realizing you have only enough food left for one meal, yet you are 30 miles from the next point in which you can get food.
These are actual Physical and mental issues that all hikers encounter, but issues that your mind tells you “WILL NEVER END”.
“ALL DAYS ARE GOING TO BE LIKE THIS!!”
It is these days that the trail claims most of it’s victims, even though there will be many days ahead where you are dry, well nourished, have great scenery, feel great, and the bugs are at a minimum.
A hiker, in good physical shape, physically able to complete the whole trail, will just up and quit, sometimes only days or weeks into the hike.
They will be standing in the middle of the trail, in the midst of a huge forest with seemingly no end, will be soaking wet, shivering, freezing to death, starving because they did not ration their food properly, will be homesick, will have blistered and bloodied feet, will have sore ankles, knees, and joints, their back will ache from the crushing weight of their pack, they are lonely because they have not seen another human all day long, they are paranoid about all the strange noises they keep hearing deep in the forest, they realize that they have 6 more MONTHS of this torture, they come to the realization that no one is forcing them to do this crazy hike…
and they quit.
More than a few hikers have all echoed the same advice: “Never quit on a bad day“.
Virginia is relatively early in the length of the trail. More than a few books I have read all agree that nearly 50% of the hikers will quit before ever reaching Virginia. Most agree that Virginia and the early states are the EASIEST on the trail. The trail is claiming most of it’s victims BEFORE they even come close to the real challenging stretches of trail.
Most are done in by the Psychological tolls of the trail.
They THINK AND BELIEVE that they are always going to be wet and miserable, the trail is NEVER going to be flat, they are always going to be hungry, they are always going to be in pain, these bugs are never going to go away, they are sure to step on a rattlesnake at any point now, and this was easily the biggest mistake of their lives.
When Steve and I hit the trail, I’m going to make sure that each of us is Psychologically prepared for everything that the trail with throw at us.
In 2010, I did a Charity Trip to South America with a Firefighting Charity that a relative had started. There was an instance where we were all on a bus, high in the Andes Mountains of Peru, on a road so-dangerous it is called “The Road of Death”, in which all of us were honestly in fear of our lives ending at any moment, when our leader Don just laughed and called out “It’s all part of the experience folks!!…It’s all part of the experience!”
I honestly feared I would die on that trip, but now I look back on it and laugh. He was right. It’s all part of the experience! I look back now and take pride in the fact that I survived the “Road of Death”.
That’s the way to approach the Appalachian Trail.
You just gotta realize that the trail is going to throw everything it has at you, trying like crazy to get you to quit.
No matter how miserable we may get, we just have to smile and yell up to the skies “That’s all you got?”.
“It’s all part of the experience!”
Years from now, Steve and I will be telling the fellow residents of the Nursing Home about how we were freezing to death, soaking wet, starved, crawling up mountains, jumping from rock to rock, dodging snakes, bears, moose, dealing with every flying insect imaginable, how we spent days running from toothless, knuckle-dragging crossbred hill people, and how we conquered it all.
It was all part of the experience.
Think about it. Who wants to sit and listen to a hiker who has completed the trail, with the hiker saying “Everything was a piece of cake, no problems at all, just a long walk in the woods…..(yawn)”
Heck, people want to hear the good stuff! They want to hear all the stuff you overcame in order to finish the trail.
It’s all part of the experience!
(Even pooping in the woods)