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The Appalachian Thru-Hiker

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November 17, 2019

Going with the flow on and off the AT


I have been setting odds and taking bets in my head as to which piece of gear in my pack might take the wear and tear of the AT all the way to Katahdin, and until a few days ago my money was on the comparatively inexpensive Sawyer water filter.

Until a few days ago… That’s when, squeezing what felt like the millionth liter through for fresh drinking water, the top popped right off under the pressure. This is nothing against the Sawyer filter (although the bags are another story). To have such an essential piece of gear at such a low cost and weight last so long is impressive. But it did leave me with a dilemma.

Water is sort of important.

So, reaching the highway crossing to Bennington, Vermont late yesterday afternoon, I made an unscheduled trip into town. Bennington is a good five miles off the AT, but there is no outfitter in town. Luckily my trusty trail guide and Google Maps showed me there was a Walmart on the edge of town, and since all Walmarts are more or less identical, I knew they would have Sawyer water filters.

They would also have the fuel I had been unable to find in the previous two towns I passed. That had also run out, but was critical only in the sense that I really like my coffee in the morning. Coffee aside, I had planned on skipping Bennington and trying to make it to Manchester Center.

As I approached the road I still wasn’t sure how to go about getting almost 8 miles off trail and back less than 4 hours before sunset. I was finally back up to pace after the spike in humidity, and I didn’t want to lose momentum.

Even if I got a ride into town, Walmart was another 2 1/2 miles farther down a different highway. It was also getting late — I expected to reach the highway crossing at 4 or 5, leaving only a few hours of daylight left. The fastest way seemed to be to take a taxi straight there and back so I could get right back on the trail, but that was going to cost lots of pop tarts– er– dollars.

I finally opted for a motel that could get me in and out of town, removing the worry over daylight and getting me an hour’s walk away from Walmart — a walk without a pack. Once I got there, I bumped into a hiker I had been seeing a lot for the past week who told me there was a bus that went there for fifty cents — perfect!

For a while. But once I fired up the wifi and checked out the bus schedule, I saw that it began running at 11 a.m. That was not going to get me back to the trail very quickly, so I decided I would just get up early enough to get there and back before checkout and be on my way.

Just in case, I checked some of the small stores in town to see if they had filters, but came back with nothing but a half dozen hot dogs to nuke in the microwave (This is more of a treat than it sounds like!)

I slept horribly that night, and in the morning learned why when I checked my blood glucose to find a dangerously high number. I am not sure what caused this, although bread is not frequently in my diet on the trail and metabolizes slowly, so I suspect it was the hot dog buns.

In any case, I was not going to try to correct such a scary number hiking through an unknown town for five miles, so I spent the morning checking my blood sugar every half hour and getting as much other stuff done as I could. I got myself stabilized by checkout time, and it looked like I would get to take the bus after all.

Bennington was a hard sort of town to peg… It felt half touristy, half college town. It even had the feel of a bigger city than most trail towns with lots of interesting shops that made me wish I had more time. I found the bus station easily enough and the first one to show up was my line. I checked and rechecked that the bus was going to Walmart, calming my fears of me and my pack ending up in New Hampshire.

Then I got to Walmart.

Or something that looked like a Walmart. When I walked in, I stood corrected in thinking all Walmarts were more or less the same. This one was less: 95% of the huge store was taped off with the shelves empty. The few aisles that were open were a smorgasbord of all the stuff no one wanted to buy.

Knowing it was fruitless, after wandering the aisles for a bit I went to customer service and asked if they had a sporting goods section.

“What you see is what you get.”

“Are you closing?” I asked. This wasn’t going to help me, but I was still confused.

“We’re moving to a new building across the street.”

I idly wondered if there was a tidy shelf full of water filters in a locked building across the street.

I wandered through all of the aisles again, this time looking for anything helpful: water purification tablets, a water bottle with a built-in filter… Even the fuel canister I needed would be helpful because at least then I could boil water to purify it. (And then make coffee, of course).

Eventually I gave up and headed out of the store. I had remembered seeing a Home Depot along the bus ride, but I wasn’t going to ride all the way there to find nothing. I checked their website for in-store availability and found nothing but whole-home filtration systems.

It was getting late, and I didn’t have that many more bus rides left in me. I would need to catch the bus back to the trail since I had missed my chance to get a ride from the motel to go on the great water filter hunt. It was time to get creative, so I headed to another grocery store right next door.

Always the optimist, I first checked if they had exactly what I needed. I wasn’t hopeful, and so wasn’t disappointed when they had nothing. During my next lap around the store I picked up the smallest bottle of Clorox bleach I could find, a dropper bottle of saline solution, and a pack of sterno cans.

It’s a crude method, but two drops of bleach in a liter of water will disinfect it. No mortal can pour two drops, and they didn’t sell any type of dropper, hence the saline solution dropper bottle that I would just empty. I knew the sterno cans probably wouldn’t cook a rice dinner, but they would serve an even more important function: COFFEE!

