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.
Sandi. - July 11, 2021 7:08 am
This is really amusing, but also a tad sad that the young man couldn’t or didn’t notice his own offensive B.O., or maybe he just didn’t care. I understand your reaction Sean, because if I get a whiff of a person with offensive, strong body odor, it makes me want to throw up and run far from them!
Barbara - July 11, 2021 9:57 am
Thru-hikers are always interesting characters. I can only imagine what his friends gave him as a trail name. I love the expression “Glory be”. My mother used to say that.
Karen Holderman - July 11, 2021 11:13 am
Think of the stories he will get to tell his children and grandchildren. I hope he hikes the whole trail. Hopefully it is a life changing experience.
Monte Lewis - July 11, 2021 11:43 am
I’ve hiked a few portions of the AT, through parts of Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylcania. This was many years ago, when I was still relatively hard from years as an infantry soldier, followed by years as a beer delivery guy in Richmond.
My first short hikes on the AT brought me right back to those infantry days, especially the time when I was training for the Nijmegan March. That particular March, for military participants, involved walking 100 miles (160 km) in four days with weapon and 50 pound ruck (backpack.) The group I was in started with just over 40 volunteer participants. When three months of training was over, there were twelve of us left. It was brutal, by far the hardest training I did while in the military. Yet all we did was walk.
My feet were soft when I started, and went through many rapid stages of gross decay (literally pounded to mush) and painful regrowth. I missed one training march, had I missed a second I would have been eliminated. That missed march was early in the training schedule. By the time we started adding weight to our rucks, my feet had recovered and ‘soldiered on’ without major problems.
The soldiers who made this hike for real back in WW2 didn’t have the luxury of three months of training. Their mission was immortalized in books and movies about “A Bridge Too Far”. The troops had to move 100 miles to try to save English and American paratroopers from annihilation when they were dropped unknowingly into the middle of a German reinforcement group. They were the closest allied units, and their leaders had confidence in their ability to get the job done.
100 miles in four days through enemy held territory? The folks – both men and women – who regularly hike the Appalachian Trail are, I firmly believe, some of the few who could make the Nijmegan March. Those I met on the AT while I did my short hikes immediately had my deepest respect. The fact they did it for reasons other than military expedient always blew my mind.
My group wasn’t selected to go to Holland to participate in the Nijmegan March. We had lost too many men in training. That hurt far worse than my feet ever did.
Suzanne knapp - July 11, 2021 2:03 pm
Thank u for ur service. My dad was in World War II and we recorded him talking about the lemon tree field where he got hurt. He lived to be 97 and died of pneumonia july 2019. He was very physically fit until his nineties and his mind was always clear no dementia even in his nineties. He got to go on an honors flight one year with several others to Washington. Those men serving in ww 2 were such a special generation and urself
CoyoTec - August 5, 2021 2:57 pm
My father in law hiked the trail several times. His trail name EZ-1. His last through hike was at the age of 81. He is now 98. He has shared some incredible stories with us and has written a book. He was in the Navy during WWII.
Mark3:26 - July 11, 2021 4:38 pm
Thank you for adding so much rich detail. Sean likes details and so do readers.
Bob E - July 11, 2021 11:49 am
I pass (out)
Janie F. - July 11, 2021 11:51 am
Great story Sean! I read it to my husband on our way to church this morning. You made us both laugh out loud. You sure have a way of painting a picture with words. I hope you never stop writing.
Carmen - July 11, 2021 12:21 pm
I love this story and love the AT. If I was a few years younger I would attempt a thru hike. Thanks for always making my day brighter.
Susan Kennedy - July 11, 2021 12:39 pm
I LOVE this. I am following a couple hikers on their YouTube channels right now. Amazing stuff. I have a friend who through hiked 3 years ago as a celebration of his retirement. “Good stuff”, as he would say! And you don’t HAVE to stink to do it; just saying. 😉
Suellen Dehnke - July 11, 2021 12:44 pm
Living the life. I wish I’d attempted to do more brave things when I was young. Now a trip to the grocery store is a challenge.
Ed (Bear) - July 11, 2021 12:48 pm
I’m sorry you died in such an unpleasant manner. Thanks for writing and sharing!
Debbie g - July 11, 2021 12:52 pm
I admire those hikers. Glory days 😀😀
mevsm1 - July 11, 2021 12:57 pm
I am a walker and am on day 3 of 75 Hard.
Linda J Hendrix - July 11, 2021 1:04 pm
Haha! Good one!
Bill Harris - July 11, 2021 1:16 pm
Thank you Sean
James Payme - July 11, 2021 2:41 pm
We live near the Southern Terminus of the AT in Suches Ga and we were recently in Harpers Ferry, also. We hike short sections near our house. There are definitely some characters on the trail!
Jim Horer - July 11, 2021 3:23 pm
Loved your comments about the AT and thru hikers. As to the question of “why?”, I’ll give you an example. A couple friends and I decided we’d hike from Clingman’s Dome in the Smokies to a place called Wesser, about 80 miles south, where the trail crosses a highway.
