The Trail is the Teacher is Clay Bonnyman Evans’ episodic account of his 2016 Appalachian Trail thru hike.
Nine months after I finished my hike, the Appalachian Trail haunts my every day. But it is a welcome ghost, and I fear only the day that I no longer remember.
I have very mixed feelings about the world of social media, but I confess that it has helped me stay in touch with hikers whom I otherwise might have lost forever. I also want to give a huge shout out to Matthew “Odie” Norman, founder and editor of The Hiker Yearbook, an indispensable resource for tracking down trail companions whose real names you might never have known.
I called this blog The Trail Is the Teacher for a reason. Without getting too woo on you, I honestly believe that any hiker who remains open to the trail’s lessons will come away a wiser person. So to wrap up my adventure, I thought I’d lay out a few of the lessons I’ve learned, not just from the AT, but also the Colorado Trail.
Not everyone will agree with all these lessons, and as always, Hike Your Own Hike. These are my personal observations, in no particular order, interspersed with random photos, and if they work for you, great; if not, no worries.
Put things where they belong. To quote the Eagles, everything, all the time. Miss America offers this excellent rule: You should always be able to find anything in your pack in complete darkness. Put everything in the same place, so you won’t panic and have to explode your pack when you can’t find something.
Don’t talk about miles. My friend Sparkle clued me into this one before my CT hike after hearing me blab about how many miles I thought I could hike a day. If someone asks, don’t lie, but hikers aren’t impressed by hikers who boast about miles.
Don’t talk about pack weight. Thanks again to the wisdom of Sparkle. At the beginning of a long-distance hike, it’s natural—in fact, a cliché—to talk about gear. But constant dick-measuring about pack weight is tiresome and, unsurprisingly, seldom appreciated.
Stop criticizing Bill Bryson and Cheryl Strayed. Bryson and Strayed are something most hikers are not: writers, and good ones, at that. Bryson’s seminal A Walk in the Woods is a funny travelogue that takes place on the Appalachian Trail. Strayed’s Wild is a deeply personal memoir built around her walk on the Pacific Crest Trail. Neither author claimed to be some badass thru hiker, or even LASH (long-ass section hiker), but many hikers—who, it seems to me, are just showing their insecurities—like to complain that they didn’t even finish their respective trails. No, they didn’t. But their books are more insightful about long-distance hiking than most books on the subject, most of which are little better than glorified journals.
All those numbers mean nothing once you hit the trail. It can be fun to plan out a hike, fret about and create spreadsheets for pack weight and calories and miles-per-day; it was for me. But once a hiker takes that first step, the trail will make a mockery of plans and numbers. The upside is, she’ll also teach you all you need to know. Forget pounds—if your pack is too heavy, she’ll tell you; if you forgot something you’ll need, she’ll let you know. Forget calorie counting—are you hungry? If so, eat more. Pretty simple, no numbers necessary.
Most things newbies worry about aren’t worth worrying about. It’s natural to be nervous, but once you get going, you’ll either have the temperament to do this, or you won’t. Fretting up front is wasted energy.
You don’t “conquer” the trail. Or a mountain. You do not make it your “bitch.” You are there at the pleasure of the trail, and no matter how tough, smart, young, cool, hip, or resourceful anyone thinks they are, it has a way of puncturing even the most inflated ego.
The AT isn’t always a thrill-a-minute. Unlike, say, the Colorado Trail or Pacific Crest Trail, where almost daily you can count on eye-shattering vistas of astonishing beauty, AT hikers spend a great deal of time in the infamous “green tunnel,” where they are often unable to see the scenery for the trees. This can translate into tedium for some hikers. I learned very quickly to revel in what one hiker aptly named, “microgoals”—small borders, horizons, achievements, a swimming hole, or other markers of progress. This can be a state line, a century-mile mark (i.e. 100 or 500 miles), reaching the next shelter, catching up to a friend … really anything, so long as it helps break the monotony and seeming lack of progress through endlessly monotonous terrain.
Mental stamina is just as important as—maybe more important than—physical stamina. Nothing more to say about this, but it’s true.
No, Bill Nye the Science Guy is not hiking SOBO. Not in 2016, not in any year, despite the (admittedly amusing) rumors.
Don’t ignore blue blazes. Because the AT can be monotonous, I found it worth my while to saunter a little out of the way here and there to catch a view or take a dip.
Never quit after a hard day. Give yourself a chance to recover some perspective with a good night’s sleep.
Keep it humble. Many a big talker has flamed out before Virginia … or North Carolina … or Neel Gap (mile 32.9). I watched, bemused, as some 2017 AT hikers took to social media to loudly trumpet their badassery, blithely dismissing experienced hikers who cautioned that the trail is harder than it looks on paper. One such hiker noisily proclaimed he would do a “quick thru” in 80 to 90 days; by the time I stopped counting, he would have had to average 90 miles a day to make his “quick, 90-day” goal. Another brashly proclaimed that he would “bash it out” in 80 to 90 days. Last I checked, he was averaging 11 mpd, and to hit his 90-day goal would have to average 389 miles per day to finish in 80 (update: he quit shortly after 80, not much past the halfway point).
