Lessons from the Appalachian Trail

Hiking for three months can teach you a lot — about yourself, your gear and life.

For the past five weeks I have had a recurring dream of trees. I am walking a narrow trail over beds of pine needles and woven mats of roots gnarled like gripping fingers. Darts of sunlight slip through trees wrapped in morning mist. I walk and breathe in the pine forest around me. Wind stirs the branches, dripping dew on my neck and face, I look behind me, and the dream slips away as I awake in bed.

It’s a scene assembled from many; a quilt of senses that wraps my sleeping conscious. As it shakes off in my waking moments, I grab hold of one piece of the tapestry. It can be the thick scent of pine, the icy grip of water rushing around my ankles, or the relentless press of mountain wind against my chest. I hold each of these in the sharpest focus for as long as I can before they slip away; back into the ether until the next morning.

It has been five weeks since I finished a 1,167-mile trek on the Appalachian Trail, from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, to the summit of Mount Katahdin in Maine. Since then, a recurring question that friends and family put to me is, “How was it?”

When asked, most times I mumble a series of observations about the late-March weather in Pennsylvania or the difficulty of hitching a ride to Millinocket, Maine. It’s difficult to condense so much. It’s like trying to fit a bear into a paper bag.

The three months and six days it took me to cover that distance served multiple purposes, but mostly it was time for myself. I ate when I was hungry and slept when I was tired. The trail went on. I thought about all the things that had brought me to right then and there.

And I learned things. Some important, some really dumb, some of which I’ve laid out for you here.

Plan Your Dive, Dive Your Plan

The Appalachian Trail draws its inspiration from Vermont’s Long Trail, which founder Benton MacKaye dreamed of while sitting in a tree at the top of Stratton Mountain, not far from where I grew up, in Marlboro, Vt. MacKaye envisioned a trail that would run up the spine of the Appalachian range. He proposed it in 1921. Today, the AT runs 2,190 miles from Georgia to Maine.

My plan was to start halfway, in West Virginia and hike northward. My decision to hike this section was severalfold: Books like Wild by Cheryl Strayed and A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson (and the movie versions of both) have been credited for causing huge increases in traffic on both the Appalachian Trail and the west coast’s Pacific Crest Trail. In the past decade, I heard horror stories of over-crowded shelters, noisy parties and contaminated water sources. By starting early in the season and just doing the northern section, I figured I would skip some of the crowds.

After a childhood of hiking and camping all over the northeast, I also relished the idea of hiking homeward and into familiar territory.

Then there was the question of money. Hikers estimate spending between $2 and $3 per mile on the trail for an average range of $4,000 to $6,000, not including initial costs of equipment.

Even if my legs and lungs could carry me every step of the way, there was no way my wallet could. 

I began planning in January 2018. For the weeks leading up to departure, on powder days I would drive up the hill from my house to the Middlebury College Snow Bowl where I would skin to the summit with the sunrise and enjoy thick and deep turns all the way down. I practiced yoga and grew a mustache. As winter turned to spring, I made up massive batches of chili, chana masala, and split pea soup, which I dehydrated and packaged into single-dinner servings with a vacuum sealer. I also bought cases of ramen noodles and a wide selection of Knorr pasta and rice sides. I did my best to approximate how much food I would need for five- to six-day periods and arranged to have boxes sent to me at different points along the trail, either to hostels that cater to hikers or post offices that were within a mile from the trail. I created a spreadsheet that organized the addresses of these resupply stops from south to north and shared it with a few close friends and family.

Preparing my gear was not nearly as methodical. The process consisted of putting the proper clothes and equipment in my pack and placing it in a corner. I didn’t have the money for the lightweight setup of my dreams. Finding out how much my whole setup weighed and not being able to change it would have only tormented me. On nicer winter days, I took the pack for long walks on the dirt roads in Ripton. I kept my eye on forecasts and snowfall totals for Maryland and Pennsylvania. A final step was coating my clothes and tent in a layer of tick-proof Permethrin.

