ONE HIKES THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL ONE STEP AT A TIME

By Mark A. Neikirk

 

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Hiking is a math problem, solved by forward progress.

Never mind how the cool, crisp mountain air cleanses lungs and souls.

Never mind the tunnels of mountain laurel enveloping a trail that has just left a forest of aromatic pines to descend through a magical stretch of tangled limbs and leaves.

Never mind the tiny spring, tumbling over a stone, then redirected by the stone below to tumble over another and into a pool. The whole thing gurgles. Music. Rhythm and no blues.

Never mind the rustle of a gray squirrel dashing off with an acorn to its doomsday locker stocked for Armageddon. Or least for a long winter.

All of it is beautiful. Compelling. Alluring. Addictive even. But listen to me, ye wanderers of the woods. Hiking is not accomplished by lollygagging and thinking about Muir or Thoreau or Whitman…

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars,
And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren,

And the tree-toad is a chef-d'oeuvre for the highest,
And the running blackberry would adorn the parlours of heaven…

Thank you, Walt, but start walking. You won’t get there writing verse.

This is especially true on long trails that connect multiple states. I’ve been on several of these, including Kentucky’s own Sheltowee Trace, which is 290 miles long, reaching into northern Tennessee and then across an eastern swath of the commonwealth and including the mountains and meadows that Daniel Boone knew intimately and, importantly, that his predecessors on this land – the men, women and children of what might best be thought of as the continent’s native nation – knew, too.

I’ve also been on two John Muir Trails, one in California and one is Tennessee, the Pacific Crest Trail, the Grand Tetons Trail, and two of these kinds of trails that are still being developed, the Sea to Summit Trail, which I’ve hiked in North Carolina, and the Pine Mountain Trail, which wends along the ridgetops of the Kentucky-Virginia border.

The granddaddy of these kinds of trails is the beloved, “AT” – the Appalachian Trail, extending 2,180 miles from Georgia to Maine and passing through North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland,  Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire along the way. It was our destination for this trip, as we picked up where we left off after the spring trip and hiked an additional 24 miles over four days, arriving on Friday, Oct. 7, 2022, and departing Monday, Oct. 10. We averaged six miles per day. Or, in modern terms, about 15,000 smart watch steps.

When we were here in spring, we were perfectly situated to meet through-hikers just starting, although by “just” remember that they already were approaching 400 miles on the trial. Those spring hikers had started in Georgia and were hiking north. This trip, our timing and positioning put us in the company of hikers who started in Maine and were hiking south. When we passed them asked, “Where are you headed?” their answer was, “Georgia.” Sometimes, that was delivered cheerfully by hikers like Goose and Gander, a young, married couple plainly enjoying their time together. Other times, it was delivered curtly, as if you were passing a marathon runner. These hikers seemed to be intent on getting to Georgia today.

All of these hikers were, to us, to be admired. To carve out five to seven months of your life to walk this trail, often alone, is an achievement. It also is math. Mile plus mile plus mile.

Each time we passed a through hiker, we found ourselves talking among ourselves about whether any of us would ever hike the whole AT or for that matter, possess any desire to do so. “Not me,” John Curtin replied, exhibiting no second thoughts. Still, we started calculating the possibilities. Suppose we section hiked – that is, as many AT hikers do, walked a section one weekend and then another and another and another. At six miles a day and four-day weekends, we’d need 91 weekends and since we already have, we think, four such weekends under our belt over the past decade, we have only 87 weekends to go. Since our average age right now is 63, we could – if we did two four-day weekends a year, which is our current schedule – finish by just after our 128th birthdays.

Which raises another point. I’d like to amend my opening sentence thusly: Hiking is a math problem, solved by forward progress but also by time, grit, and the gift of good health.

Good health is never a given, and frighteningly, it is less of a given with each passing year. Knock on wood. Indeed, we maybe should name this particular hike the “Man Down Hike.” COVID, a truly awful bout of bronchitis, and a three-day encounter with vertigo combined to reduce our numbers this trip. A fall that busted open a forehead in a river of blood nearly reduced them further.

John Hennessey was packed and standing in the driveway at 7 a.m., ready to get in the vehicle and go when his COVID test read positive. In disbelief, he tested himself again. Positive again. In Nashville, Eric Krosnes had already been to the doctor and diagnosed with bronchitis, which only confirmed what his misery had already told him. John Curtin and I talked to both on speaker phone as we drove from Northern Kentucky to Tennessee. Both were coughing like they’d just smoked a pack of Camel unfiltereds.