Rain gear doesn’t work. No matter how much you spend, you will get wet on the AT. Even the most stylin’ $500 jacket and matching rain pants will fail after 20 or 30 minutes in a torrential downpour—which you should expect—and you’ll sweat out from the inside. Embrace the reality of getting wet. If it’s warm enough, walk through rain without rain gear; you’ll dry faster.
Virginia is not flat. This weirdly persistent rumor infects each new class of AT hikers. True, many hikers manage to crank up the miles in Virginia, for a variety of reasons. But it’s not flat.
Shenandoah is not boring. Yes, you cross Skyline Drive countless times. But it’s pretty, you’re probably going to see bears, and … blackberry milkshakes. Mmmmm.
The north is hard. Really. Bloody. Hard. Much harder than you think it’s going to be. Miss Janet, the remarkable and knowledgeable trail angel, chuckles at NOBOs who reach Hanover, N.H. “thinking they’re 10-feet tall.” Having hiked some pretty tough miles, many assume the trail can’t get much harder—but they find out soon enough. Dan “Wingfoot” Bruce was not exaggerating when he came up with the rule of thumb that hikers who reach New Hampshire have completed 80% of the miles, but only 50% of the effort.
You are not home free after the Whites. Every AT hiker has heard about how challenging the Whites are. But in my experience, few expect the equally difficult southern half of Maine—which David “Awol” Miller and others think is even harder. And just because parts of northern Maine are flat, don’t expect to burn up the miles—the tread can be a killer, even when the trail is flat.
Pennsylvania really does suck. Smug SOBOs often mock NOBOs for whining about the rocks in Pennsylvania. In one sense, they’re right: Rocks are the norm after PA, and considerably worse in NH/ME. But PA is a pain, which is why it is routinely ranked as the least favorite state by AT hikers, by a wide margin. You may not have to do much climbing, but what’s there is, is steep, and the rocks are an actual thing, mile after mile of rocky, blocky, choppy, foot-mangling misery. Worse, after Duncannon you are almost always in a green tunnel. And if you hit PA during the summer, when most NOBOs do, the heat and humidity are absolutely brutal. And ticks. Ticks suck.
Do not fuck around with Lyme disease. This nasty, tick-borne affliction is endemic to many parts of the trail, especially in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut, but really, anywhere below 3,000 feet. You may not be fond of the chemicals DEET and permethrin, but using them for a few weeks beats the hell out of getting Lyme.
Katahdin does not “close” on October 15. Sometimes it closes for extreme weather conditions or environmental reasons, by order of the park superintendent. Check out the website for Baxter State Park to better understand the rules. As of 2017, you need a permit to climb the mountain, but it’s no big deal.
Swim. As often as possible. With your clothes on. It keeps you clean and cools you off.
Be mindful of your music. Play music or a book or podcast if you wish, but don’t play it so loud it disturbs other hikers or wildlife. Have the courtesy to turn it off, or at least down, when passing other hikers. Headphones, on the other hand, are not a great option—why would you foreclose on one of your key senses while in the woods?
Don’t worry about bears. Chances are, you’re going to see some bears. That’s a good thing. Statistically, you have about a one in 80 million chance of being killed by a bear on the AT in any given year, by my rough calculation. But be smart. Either hang your bear bag properly—dangling it six feet off the ground from a spindly birch tree won’t cut it—or use a system that will keep bears from knowing there is even food around, such as a bear canister or an Ursack/OPsak combo.
Bury your *&^%$#!! poop. It’s not that hard. Dig a cathole at least six inches deep, at least 100 yards off the trail and 200 yards from water, dump your load, cover (never touch your poop with your spade, if you have one!). Try packing out your TP and you’ll soon find it’s no big deal, no worse than your regular garbage bag. People who crap on open ground deserve to contract Lyme, noro, and giardia, then get mauled by a bear. Grrrrrrr…. Now, to calm myself down, I’m going to watch this video of the Barefoot Sisters singing their AT anthem, “Dig a Hole, Dump Your Load”….
Be courteous at shelters. Don’t play music out loud. Don’t smoke (anything) near the shelter. Don’t stay up late making noise. Don’t jump down in the middle of the night on top of other hikers. If you come in late or get up early, try to be quiet. Golden rule stuff.
Do. Not. Impose. Your. Snoring. On. Everyone. Else. Everyone snores from time to time on the trail, even the tiniest wisp of a 19-year-old woman. But if you know you are a loud snorer, do what Baltimore Jack did and stay in your tent. You do not have a right to keep everyone else awake. If you ignore this advice, don’t be surprised if someone uses your boots as a cathole while you aren’t looking…. Dig a hole, dump your load….
