Sunday, February 3, 2013

Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail--by Mackenzie D. P.

This summer I joined the ranks of thousands of dreamers, schemers, and believers and set out from Springer Mountain, Georgia and started walking north. 140 days and 2,184 miles later, I ended up on Mt. Katahdin in central Maine. It was the best and hardest and craziest experience of my life.

I first decided I wanted to thru hike the Appalachian Trail when I was 14 and hiking a 50 mile section with my church group. Me, 10 other girls, and a few leaders met a few thru hikers and listened intently to their stories and adventures.  I kept it in the back of my head as a “bucket list goal”. 10 years later I found myself in between jobs and thinking about goals and achievements.  I decided on that day that if I wanted to thru hike, if I were really serious about leaving everything and walking from Georgia to Maine, I would have to commit and just do it. No one would gather my gear, research logistics, and put me in Springer Mountain.  There will always be a million good reason not to thru hike- always money to be made, promotions to be achieved, or semesters to be studied.  I decided, with my husband’s full support, to put all that on hold and plan on leaving the following spring.

10 months later my parents dropped me off in Georgia and I found myself completely alone. Not quite literally- approximately 2,000 people attempt to thru hike each year. Most start in early spring in Georgia to go northbound, while others start in early summer in Maine going south.  There are about 250 shelters all along the trail, basic lean-to structures that usually provide a water source, a privy, and most importantly a hub for hikers to interact and share information via shelter journals.  Starting out that very first week reminded me of the first week of camp. Everyone is excited to be there, testing out their new gear and making new friends. Hikers adopt “trail names”, sometimes humorous, descriptive, or motivational. I adapted to a new routine, aiming for 9-14 miles per day.  Some days I hiked with a new friend, others by myself.  While I did feel more lonely than I expected, I enjoyed the feeling of self sufficiency.. I was carrying everything I needed in life on my back- all 28 lbs of it. While I always planned to stay around a shelter or designated camping area for the evening, I loved knowing that I could stop wherever I wanted and have everything I needed at the ready.

I came to the trail fairly physically fit and didn’t find the terrain overwhelming.  It was exciting to increase the mileage goal each week and see my body become stronger.  I found a hiking rhythm with each step and plant of my hiking poles. I was developing muscles I had never even seen before.

After the first month, my husband decided that he was missing out on too much fun and came out to join me for the rest of the trail. What a blessing this was!  He joined me in Tennessee, and, after an adjustment period for him to catch up and get his “trail legs”, we hit our stride.  I finally felt like I was a real thru hiker.  We had a wonderfully simple and dedicated plan: up at daybreak, breakfast of oatmeal, pack up our stuff, and walk. Take lots of snack breaks, and walk. Stop walking after 20-22 miles, set up our tent, make dinner of mac n cheese or mashed potatoes or dehydrated soup and go to bed. Repeat! Our life became a series of 4-5 day hikes in between trail towns. Towns were an oasis, full of luxury.  Our accommodations were run down motels or hostels, but they offered showers, laundry, internet, and access to restaurants and grocery stores for resupplying.

Food became fuel. While I’ve never experienced an eating disorder, I have always been very conscious of what I’m eating and how much energy I’m burning. Climbing up and down mountains with a pack on your back, all day every day, burns about 3,000-4,000 calories per day.  Replacing these calories is a big priority. In towns, this was awesome. Words I had previously never uttered were coming out at restaurants: “Can I sub that for french fries?” “Which of your pasta dishes do you recommend?” or, our favorite, “What is the largest thing you have on your menu?” You know those sections of the menu that is a platter for two or more people? One thru hiker, easy. All you can eat buffets in trail towns are known to have time limits to prevent hikers from staying all day and eating continuously. It was, in short, amazing.

On the trail, however, you’re obviously limited to what you can carry in your food bag. Food that is high in protein and calories are the most desired- peanut butter, protein bars, and Snickers are staples for thru hikers. Huge spoonfulls of Nutella smeared on tortillas (or straight out of the jar!) is commonplace. I found eating to be a chore during the day. I’m hungry again, seriously? This feeling was really surprising for me. I’d never been one to dislike or turn down food- freshman year of college I took the Freshman Fifteen very seriously, completing the weight gain in just one semester.  The buffet style cafeteria was a danger zone to me and I overate constantly.  Now, for the first time in my life, I saw food as the source of energy and life. Without the feeling of self restraint, as I normally experienced meals, I actually wanted to eat more conscientiously because I didn’t have that “forbidden” feeling.

Despite all this, weight loss is inevitable. I was curious to see what I would weigh by the end of my thru hike. I was surprised to see that the lowest number I saw while I was hiking (weighing in at random hostels or stores that happened to have scales) was just a few pounds lower than my usual weight, and still definitely in the “normal” range for my height. I looked great, but not really that different than a lot of girls who are naturally thin and don’t work out. Interestingly enough, it was common for women thru hikers to keep some body fat even in these condition while men gradually looked more and more emaciated. Ladies, this is just how we are made. 

Just like I had detached myself somewhat from an emotional response to food, I saw my body in a different light. After seeing that at the very peak of human physical condition- probably a state I will never see again- I could still pinch fat on my stomach and my thighsstill touched and I still didn’t have cute tiny arms.... but I didn’t really care. I could out hike, out run, and probably out leg-press anybody you put me up against that did have those characteristics. I was strong. Super strong! A machine! I put food in so to make my machine go, and who cares that my machine has thick thighs and carries weight in the midsection.

Even more than that, I was mentally strong. I stuck with this impossible goal to walk over 2,000 miles carrying everything on my back because I thought it would be cool. I can’t tell you how many times I thought to myself, “And WHY did you think this would be a good idea?” But, I never ever wanted to quit. I questioned why on earth I chose THIS THING as MY THING, why didn’t I choose running a marathon (that only takes a few hours!) or volunteering in a third world country (then you’d at least be helping people, c’mon Mackenzie) or just stay home like a normal person. But I chose to do this, to thru hike the Appalachian Trail, and that’s what I was going to do.

And I did! It was even better than I imagined, because I had my husband there experiencing it with me. The Appalachian Trail has a beautiful culture. I love how it makes people be a little kinder and a little more generous. My fellow hikers and I rode in countless cars driven by strangers willing to pick up a hitchhiking thru hiker. We were delighted to find "trail magic" at random points in the trail, usually in the form of a cooler left with goodies for hikers or a spread of food out of the back of a car. I heard stories of hikers who, at the end of a meal in a restaurant, were told that another diner had picked up their check and to enjoy the rest of their hike.

I think about the trail every day, and am both saddened and relieved to think that it’s really truly over. It’s hard to summarize a 4 month and 18 day hike, covering 2,184.2 miles, in just a few paragraphs. I tried to keep a decent log of our journey on my blog, If the Appalachian Trail interests you at all, don’t hesitate to get involved! There are hikes that appeal to all levels and interests on the AT. There are flat easy parts in Pennsylvania, rolling hills in Virginia, steep and technical climbs in New Hampshire. Once the AT is a part of you, it will change your life forever.


  1. Oh dear...I have an itch now! Thanks for sharing your adventure!