The long way north (July 9-Sept. 21)

Journal Entry 7/9: Yes, it has been too long since my last entry. I'm sorry for neglecting you, dear journal, but you know how it is. Perched on the hill above Jim Murray's property, the tree-covered mountains of northern New Jersey lie before me. I talked to Jim for a while today about all sorts of things, including his two donkeys (both named Jake). One of the Jakes came right up to another hiker and sneezed into his dinner. I belted out laughing, of course, but the victim did not find it as amusing. 

Journal Entry 7/10: Morning on the mountain: Sunrise comes quickly. Light drifts down the treetops inch by inch, beckoning the songbirds to rise for their early-morning chores. Fifty miles away, New York City commuters rush to beat the traffic. Jim Murray's donkeys, on the other hand, are slow to rise. They're old now, 25 years old, and have earned the right to take their time. I also refuse to hurry. Mornings on the mountain are to be cherished. They're gone before you know it.

Journal Entry 7/25: The trail gave us some easy stretches recently. Short inclines make for happy hikers. One such piece of trail followed a river for about five miles. The river, shallow and wide at parts, and narrow and roaring in others, was a pretty and comforting trail companion. As I walked along I turned to my left and saw an old apple tree on an abandoned farm. People probably lived many years along this river, I thought. I wondered what they were like: Did they say grace before supper, and did the children play in the river, turning over rocks to look for crayfish? I wondered if they would bow down and worship me if I showed them my headlamp. My mind ran through these questions as the trail veered westward, away from the river and into a birch forest. The trees were so tightly packed together that you could almost hear them chanting, "Strength in numbers!" The trail returned to the river after a short while, then veered off again, into the hills. 

Journal Entry 8/6: Yesterday was great. I slept in, took my time putting up camp, then climbed to a mountaintop with a ski lift. Nearby was a semi-furnished building where hikers are allowed to sleep. I see a hiker poke his head out the door and yell, "Frozen, you want a glass of wine?" Turns out another hiker named Erica left a full box of wine for others to enjoy. We drank, listened to music, and then I hiked on, around 11:30. I spent the night with Erica and John, both hiking the Long Trail. This morning we all had breakfast. 

Journal Entry 8/19: Today I returned to the Whites Mountains of New Hampshire after a day in town. The climb today was steep as hell — you had to be careful not to fall. The trail is strewn with boulders, roots and smaller rocks. It makes the going slow, but the views of rocky mountaintops make it worth it. I enjoyed "Fire on the Mountain" by Edward Abbey. It makes you think about what in your life is worth dying for. 

Journal Entry 8/21: Yesterday I hiked Franconia Ridge. Three mountains — Lincoln, Lafayette and another — are all connected by a continuous, above-treelike ridge that overlooks, well, everything. It feels like something straight out of "Lord of the Rings."

Journal Entry 8/24: I'm waiting to begin my morning work-for-stay chores at the Lake of the Clouds Hut, about a mile and a half south of the summit of Mount Washington. The Whites really haven't been that hard. They're technical, but so pretty as to distract you from what otherwise might be strenuous. It's going to be chilly out there — below freezing with windchill. It's crazy to think I'm at Mount Washington. 

Journal Entry 8/26: I lied down in my tent last night and listened to the wind. It came from all directions, swirling, and rising and falling above me. It was not quite strong enough to be menacing, but it shuffled the leaves and bent the branches enough to remind me of its potential. "God, I'm going to miss this," I thought.  

Journal Entry 8/29: I got moose on my mind. By that I think you can judge that I haven't seen one yet, but that doesn't mean I haven't tried. Last night I tried my damnedest to see a moose, tried all the way till dark, but no luck. I crawled up on a big rock perched at the end of a pond at about 6:30. I waited through the sunset for my prey. It never showed, but I still had a good time watching the beaver swim around, bathing themselves and occasionally hauling little sticks into the water. I passed the time by observing the beaver and reading Sue Grafton — not a bad way to spend an evening. 

