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The Appalachian Thru-Hiker

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December 9, 2019

Getting serious: 18 miles of AT thru-hike preparation (without washing your pits with snowballs)

The arrival of the boots I plan on starting the AT thru-hike with, combined with some advice posted to one of my articles by a veteran hiker, turned my weekend plans into some serious thru-hiking prep.  I had recently lost the hiking boots I had been using for three years, and the lack of proper footwear had me wary of steep climbs or even longer hikes in cheap hiking sneakers that could tear my feet to shreds before I even began.  Now the weekend was coming up, I had my boots and I had no excuses left.  It was time to get some real distance in to work out the kinks before Springer Mountain.

Then, I received the following piece of appreciated advice from R.V.R on facebook in response to one of my articles:


“Sleep on the floor not a bed, turn off the heat in your house, why waste water flushing your toilet, fetch your water daily, wash your pits with snowballs lol …. on day hikes I carry gallons of water with some weight. I hiked across the US carrying 70lb pack. I know of people who hiked without a pack.”


I took the advice to heart, not only because he was from Jersey (I was born in Denville), but because it just made plain sense and I had already started to head in a similar direction.  I can’t say I did everything on the list verbatim, as you will see, but it definitely inspired much of what I did do.

icicles on cliffOn Friday morning, I turned off the heat.  Even in chilly upstate New York, this didn’t suddenly cause my temperature to drop to 30 degrees, but it was certainly a noticeable difference.  Eventually I was forced into some warmer clothes, and decided on the first layer or two of what I hoped to be hiking in that day.  For meals, I had already begun eating primarily trail food, and so my meals consisted of things like Ramen Noodles and instant mashed potatoes.  Still, I had a lot of work to get done, and by the time I was free just after 3 in the afternoon, the weather forecast was not looking good.  It was 22 degrees, but that didn’t bother me as much as the snowstorm that was just beginning.  I looked longingly at the highs of 45 – 50 we would be seeing in just a few days, but there’s no “time-outs” on the Appalachian Trail, so off I went.

In addition to the new boots, I also filled up my Jansport external frame pack with full gear, a few days worth of food, and some extra weight for good measure.  By the time I had filled the pack, it weighed 32 pounds, a weight I felt was closer (or hopefully even heavier) than I would be carrying on the AT.

I parked my car at Canal Place in Little Falls, NY, a small shopping district of antique and secondhand shops, restaurants, and an art gallery, which also happened to sit on the edge of a route that would take me to the Erie Canalway Trail.  Amid strange looks from the few people out and about in the cold, I donned my backpack, turned on an audiobook (A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, after many recommendations), and started off with a goal of 8 miles.  I kept a headlamp handy, because I knew the late start would have me heading back to the car in the dark.

Moss Island Little Falls, NYI walked roughly a mile before passing by Moss Island, and decided to at least hike to the top, walk around a bit, and hike back down before continuing on.  Today’s hike would be relatively flat, and I wanted to get in at least some steep climbing in with the new boots.  The boots served me well, going both up and down, but it did highlight the urgency one of the purchases I had yet to make: a trekking pole.  Visions of toppling down some of the steep rock and breaking something ran through my head.  When I reached the top, despite only a mild snow, the wind was bitter and harsh. The real temperature — 22* — suddenly felt subzero.  This was good, I thought, this is what it’s like when you’re at the highest elevation in a given area.  And I was about to find myself in just such a place a few hundred (or thousand?) times on the AT.

After I reached the bottom of Moss Island, I crossed over the Lock, water rushing below my feet, and made my way to the Erie Canalway Trail.  For the most part, the trail was rather boring, and it was hard to tell one section from the next.  Every once in a while I would look behind me, perhaps curious if anyone else was on the trail, and it looked exactly the same as the path in front of me.  Long, relatively straight, an covered in a couple inches of snow.

Historic Herkimer Home General HerkimerI did pass by Herkimer Home, an historic site I previously mentioned I had hoped to see on my next prep hike.  The brick home looked pretty nice for something constructed in 1764, and there was a monument as well, but I was eager to get back to hiking.  It was getting dark, and I was still heading away from my car, not toward it.  I snapped a few photographs and moved on.

