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The Appalachian Thru-Hiker

Intelligent news and entertainment for lovers of the simple life.

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September 20, 2019

Luigi Mengato

You can plan everything, or you can plan for everything


I love mornings. Some of my favorite things occur during the early hours of the day, such as sunsets, peace and quiet, and that slight fog in between sleep and full wakefulness where most of my most inspiring ideas emerge. The whole day is still full of promise and there is the potential for anything to happen.

This morning, however, I have been staring at my laptop for half an hour and simply drawing a blank. I am at a loss of words, which does not happen often. My thru-hike was inspired by a need to slow down the pace of life, but the truth is a lot of work goes into dropping out of the “real world” for six months and scaling down your earthly possessions (at least temporarily) to a 20-30 pound pack. This work is a small sacrifice to make for six months of simplicity, but if you have a lot of responsibilities to attend to before you leave, it is work.

For me this has involved scaling down my business and handing over the reins to someone else for the first time, finishing up my degree in psychology (Finished last week!), handling corporate taxes so government accountants in suits don’t don backpacks and follow me up the trail, managing the logistics of getting insulin and other medical supplies between Georgia and Maine, and continually testing and fine-tuning the equipment I will take along. I’ve been on the road since leaving upstate New York in late February while all of this has been going on, living out of a tiny two-door hatchback I bought when my truck died over the winter (certainly didn’t plan that).

I am tired.

I am also slowly remembering something I have learned over 34 years of perpetual motion: You can make all the plans you want, but things rarely go how you expect them to, especially in large undertakings. Cars start making bad sounds at exactly the wrong time, unexpected expenses come up putting that cool new ultralight gear out of your financial reach, time runs short and you can’t do everything you hoped before you begin your journey. This can become a source of stress or a source of excitement, and which of these two feelings wins out depends entirely on perspective.

Despite some road fatigue, I’m downright invigorated.

Most of my plot twists in unexpected directions have resulted in unexpected delights. I didn’t get to do as much hiking as I had hoped on my way south, but I did get to spend a lot of time at the Delaware Shore, waking up to gorgeous sunrises over the water, making daily visits with my grandmother, catching up with family and seeing some other great people I haven’t gotten to see much since I briefly lived in Delaware five or six years ago. I also got to make a quick side-trip to DC, fatten up a bit at great restaurants (I’m trying to put on a few extra pounds to burn on the trail), and make a long overdue visit to one of my oldest and best friends (who helped Mission: Fatten Kevin Up by taking me to breakfast at one of the coolest brunch places I’ve ever been to (Founding Farmer’s). This was followed by a nice big steak served right on the cutting board in a cool new Italian place courtesy of my father, so the extra padding is slowly coming along.

Now that I’ve made it out of the flatlands of Delaware to North Carolina where there are plenty of mountains to climb for prep hikes, I really don’t really have time for much more than a one-night backpacking trip in Crowder Mountain State Park to do a final equipment test. This works out for the better, too, because it means more time with my mother and 14-year-old brother, and let’s face it: I will have plenty of mountains to climb over the next six months.

So here I am, four hours from the trailhead with five days left til I head to Springer Mountain, and the closer I get the more plans change every day. At the moment I plan on taking Amtrak to Gainesville, GA and taking advantage of the Hiker Hostel’s thru-hiker special, which includes transportation from Gainesville to the hostel, breakfast, a drop-off at Amicalola or Springer Mountain in the morning, and even some denatured alcohol for my first 30-40 miles. Amtrak to Georgia only comes through the Charlotte area once a day, in the middle of the night, so I’ll be getting a pretty early start.

But all my gear is squared away, right? Wrong. Times flies, and my opportunity to have equipment shipped to me in time ended in a blink. This means a trip to REI in Charlotte on Tuesday to exchange a pair of boots and pick up some final gear, as well as a trip to Walmart on Wednesday to pick up my first 4 days’ worth of food, the last of my first-aid supplies, and as much Advil as I can fit in my pack.

There is, I think, such a thing as over-planning. I’m using AWOL’s AT Guide, which is ridiculously detailed (in a good way). I have no doubt you could plan out every single camping spot, every stream or spring to gather filtered water for the day, and every hot shower for the entire trail using this guide. This would be a bad idea for two reasons. One, it doesn’t sound like much fun. Part of the adventure for me is the uncertainty of what’s up ahead, and adhering to pre-planned schedules and stops doesn’t sound very liberating. Second, nothing ever goes exactly according to plan. Shelters and hostels will be overfilled, springs will be dry, some days it will take forever to get 10 miles, while on others you may fly 23 miles up the trail like an 18-year-old. You’ll meet people you may want to hike with for a bit, and you may also meet people that you want to get a day or two ahead of… fast.

I’m not even putting much planning into Trail Days in Damascus that I think I probably want to get to. Most likely I’ll hike thru Damascus before it starts and end up hitching or shuttling backwards, with the added benefit of avoiding the crowds when it’s over. Two stops in Damascus wouldn’t be a bad thing, especially since a gentleman (a term I don’t use for everyone) has offered to hook me up when I’m in town.

For me, planning for this trip means making sure I have the right equipment, knowledge and skills for the trail, with more of the right equipment ready to be swapped out via shipments at a moment’s notice. I am not counting on anything but the gear on my back and enough cash to keep myself healthy and fed. Beyond that, everything else is gravy. Every shelter can be filled to the brim – that’s why I have a tent (or tarp, depending on the weather). Every known spring can run dry, because I know how to find water by watching the birds, reading a map, or a dozen other methods. As a type I diabetic, pharmacies can be important, but I have contingencies for this as well even if every pharmacy along the trail decides to shut down tomorrow.

And that is what makes this trip so exciting.

Both Mark Twain and Thoreau have written about the dangers of having an incompatible travel partner, and I would take this a step further and say that even if you are hiking alone like I am, it’s easy to become your own poor travel partner. Everyone thru-hikes the Appalachian Trail for their own crazy reasons (and a bit of crazy is required), but for most people at least part of the thrill is the sense of freedom and self-sufficiency that goes along with it. Don’t lose that.

More importantly, when sketching out every little detail, you risk being unprepared when the best laid plans go awry. I will be spending my last few days in civilization making sure what I bring will get me through whatever lies ahead and making an effort to be a good hiking partner to myself.

As I stare out the window into the woods, it’s hard not to pick up my pack and start walking the last 200 miles to Springer – I am THAT excited – but I will get there soon enough. For everyone who is getting ready (or already started), maybe I’ll see you out there. For everyone following along in spirit, I’ve got the camera ready for some great photos and videos. And for those who plan on hiking someday, I’ll tell you this: I cannot believe I am pulling this off, but it wouldn’t be happening if I didn’t decide I was going come hell or high water. If it’s your dream to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, or even high up on a long bucket list, pick a date, stick to it, and I promise the rest will start to follow.

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