Journal Entry 9/2: Maine isn't f------ around! The hiking has been strenuous, with bits of crazy thrown in. The Mahoosuc Notch was the craziest. I had to, at times, take my backpack off and drag it behind me as I crawled on my hands and knees through small holes tucked under boulders. That was followed by the Mahoosuc Arm, which felt like climbing up the tentacle of a giant rock squid. Yesterday was a bad day — I just felt tired all around, and wanted the thru-hike to be over. I still do, but at least the sun is out, and I'll make a point to enjoy today. I've loved the A.T., but as the air turns colder, I feel like my time is coming to an end. 

Journal Entry 9/7: I saw a moose! There I was, filtering water, when a guy yells, "Hey, there's a moose across the pond." I dropped everything and ran to see it. It stood up to its knees in water, occasionally bobbing its head below the surface to munch on the submerged foliage. The thing was big, and I mean BIG! — like the size of a draft horse, maybe bigger. 

9/7 cont.: On a recent rainy, partly-overcast morning I saw that fall was finally here. Below me, a couple thousand feet or so, stretched a bed of red, yellow and amber trees. From up there, they looked soft enough to sleep on. 

9/7 cont.: There are no monkeys in Maine, but there are loons, and I think that's just as good. They wake up, confuse and entertain all who hear their wild call. "Loo, loo, loon!" they yell. You can't hear it and not crack a smile. 

Journal Entry 9/14: I wonder if I'll ever forget this moment — I guess that's why you keep a journal. I'm sitting on a rock at the end of a lake, and in front of me stands Mount Katahdin. This is my first good look at it, and it's beautiful. Wide and tall, with a rocky plateau-like top, it couldn't be anything else if it tried. My feet feel cool in the water, but my heart feels warm. I started in Georgia, for God's sake. Those early days seem more than 2,000 miles away, more than six months ago. My body has gone through a lot of pain for this view. One step at a time, as it turns out, does get you to places that seem impossibly far away.

9/14 cont.: Side note: Yesterday I fed a bird peanuts right out of the palm on my hand. How cool is that?

Journal Entry 9/21: From Eighty Four: Well, I did it. Dad and I summited Katahdin on Monday, September 18, about six months after I started in Georgia. I'm now sitting on the front porch of my parents' house, wondering what to say. I'll start by talking about Katahdin. 

9/21 cont.: Dad and I began our ascent at about quarter to seven. The trail started off pretty flat and clear, but quickly we began to gain elevation. As we climbed, the boulders and rocks grew larger. On and on we went. Dad started off strong. By the time we got above tree line, he was a little tuckered, but still doing fine. The trail became pretty technical, so I led the way. We scrambled, crawled and lifted ourselves up above the clouds. The view was spectacular. The clouds spread out below us like grass under your feet. At one point we arrived at the base of a ridge that climbed up the mountain like the spine of a dragon — not exactly inviting. But we proceeded nonetheless, and eventually arrived at the tableland — a plateau near the top of the mountain, about a mile and a half from the summit. We walked on the rocky trail, past Thoreau Spring, and then began our climb to the sign. I managed to hold back tears (something I'm not very good at) as I reached the top. Someone cheered my name, then I touched the sign and climbed on top. I finished the Appalachian Trail. 

9/21 cont.: We ate our sandwich lunches with a side of melancholy celebration, appreciated the view, then began our descent. We would take the Abol Trail, which was incorrectly described to me as easy, with stairs and gradual switchbacks. After a water break at Thoreau Spring, we walked to the edge of the tableland and started our way down the mountain. It quickly dawned on me that we had been duped. The trail was steep — a combination of loose, sandy rock and huge boulders. We had to be careful as we picked our way down. All was good, relatively speaking, until I turned and saw my Dad's ankle twist, and watched his body fall forward. There was no stopping it. Mid-air, his torso turned, then slammed into the rocky trail. At first, he said nothing, and neither did I. He groaned a painful and downright depressing noise. "Is your ankle broken?" I asked. He said it wasn't, and I was relieved. We were on the side of an enormous, steep mountain, too precarious for a man with a broken ankle to navigate. He eventually got up. We rested. After our break, we pressed on, albeit a bit more carefully. Finally the trail became more reasonable, and we descended without any other major tumbles. 