In terms of my diabetes and insulin monitoring, I learned an important lesson: I need essentially zero insulin when I’m hiking.  Not just when I’m hiking, but even on days where I have hiked or plan on hiking.  I quickly used one of my emergency carbohydrate gels, and for about a half hour I was inhaling snickers bars and pop tarts like it was my last meal.

Lockport Cares Lockport, NYOne of the most interesting things I came across during my hike was a note left on a bulletin board along the trail (pictured here), announcing two ladies who were hiking from Lockport, NY to Albany, NY to raise money for Lockport Cares Homeless Shelter.  I am not sure how long the note has been there, but I figured the least I could do was link to their website.  I hope they made it all the way there in good spirits (this point of the trail was probably at least 60 0r 70 shy of Albany).

Once my GPS told me I was about 4 miles from my starting point, I turned around and started heading back.  It was getting dark, and the snow was coming down harder, but I felt fine.  I wasn’t warm, but I wasn’t cold.  It was a pleasant walk.  My feet also seemed to be holding up into the new boots, but I idly wondered if they were simply frozen.  I pulled out my headlamp, but found the lights of nearby Little Falls more than sufficient to guide my way.  In the wilderness I was not.  I did learn another lesson shortly after turning around though: the mouthpiece to my water bag had frozen.  At first I thought I had just run out of water, but sure enough, enough water had accumulated in the mouthpiece to keep it frozen shut.  This is what prep hikes were for.  I would not make the same mistake twice.

Erie Canal at NightI was about a mile or so back down the trail when I was suddenly started by a younger guy walking with two dogs (named after two alcoholic beverages I can’t recall).  I had rarely seen anyone on the trail, especially in the snow, especially an hour after sunset.  Still, it was pleasant to walk with someone for a bit of the trail, talk about my AT thru-hike, and when we parted ways he reached into his knapsack to give me “something for my journey.”  I nervously waited, half-expecting his hand to emerge with an ounce of weed or something, but instead he pulled out a handful of quartz and other crystals (perhaps Herkimer diamonds?)  I lent some light to the situation and he handed me one of the gems, and I decided I now had my pebble to carry through the AT (a tradition of many AT thru-hikers).

File_005I finally reached my car, heaved my pack into my trunk with a grunt, and headed home to my 59* apartment.  Now it was time to assess.  There was no question that my legs were sore.  It had been a while since I had walked 8 miles (my norm had been 4-5), and it had been years since I had done so with a 32 pound pack on my back.  Surprisingly, my neck, shoulders and back felt great, in contrast to the hike I took a week or so ago with a standard knapsack.  The belt and chest straps were certainly doing their job.  The last test: to see how my feet held up.  It was easy to see after I removed my boots that my pinky toes had taken a beating.  I chalked this up to needing a careful nail trim — it seemed the sides of my nails were rubbing against nearby toes and causing cuts.  Besides that, they felt great.  No blisters.  I did have one particularly sore muscle on my right thigh, but how could I not?  I decided to take just one advil to relieve some of the soreness; I would save the higher doses for far worse days and far worse pain.

Surprisingly, I still had energy in me to work for several more hours (albeit in a lazy boy with my laptop), and I decided that hiking 8 miles meant nothing unless I could wake up the next morning and do it all over again.  So that’s exactly what I did.  Despite my freezing apartment, I slept longer and deeper than I have in months.  I woke up, did about an hour of work, ate, and hit the trail again (washing up with only water and soap; there are no showers on the trail).  This time the goal would be ten miles.

Ten miles.  It sounded so easy after yesterday’s eight mile stroll, but today I was starting out sore.  I skipped the Moss Island climb, decided I should focus on distance now, and work more on altitude once I broke in the boots and secured a trekking pole.  This time I parked directly next to the Canalway Trail and headed off, determined to walk five miles down, essentially forcing me to complete the full ten if I wanted to make it back to my car.

Today I had learned from some of yesterday’s mistakes.  I took zero insulin, which caused me to eat a bit less, but my blood glucose levels remained stable.  I still used my built-in water pocket, but I also packed a bottle of water deep in my pack to avoid freezing.  This turned out to be a non-issue this day, however, as temperatures started to break past 35.