Feeling tired but satisfied that I had not only my necessity, but even my luxury, I headed back to the Walmart to wait for the bus. I set my pack down next to a bench, got a Diet Pepsi from the soda machine and sat down. In no time there were a few bees swarming about. There appeared to be a hive nearby and I couldn’t shake them. They kept going after the Diet Pepsi, to my confusion given the fact that there is absolutely nothing but water and chemicals in my favorite addiction.

All I could do was laugh. Out loud. 1600 miles through tons of bees and hornets and wasps without a sting, and I’m going to get it at Walmart.

The bus eventually came, and I surrendered my drink to the bees. It was a different driver this time, and he chuckled as I got on.

“Find what you needed in there?”

“Not at all!” I laughed.

“Yeah, they’re moving the store in five days.”

I continued to talk to the driver for a bit about the wild goose chase I’d been on since the previous evening. He told me he had always wanted to open up an outfitter in town, and as we passed by, showed me the building he wanted to use. He mentioned a few places I might try in town, but he wasn’t any more hopeful than I that they would have what I needed, and half of them I had already checked.

“Plus it’s getting late,” I said. “I need to make the four o’clock bus back to the trail.”

“Oh, that line doesn’t run on the weekends.”

This was not in my trail guide or on the bus schedule I found online, but my spirits were unbreakable.

“How about the on-demand stop request for $3?”

“Oh yeah, you can do that.”

But I couldn’t. That wasn’t available on weekends either.

I decided the day was beautiful (and hot) and wasted in terms of hiking, so I headed back to Main St. to a familiar face I remembered seeing on the way in: a Stewart’s gas station.

See, Stewart’s are all over where I live in New York, and they are much more than gas stations. They are the main meeting places in many small towns, often with tables inside and out, and most mornings you will see a congregation of people sitting around over coffee.

I went in, got myself a cold drink and two slices of pizza, and spied a tall Coleman gas canister out of the corner of my eye. It was huge and heavy, but it was five bucks and I really wanted to walk out of town with something I came in for, so I grabbed it and checked out.

I sat outside at a picnic table in the sun and contemplated my five mile hike out of town. There appeared to be sidewalks most of the way, and soon the hottest part of the day would be over.

I don’t think I’ve talked about this before, but I don’t hitchhike, have not hitchhiked once on the trail, have never hitchhiked in my life. I understand it’s standard procedure along the AT — so much so that the listing for one of the hostels farther north in Vermont actual says to hitch into town and resupply before calling them for a ride.

This is probably partially an agoraphobic issue and partially the result of never living in a place where hitchhiking was done. Either way, I anticipated the issue long before I got on the trail. In fact, a few days before I started the trail I was on my way into Charlotte, North Carolina for last-minute gear when I saw someone on the side of the road with their thumb out. After changing my mind back and forth a dozen times in a split second, I pulled over.

“I don’t usually do this,” I said, ” but I’m about to go on a very long journey and I hope I’m lucky enough to get a few rides.”

In any case, I have come to terms with it on the trail this way: the anxiety hitchhiking seems to cause me is much worse than walking five miles down a highway, and I did, after all, come out here to hike, so that’s what I do.

I will, however, take a ride if someone offers, and if I meet someone who asks about my hike and is heading out, I may even be bold enough to ask for a ride. This is probably part of the reason I was willing to hang out for 20 or 30 minutes in a somewhat familiar taste of home, but it seemed like the few people who chatted me up thought I was hitchhiking across the country, not backpacking.

It was time to go.

As I was packing up, it occurred to me that I should at least check the connection on the gas cylinder to make sure it fit my stove.

It did not.

More laughing out loud.

I did not get a reciept, and if I had it would have gone in the garbage. Where would I put receipts?

I went inside and waited in line for the same gentlemen who checked me out.

“I don’t know if you can take this back, but it doesn’t fit my stove, I can’t carry it, and it doesn’t seem safe to leave around, so either way, please take it.”

He felt the weight of it a bit to make sure it wasn’t empty and gave me the refund (pop tarts!)

And so I headed on down the road. I probably walked about a mile and a half when an SUV stopped on the shoulder about twenty feet ahead of me.

The woman who stopped asked if I would like a ride back to the trail, and I believe I answered as if she had offered me a kidney.

It’s amazing how much you can learn during the course of a five minute drive. She introduced the man in the front seat as her father, and after I had explained where and when I started the trail, he told me he hiked a section in — I’m pretty sure I heard this right — 1953.

Was it worth going in to town for bleach and sterno cans? No. Was it worth going in to town to see what was there, where circumstance may take me, to meet people who had dreams of running an outfitter one day or who had hiked the trail at a time when it would have made today’s trail look like a child’s playground? Absolutely.

If you try to force water through a filter faster than its ready to go, it will burst, and you’ll break it. If you try to force things to work that are out of your control, you’re going to be disappointed. But if you’re patient, the water will find its way, and so will you.

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