By the time March arrived, I felt like I was only three-quarters prepared. I was no stranger to backcountry travel, but my longest trek yet had been a 60-mile hike in New Mexico when I was still in the Boy Scouts. I was certainly in shape, but I didn’t know how my hips, knees and back would adapt to carrying what must have been at least 30 pounds in my pack. My food was prepared and ready to be shipped, but I still didn’t know how many miles I could cover in a day and how quickly that would cause me to consume the food. I had all the equipment I needed and knew how to use it, but I didn’t anticipate how it would break down or how rapidly. There was only one way to answer these questions.   

In late February, I bought a one-way train ticket to Harpers Ferry. My brother drove me to the train station at 4 a.m. on March 24.

Your Friends Will Find You

The train’s brakes howled as we crossed the Potomac River and I breathed a sigh of relief. The latest nor’easter had smacked the mid-Atlantic with enough snow to briefly cripple plane and train travel. My nerves felt charged by the journey that was about to start. All the months of preparation and training was finally about to be put into play; all I needed to do was start walking. I heaved the pack from the luggage rack and stepped out onto the platform. My heart leapt as I noticed a familiar figure. I found enough energy to scoop my best friend GennaRose off her feet in a giant hug. She was traveling north from New Orleans and made a slight detour on her journey to see me off.

“What the hell am I doing?” I asked.

“You’re going on an adventure,” she said.

On March 25, I crossed the Potomac and started in on the 40 miles of Maryland trail. Aside from a beautiful clear first day, the initial days were filled with long, slow miles in hypothermia-inducing rain. The snow, sometimes a foot-deep, would melt to slush in the daytime and then refreeze at night, creating a hard pan to post-hole through before the thaw started again. A pair of cross-country skis started to seem like a good idea.

The springtime landscape left much to be desired (brown, foggy, muddy) which meant I spent the majority of Maryland and southern Pennsylvania alone. While I saw occasional day-hikers, I was the sole occupant of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club’s beautiful shelters. The nights usually brought rain and left thick fog in the morning.

The afternoon I crossed the Mason Dixon Line, I came across my first long-distance hiker, a retired policeman from Ohio named Joel who gave himself the trailname “Old-N-Slow.” We stuck together for two days until we reached Fayetteville, Pa., when his doctor called to advise him to take a few days off and I continued onward.   

Pennsylvania goes by the moniker Rock-sylvania among AT hikers and when the snow melted with the start of spring, I began to understand why. As the trail dipped and climbed between long, flat ridges, I had to carefully pick my way through fields of loose boulders and rocks.

On the afternoon of April 3, water squirted out the tops of my boots as I shuffled into downtown Boiling Springs, Pa. The spring rains were driving off the last of the snow and I smelled like pig shit from slogging through muddy fields. After picking up a resupply box at the post office, I walked to Anile’s Pizzeria and called a friend I hadn’t seen in six years. I ordered a large white pizza and had eaten half before Tyler walked through the door.

In addition to providing me with a guest room for three nights, Tyler’s family invited me to stay in their cabin just off the trail, where I rested on Easter Sunday with a cache of goodies they left for me. When I reached Hamburg, Pa., my uncle insisted on driving the three hours from Delaware to pick me up for some needed rest. My friends Jeff and Kath picked me up in Fort Montgomery, N.Y. and dropped me back on the trail with sandwiches, cheese and fresh fruits and veggies. My brother rode his Harley down from Troy, N.Y. to spend an afternoon eating ice cream sandwiches with me in Salisbury, Conn. As I neared Route 9 in Southern Vermont on Mothers Day, I found my parents and their pup, hiking in to meet me. No matter where, my friends and family came to find me.

Hunger Has a Volume Knob

During these periods of prolonged intense activity, I became familiar with what my body needed to perform. By fueling myself correctly and regularly, I could go further, faster.