Vertigo sidelined Bill Ankenbauer on the first night, along with his guardian, his brother Jim. They stayed at the first night’s campsite a second night and day, waiting for Bill’s head to stop spinning. You really cannot walk to 4,800 feet when your brain is on a merry-go-round and your dinner is leaving your body by the same route it entered. One needs one’s rest.

Out of nine expected hikers, we were now down to five and falling fast. And I do mean falling. Mark Talbert slipped on the trail, fell and banged his forehead. The injury was dangerously close to being far worse than it was. Irrigation, Dr. Bonner’s soap, Neosporin, gauze and a bandana kept him on the trail, with this admonition from Bob Pauly, who is a former emergency room nurse, “We are going to clean that and change the bandage twice more before we leave, and when you get out, head to the first clinic. You have three days to get stitches, and you are going to need at least ten.”

On Monday, when we got back to our cars, everyone Googled “cheeseburgers near me.” Mark Googled “walk-in clinics near me.”

After all of years of doing this – selecting a trail, loading backpacks, driving to a trailhead, walking from this point to the next – we find ourselves never taking it for granted. How much longer can we do this? When will we have to retire our boots and buy an RV or a pickleball paddle?

Our oldest member, the aforementioned John Curtin, is over 70 now and on the last day, with about seven miles downhill on the day’s agenda, he finished weary from it. “I was good for the first few miles,” he said, “but those last couple got me.” He is not out of shape. He lost considerable weight a couple of years ago and had kept it off. He bikes. He’s conscious of what he eats and drinks. Time, that relentless master, could give a damn. For us, though, John is a beacon. So long as he is still doing it, we can, too.

On our way home, one among us received a phone call from his son. I will not say which of us out of respect for his privacy and the great sadness of that call. The son’s father-in-law had just been diagnosed with cancer. It was a particularly dire variety, and the news was so new that a treatment plan was not yet known.

Take nothing for granted. Each day is a grace. A gift.

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We started hiking around 2 p.m. on Friday under a cloudless sky with temperatures in probably the 70s. Perfect weather.

The trailhead was on U.S. Highway 19E on the edge Roan Mountain, Tenn., population 1,064. A little road off 19E led to trail. The road was uphill, as was the trail as it alternated through woods and meadows, passing alongside a family cemetery and then up, up, up from about 3,000 feet to just under four. In time, the trail peaked, then declined for perhaps three miles toward the Elk River.

You first see the river, at least at this time of year, through the tall trees with their leaves thinned by the onset of fall. It glistens in the afternoon sun, looking a little like pavement and someone asked, “What is that? A road?” And then you see the riffles and then you hear the running water. The trail, flattens out to follow the river, and soon enough a campsite is present.

A ribbon of colors lined the Elk River, which itself is tanic from its bed of stones but its surface caught the day’s last light and the trees’ reflection. The trail splits the river’s bank from the campsite and behind the campsite are the mountains rising under their canopy of hardwoods and pines. All around the tent sites, a buffer of tall grasses and thorns grew. There was nothing dramatic about this campsite, but it was peaceful and perfect. We set up tents, gathered wood, built a fire, prepared our dinners, and set about catching up with one another.

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Bob Pauly, Bill Ankenbauer and John Hennessey, stalwarts of our hiking group, attended Covington Catholic High School in Park Hills, Ky., and graduated in 1972. A few weeks earlier, at their 50th class reunion, they reconnected with Mark Talbert, a classmate whose education and marriage had taken him to the deep south, where he studied in agronomy and animal husbandry. Now retired from the South Carolina county extension service, he designs and installs residential landscaping in prosperous Greenville, S.C. His time away from Northern Kentucky had given his voice the melody of southern accent and added darn tootin’ to his vocabulary.

It is remarkable, is it not, that a bunch of guys who knew one another 50 years ago in high school would be together all these years later on the AT, boiling water for Mountain House freeze-dried dinners? Though to his credit, I do not believe Mark Talbert ever prepared a freeze-dried dinner. One night he grilled Italian sausages on a stick. He also was seen eating fresh bread.

His pack weighed more than ours, of course, but you might reasonably assume that it also lost more weight with each passing day than any of ours – with the possibly exception of Brandon Zembrodt’s. As our youngest companion, at 44, he is also our heartiest eater. His truly massive pack is a pantry, fully stocked. Brandon is a man of Hemingway proportions, barrel-chested and well bellied. His pack, which surely would have looked ridiculously large on me, looked no more out of place on his back than a trailer looks out of place behind a semi. Both are built to carry.

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Saturday morning, we had a plan: Leave by 10 a.m., hike to Laurel Fork, a little river six miles or so away. We would climb a bit, then descend. All in all, a fairly easy day.