9/21 cont.: Reflections: I started the trail nervous and unsure of myself, my decision and my future. I ended with confidence built on the foundation of experience. That experience was composed of failures, mistakes, pain and perseverance. The Appalachian Trail was, for me, a forced evolution of character. The woods threw trials and tribulations at me from day one. That never changed. What changed was the way I confronted adversity — from a doubting, panicky scramble, to a cool and practical process. What changed, as time went on, was that I learned how much my body and mind could endure. Problems really are opportunities to learn, not just hurdles to jump over or avoid. At some point, I'm not sure when, I think I realized that I was going to make it, that it would take a hell of a lot to stop me. I focused on the long-term goal of reaching Katahdin, and I think that was a good strategy.


Appalachian Trail reading list, cont. 

"No Place to Hide" by Glenn Greenwald

"The Big Sky" by A.B. Guthrie, Jr.

"The Green Mile" by Stephen King

"The Diary of Anne Frank" by Anne Frank

American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon" by Steven Rinella

"The Way West" by A.B. Guthrie, Jr.

"These Thousand Hills" by A.B. Guthrie, Jr.

"Desert Solitaire" by Edward Abbey

"A is for Alibi" by Sue Grafton

"Fire on the Mountain" by Edward Abbey

"My Southern Journey: True Stories from the Heart of the South" by Rick Bragg

"A Sand County Almanac" by Aldo Leopold


9/21 cont.: Reflections cont.: The other hikers taught me to develop self-respect and self-confidence. I think we all shared a confidence and respect for each other, because we all knew what we went through, and all the problems we faced. Being part of that group felt good, and I was able to find an honest, well-earned respect for myself through my respect for others. 

9/21 cont.: Reflections cont.: I learned about the woods, though not as much as I would have liked. I think you can learn only so much through pure observation. But I did learn about the behaviors of songbirds, squirrels and black bears, and about the flora of the Appalachian range. I learned about snakes, too, and I became familiar with the trees of the mountains. I learned to love physical exercise, and realized how important it is to being happy. I learned to love sweat, and to feel fulfillment by walking a long distance through tough terrain. 

9/21 cont.: Reflections cont.: I believe the Appalachian Trail is a selfish endeavor, and I don't mean that in a negative way. I mean that the purpose is to allow the world to change you, rather than you changing the world. Here's one way of explaining this way of thinking: The A.T. strips away all the stuff in one's life (possessions, friends and loved ones, homes, security, etc.) and leaves one to confront himself. It's just you, a backpack and the woods. Make it work. Of course you make friends along the way, but at the end of the day, it's your own two feet that will carry you to Katahdin. Your friends and family won't get you there, your money won't turn into a magic carpet, and your resumé won't do anything except serve as kindling. The trail doesn't care about your work history, your love life or your SAT scores. It teaches you that if you want to get there, it's on you. Rain? Too bad. You're hungry? So sorry. Maine isn't going to come to you, so you better get hiking. I loved that, and I won't let that lesson go to waste. The trail may end at Katahdin, but the journey does not, and the lessons I learned are not bound up and tangled in the treetops. The trail and its teachings will always be with me. I'll carry them like I carried my pack: always onward, one step at a time. 

Photo Sep 18, 1 11 09 PM.jpg

Dangerous critters, and "Say Goodbye to Dixie" (May 21-June 11)

From Harper's Ferry, WV: 1,000 miles down and feeling good. Harper's Ferry is considered the halfway point of the A.T. (the actual midway point is in PA, about 70 miles north, but Harper's Ferry is something of an emotional halfway point). It's a quaint river town famous for John Brown's raid and early colonial architecture.