Snacks, specifically the lack thereof, became a problem. I always had enough meals to cook at the end of the day, but I wasn’t about to stop midday to cook up a cup of Top Ramen. Instead, I needed to keep myself in a constant supply of calorie-dense foods that I could gobble as I walked. Stops in town required me to buy mountains of Clif Bars, jerky, peanut M&Ms, Swedish fish, Snickers, dried fruit and more.

While hiking, I ate every two hours from sunrise until I reached camp. Breakfast at dawn was a protein bar with instant coffee. On days with pre-dawn starts, I’d delay my coffee break until 8 a.m.. More snacks followed into the afternoon.

After a long day, the author holes up in the Cove Mountain Shelter near Duncannon, Pa. Photo by Evan Johnson

I learned from some more experienced hikers how to “cold soak” my food and save fuel. About two hours before I wanted to eat, I would combine water and rice or couscous in an empty peanut butter jar and leave it to rattle around in my pack until lunch or dinner.

In camp at the end of the day, the priorities were to unpack anything that needed to be dried, filter enough water to start the next day, eat and get to bed before “hiker midnight,” or whenever full dark arrived. By soaking my food in the, I didn’t need to jockey for space to set up my stove and I could go to bed earlier. 

Hiking for at least eight hours every day puts even the most in-shape of hikers at a severe energy deficiency. I’ve read estimates that backpackers require upwards of 5,500 calories per day and even when I upped my rations to two dinners (one package of noodles, one package of Idahoan Instant Mashed Potatoes), I still lost weight.

I was consuming astounding quantities of food with ease. In early June, a pair of through-hikers caught up with me near the town of Pomfret, Vt. We walked to a road crossing just a third of a mile away to the On The Edge Farmstand. There, we plundered the coolers for Gatorade and Coca Cola. A cardboard sign indicated ice cream flavors. “It’s $3 for a scoop and $4 for a pint,” the proprietor advised us.

The pint of Hershey’s Moose Tracks vanished like some David Blaine sleight-of-hand.

There Will Be Visitations

The night before I completed the Presidential Traverse in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, my grandmother visited me. I had just completed my longest day so far in some of the most difficult terrain. After a 17-mile hike from the Garfield Shelter dropped me down into Crawford Notch, the last six miles of the day had me climbing 2,474 feet to the top of the Webster Cliffs. I limped into the Nauman Tent site at around 9 p.m. and had just enough energy to eat dinner and crawl inside my tent.

I fell into a sleep that went beyond my body, exhaustion so consuming it felt narcotic. In the brief, inestimable time that only dreams create, she was standing right in front of me: my beautiful grandmother.

“Hi, sweetheart.”

“Grandma.”

“How are you.”

“Grandma, I’m hurting.”

“I know.”

“Grandma, I’m tired.”

“I know that, sweetheart.”

“But you’re not here.”

“I know that.”

She smiled and I opened my eyes to a glow around me: Morning. I forced myself from the cocoon of the sleeping bag and put on my down jacket and watch cap. The morning scene was a no-man’s-land of swirling sky and, around my campsite, a chaos of blow-downs.

The Crawford Path is one of the oldest continually maintained footpaths in the United States and runs 8.2 miles from Route 302 to the summit of Mount Washington, passing the summits of Pierce, Eisenhower, Franklin and Monroe. It takes its name from Abel Crawford, a Vermonter who settled in New Hampshire in 1791 whose family cut some of the first trails in the southern Presidentials.

At 7 a.m., when I broke above treeline, the wind felt like a baseball bat swung into my chest. I didn’t mind.

