I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail earlier this year (2016). My dad thru-hiked back before it was really even much of a thing, in 1978. Obviously, a lot has changed about the trail in 40 years, but just how much? While we were on a little hiking trip on the AT in Georgia this holiday season, I asked him some questions to compile some comparisons between our hikes.
(Note: I hiked northbound. My dad flip-flopped somewhere in Virginia and walked south from Katahdin. Also I didn’t record my dad speaking so I just paraphrased unless it’s in quotes.)
Was hiking the AT fun?
Me: Usually? It wasn’t always fun, but I definitely had some of the best days of my life. Not when I was so cold I started yelling nonsense at mountains or had poison ivy… but definitely when we were cresting the ridges in the whites or finding the hot tub in hot springs it was. Maybe in 40 years I’ll think it was always fun.
How many people did you see?
Dad: There was a big northbound bubble, and I saw it coming south. It didn’t last long, though. I saw about 60 hikers a day for about 2 days and then no one. When I was hiking north I sometimes saw 5 people in a day, but one time we fit 30 people in a shelter when it was raining.
Me: I thought it was super awful crowded in Georgia and the Smokies, then other times we would sometimes have around 20 people at a campsite or shelter, but never saw too many during the day. Somehow even with crowd problems in some places there were also days-long stretches we saw literally no one. It felt like when we got into town we suddenly had 50 friends. Everyone told us we were ahead of the bubble, and somewhere or other there were over 100 people in one place, but that’s impossible to confirm.
What was your trail name/did everyone have one?
Dad: Pretty much everyone had one. I started off with the name Semi, because I was slow going up hills and fast going down them. I don’t remember who gave that to me. Then I was Aznageel, because I wrote these stories in the shelter logs and that “seemed like a whimsical name” (it’s from a T.Rex song). They were the Snifforn Stories, some people I met would remember me by them. The best trail name was probably Ann and Al Weed, who called themselves the tumbleweeds. (When talking about people, he used their real names more often though.)
Me: Everyone except maybe 2 people I met used trail names, and I didn’t usually know their real name. I was Mishap, because a guy named ETA said “after all your mishaps, you’ll be the first one on Katahdin if you make it through.” We had probably 5 Tumbleweeds, and my favorite trail name was Sphagnum P.I., who spent a lot of time carefully inspecting mosses.
Where did you stay?
Dad: Hostels where we could, but there weren’t very many and they were usually something bare bones like an unstaffed bunkhouse. We stayed in The Place in Damascus (it’s still there but there are other hostels too now), and the Jesuit hostel in Hot Springs (pretty sure that’s the Laughing Heart now, also Elmer’s was founded the year my dad hiked but he didn’t know about it), and somewhere in Rangeley. We stayed in a lot of cheap motels and a BnB in Caratunk. The shelters were there, some of them still had wire bunks at the time and almost no privies.
Me: We stayed in tons of hostels (at least…8?), in someone’s RV, in some random people’s houses, in some cheap motels, in a very nice cabin in Shenandoah as a treat, and in our friend Elle’s parents’ house. A couple of times we paid more than I wish we did to go to a hotel and dry our clothes and not get trenchfoot when it rained for many days in a row. People in New York were offering their houses to us with a frequency we couldn’t accept, for some reason. (Thanks, people in New York!) Also, we obviously camped a lot, and toward the end I got over my aversion to shelters.
What did you eat?
Dad: So much macaroni and cheese. Sometimes we put MnMs in it because we were desperate. Oatmeal, peanut butter, always a block of cheese. One time when my dad visited he brought these “Mormon dehydrated eggs” because, you know, Mormons have to dehydrate a certain amount of food to store just in case. It was the best thing ever after oatmeal for so many days. Also we picked so many berries we started carrying bags to put them in.
Me: My parents sent me boxes with dehydrated meals that were either homemade or Backpacker’s Pantry/Good-to-go meals. I think they were all actually really good. We ate a lot of tortillas and almonds, and I hate them now. We didn’t bother to cook oatmeal anymore after a while, and ate granola with powder milk. I ate so many snickers I think I kept them in business. I think Wade ate a 1lb block of cheese all at once at some point. I picked blueberries a lot, and put them in our granola. We also ate ramps in the south.