Thru-hikers, including this one, are generally glad to get out of Virginia. It's a beautiful state with a pleasant variety of trail, from cow pastures to high ridge lines, but at 554 miles long, the state accounts for about a quarter of the trail. It takes a long time. Some hikers suffer from the "Virginia Blues." But with exciting critters such as black bears and rattlesnakes, the state certainly has personality.

Journal Entry 5/21: I'm back! Got four trout yesterday, kept two. Rain, obviously. Saw a grouse today and a deer — had really wanted to see a grouse, so that was cool. Felt a little bummed coming back, but should get over that soon. Miles to go before I sleep, so no time for pouting.

Journal Entry 5/25: Well, it happened. Tent had to be moved in the middle of a rainstorm because the rain... I got flooded out! At least 1.5 inches of water under the tent floor. It's been raining a lot, but today was pretty nice. Two intense stream crossings though. Up to my knees in fast-moving water.

Journal Entry 6/2: Hitchhiked, jumped off a bridge and drank two beers all before 11 a.m. Great morning.

Journal Entry 6/3: Saw a squirrel last night that was making such a racket I thought it was a baby bear climbing a tree. I walked over, knife in hand, ready to do battle before I realized what it was. They're noisy little critters.

Journal Entry 6/5: Big day! Woke up to a puddle in my tent, like an inch and a half deep. Hiked 22 miles and saw my first bear. Heard it first, then turned around to see a black blob moving about 40 yards away. Then it poked its head around a tree and looked at me. Big head it had. Trotted away, clearly saw me before I saw it. Probably the size of a Great Dane. Saw first rattlesnake yesterday, some guys alerted it to me. Tiger striped, pretty thick. Feet are absolutely wrecked. Goodnight!

Journal Entry 6/11: Another bear! Bigger this time, hiking southbound on A.T., saw me and took off after staring for a short while. They can run pretty fast. Everyone loves bears, kind of. A little nervous about them, but they like 'em. So do I. I was surprised by how unafraid of them I am when I actually see them. I'm more afraid of the idea of bears than I am of the actual animal.

Soon I'll cross the Mason-Dixon line and say goodbye to Dixieland. I'm excited to explore the A.T. section of my home state (PA), along with the other sections "Up North." The White Mountains, the New Jersey swamps, and much more wait ahead. It's hard to believe I'm already (only) halfway done.

See you down the trail,

Frozen

To Virginia (March 16-May 11)

My experience on the Approach Trail landed me the trail name "Frozen." The temperature dropped well below freezing my first night, which broke my water filtration system (I learned the following morning that hikers sleep with their filters to prevent this).

Journal Entry 3/16/17: Woke up this morning, everything was frozen. Water filter broke, but I got to Springer. Met a Dutch guy who was carrying two weeks of food. Pretty today, spring is coming. Chris still here, glad to have him.

 Snow-covered Approach Trail on March 15.

Snow-covered Approach Trail on March 15.

Three days in, Chris and I split up due to a difference in pace. He hiked another 120 miles before getting off the trail, but I never saw him after the third day. That being said, I've met dozens of other hikers, and know many of them by name. Though I "hike solo," meaning I'm not attached to a group, the trail is still a social place for me. I often camp and hike with friends I've made along the way.

Journal Entry 3/30: Franklin N.C.

Success is counted sweetest

By those who ne'er succeed

To comprehend a nectar

Requires sorest need

-Dickinson #67. Don't think E.D. ever hiked the A.T., didn't need to — clearly.

Journal Entry 4/2: Injury. One of the most common topics of conversation on the trail. Achilles is finally getting better, but got a blister on pinky toe. It hurt all day, then I stubbed it on a root without shoes. Had to let it bleed out then bandage it. Made incision with tweezers, sanitized on stove. Also weird burning pain in thigh. Saw the Smokies yesterday, still snow capped. Should arrive in about five days. Want to start night-hiking. Hope that by end of Smokies I will be injury free.

