Here is a journal entry I wrote about a week after finishing the AT:
Last night I flew back across the country over all that beautiful land, but it was enveloped in darkness. My usual plan when I get on an airplane is to try to get the most out of the ticket price by seeing as much as I possibly can. If I don’t wind up with a window seat I beg and plead with my row mates, and if they don’t yield I crane my neck over them and the adjacent row to maximize my view. Darkness drastically reduces my plane experience unless there is a full moon, so last night, instead of my usual face plastered to the window I had my nose in a book all the way back to California, missing all those glorious peeks and canyons.
It feels SO good to be back here in the west. I have lived on the Appalachian Trail for the past 3.5 months, but it was never HOME. The AT was the only trail of my Triple Crown where the “embrace the brutality” mantra was necessary for me. Up in Maine it felt like the trail had been by planed by someone with a massive inferiority complex. The white blazes would lead me past mellow saddles and tree covered slopes out to the rockiest points and ridges, up to the summit of every 3000 ft tree covered knob they could possibly hit. The worst part for me was getting up to the “summit” and looking out at the endless green bumps and lakes. I felt claustrophobic and disoriented at every peak- where the heck was I? Where was I going? Why was I going through all this misery: taping my knees, double timing my physical therapy, popping vitamin I and glycosamine like it was going out of style, slapping the straggler September mosquitoes, feeling coated in the sticky east coast humidity slime, all for vistas that made me want to cry from hopelessness?
I got to my first town, ate an amazing all you can eat breakfast, talked with a few glowing Northbounders who’s love of the trail was contagious, and began to tentatively the embrace the white blaze. If so many people could love this trail, why couldn’t I? I was filled with awe by the fact that THOUSANDS of people have hiked that ridiculous excuses for a trail up there. Thousands. The legacy of that many hikers all going through that amount of effort and strain must leave a collective sweat stain on the arm pit of Maine. That sweat stain drips down the whole length of the AT, drenching all that hike it in a legacy of personal challenge and white blaze obsession.
The AT has such a different character than the PCT & CDT. The AT pampers it’s hikers with plentiful hostels, shelters, privys, roads, towns, & trailside delis. The AT shreds it’s hikers down to a state of rawness unique to the east with its bog silt, naughty notches, hurricanes, green tunnels, & elevation profiles akin to erratic cardiograms.
I hate being told what to do. I don’t like rules unless I make them for myself, and even then I break them often. I also don’t like to disappoint people, social pressure is an authority I respond to. Out on the CDT and during my south bound hike of the PCT I had hardly anyone but myself around to disappoint. The legacy is not as entrenched out there, it didn’t radiate off the well worn roots used as handholds or out of the trail registers or out of the shelter walls like it does on the AT. Probably partly because there are no shelters, no need for root handholds, and hardly any registers at all on the other trails.
The culture of purism was like someone breathing down my neck, looking over my shoulder as I read my maps, calling me a cheat and a fake every time I went out on a blue blaze, every time I created my own path. I don’t want to be a poser. I also don’t find any joy in being a slave to a white blaze. I hike to be free. The AT and I have major character differences, it was the kind of relationship that takes work. No love at first sight here, not like with the PCT & CDT. I missed the sexy & wild western trails with all my heart.
On the AT I never felt alone. Don’t get me wrong. I was alone the vast majority of my SOBO hike, but it felt like the kind of alone you find in your house next to a microwave and a TV. Not really alone. There was always some buzz of humanity in my ear and the knowledge that I could be in town within 6 hours at any point on the AT if I wanted to be (as long as I was able to hike). It was hard for me to take the AT seriously before the temperatures dropped and the snow started up. Wilderness, solitude, and remoteness seemed contrived on the AT.
This does not mean the AT is tame. It is not easy. There is no cake walk out east. The AT has been pushed up and out of the valleys and comfortable terrain to the ragged and rugged scraps around the edges. Though it is well trammeled, it is rough and tough. The AT will kick your ass, but you can almost always call a time out and go into town for a latte or a pizza when you want a break.
On the PCT I went out of my mind following horse grade switchbacks and would sometimes find creative off trail routes to get myself around them (as long as I was off the trail for more than an 1/8th of a mile I didn’t consider it cutting it). On the AT after Maine I found the trail tread and construction to improve drastically & switchbacks appeared. Another thing I noticed was that the trail did these giant twists and turns to stay out of civilization’s sprawl. A trail as tough as the AT should have enough guts to push and shove easements down the throats of land owners (well, actually it should have the tact to wine and dine land owners into becoming happy & willing partners with the AT). The AT meanders not towards beautiful places, but to dance and skirt around farms and factories. I am glad it does, it is the only thing that provides green space in some locations (just look at PA), but as a hiker I would rather just walk a straight line on a road rather than walk all topsy turvy on the leftovers.
On the CDT road walks were just part of the hike, and I found it surprising the disdain most hikers I met on the AT had for road walks. They seemed to conveniently ignore the fact that at least a couple hundred of the precious white blazes lie on roads of some sort. The AT walks right through about a town every 100 miles. This is great!! It makes resupplying easy, lets you see how people live as you walk by their houses, and puts the responsibility of trail maintenance on the department of transportation rather than the ATC. I am not saying the AT should be routed to strips of pavement from Maine to Georgia, but why not use roads if it keeps the trail simple & accessible?
I am glad to have hiked the AT. This was the hardest thing I have ever done, and it was so hard because of my perspective and attitude. It was hard because I felt like the trail was telling me what to do, where to go, and never giving me my space. I realize this is not the challenge for most people when they set foot on the AT. It is the opposite. They have been cooped up in the cities of the east and need to escape. The AT is a symbol of freedom for most, but for me it was where I had to find freedom and wildness in the small & inward spaces. I had to get up out of my sleeping bag and walk from the pre dawn to the post dusk and work to find things I appreciated about the places I traveled through.
Back in raft guide school I was taught to lean towards my troubles in order to stay afloat. This mantra was how I made it through the AT. When the urge to quit would rise up I slammed against it. The other trails I just went with the flow with an occasional paddle stroke to avoid trouble. The rapids out there made me smile. I perceived the eastern “rapids” as a different beast and was humbled and troubled by them. The AT was a bumpy ride, I stayed afloat, and now I look back at what I have come through and realize most of the bumps were my own doing. My experience on the AT has placed a footprint in my sole, and I have no idea the impact it will have on the rest of my life, but I have no doubt I will be feeling the waves long after I have left the river.
Now I am back at home, sitting on a couch & looking back at the past 18 months. I hiked at least 7300 miles since I set foot on the PCT back in Manning Park on the 1st of July, 2009. Last Winter’s 6 month break was filled with travel, work, snow, and learning. 337 of the past 540 days have been spent thru-hiking. I am ready for a break from the trail, but immensely happy that I had the opportunity to spend that much time as a piece of wandering hiker trash, getting to know my country and myself as best I can.