Don’t shake hands. You are filthy. I am filthy. We are all filthy. And as Purple Mist told me, you can touch your own poop, just not someone else’s. Fist bump, elbow bump. Wash when you can. Norovirus sucks.
Listen to your body. It’s smarter than you are.
Ignore your body. Or rather, think of it as a spoiled child: Sometimes, it’s just whining. If you aren’t feeling some discomfort every day, you probably aren’t doing this right. We coddle our bodies in our “comfy” synthetic lives, and every little ache, pain, or sore on the trail can cause fretting and hand-wringing. Our bodies expect the same coddling on a thru-hike when, frankly, that isn’t going to fly. If it hurts in the same place day after day, or it’s getting worse, that might be a problem. But if you suffer from equal-opportunity pain and discomfort—a blister here, a sore shoulder there, a tweaky knee one day, a swollen ankle the next—you are probably OK. Walk through it … until you can’t.
I will never resupply by mail again. First, the USPS isn’t always reliable, even when you pay $20 to get your package there and send it more than two weeks ahead of time (“Usually two or three days” me arse). Also, you may be sick of the food you thought you wanted to eat two or three (or 12) weeks ago. And no, unless you dry and pack your own food (be sure to include the cost of the machine and your time), with postage mailing boxes is probably not saving you much money. Finally, it’s great PR to spend money in hiker-friendly communities.
Don’t haul more water than you need to. Think about where you’re going and where the next water source is. A liter of water weighs one kilogram, or about 2.2 pounds. If you’ve got a big hill coming, don’t haul two or three liters unless you must.
Take zeroes. I know I didn’t take enough breaks on the AT. It’s a long, long trail, and just because you can bang out 20+ mile days, day after day, for the first 1,500 miles doesn’t mean it won’t catch up to you in that last 700, mentally, physically, or otherwise.
Be wary of zeroes. I often threw my GI system out of whack with the sudden influx of town food and beer (just one is my rule) and so on. Town costs money. Also, “town miles”—those hiked when heading into town—are waaaaay longer than regular miles.
The trail will provide—but don’t expect it to. I’m floored by how often some angel or fellow hiker steps up just when you need it. But those who run around complaining about the lack of magic or the quality of magic deserve none.
Consider unplugging. It’s fun for spectators that hikers can now document every step along the way. But in their desperate attempts to photograph/video and post everything they are doing, some hikers just might be diminishing their actual experience.
Hiking faster does not mean you are “missing out.” Idiocy, fueled by insecurity. You need not match the pace of someone slower than you in order to “smell the roses.”
But … nobody regrets spending too much time on trail. Revel in the experience, however you wish.
Hold on to your hat (or whatever). If you don’t want to lose stuff, you must snap, strap, Velcro, or tie it down.
Don’t ask, “How far is it to X?” This makes a hiker look incompetent—can’t you read a map and compass or even Awol? Also, the answer you get might be wrong or right, and if it’s “far,” you’ll be bummed either way.
If your shoes or pack smell to high heaven, find someone with a car. No, really. Hose the reeking gear down, then put it in someone’s car, windows rolled up, in the full sun, for a couple or a few hours. The extreme heat seems to kill bacteria more efficiently than anything else I’ve tried.
You and your travails are not unique. It took me a couple of weeks to get this on the Colorado Trail, but everything you experience on the trail has been experienced, and is being experienced, by others. Ask others how they have dealt with their issues on trail.
Don’t talk about controversial things with people you barely know. Just because we’ve been trained to be boors by social media doesn’t mean we have to take it out on the trail.
The trail makes fools of those who judge. Of course, we talk with friends about the loonball using a mop as a hiking stick (apologies to the amazing Jennifer Pharr Davis), the obnoxious loudmouth at the last shelter, or the incompetent fire builders last night. But recognize that your way is not necessarily better than the next hiker’s, and the people you mocked just might beat you to Katahdin.
Hike Your Own Hike. This cannot be emphasized enough. Don’t worry about what anyone else is doing, or compare yourself to others, or act superior to someone who isn’t doing it the way you think it should be done. HYOH, HYOH, HYOH!
One misstep can end your hike. Don’t get complacent. Pay attention.
Help each other. Please.
Be generous. Ditto.
Be persistent. Somewhere along the trail, someone mentioned a great quote from the playwright Samuel Beckett: I can’t go on. I’ll go on. Embrace that contradiction every day.
Practice Leave No Trace principles. For real. Study up before your hike.
Give back. Every year the 30+ volunteer clubs who maintain the AT clear downed timber and repair washed out bridges, shelters, or sections of trail, ensuring it’s in good working order for this year’s hikers. But club membership skews old, very old, and if younger people don’t start joining, or at least donating, there will be no trail in the future. I worked with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy‘s storied, flagship Konnarock Trail Crew for four weeks in May 2017 and 2018, and it was a fantastic experience.