4/2 cont.: Want to see a bear, none yet. No deer, even. Hearing grouse, owls, coyotes. Wildflowers starting to bloom.

Deep and red

Or black and blue

Strikes at weakest

Part of you

Long and thudding

Or short and sharp

It breaks strong men

Right apart

But to me it's nothing

That I can't take

For pain is fleeting

A piece of cake

-W.W. "Inspired by blisters."

Journal Entry 4/5: Dangerous weather coming. Will rain, then drop below freezing. Hoping that goes well.

4/5 cont.: Today's grub:

Breakfast: Pop-Tart, oatmeal, coffee

Snack #1: Pork sticks

Lunch: Ramen with tuna packet, olive oil and hot sauce. Coffee, Cliff bar, Pop-Tart

Snack #2: Peanut butter (half of small jar)

Snack #3: Pop-Tart, rest of peanut butter, tuna with oil and hot sauce

Dinner: Fried SPAM (2), oatmeal

Journal Entry 4/8: What an eventful three days it's been since my last entry! By "eventful" I mostly mean "colder than hell." I awoke to a mix of rain and snow. Quickly I lost the dexterity in my hands, which made packing miserable and difficult. It was the worst morning so far, by far. The day ended with me camping not five feet from a pile of human feces and decaying toilet paper. I will say this: During the actual hike, I felt pretty strong just for being out in the elements.

4.8 cont.: Yesterday I arrived at the beautiful Fontana Dam. I learned how hydroelectric dams work — turns out they're not as complicated as you might think — and then today entered the Smokies. So far the mountains and weather are both beautiful. These tiny white flowers cover the forest floor, so many that everything looks covered in a sheet of snow. There's plenty of actual snow here too. Injuries healing, spirits pretty high. Goodnight, at sunset.

Journal Entry 4/11: Theory: Hitchhiking for an adult white male such as myself is not dangerous because dangerous people are usually assholes, and assholes don't give people rides.

Journal Entry 4/12: Resting on side of trail. Feeling sick, and physically and emotionally tired. I think (hope) too much pepperoni is to blame for the feelings of illness. Side note: the flies here are large and biting. Here's to hoping they all either day or stop bothering me. Both of these are unlikely.

Journal entry 4/14: Left the Smokes today (boo!). Went under I-40 to a hostel called Standing Bear. Had a great time talking with other hikes there — two beers didn't hurt, either.

Journal Entry 4/18: Met a woman in Hot Springs who had just hours earlier discovered she was pregnant. She and her boyfriend were thrilled. The baby was conceived on trail. Thought that was pretty cool — special moment in life, for sure. Saw a rabbit today, first mammal I've seen larger than a squirrel.

Journal Entry 4/22: I'm having a good time, by the way. I like the social aspects, I like the physical requirements, I like the alone time, and I like the freedom. I've never been more free in how I make day-to-day decisions. I wake up when I want, and start my day generally without any idea where I'll sleep. I can take long breaks or short ones, sleep in a shelter or in my tent, take a zero or do 25 miles, but no matter what I do, there will be nobody to tell my I can't or shouldn't.

Journal Entry 4/26: Yesterday I learned you can stand inside a sunset. I climbed Roan Mountain in the evening in a cloud. As I looked ahead I saw that the usual gray fog now shone a bright pink, the color of a sunset on the horizon, but here it was all around me. Walking in a cloud is nothing unusual. Fog has enveloped the mountains for the past few days. The mist can look and feel as heavy as an ocean.

4/26 cont.: I've developed a newfound respect for robins. I never thought about them much, but one day, maybe two weeks ago, I saw a particularly magnificent bird that changed my perception. As I trudged along, I looked up to see a robin perched on a fallen limb. He looked out over a large valley with the posture of a king who surveys his kingdom. I couldn't help but by surprised — I've never seen a robin look so proud.

