Meeting My First Appalachian Trail Thruhiker

I guess it was in 1977 or thereabouts. I was 19 and spending a few days in the woods with my younger brother, and my best friend. Dad had dropped us off, early one afternoon, a couple of days before, on our great late spring camping adventure, and promised to pick us up 5 days later. Our plan, as we explained it to him, was to explore the local woods to see what we could find. There were old iron mines, lakes, abandoned homesteads, old sleepaway camps and cemeteries scattered about these woods (Harriman State Park NY). We did not tell him about the 6-pack of beer or the pint of brandy we had brought along (for medicinal purposes only). But, after he left us off, we unpacked the beer, split one between the 3 of us, and then in an act of youthful inexperience, we strapped the remaining 5 beers to my pack by running a strap on the pack through the empty plastic ring on the 6-pack holder. The 5-pack now was secured to the back of my backpack. The five beers dangled enticingly. Our plan was to enjoy the remaining beers with dinner. It was not to be.

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We hiked for about an hour before we decided to find a place to make camp. It took another half hour before we could all agree on a spot. It was then that we noticed the beer was gone. All the cans had shaken loose from the plastic rings. Not one remained. I suppose there are greater mishaps that can befall three young men celebrating life in the woods, but at the time it was devastating. Depression descended upon us as we cast accusations and aspersions at each other for either thinking up or approving the beer transport method. We did try retracing our steps, but the missing beers were never found. Needless to say, we were all sick about it, so we did the only thing we could think of, and that was to drink the brandy. Happiness prevailed and we all became friends again.

The next day, we were up early, and after policing the camp, securing water, and packing lunch we set out to explore. After a hard day of exploring, we returned and made a delicious dinner and planned for the next day’s hike. We would go to an old iron mine and then see if we could find the Appalachian Trail. Our map was a Xerox copy of a black and white map. Details, contours and boundaries were all very sketchy and our woods skills were elementary, to say the least. So, there was a palpable sense of excitement and doubt as to whether we could do it all, and find our way too. To complicate matters, in an attempt to fit as much of the map as possible onto a standard sheet of paper, the map had been reduced down about 40%. Add to this the heat and humidity contributing to the disintegration of the map this was one hard map to read even if you had some idea of what you were doing, and we surely did not.

Fifth instar larva of Gypsy Moth Lymantria dis...
Fifth instar larva of Gypsy Moth Lymantria dispar (L.) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Our bellies filled, we drifted off to sleep to the sound of Gypsy Moth caterpillar droppings falling to earth. It makes a distinctive sound when it hits the ground and when there are millions of them, it sounds like rain. When you close your eyes, it can sound very soothing. Covering your food or eating under a tarp became the rule for the week. Sometime during the night, the sound of caterpillar droppings gave way to the sound of rain. Oh boy! Not to be deterred, we were up early and determined to hike. We found the old mine which was pretty cool and interesting.  The rain had been intermittent and not too hard, so we were not too wet. At least not that much wetter than if it had just been sweat. We had lunch at the mine and pressed on for the Appalachian Trail. Even though the rain had not been all that bad, at the next critical trail junction, when we pulled out the map, it had become an unreadable piece of pulp. Not to worry; I remembered the trail that would connect us to the Appalachian Trail. So did my brother. Only he remembered it differently than me. While we debated, the rain went from a light drizzle to a heavy downpour. We could not agree. We argued some more. The rain intensified. My brother and I came to realize that, under no circumstances would we ever hike on the same trail, so we each started off on different trails. Our friend, utterly bewildered, decided to follow me. As it turns out, it was a bad choice if finding the Appalachian Trail was your goal. If hiking in the rain with a wonderfully witty and fun guy, while being totally lost was his goal, he totally nailed it.

An hour later, we are totally soaked from the now driving rain and we are, as I am reluctantly beginning to realize, lost. The trail that we were going to connect with, in about 2 miles, never appeared. So we just kept moving, in the crazy belief that we had misjudged the distance. Another hour later, we gave up looking for the trail and tried to figure out how to get back to camp. Retracing our steps would be too simple and involve too much mileage. No. We would bushwhack our way back. So we headed in the direction we thought seemed best. An hour later, we are wet and cold but confident that we were closer to camp. But we were getting chilled. And we really did not know where we were.

We decide to take a break and build a fire. We have wet matches and no dry anything. There is nothing dry in these woods. The rain is now coming down in buckets. It occurs to me that leaving my Zippo lighter at home may have been a mistake. We do find a large rock with an overhang that has some dry real estate beneath it. We begin to gather sticks and search in vain for tinder, any tinder. We gathered what we found and attempted to light the fire. We did get a couple of matches to ignite, but getting anything lit and keeping it lit was a struggle. But the two of us gave it a valiant effort. We rearranged the kindling and blew on the flames until we were blue in the face.