What did you carry?
Dad: When we started, my pack probably weighed 90 pounds, but I had to go back and rethink some things. My pack was military surplus. I carried a “crappy, no-name sleeping bag” and a wool blanket. It was not great when it was cold, it was definitely a summer bag. I had a Svea stove, some kind of old boy scout pot, a net hammock from K-Mart, a foam insulite pad, Georgia brand boots (with nails to hold the sole on). For clothes I had a thin wool sweater and a windbreaker, and a single shirt and pair of shorts that I would just throw away and replace occasionally.
Me: At the start, my pack probably weighed 30lb, and Wade’s maybe 38. They got probably 5 lbs lighter. My pack was an 8-year-old Kelty 40L thing I couldn’t part with, and I had a nice 20 degree sleeping bag with a liner. I had a homemade alcohol stove that weighs nothing and started with a tiny, one-person pot for both of us, which we traded for something a guy at an outfitter gave us for free because he didn’t need it anymore. I started with an air mattress, but it was about 3 times as big as me and I just got a 3/4-length thermarest instead. I carried a down jacket, 2 shirts, shorts, a hat, and 3 pairs of underwear. At some points I also had another thin jacket and long underwear, but I am more cold-natured and also started much earlier in the year.
Who were your friends? What did they do in real life?
Dad: I don’t remember many. There was Lucinda and her dog Sunshine. I almost didn’t remember her name, only the dog’s… There was a blind girl thru-hiking, who made us feel really bad when we took the easy way up Albert Mountain and we saw her coming up the steep side with her seeing-eye dog. Helen and Jerry were some grad students, and Helen and I wrote a few times after the trail. I met Allen, who was a chef, in Maine. He smoked so much pot. I specifically remember someone I met who was hiking north when I was hiking south, and we called ourselves the “thru-hiking slugs.” I think we could have hiked together.
Me: We met a lot of other engineers, some retirees, some people who owned their own businesses and took time away, some people with seasonal jobs like a farmer and someone who packed boxes for Amazon. We met a couple of people who just finished high school and some people who were about to go to grad school. I don’t want to list a bunch of people’s names because I’m not sure if any of them would mind, plus there are so many! We met so many wonderful people. We hiked with some of them for a day here and there, saw some randomly throughout the whole trail, and stayed with some on purpose for weeks at a time.
Did people think you were weird?
Dad: Absolutely. Most people knew what the AT was but had no idea how or why we were thru-hiking. There was not trail magic.
Me: In so many places we felt expected, but random passerby would still ask us 1000 questions sometimes, and you would occasionally find someone who had no idea what you were doing. A lot of businesses were geared toward thru-hikers, though, and people went out of their way to give us free stuff, almost like we were travelling monks.
Do you think hikers followed Leave No Trace principles?
Dad: As far as I know, no, because it wasn’t even a thing at the time. I just thought about not leaving an impact like based on the boy scout motto. Most people didn’t carry cathole shovels because they were heavy, and there was always a decent amount of trash at shelters.
Me: So many hikers picked up a ton of other people’s trash, but because of the trail being so popular there was still sometimes trash at shelters. I think most people tried to follow LNT, but there were some people who just didn’t care, and quite a few people got really lazy about bear bags, even in areas with a lot of bears. There were a lot of bear problems this year.
What was your favorite thing about hiking the trail?
Dad: The exercise. I had a lot of solitude and I liked that. I also miss the smells. There was a hail storm in the middle of a bunch of hemlock trees, and it smelled like Christmas. I remember it to this day. And earthy smells, even the smell of wet dog.
Me: I think I liked the simplicity of goals and routines, and the fact that everyone around you was doing the same thing. Also I miss chipmunks, newts, and tiny snakes. And my friends.
I also found some things that were still there after all of these years. I ate at the same restaurant my dad did in Rangeley, Maine. He also always told a story about seeing a sign for pancakes that were free if you broke the pancake-eating record (which of course he did), right off the trail in Maine. It’s not owned by the same person, but I’m fairly sure it was what is now Harrison’s Pierce Pond Camps. I also had pancakes there, but only twelve.
If you have any more questions, let me know. 🙂 My dad is just a call away.