We were neophytes who knew next to nothing about hiking. We were carrying 60-pound packs. On the second day, we planned to traverse Thunderhead Mountain on our way to a shelter 20 miles away. About the time we started up Thunderhead, it lived up to its name. Lightning bolts were all around us. The rain was coming down so hard, the steep trail turned into a steep stream. We’d take a step and slide back. We trudged on, finally getting out of the storm on the other side of Thunderhead and stopped at the 17-mile mark at a shelter. My friends were so exhausted and hurting, they couldn’t move up or down and the water source was down a 75-yard steep trail. So, I got the water.
When we finished eating, I had never been so exhausted in my life (including military training and sports). But as I looked back on what we had done that day, I realized there were several times I didn’t think I’d make it. That feeling of exhilaration, that WOW!, I made it, became my reason for doing the north half of the trail through the Smokies a couple years later. I wanted to, once again, endure and feel the accomplishment.
So add that feeling to the beautiful scenery and you have my take on why otherwise sane people seem willing to suffer so much on the AT.
Karen Callis - July 11, 2021 3:36 pm
CHARALEEN WRIGHT - July 11, 2021 3:41 pm
Sue Rhodus - July 11, 2021 4:09 pm
Good one ! Laughed out loud !
Mark3:26 - July 11, 2021 4:43 pm
When a man’s life is over, he will not recall how much money he made, he will recall the things he accomplished and the friends made and he will not worry if the scent of these accomplishments offended anyone, least of all his truest friends…just do it!
DeLois Gainey - July 11, 2021 4:55 pm
Last year when you were biking, I shared the name of Dr. Fred Birchmore who rode a bicycle around the world. He was from Athens, GA and had just graduated from UGA c, 1936-37. Years later, he and his son, Danny, hiked the AT in record time. Dr. Birchmore also hiked the Inca Trail. My middle school students were mesmerized with his visits as were the many organizations he spoke to over the years. The bicycle is at the Smithsonian and is named after Alexander the Great’s Horse.
Stacey Wallace - July 11, 2021 5:54 pm
Sean, thanks for cracking me up. I sure would like to meet you one day.
Linda Moon - July 11, 2021 6:33 pm
Harper’s Ferry. They take me home…those country roads. Every time. I’m glad you clarified that you are a walker, NOT a hiker. And I’m wondering if you passed my young gingerhead carrying a large backpack as he’s HIKING the Trail. He’s described the scenery and the mountains as his “Why”. So, two of “my” gingerheads are on the trail somewhere at the same time…that’s just too much magic! After my guy returns, I’ll be hugging him tight…stink or no stink.
And, I hope to get another live-and- in-person bonecrushing hug from you again, Writer.
Steve McCaleb - July 11, 2021 7:20 pm
You write remarkably well for a man who has groundhogs delivering his mail. Good stuff my friend.
Katherine D Jones - July 11, 2021 8:02 pm
Great, Sean! Keep on going & writing – now you know why our fore Fathers (and Mothers) were constantly bathing! What a hoot – this column is a prime example of why I LOVE Sean’s daily installments & commentary. Keep it up! – DKJ
jack - July 11, 2021 11:05 pm
The wife and I did 1850 miles when we were approaching 70. I am now 82 and would like to thru hike, but am not sure I can do it, but I just might try next year. You meet some wonderful folk on the AT and learn a lot. I was going to try 100 miles a few weeks ago, but only made it 16 miles.. Gotta lower the pack weight, I we carrying 40+ pounds.
But yes the beauty of it and the solitude beckons.
Enjoyed the read dude.
Ginger Smith - July 11, 2021 11:32 pm
My cousin-in-law is going to Maine right now…today…to finish his LAST segment of the AT in Maine! He has retired and is likely one of the older hikers on the trail. God bless you all!
Sal - July 12, 2021 7:50 pm
Rick - July 14, 2021 4:09 pm
Really enjoyed this. My son, whose trail name is Gone With the Wind, just finished his thru hike of the AT this week. These are his words:
Gonna attempt to answer a common question here: why hike the AT? I’ve been asking people along the way and the most common answer is…because it’s there. In our day to day lives, we too often mistake comfort and security for happiness, which can lead to boredom. Humans find joy in adventure, in the unknown, so going out on a trek like this can be a way to break free from the dull conventions and norms of everyday life. By stripping life down to the most basic necessities, we come to appreciate even the smallest things. For me it’s a matter of when I get to the end of my time on earth, do I want so say with regret: “I’ve lived my life by the mould, always taking the most secure path in order to live a life free of pain and uncertainty”? Or would I rather say with pride: “my life was one big damn adventure! I fought—I won and sometimes resigned. I dared—I succeeded and sometimes failed. I risked—I gained and sometimes lost. I flew—I soared and sometimes fell. I experienced joy and sadness and everything in between, but at least no stone was left unturned”?
Maxine - October 31, 2021 9:34 pm
Rick, your answer makes a lot of sense, appreciate your sense of we only live once on earth so make it count.