Bill Ankenbauer was the last up, and when he did get up it was clear something was amiss. Mostly, he sat in his camp chair – holding his head and looking as though he wished for nothing more than to crawl back in the tent and rest. Around 10, Jim said he and Bill were staying behind. If Bill felt better is a couple of hours, they would try and catch up. So off we went, expecting to see them later. We would not see them again until Monday afternoon when we arrived at Bob’s Dairyland in Roan Mountain, our agreed upon rendezvous spot for packing up to go up. Bill had regained enough balance on Sunday to hike three miles, retracing the way in, and then, with Jim making sure he took no missteps, the rest of the way out on Monday morning.

It was than kind of trip. The Man Down Trip.

Nine of us planned to go, and that’s not counting Mark McGinnis, who rarely missed a trip. He came to both planning meetings where we selected the route and then refined it, even though he already knew he could not leave work on the appointed weekend. Five us made the actual hike, 24 miles from Roan Mountain to Dennis Cove − and one of the five almost didn’t.

Shall I say it again? Each day is a grace.

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You cannot hike the AT without meeting interesting people. Even the day hikers have stories. In fact, even the non-hikers did. On Sunday morning, the trail crossed over a little mountain road. Coming to it, you could smell spray paint. A family had come here to stack some rocks and paint them black as a memorial to the woman’s 79-year-old father, who was killed here recently in a car wreck. They had placed two empty Bud Light cans among the wrongs, and the woman was now bent over with the paint, paying close attention to the task at hand. I assume she would be writing something on the rocks, but we left them to the privacy they deserved for this sad moment.

At the next road crossing, a group from Laurel, Miss., was plopped down to rest. Perhaps they were a church group, we speculated, as they were not a family per se but they were of various ages and, universally, pleasant and conversant. Two of the men, who were older than the others, wore Scottish kilts and wool caps. There was an obvious ease to this assembly, like what you encounter at a potluck picnic after the Sunday service.

Laurel, they told us, is where the HGTV show “Home Town” is filmed, starring an unerringly pleasant couple, Ben and Erin Napier, he a bear of a man – sort of Brandon-like – and she lithe and blonde and self-assured. They help people find old homes in Laurel and give them a makeover. “We know Ben,” one of the hikers told us. He and one other man were wearing kilts. “He’s really nice. Just like what you see on TV. Erin’s nice, too.”

I’ve watched enough of “Home Town” to wonder if Ben and Erin have the whole town renovated yet. No, our friends old us. Long way to go. They did not portray Laurel as postcard perfect. Whatever state the towns’ housing stock might be in, not to mention its commerce and industry, its citizens seem to be exceptional people.

We moved on, headed for the Moreland Gap Shelter for the night. We would pass more hikers, including a young couple sweet as springtime, the fact that it was fall notwithstanding. “Through hiking?” I asked. “No,” the husband replied, and pointed discreetly to the bump in his wife’s flannel shirt and she smiled. It would not do to through hike with a little one coming.

Two men in their early sixties – our tribe – were stopped at a trail junction. They had hiked from Damascus, Va., which I understood them to say was about 50 miles north. They were going another 20 or so miles before a lady friend, who had taken them to Damascus, would pick them up in Roan Mountain. At least one of them already had section hiked the whole AT, and he told us we could, too. We laughed and told him perhaps we would have done so had we started 30 or 40 years earlier.

As this trip was being planned, Bob and I discussed the possibility that we might, for the next few trips, hike the AT and just see how much of it we cover. Some of us are retired now, and others close to it. We could, conceivably, hike a month at a time for five years and cover the rest of the trail, if we were sufficiently aggressive.

It is daunting to think of doing that, including the logistics of getting, for example, to the start of a trail in Vermont and then picked up in, where, New Hampshire? We would need that lady friend.

These small encounters with other hikers were perhaps the most distinguishing features of this trail, which was in no way spectacular. It was pretty, and also extraordinarily well-maintained with rocks across the muddy places and ingenious foot bridges over its little streams. We passed an old log cabin or barn. One waterfall, Jones Falls, plunged dramatically over a tall wall of stone, Yosemite-like. The fall colors, peeping when we came on Friday, were starting to rage magnificently by Monday morning. “We could have skipped this section,” Bob Pauly said at one point, meaning the whole 24 miles. There wasn’t much to see. Maybe a hike is about more than what you see. Maybe.

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The Moreland Gap Shelter was built in 1960 of cinderblock. It has a tin roof and a sleeping shelf, where AT hikers can bed down. Like other AT shelters, it has chandeliers of parachord hanging from the rafters, each laced through an empty Skoal can and with a four-inch stick knotted into the end to make a “T” – albeit upside down “T.” The ropes are for hanging food bags at night. The Skoal can keeps the mice from climbing down the rope to munch. The stick lets you loop our bag’s drawstring overtop, securing it until breakfast.