We were both huddled in front of the rock, peering at the smoky mess, when we heard a sound behind us. We both were startled and turned quickly around to see a giant figure walking towards us, carrying a huge pack and wearing some sort of rain poncho. We both screamed in surprise. The hiker, head down, intent on hiking had not seen us and when we yelled he looked up and screamed. We had scared him too.

It turns out that Clay was from North Carolina and was thru hiking the Appalachian Trail.  I had heard of the AT before, but I had never heard of anyone walking it end to end. In fact, not only had I never heard of anyone doing such a thing, I am sure that I would have thought it impossible.  When he told us that, we laughed and told him he was not hiking on the Appalachian Trail. We weren’t sure of much but we did know he was not on the Appalachian Trail. Of course, he knew that. He had gone to town for a resupply and was taking this trail to another trail which would get him back to the AT. We pretended we knew the trails he was talking about but we had no clue and I am fairly certain that he realized just how inexperienced we really were. He offered to show us his map. We were mightily impressed with his map.  It was WATERPRPOOF. Imagine that! Who ever heard of such a thing? It allowed us to see the quickest way back to our camp. And it was not the way we had been planning to go.

That chance meeting in the woods sparked my curiosity about the Appalachian Trail. I was completely seduced by the romance of the trail. I began to read any book I could get my hands on, about the Trail.  I joined the Appalachian Trail Conference, now the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and still affectionately known as the ATC. I planned section hikes and hiked sections whenever and wherever I could. And 35 years later, I still love the trail.

Please share your stories about the Appalachian Trail.
Happy Trails!

Note – Alcoholic beverages were and are prohibited in NYS parks. It is not a practice that I continued (beer is way too heavy to carry) nor do I advocate doing it. It was the 1970s. It was a very different time. I am merely recounting an important episode in my life. And I only drank 1/3 of one anyway.

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  • Great narrative style. Ahh the brash confidence of youth. Thanks for sharing it.

  • Tim Schenken

    Very nice article Roger!
    Tim Schenken
    Membership Asst.
    Appalachian Trail Conservancy

  • Joan Williamson

    That was an interesting read. Glad I did not know you guys had beer with you and happy that you all came home safely. YOUR MOM…

  • KW

    Enjoyed the story

  • Thanks for making me laugh this morning! Funny, how the mishaps are the things we recall most fondly. Planning to hike part of the AT with my sons in the near future, starting in Georgia. Thanks for sharing.

  • As a 1977 AT thru-hiker (Bangor Mainiac) I certainly enjoyed your story. Yes, those were different times for sure. Thanks for sharing.

  • Very Slow Dog

    Thoroughly enjoyed your story. It is very well written, interesting and amusing. I can’t help but think about some of the inexperienced people I have come across while hiking the 4000 footers of NH and even Mt. Wachusett in MA. You all had a memorable time, returned safely and I am sure learned what to do and what not to do on a hike. Thank you for sharing your adventure.

  • Sojourner Truth

    It’s definitely more fun to be lost with someone than to be lost by yourself. i was “lost” for about 1/2 or so a few times, which was bad enough, especially when it’s raining. The adventures of youth are amazing when considering that we survive so many of them.

  • Jodi H.

    Excellent story featured in the Campmor especial today! I have thru-hiked , GA, TN and NC sections of the trail and have been an ATC Conservancy supporter for nearly 9 years. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your story

  • Bill

    Reminds me of my first trip to the Adirondacks in 1977 – tried bushwacking up a peak, got lost, started snowing (Nov), luckily a Canadian hunter heard us and whistled – we were close to a trail. And then, back to camp in the dark, cold & soaked. I’ve been obsessed with the wilderness ever since!

  • ATHikerGal

    Roger, Great Story! In 2003 I began my life-long quest of hiking the AT. My girlfriend, Ruth, & I started out at Springer Mt after spending the day before finding it. We met 2 men on horseback on a FSR who had never heard of the AT or Springer. Felt like a scene from Deliverance. Over the next 3 years we made it to through the Smokies. We got lost there & ended up in Cades Cove where my husband, Peter, rescued us. Ruth moved to CA but I continued on the AT alone over the years. She & I also got lost on the Yosemite 10 Lakes Trail. We spent an uneventful nite at a scat-free campsite & were rescued by some hikers who showed us the 300 feet back to the trail! Peter now insists I wear a SPOT locator & I have not gotten lost again. I have kept annotated, photo-filled journals of all my backpacking/hiking adventures. I have met only great people, shared sprited gear debates, hot toddies, tall tales, and admiration of all those who seek being on this iconic trail. They have helped this senior citizen up the last steps to Buzzard Rock, shared precious water, & advised that there were really “3 Wilburn Ridges” which helped way-find. Hike On! Be Safe!

  • Stephs

    Great story!

  • Paul

    Hey Roger, great story. I’m sure that not everyone that reads this will be familiar with Harriman, but for those of that are, I sure wish you gave some specifics! Which trails, which mines? I clearly remember how many empty beer cans you could find at Island Pond back in the 70’s.