Thru-Hikers Open Up

The liminal space created by the trail invites people to open up. For two days, or sometimes up to four, I might encounter the same thru-hikers at campsites or in towns. There were Peanut Butter and Jelly, a couple from North Carolina who started hiking from Georgia on January 1 and had endured everything from mishaps with bear mace to symptoms of scurvy. Nightingale, who had a habit of talking in her sleep. Patches was entering medical school in the fall. Frank, a beer lover from Kansas, was leaving her professorship to start work in a new brewery. These trail names were nicknames derived from a distinguishing feature or a funny story. Other times they were just picked by their owner. Patches earned his name by refusing to replace his shredded rain jacket, choosing instead to patch it with duct tape, but Frank just picked the name herself and it suited her.

It took until Vermont for me to get a trail name of my own. I was at the Seth Warner Shelter, about 11 miles south of Bennington with two hikers from Florida, Tail Hook and Lemonade. The three of us had picked up enough empty beer cans and food wrappers to fill a trash bag, which I would carry out with me the next morning.

“You mean you’ve been hiking some 500 miles and you still don’t have a trail name?” Tail Hook asked.

“That’s right,” I replied.

Lemonade sat in contemplative silence for a few minutes and then said:

“I think we’ll start calling you Greener.”

And that was that. The name stuck and when I introduced myself to others, there was no explanation or story. I was Greener. 

Hikers move up or down the trail in small clusters called “bubbles” that might break and scatter or join up with a larger group. As the bubbles move, it’s common to hear gossip about the individuals chasing you or who are still a few days ahead.

In camp at night or if I was hiking with people during the day, I would catch small details about what life looked like outside the trail for these people. I heard stories about crushing student debt, retirements, jobs lost, plans for the future and more. I never hiked for more than four days with the same people: the understanding was that we were each completing our own hike. Eventually, we would part ways.

Sometimes, people opened up with surprising candor. That became apparent when I did a work-for-stay in the White Mountains. It costs some $150 per night to stay in these high-alpine huts, but by offering to do the dishes or defrosting the freezer, long-distance hikers are permitted to eat all the leftovers and sleep on the benches. A twice-divorced golf cart salesman from Florida, who went by the trail name Glacial, on account of how slowly he hiked in the southern states, joined me in a work-for-stay at Madison Springs Hut.

The next morning as we crested Mount Madison and descended into Pinkham Notch, Glacial told me about the women in his life, settling on one particular partner, a single mother of two named Lexie. He was 25 when they met; she was 35.

“She was very…” he wiggled his eyebrows, “…spontaneous.”

By way of example, Glacial offered anecdotes in which this woman met him in a grocery store wearing nothing but a short white fur coat, a pair of heels and a smile. Another time, they took advantage of an amusement park ride. In my mind’s eye, she looked something like Tawny Kitaen from the Whitesnake music video.

One night, after a fight, Lexie stormed out of the house and took the last train into New York City to stay with her ex. Glacial went to the train station and smashed off her car mirrors with a tire iron.

At a hostel in Gorham, N.H., Glacial taught me to play three-card bluff and we split a pint of Bulleit whiskey, drinking it out of coffee mugs. Between hands, Glacial revealed that all of his relationships seemed to expire before five years, a pattern he called his “five-year-plan.” 

“It’s nothing I have a problem with,” he said. “It’s just the way things seem to always go.”

Glacial told me the Appalachian Trail had been a dream of his since he was 12 years old and now, midway through his career, he was only about 300 miles away from completing a feat nine out of ten people fail. Despite this, I sensed a deeply insecure individual. I spent an extra day recovering in Gorham and Glacial headed back onto the trail, alone again.

Pain is Patient, So Are You

As I hiked, my average distance increased from a 10- to 15-mile comfort range to 18- to 23-mile days. As the summer solstice approached, I extended my peak mileage to a record 27 miles. As long as there was daylight, there was still time to walk.

I walked through nine states, each with their own character. Pennsylvania had its long and rocky, but mostly flat, ridgelines; Connecticut was a roller coaster of steep climbs and descents in rapid succession; New Jersey was gone in the blink of an eye. Vermont was my highly-biased favorite: the perfect balance of challenge and reward, accessible towns and seclusion. New Hampshire’s Crawford Path through the Presidentials was truly breath-taking in its ruggedness.

