“When your values are clear to you, making decisions becomes easier.” – Roy E. Disney
“One of the most important things that I have learned in my 57 years is that life is all about choices. On every journey you take, you face choices. At every fork in the road, you make a choice. And it is those decisions that shape our lives.” – Mike DeWine
Shortly after breaking camp and beginning the long ascent up Chestnut Knob, it began to rain. Once again, my strategy (when it’s not too cold) was to wear as little as possible. It may sound strange, but I rarely wear my rain jacket in the rain. With enough rain, you still end up wet and the rain jacket only adds to the wetness by making you perspire more. I’d rather just have my quick-drying synthetic t-shirt get wet, and have my dry rain jacket available for duty around camp at night.
As I reached Chestnut Knob Shelter, a fully enclosed concrete shelter, a heavy rain began to pour. I quickly stepped in and ended up staying three hours with Hopscotch, a southbound section hiker. He was on his way to Damascus for Trail Days, and we shared notes on the trail ahead. He is a military Intel analyst/cryptologist, so we shared a few war stories. The rain eventually subsided and I headed back out and across a very long, rocky ridge at Garden Mountain. The rocks took a toll on my feet and legs, with the feet alternating between pain and numbness. After an 11.6 mile, rain filled day, I headed 25 yards downhill from the ridge and stealth camped at mile 573.8. Shortly after hunkering down in my tent, the rain began to fall again.
This is as good a time as any discuss the popular and somewhat overused AT expression, “Hike Your Own Hike.” It basically means each person “owns” their AT hike and gets to decide the right way to hike it for them. It also means hikers shouldn’t criticize others who hold different views. Still, you’ll find some friendly banter between hikers as they discuss their respective positions on a host of issues. Here, then, are my personal opinions on some of these issues. This is how I’m “hiking my own hike”. I don’t judge or criticize others for holding different views…at least not to their face.
1. Must one hike the 8.8 mile Approach Trail from Amicalola Falls State Park to Springer Mountain in Georgia? My view: Absolutely not. Rationale:
– Quite simply, it’s not part of the 2189.1 mile AT. I’m attempting to hike the AT, not trails that feed the AT. I wouldn’t hike the 8.8 miles leading to the start of the AT any more than I would continue north for 8.8 miles after summiting Katahdin.
– I’m told it’s a very difficult, strenuous way to begin the hike, making a raw hiker susceptible to injury. A fellow hiker, Dirty Deed, who did the Approach Trail, in retrospect called it a complete waste of time.
– I had a group of 10 family and friends who wanted to join me and hike the first mile of the AT with me. Thus, it was easier for everyone to meet at the Springer Mountain parking lot and hike to the southern terminus together.
– So I didn’t do and wouldn’t recommend the Approach Trail, although I joined with a few family members and walked up the killer stairs at Amicalola Falls (part of the Approach Trail) on our way to lunch at the lodge.
2. Is it acceptable to take blue blazed shortcuts (to dodge a difficult section or hit a prettier section) or Aqua blaze (canoe parallel to the trail)? My view: Absolutely not. Rationale:
– A successful thru-hike, to me, occurs when one hikes all 2189.1 miles. I would forever regret taking any shortcuts that lessen that mileage by even a foot. In fact, I always exit a shelter on the same path I came in on so as to not miss a single white blaze.
– Also, I’m hiking the AT, not canoeing, kayaking, horseback riding, or snowmobiling it. My goal is to be a thru-hiker, not a thru-traveler. Using any method other than my legs (and butt, occasionally) would cause me to have to put an asterisk by my name in the honor roll. To me, hiking it all means HIKING…IT ALL.
3. Northbound or Southbound or Flip-Flop (typically, Harpers Ferry to Maine, then Harpers Ferry to GA)? My view: Northbound. Rationale:
– Most importantly, I want to be standing at Katahdin’s summit, with my hands in the air, at the END of my journey. That’s the iconic photo. In fact, at photo boards at hostels and elsewhere, I’ve not seen one of a hiker concluding a thru-hike by summiting Springer or strolling into Harper’s Ferry on a flip-flop.
– Some say Katahdin is the most difficult of all the climbs on the AT, and I like the idea of saving that final big test for last.
– Most hikers go northbound, and I like interacting with others. While that causes occasional crowding at shelters early on, the herd quickly thins out and there is as much solitude as you want.
– The last hundred miles on the AT in Maine is reportedly difficult and barren wilderness. I’d rather end there as an experienced hiker with trail legs rather than begin there as an inexperienced, overweight rookie.
– All that said, I recognize there are benefits to going southbound or flip-flopping, including weather, family reasons, more solitude, etc. SOBOs who complete the AT are most certainly thru-hikers and I wouldn’t put an asterisk by their name. I just prefer being a NOBO.
4. Is it okay to “slack pack”, which means you have someone else (a friend, family member, hostel owner, etc) carry (drive) your backpack for you for a day or more so you can do an unencumbered, bigger mileage day? My view: Absolutely not. This would earn me the dreaded asterisk by my name. Rationale:
– Part of the AT’s appeal is the high level of difficulty and a big part of that is carrying a 25 to 35 pound backpack. That’s my job…not someone else’s. I wouldn’t go whitewater rafting and have someone else paddle for me, or go on the world’s fastest roller coaster and have them apply a brake throughout to make it easier. If I wanted an easier challenge, I’d have chosen an easier trail…or just gone bowling.
– Almost without exception, slack packers have to rush to hit the big miles and rendezvous with their backpack. Rushing is the last thing I want to do. Big, easy miles isn’t my goal. It’s about enjoying the journey. One female slack packer zoomed by me to reach her 30-mile day, with thunderstorms forecasted. I asked her what her intentions were regarding (not yet blogged about) McAfee Knob, arguably the second most famous landmark on the trail. Out of breath, she said, “Don’t have time to stop there. Gotta hit pickup point. Will have to return some day to get a pic and enjoy.” Seriously? If I were to skip (or rush) McAfee Knob, lookouts, waterfalls, etc., due to a time pressure to have a big mileage day, I’d be missing the main purpose of hiking the AT. I’m not suggesting all slack packers miss all the cool sights. I am suggesting you are more likely to miss cool things when you’re rushing.
– Along those same lines, I came across this note in an AT shelter log by a fellow hiker named Arrow: “How many of us gazed off Black Rock, splashed in the waters of a 200′ falls, relaxed in the sun on Apple Orchard Mountain, and scrambled over the massive boulders of the Devils Marble Yard? Since when did big mileage become so important that we are willing to skip wonderful side adventures? Since when did we begin to focus so much on a number that we miss the things that make the AT so beautiful and exciting? Many of us came here to escape the busy, over-productive, hurry-hurry civilization, but perhaps we have brought it along with us?” He nailed it!
– There is often a fee for the shuttle service, and possibly also for a second night at the hostel if you hike back to it.
– No flexibility to stop early for the day in real bad weather. You simply have to get to the pickup point.
– Most importantly, for me, is that my mom’s ashes are in a pouch inside my backpack. She will remain in it, and it will not leave my sight. My pack is an extension of me on many levels, and it will remain with me to the end.
So those are my personal views on what it means for me to hike my own hike. Each hiker resolves these issues in a way that works for them. So long as we all can look ourselves in the mirror at the end and feel good about our hike (however we defined it), that’s the main thing. I guess that same principle applies to how you live your life, and how you’ll feel about your life as you reflect on it towards the end of the journey.
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