Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Today is an overcast day, 40-percent chance of rain, the sky is the color of corroded aluminum. And I am walking on a section of the Appalachian Trail.
I want to stress that I am not hiking. I am merely walking. There is a major difference. Hiking is what people with bulbous, muscular calves do. Walking is what out-of-shape guys with fixed 30-year mortgages do.
I am reminded of this fundamental difference every few seconds when college kids pass me on the trail. They carry backpacks that are roughly the size of Honda Civics, and these kids aren’t even remotely short of breath. That’s hiking.
“We’re hiking the whole trail,” says one college guy who wears a bushy beard. He and his pals started hiking in Georgia, and have completed 1,025 miles. When they began, there were 11 in their party. There are three left.
“It was a lot harder than we thought,” he explains. “A whole lot harder.”
I don’t see any of his friends nearby, I ask where everyone is. He tells me that few can tolerate the stink from his lack of bathing. And he’s not joking. I can attest to the accuracy of this statement. This kid smells ripe enough to make a boxcar take a dirt road. Whenever he lifts his arms I briefly consider jumping off a mountain.
I ask how many days he’s been out here, which makes him scratch his head. “Think I’m on day seventy-one, or -two?” He shrugs. “I’m losing count.”
What I want to know is why. This is a big question for me. There must be a reason these insane hikers are out here. I ask why he’s doing this.
“Hmmm,” he says. “I mean… I don’t really know, dude.”
And that’s all he gives me.
During our walk, I am forced to put some distance between us because his body odor is getting so potent that turkey buzzards are circling.
And I’m admiring the Appalachian Trail before me. This 2,190-mile trail spans 14 states, following the ridgeline of the Appalachians. And it is not for the faint of leg.
About 3 million visit the trail each year, and 3,000 attempt to thru-hike from Springer Mountain in Georgia, to Mount Katahdin in Maine. Only one out of every four thru-hikers will finish the trail.
The footpath traverses two wildlife refuges, eight national forests, and six national parks. The accumulated elevation gain of the AT is equal to hiking Mount Everest 16 times. It takes most thru-hikers six months to finish the whole thing.
“Do you think you’ll finish?” I ask.
He shrugs, which momentarily exposes his bare armpits to fresh air. I feel faint.
“One day at a time,” he says. “It’s my feet that are killing me. I’ve lost two toenails already. My feet are a mess.”
Foot problems wipe out a lot of hikers. It’s not just the miles, or the climbing. It’s the sole pain. And the heck of it is, nobody is forcing you to do this. You’re not in the Marines. This is supposed to be fun.
“You ever had a bad bruise?” the kid asks. “Well, just imagine the bottoms of your feet are covered in big friggin’ bruises.” He points to the mountains. “Now imagine you have to walk up that. All day.
“Sometimes my feet bleed so bad I have to stop and cry.”
Once again, I want to ask why. Why does a perfectly healthy kid do this to himself? But I don’t dare ask this because I’m afraid he’ll unclamp his armpits again, thereby killing me.
The pandemic put a hurting on the AT. When COVID hit, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy urged hikers to stay off the footpath. Some did. Some didn’t. The trail didn’t close, but national parks did. Many hostels shut down, too. Business owners who made their livings off trail-goers were losing their shirts.
Trail volunteer maintenance crews were called off the trail. As a result, the footpath, trailheads, and shelters started going to seed in some places. Weeds grew. Limbs fell. The outhouses became powerfully disgusting.
Interestingly, however, last year was a record year for Americans going outdoors. Amidst the pandemic closures, somehow 15 national parks set new visitation records, and five parks broke records from the previous year.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park—home to 71 miles of Appalachian Trail—was the most visited national park of 2020, receiving 12.1 million visitors.
And now that American life is resuming normalcy, the trail is back in business. Hikers are everywhere today. I’ve met a handful of whacky individuals who claim they are thru-hiking all the way to Maine. Which, for some reason, makes me feel as though our lives truly are returning to a half normal state. Glory be.
Before the kid and I part ways, I wish him luck. As I’m leaving, he removes his pack and chugs a bottle of water. He says, “Hey, I think I can answer your question about why I’m doing this.”
He stares at the magnificent mountains and ultra-green forest before us.
“That’s why,” he says.
Then the young man gestures to the incredible scenery by lifting his arm. And I fall over dead.