The Appalachian Trail is, without a doubt, one of America’s premier hiking trails. It is neither the longest trail, nor the hardest trail and yet it has captured the hearts of hikers, not only in the US, but from around the world. The trail stretches from Springer Mountain in northwest Georgia and meanders for the next 2,180 miles until it reaches the summit of Mount Katahdin, in northern Maine. Every year, many hundreds of hearty souls attempt a thruhike of the entire trail. The majority will fail, with most of them dropping out after only a few days or weeks of hiking. The reasons are many and varied, from homesickness, injury, cluelessness to inadequate funding and planning. But, perhaps the biggest reason that thruhike attempts fail, is that it is really, really hard to hike all day, every day for weeks and months at a time. Imagine working 7 days a week and hiking is your job. It is easy to get discouraged when you get up in the morning and it is raining for the fourth straight day. It is easy to get discouraged when everything hurts and your main thoughts are how soon before you can take more Vitamin I (Ibuprofen). And it is easy to get discouraged when lifting your pack onto your back goes from exciting to downright heavy. So what separates the successful thruhiker from the failed thruhiker?
It can’t be planning and details. Certainly, we have all seen the most prepared hikers just not have the stamina or heart to continue. Without a doubt, good planning improves the odds of success but does not guarantee it. I think the same can be said of equipment. Good equipment improves the odds of success but does not bring a guarantee of success. And, I have seen hikers whom I thought had too much equipment. I know it is not about being in shape. I once met a thruhiker on the AT who was so fat (his words) that when he started the trail, he carried a small stool with him so he could sit on it in the morning and tie the shoelaces on his boots. Without the stool he had trouble seeing his shoes because his belly got in the way. I met him in Maine and he had long given up the stool. So what sets these people apart from the rest of us?
Perhaps those that are able to complete the Trail are those that were able to maintain the original dream or spirit that aroused their interest in the Trail in the first place. When people first discover the Appalachian Trail, very many of us are struck with a romantic notion of walking an endless tree-lined trail on a sunny day in May. There is almost a primal feeling that harkens back to the days when people relied on themselves more than perhaps they do now. For some, I think it brings a sense of history and others a deep feeling of self-reliance that is part of the American spirit. Those that can retain that feeling through days or weeks of rain, cold, heat, and a never-ending variety of bugs that bite or stink, nagging repetitive use injuries, stink bug infestations and more are the ones that are more likely to finish.
I think the most common thing that thruhikers take away from the Trail is the sense of camaraderie with fellow thruhikers, and friendships that come out of the experience. Somehow on the Trail, the thing you really need the most has a way of appearing at just the right time. You are out of water, and someone comes by with a jug. You need a ride to town and a car almost magically appears. You need moral support and someone is there to listen and care. It goes on and on. It’s called ‘Trail Magic’. Thruhikers learn just how kind people can be. How they look out for you and worry about you when you are late to a shelter. Many Thruhikers become friends for life. And not because they were together for months or they partied together in some town but because they share a common bond, forged on the sides of mountains, in thunderous downpours and hot buggy swamps. You don’t have to tell them what it was like. They know. They were there.