Journal Entry 4/30: Crossed Watauga Dam yesterday, will hit Damascus in two days.

Books I've read on the A.T.

"The Essential Emily Dickinson" by Emily Dickinson

"Meateater: Adventures From the Life of an American Hunter" by Steven Rinella

"Raiders: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made" by Alan Eisenberg

"Coyote America: A Natural and Supernatural History" by Dan Flores

"A People's History of the United States" by Howard Zinn

10 Things I'm More Afraid of than Bears

1. Lighting

2. Lyme Disease

3. Giardia

4. Dehydration

5. Falling limbs and trees

6. Snakes (poisonous)

7. Being hit by a car

8. Hypothermia

9. Breaking a bone

10. Infection

Journal Entry 5/3: Bought a fishing license and tackle in Damascus. Went fishing during zero. Caught some little ones and one nice rainbow, but it flopped away on shore. Then today fished along A.T. and caught a nice 14" rainbow. Packed it in a Zip-lock and cooked in over the fire at the shelter. Put it in foil with butter, cayenne, and Cajun seasoning. It cooked perfectly, best on-trail meal yet.

Journal Entry 5/5: Wet, cold, tired.

Journal Entry 5/6: Slept in late due to conditions described above. Hiked into rain, which turned into hail, then back into rain. Finally it stopped. It was a cold, rainy day, but my spirits have improved since last night. Haven't had service in at least five days. Enjoying "People's History of the U.S."

Journal Entry 5/10: Sitting at a picnic table in front of a vacant shelter at sunset. A rare sight! Last night I noticed how many sounds happen all at once in the woods to create "its sound." Rain, a gurgling creek, insects and birds, plus wind and the mumblings of hikers, make for a sweet symphony. I wish I could bottle the noise and carry it with me. It's soothing — let's you know everything is all right in this little corner of the world. Violence, war and other terrible things seem so far away -- they almost seem impossible.

5/11: Watched a pool of water outside my tent rise higher and higher. Eventually had to go into the rain to dig a series of trenches to divert water away from my tent. It worked well for a trench dug with a rock. Here's to being dry.

5/11 cont.: One thing I've learned, or learned to appreciate, on the trail is how unimportant possessions are when it comes to happiness. People on the trail live with few material possessions and yet are mostly happy, content and generous. They aren't broke — they have enough money to afford a thru-hike — but my point is not to relate wealth to happiness. I'm referring to possessions themselves, the things that wealth allows us to purchase. The things we have, as long as basic needs are met, do not add up like a grocery bill where the person with the longest list wins. Relationships, feelings of fulfillment, peace of mind, these things help happiness along.

I'm now enjoying a week-long family vacation in South Carolina. I'll return to the trail May 20 to mile 608, more or less. With about a quarter of the trail done, I can say I'm ready and excited to see what's waiting for me up north. The trail has been insightful, exhausting, and an all-around good time. It may be a while before my next blog entry, but stay tuned! If you have any questions, feel free to comment on this post, email me, or call me. You can find my email and phone number on the contact page of this website. Below are some photos I've taken along the way. Happy Trails!

Going for a walk

My friend Chris and I decided on last year's opening day of trout season to hike the Appalachian Trail. So I saved some money, bought a tent, took a couple of "practice run" overnight backpacking trips, and generally prepared myself for a really, really long walk. 

On this blog I'll record the journey for all my loyal readers (Mom, I know you're out there). The 2,190-mile trail runs from Springer Mountain in Georgia's Chattahoochee National Forest to Mount Katahdin in Maine. Most thru-hikers take five to six months to complete the trail.

For my first post I included an Excel spreadsheet of all my gear (see below).

I hope you enjoy this blog. I'll upload videos, photos and words when I can. Launch date is March 15.

Happy trails,

Will