Thursday, September 13, 2012

How and why I'm hiking the AT

The Appalachian Trail near the summit of Mt. Guyot, Smoky Mountain Nat'l. Park 3/8/2012

When I retired from my 25-year career at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in 2005 I began to consider getting in shape and doing some of the physical things on my bucket list before I got too old to do them.  In my younger years, during the '70's and 80's, I had been an amateur bike racer and also had done a fair amount of hiking and some backpacking where I lived in northern Colorado.  But in the mid 1980's I hurt my knee badly enough that I had to give up the bike.  As it turned out I quit hiking too, though I remained somewhat physically active in other ways. I did a lot of gardening and built two houses with my bare hands without help, one in the foothills of Colorado and one in rural southern Maryland when I moved there to start working for NASA.  But by the time I retired from NASA I was pretty seriously out of shape.  And that was a problem, since topmost on my bucket list was to climb a 20,000 foot mountain in South America. That adventure may be the subject of another post so I won't discuss it except to say that I started whipping myself back into top physical condition and accomplished the mountain climbing goal back in 2009.

When I returned from South America, I began to look for other ways to take advantage of my great physical condition, so as not to let myself slip back into 'couch potato' mode.  I began to hike around my Maryland home.  I developed the 'Personal Continuous Footpath' goal (to travel on foot to every place I've ever lived) and also accomplished a local goal of hiking the entire 81 mile perimeter of public buffer land around Liberty Reservoir in north central Maryland.

I had done almost no hiking on the AT up until then, though I had done a lot of hill climbing using the Catoctin Trail in Maryland as training for my mountain climbing. But the AT was only forty miles from home--a good easy destination for my Personal Continuous Footpath.  So I did the necessary road walk to connect my Liberty Reservoir route with the AT via the Catoctin Trail.  And, of course, once my personal footpath had made contact with the AT, it was inevitable that I would hike more of it.  First came short bits--very casual day hikes--and then longer bits.  Soon I had begun working my way south into Virginia and through Shenandoah Park ... and ... well, I quickly realized that I had 'the bug' and had it bad.  In October of 2011, at age 63 I decided I was going to do a full-blown thru-hike.

Now, being a hard-core non-conformist and independent spirit I was interested in hiking the trail in a way nobody else has done it before. Since I don't particularly like the camping routine (stoves, tents, filtering water, etc.), and didn't want to deal with all the people and varmint issues at shelters (germs, mice, snoring, etc.), I decided to do the entire trail without spending a single night out there - all day-hikes.  This meant I would have to support my hike using my vehicle, a cargo van with a mattress thrown in the back--what I came to call my 'Two Ton Steel Tent'.

With that decision established, I was left with two options: find someone willing to be there to pick me up at a road crossing every day, or self-support using two vehicles and 'leap-frogging' between pick-up points. Now because of my stubborn independence, I wanted to be entirely self-sufficient - not rely on someone else for support (not even any trail magic).  So that left me with the leap-frog option.  Problem: my van didn't have a trailer hitch and I didn't have a second vehicle.  I did have a bicycle and had done a considerable amount of leap-frog hiking during the summer of 2011, but that wasn't an option for doing the entire AT--there were too many places where travel distances and road conditions made bicycling impossible.  So unless I wanted to buy a moped or a second vehicle and trailer hitch it looked like I was left without options.

Well, almost.  There was another option: do the entire trail twice. Doing the whole trail twice in one calendar year without camping on the trail would be a first (Laurie Potteiger and others at the ATC - though they keep no formal records - do not recall anyone else doing what I proposed.  In fact, only five or six people have reported hiking the AT twice in a single calendar year by any method, and the oldest of these was a decade younger than me). The allure of doing something significant--something hard--that nobody else had done intrigued me.  From my previous hiking experience I knew that I was fit enough to try this.  So by November 2011, I had made the big decision:  I would hike 4368.4 miles, pass every white blaze both northbound and southbound, all during the 2012 calendar year.  I would do this all by day hikes, so I would hike a short stretch of trail both ways on the same day, move to an adjacent leg, and repeat until finished.

With the big picture of my adventure now established I now began to consider some details--things I wanted to do along the way.  The first of these was that I would visit and photograph every official AT shelter and to make the side trip to most scenic attractions such as waterfalls and views located within a half mile of the AT on blue-blazed trails.  I would take extensive photographs of these attractions as well as of side trail junctions, road crossings (and associated parking areas) and some notable camp sites, oddities, monuments, trees, wildlife, flowers, footbridges, streams, ponds, and lakes, etc., etc.  In other words, to 'smell the roses', not just to log the miles.  What I decided not to do was visit hiker hostels and trail towns.  Since I planned on sleeping in my van, and since these private hiker-support establishments have no 'official' status as part of the AT the way shelters do, I chose to skip them.  It was probably the right decision, since I was already going to be pressed for time, but in retrospect I wish I had been able to connect with all the wonderful people who bring the trail alive and give it its 'local flavor'.  Maybe next time.

Finally, it was important to me to thoroughly report what I experienced, particularly the nature of the trail, so I established that I would post daily to this blog, include the best of the daily photographs, and also include a complete GPS track to 'prove' that I did what I say I did.

On January 1st I stepped onto the trail and set out on this epic quest.   The rest, as they say, is history ... documented daily for all to read here on this blog and on Trail Journals.

Here are links to some of the highlights of the journey:

And finally ... here's today's report:

Wednesday, September 5, 2012:

 It rained like h-e-double-hockey-sticks last night and up to 10:30 this morning.  Some of the moisture came from the tropical storm remnants that had been milling about the center of the country for the past week.  So while it rained, I spent the morning hours evaluating my 'end game' logistics and plans to get to Katahdin, factoring in the long range weather prognosis and hoping I might get half decent weather to summit the big mountain.

The upshot of all this analysis was that it wasn't worth doing any hiking today - a good day for a 'zero'.  So I had some time to kill.  I shopped some, relaxed a lot, ate a lot, and spent some time on the internet.  One of the things I wanted to do today was to explain myself and why I'm hiking the particular kind of unique AT hike that I've chosen to do.  Interestingly, the AT was never on my 'bucket list' and I certainly had no desire to hike the trail twice in one year, but doing it twice was a good solution to doing it 'my way' - that is, of 'hiking my own hike'.  The full explanation appears above.


  1. I'm not much of a Sci-Fi fan, so mark me down for one signed copy of Home Every Night!

  2. I'm a sci-fi fan AND a trail story fan. I don't know which one I want you to finish first! Maybe the one you could finish sooner?