Herkimer Monument at Herkimer HomeThe first 3 miles were uneventful, but my legs remained strong, and I sort of tuned out.  I passed the only major landmark along the trail without even noticing.  It was just more and more snow-covered trail.  Surprisingly, once again I bumped into a fellow hiker.  He was an older gentlemen hiking with just a trekking pole, and we spent a good two miles talking about how he always wanted to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, famous hikers, hiking books, and various types of hiking equipment.

I found this, like the previous day, to be a good mix of solitude and social hiking.  Through most of the hikes I found myself completely alone, lost in my own thoughts, but when occasionally another hiker caught up to me it was also nice to chat for a mile or two.  I will admit to more than a bit of social anxiety, which I’ll talk about in more depth soon in the agoraphobia section, but bumping into fellow hikers on the trail is very non-threatening, and rarely causes me much trouble.  In any case, he hit his turnaround point a bit before mine, and we parted ways.  And then it hit me…

The talking was more than just some distraction from the rather boring trail I had chosen — it had been distracting me from the incredible heaviness building in my legs.  Each step felt like my feet were soaked in concrete, and as I made it to my five-mile turnaround point, even going a tiny bity farther to reach one of the many informational signs, I wondered how I was ever going to get back to my car.

File_002I began walking, trudging rather, trying to remember if there was any type of bench coming up.  I know I had passed one or two along the five miles, but I wasn’t sure where.  It would be a long time before I would find one, and wearing denim outerwear because my gear shopping list was far from checked off, I decided I really didn’t want to plop down on the snowy ground.  So I walked, and I walked.  I listened to Bill Bryson describe how the National Forests built more roads than an other single government entity in the nation.  And I walked some more.

I wasn’t in pain so much as stiff.  My legs were heavy, and each step felt like I was wearing ski boots.  Still, I didn’t feel tired, I wasn’t hungry or thirsty, and I kept going, allowing my feet to do what they were meant to do: right, left, right, left.  I wondered uneasily how this would go if I was navigating a steep climb.

Eventually, with great gratitude, I recognized the signs that I was nearing my exit off the trail, where my car would be waiting.  Ten miles (Eighteen within roughly 24 hours) done.  Pack heaved into trunk.  Happy to arrive at freezing apartment.  Today, I would not be so spry, and I slumped down in my recliner without taking so much as my boots off.  I was feeling rough.  It appeared that my feet had done better today, with most of the soreness leftover from the previous evening’s hike, but unlike day one my neck, shoulders and back were afire.  Maybe I had tightened my pack straps in a slightly different way, or maybe this was just the way it was.

Today called for two advil, dinner was honey-roasted peanuts and Snickers bars because I was too exhausted to cook dehydrated rice or ramen noodles, and unlike the previous night, where I had worked into late hours of the night, I was in bed by eight o’clock, my warm blanket and sheets feeling great in the cold apartment (I would have taken R.V.R.’s advice to sleep on the floor, if my cluttered “work from home” apartment made this a possibility).  As I fell asleep, I wondered if I would be capable of hiking even another ten meters again, let alone ten miles.

Unlikely Hiker Kevin McCourtUpon waking up the next morning, today, Sunday, I started to feel more positive about things.  I was still incredibly sore, but I made a pot of coffee, did some yoga stretches, and within an hour or so I was feeling pretty spry once again.  I awoke early, having gone to sleep at eight, and took care of some schoolwork and other things that needed doing, but now all I can think about is keeping up the momentum.  I expect this is how it is for many people attempting to thru-hike the AT: reaching points where it seems like their legs will never move again, or they will never feel warmth again, only to have things get better if they just keep trudging on, hoping things look differently tomorrow.  I wonder how many people ditch the trail and head home when they’re just short of such positive moments?  Hopefully today, and every day it’s possible, I’ll get at least five miles in.  On the days when I have more time, like yesterday, I hope to extend that ten miles to 15 or even longer over the next six weeks of prep.  Will the heat go back on?  Probably.  I’m not on the AT yet, and I’ve got papers to write and packages to ship.  But it’s undoubtedly a great way to prepare.

So if you ever hike in the Mohawk Valley and see a tired, half-dead looking man with an Irish winter hat and huge pack strapped to his back struggling along with every step, don’t worry.  I’m just getting started, and nothing will stop me until I’m ready to hop up that first leg of Mount Springer like it was a stroll to the corner deli.  For now, I need to get some work done so I can get right back out there. 😉


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