The shelter, and the one before it, also had a little joke that we appreciated. It was a sticker of a wall outlet. Modern life has made us hyper-dependent on our smart phones, so finding a place to plug in a charger summons a surge of adrenalin, which dissipates upon discovering the outlet is not real. I think it is a message: Unplug.

We had the shelter to ourselves this evening – Sunday night. We elected to pitch our tents on the perimeter of shelter rather than sleep in it. A small fire pit and a picnic table were just outside the shelter, and we made use of those for dinner.

Most everyone was eating freeze-dried meals. I had done so the night before and it was, predictably, terrible. The rice tasted plastic and mimicked the texture of sand. The chicken accomplished something few meats can: It didn’t taste like chicken. For this last evening, however, I had saved my best dinner: pearl couscous with a bouillon cube, pepper, some crumpled dried seaweed and a foil packet of chicken – all of it cheaper, lighter, and better tasting than freeze-dried anything. Bob Pauly, whose trail name is Mooch because he does, got his spoon. “I took two bites. Two,” he told me, which is as close to a compliment as Bob comes. I believe Mark Talbert grilled a couple more sausages and added them along with crushed peppers to ramen noodles, then accompanied the concoction with a sliced bagel smothered in olive oil and grilled over the open fire. Likely the best meal of the evening if not the trip.

After dinner, there was fire maintenance (add a stick, move a stick, saw a log, add a log, move a log, blow on the coals – a fire requires constant attention) and conversation, which, frankly, can be difficult if it moves too far past sports. Consider this question: How do faith and science intersect? Is there room for both? We left the resolution of that one on the table for a future trip.

That night, zipped into my mummy bag (must they call it that – I already have anxieties about death), I contemplated the question on my own. Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” And The Band, “All La Glory,” verse two, “Cause to her it’s just a fantasy/And to me it’s all a mystery/All la glory, I’m second story / Feel so tall like a prison wall.”

We’ll let it go at that. I dozed off, conflict unresolved.

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Come morning, Monday, I got up. Mark Talbert was already up and had started a small fire from the night’s remaining hot coals. Knowing we would need to put it out before leaving in a couple of hours, I took a two-gallon plastic bag and headed to the water sources. AT shelters are near a water source, though the quality varies. Here, it was a spring emerging through a PVC pipe tucked into a hillside about a quarter of a mile downhill from the campsite. Water trickled out into a puddle below where a filter’s hose could be submerged for pumping. Since I was only getting water for the fire, it didn’t need to be purified. I put the bag under the pipe and waited for it to fill, bent over to keep the bag in place.

The morning was cool, not cold, but I put on my down sweater jacket for the walk, it’s black as were my running tights – which I sleep in for warmth and still had on – and also my skull cap.

Brandon got up a little after me, loaded up with water bottles and his water filter, and headed down to the water source, too, unaware that I was there. Keep in mind, it was modestly foggy out. He saw a figure, all black, that was either a human leaning over or small bear. He paused to bring me into focus and called out, using my trail name, “Captain, is that you?”

A hike is often composed of such uneventful moments. Little things that add up not such much to a narrative but to a mood. That it might have been a bear makes the trail different enough from everyday life to make it interesting. That it wasn’t a bear – well, that was good.

As I write this, I do so on a day that I talked with Eric and a few days after we came home. He sounds better. The bronchitis is subsiding. Bill’s vertigo lingers but isn’t incapacitating now. John Hennessey’s COVID had run its course and he was back to work with a mask and the confirmation of a negative test. His backpack is still packed and he’s still mad at the fellow in China who ate a bat in the wet market. Or the lab that let the test virus get out.

Mark Talbert made it to an urgent care, where the doc said he was too late for stitches. The wound was already healing. Next day at home, his family physician put three stiches into a section where the skin had not yet started to mend. He did suggest we might have used Mark’s Wild Turkey 101 as an antiseptic, a sacrilege he might not grasp not being from Kentucky.

In any case, we made it. No bears, real or metaphorical. But like Brandon walking to the water, there was enough to give us pause. Next time, it might be a bear.

At the trail’s end, we caught a shuttle back to our cars at Bob’s Dairyland with a woman who runs a little camp with cabins and bunks, catering to through hikers. What is it like to meet them, we asked on the way home. They all have a story, she said. Many are broken people. Death. Divorce. Lost jobs. Lost faith. They come to the trail to heal. With less to heal, we came for the same reason – but, at least for now, don’t need 2,180 miles of healing. Twenty-four did the trick.