Each state also had its own variety of shelters and campsites. New Jersey’s privies were always stocked with new rolls of toilet paper and Pennsylvania’s shelters came in all sizes and dimensions. On a day when the weather and the terrain conspired to dish out a double helping of knuckle sandwich I found a secret hut. Heading north from Killington, most AT hikers will make for the Stony Brook Shelter or the Winturi Shelter 10 miles north. But a small side trail led me to a privately-owned cabin with four walls, windows and a porch where I could stretch out my sore legs.

I left it cleaner than I found it for the next tired campers. Should you come across the Lookout, I hope you do the same.  

If Vermont and New Hampshire were a series of tough rounds in a boxing ring, western Maine delivered the knockout punch. I thought I had experienced the trail’s toughest portions, but Maine blindsided me with unrelenting climbs, no switchbacks, bridge-less river crossings and thunderstorms that felt like an artillery shelling.

As I entered the Hundred Mile Wilderness at Monson, Maine, I was already shaving myself to a smaller and harder version of myself. My cheekbones projected over a three-month beard and my eyes had a new sharpness and hunger. The muscles in my shoulders, arms and stomach had lost definition and my feet were numb from the thick calluses over my heels and toes. This was a body meant for constant movement, constant carrying.   

My body and mind were beginning to tire from what was starting to feel like a routine. I came to expect the scrape of hunger in my gut every morning and afternoon and the screaming lactic acid burn that filled my legs on the climbs.

Even food began to feel tedious. When I saw more peanut butter in my resupply box, I nearly cried.

And despite the number of times the day left me groaning in my sleeping bag, I was absolutely enchanted by the remoteness and wildness of the Maine woods. There was no opportunity for resupply and whatever I entered with would have to last the four to five days to Abol Bridge and the final climb in Baxter State Park.   

Expect to be Changed

Sitting on the second-floor balcony of the Appalachian Trail Hostel, I watched the empty streets of Millinocket stir and turn over. The soft serve truck was parked where it was yesterday evening, across from the empty lot where a bunch of local guys and girls reveled in a cornhole tourney. A flock of some 50 pigeons swooped in figure-eights overhead and it started to rain.

Twenty-four hours earlier, with the night’s rain still dripping off the leaves, I had started up the 5.5 miles from the Birches Campsite to the Mount Katahdin summit. I don’t remember the hike being very difficult other than some technical moves on the boulders in the middle two or three miles. At the tablelands, the climb eased and I pushed on the pace. At 8:55 a.m. on July 1, I had the top of Maine and the northern terminus of the trail to myself. I ate a celebratory Snickers bar and called my parents. I sat in the wind for an hour before climbing down. I retrieved my pack from the ranger station and caught a ride to Millinocket with a couple from Quebec in their Vanagon.

After a night’s rest, I was showered and ready for reentry. I was wearing a new t-shirt and drinking real coffee and waiting for 9 a.m. when I’d catch a bus to Bangor. I could feel myself slipping from one state to the other; from hiker trash to unemployed 20-something. I was in the plasmapause. By afternoon, I’d be another guy on a Greyhound headed somewhere with a pack.

Resuming a portion of the life I left behind has brought challenges. It’s a familiar toolbox, filled with well-worn tools. I have taken inventory and started to discard some that are now unnecessary. I’ve added replacements ready for use. Hiking some 1,167 miles taught me the limits of my control, and how to recognize empowerment. Some days are going to smack you with rain and gale-force winds and while you can’t change the weather, you can change your socks and take breaks for cocoa. Three months and six days fostered a heightened sense of patience. On my long days, that word became my mantra, chanted silently. The only time was the time it took.

