“Don’t be afraid to walk alone. Don’t be afraid to like it.”
In a couple of weeks, I’ll be heading out for my annual trek on the Appalachian Trail.
If you’ve been following the news of late, you might have heard a lot about the trail recently. Sadly, two hikers were attacked on a section in Virginia this past Saturday. One of the victims, a 43-year-old military veteran named Robert S. Sanchez, was killed.
Deaths along the trail are rare, and killings even rarer; two to three million people from all over the world, hike all or part of the trail annually, yet Saturday’s murder was only the 10th in the last 45 years.
And yes, I understand that’s of small comfort to those who know and love the victims.
My heart breaks for them and their family and friends. And it breaks for the trail too. I know that probably sounds strange, but there is just something about taking a long walk on a dirt path that’s so very good for the soul.
I’ve been section hiking the trail for the last 5 years. Not continuously, of course, but in sections.
There are a few ways one can endeavor to hike the trail. You can thru-hike….which means you start at either the northern or southern end and go all the way….2,190 miles through 14 states, stopping at intervals to resupply, shower, wash clothes, etc.
You could slack pack….which is a thru-hike with a twist. Slack packers carry a small backpack with a day’s worth of supplies. They hike (some run) a bunch of miles from a designated starting point to a designated stop on the trail, where a car is waiting to transport the hiker to a meal and a bed….and then back to the trail to pick up where she left off, and repeat….day after day….until completed.
Or, you can section-hike the trail….like me, completing chunks of the trail over a series of backpacking trips until you’ve pieced all the sections together and completed the whole thing….it can take years.
No matter how you experience it though, it’s an experience worth having. I love the trail.
I love the people you meet on the trail….fellow hikers and wanderers from all walks of life; the ridge runners, caretakers and the people who live along the trail and are often eager to provide a little trail magic to those who amble past.
Like, the cookie lady who leaves out plates of fresh baked cookies for passing hikers.
And Jim Tabor, a trail maintainer in Pennsylvania who leaves hand-carved, wooden spoons along the trail.
And the caretakers at Upper Goose Pond cabin in Massachusetts who make pancakes every morning for hikers who stay the night.
I love that you can feel totally comfortable taking food from a stranger you meet on the trail….or bunking down next to one in a tent or a shelter.
I love snuggling up in my sleeping bag at night….cozy in the confines of my tent….reading by the light of my headlamp….or simply lying there and listening to the varied sounds of the woods at night.
I love how people are happy to connect and share a bit about themselves and their own journey’s around pots of trail food and campfires.
I love how, inevitably, the conversation almost always turns to gear and pack weight and how I learn something new from a fellow hiker every time I venture out.
I love the huge sense of accomplishment I feel after conquering a particularly difficult section of trail….and how grounded and centered and confident I feel from having lived for days in the wilderness carrying everything I needed to survive on my back.
I love that I miss it when I leave it.
I love the natural beauty of the trail, its history and the stories of the many unique individuals who have hiked it.
People like Earl Shaffer, a World War II veteran, who, in 1948, told friends he was going to “walk off the war” and became the first known person to thru-hike the trail from end to end. His journey has inspired dozens of other military veterans struggling with PTSD.
Emma “Grandma” Gatewood was the first woman to thru-hike the trail solo in 1955….at the age of 67 and wearing a pair of Keds sneakers.
At the time of her journey, Emma was divorced, having survived a 33 year marriage, during which she was often savagely beaten. She later said that when her husband became violent, she would run from the house into the woods, where she found peace and solitude.
One day, she told her grown children she was going for a walk….and then she completed the AT.
She hiked the trail again five years later at the age of 72….and again at the age of 75. She was the first to hike the trail three times.
In 1990, Bill Irwin was the first blind person to hike the trail. He relied solely on his guide dog, Orient, as he ascended mountains and forded rivers. A recovering alcoholic who turned to religion in his sobriety, Mr. Irwin once said the first bible verse he learned was from Corinthians: “For we walk by faith, not by sight.” Not long after, he decided that an AT hike would serve as a powerful example of living his faith.
In 2016, a group of 40 thru-hikers carried a pair of size 13 boots known simply as “Paul’s Boots,” the entire length of the trail. Each hiker carried the boots for hundreds of miles before passing them off to the next hiker waiting to take Paul along on the walk.
Paul was an Australian who had dreamed of hiking the trail, but never got the chance. He died of a heart-attack in July, 2015 at the age of 53; leaving behind a packed backpack and three pairs of polished hiking boots.
His wife wrote a letter to Paul’s favorite podcast, “Dirtbag Diaries” hoping that perhaps someone might be able to take a pair of Paul’s boots out onto the trail, just for a picture, but the trail community did far more than that.
I don’t know that I will ever attempt a thru-hike. I’m not sure it’s my style. I earned my trail name, Mosey (yes, we take on trail names which are typically bestowed upon us by another hiker), because that’s the way I hike the trail. I mosey.
It’s not unusual for me to plan my hikes based on a campsite I want stay at, or a particularly beautiful overlook where I might like to hang-out for an afternoon and read a book, bird-watch, or just simply sit awhile.
One afternoon, I was sitting on a large rock in a small river, soaking my feet, reading a book and having some lunch, when a thru-hiker I had been crossing paths with off and on for days stopped and said, “You really do just mosey along, don’t ya? That’s your trail name, kiddo, Mosey.”
I’m not concerned with crushing the big miles. I’m not racing the change in seasons. I have the luxury of time on my hikes and so I try and absorb every step of it.
But don’t get me wrong. Thru-hikers are beasts! It takes a significant amount of grit and fortitude to tough it out and that, in and of itself, is it’s own special journey.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to complete a section with my dad. He filled a chunk of my childhood with memories of long hikes in state parks, canoe trips down winding rivers, bike rides along abandoned railroad beds, fishing from small, tucked away ponds only my dad seemed to know about, long drives on rural, country roads, camping and boating.
It was from my dad that I developed a deep love, appreciation and respect for the outdoors.
“Never do this.” My dad would often to say to my brother and I as he stooped to pick up a discarded wrapper, bottle, or can tossed along a trail. “Never litter.”
“Why?” My brother and I would ask when we were young.
“Because….it turns wild.” My dad would say. “Haven’t you ever come across a wild potato chip bag?”
“No!” My brother and I would exclaim, wide-eyed. “What do they do?”
“Ooh, they are vicious!” My dad would say.
Thanks to my dad, over the years, the outdoors became a peaceful sanctuary and a trusted friend, where I love to disappear as often as possible with a book in hand….or my husband and our little one in tow….to spend hours happily embraced by the woods or a mountain….exploring a new trail, rock-hopping across a stream, or just quietly sitting and watching as my son explores the abundance of rocks and trees and sticks and flowers.
Since the terrible tragedy that occurred this past Saturday, I have been getting dozens of texts and social media tags from concerned family and friends with links to the articles.
“Are you still going this year?” They ask. “Aren’t you afraid?”
And the answer is, “Yes, I’m still going and no, I’m not afraid.”
It has saddened and frustrated me to hear and read the commentary from people who are shouting things like, “Well, of course this happened! They were out in the WOODS, with STRANGERS!”
When, in reality, it was among the safest places they could be.
Safer than getting into an Uber.
Safer than walking through a major city.
Safer than attending any large scale public event (concerts, movies, marathons, etc.)
Safer than going for a jog through most neighborhoods….
What happened is not a reflection of the trail or the hiking community, and it would be a shame if it scared people away from the experience, but I don’t think it will.
I think now, more than ever, those of us who love the trail and are drawn to the adventure, will hike on.
What a waste it would be if we didn’t. ♥