It’s one thing to set a goal, but it’s another to manage yourself as you pursue it. This is the power of expectations. I’m dead level with my expectations of what I can accomplish in the time allocated and I try to be aware of what others expect of me in my role as a partner, brother, friend and son. I have a greater appreciation for the peace that my lifestyle affords me and for the public lands that are (for now) open to everyone. I’ve been told I laugh louder too.

These days, I wake up early. I make tea and sit on the couch in my running clothes. When I’m ready, I step outside.

Johnson celebrates the end of his 1,167-mile trek on the summit of Katahdin. Photo by Evan Johnson

THE GEAR THAT WENT THE DISTANCE

Trekking 1,167 miles over three months tells you a lot about what gear works and what doesn’t. Rather than buy new gear, I made do with what I had.

Smartwool Corbet Jacket

This jacket was ideal for wear around camp at the end of the day or on cold mornings. It uses Smartloft wool insulation as a fill instead of down, which kept me warm even when damp. It layered well under my rain shell too.

Patagonia R1 fleece

Tough as nails and comfortable to wear with a pack, this was the layer I wore the most. I bought mine at a ski swap for $8.

Under Armour running shorts

These shorts survived from West Virginia to Maine and I’m still wearing them as I train for my next trail race. They have built-in underwear too, meaning fewer clothes to pack.

Aku Alterra GTX boots

I ground my way through three pairs of boots between West Virginia to Maine. These were the pair that I finished in. With remarkably little break-in time, these boots were a good fit and kept my feet comfortable for long days with zero blisters or hot spots, thanks to the elastic material for the tongue and collar that also serves as a gusset.

Darn Tough Socks

Vermont has the best beer, ice cream, and skiing, and I think we need to add socks to that list. I went through six pairs of socks on my hike and Darn Toughs lasted the longest of any. All three pairs have all been replaced as part of their ironclad warranty.

LL Bean Tek 02 Storm Jacket

I’ve worn this jacket as a light shell while skiing and in the early parts of the trek, this jacket withstood the wind and wet mightily with the help of LL Bean’s proprietary waterproof fabric. But as it got dirtier, the waterproofing failed in the shoulders and arms where it saw the most abrasion. The lesson I learned: wash your tech fabrics regularly.

Buff

Cool when hot, comfy and warm when it’s cold, these things weigh next to nothing and offered just an extra bit of versatility in changing weather. In the early days of the trek, I wore mine almost every day.

MSR Whisperlite stove

The Whisperlite has been a favorite among campers and backpackers for its reliability in cold weather and the design hasn’t changed much since they were first introduced in the ‘80s. It worked every morning and night and was easy to disassemble and clean, but it was heavy and finding fuel became a hassle. I’ll be switching to a lighter option like MSR’s Pocket Rocket.   

LL Bean White Mountain Pack

This is a basic 70-liter backpacking pack that I’ve used on several multi-day trips. While it’s inoffensive for the first two to three days, there’s plenty about this pack’s layout, suspension system and excess features that made it frustrating to pack and carry. I’m currently on the lookout for a simple, lightweight pack with a high volume.

Mountain Equipment Firelite

This three-season down bag kept me cozy on nights when  it got as low as 20 degrees and in warmer weather I unzipped it to use as a quilt. At just 27 ounces, it packs down to the size of a loaf of sandwich bread.

LL Bean Microlite UL 2 tent

While it’s a tight fit for two, this two-person backpacking tent was palatial for little me. When the nights were particularly cold, I would set up the tent inside the shelter to create a warmer microclimate. The tent weighs 3.2 pounds and took up lots of my pack’s volume.

Evan Johnson is a contributing editor and former staff writer for Vermont Sports.

Featured Photo by David Halterman. A thru-hiker looks out across central Pennsylvania from The Pinnacle, an outcrop of rock on the Appalachian Trail.

Evan Johnson

Evan Johnson is the staff writer for Vermont Sports Magazine. The native Vermonter enjoys steep and deep skiing and wandering all over the state by Subaru. Find him on Twitter at @evanisathome.