Hiking the entire 3500 kilometers of the Appalachian Trail, which runs from Mount Springer in Georgia north to Mount Katahdin in the New England state of Maine, is a rite of passage for many outdoor enthusiasts.
At Baxter State Park headquarters in northern Maine, Deputy Chief Ranger Stewart Guay points to the summit of Katahdin looming just ten kilometers away. For most of the 500 or so hikers who, in an average year, complete this trek, spotting that mountain -- the largest in Maine -- signals that their long odyssey is almost over. "And they look ahead on a clear day," says Guay, "and they can see that end in sight and they get really excited and pumped about it coming on up. "
It's easy to understand Ranger Guay's excitement. He has hiked much of the Appalachian Trail himself. For him and many others, hiking and mountaineering are more than exercise, and more than sports. "You really relax a lot and you get a chance to reflect on your life and your choices," Guay explains, "and sometimes just think about nothing and just absorb the peace, the harmony, the smells, the sights, and you just kind of commune with nature, and get one with nature."
But hiking the trail can be dangerous. Chris Turner knows this well. He's a 24-year-old North Carolinian called Pondwater by his hiking partners because he walks so slowly. He snuggles into his sleeping bag and recalls a thunderstorm he experienced on a New Hampshire mountain a month ago with his pal Snickers, who was nicknamed after a sweet chocolate candybar that hikers love. The two hikers were completely exposed and vulnerable.
"Snickers and I were kind of running the ridge line trying to get away from the storm and trying to get away from getting struck by lightning," Turner recalls. "And we couldn't make it, and we had to stash our packs under some bushes and wait out the thunderstorm. The rain was coming in sideways and you are just sitting there praying, and saying 'oh my gosh you really could die!'" But Podwater says, "It is during moments like that, when you really feel alive, like you feel like you are living life, and not just going through the motions!"
Pondwater's pal Snickers, whose real name is Jacob, remembers a spring snowstorm in the Smoky Mountains early in their trek as the most frustrating part of the trip. "You take three days worth of steps in one day one back" he says, "because you keep sliding back and off. And you just want to curse every day just 'cause it's so hard to get anywhere."
When asked what he says to himself at moments like that, Snickers answers quickly, "At the beginning, it was along the lines of 'you're not hardcore [tough] unless you live hardcore.' A lot of guys, what we want to do is feel alive and feel back with nature, back to basics and able to survive hard situations."
Everyone who hikes the Appalachian Trail knows it can be both a difficult and wonderful experience. John Richardson of Providence Rhode Island relaxes by a gentle stream after completing the 100 Mile Wilderness portion of the trail. For him, the trick is simply to say yes to whatever Mother Nature offers up.
"It's an ordeal," he admits. "But then, all of a sudden, you turn a corner and this is what you see: beauty! Here, right now, the sun is glimmering off this enormous river. There is a breeze. There are no bugs. It's calm. But yesterday,
we were at a gorge and the water was rushing and you could feel the power and it's exhilarating. And that's the journey of the trip."
For some, the most difficult challenge of the Appalachian Trail is facing oneself and one's own mind during the long isolated stretches of wilderness. Pondwater says he found both wisdom and solace out there. "It's amazing what you can learn when you are alone with your thoughts for five months," he observes. "We walked for about eight to ten hours a day and usually we were walking by ourselves or in silence. So I've been left to think and pray and be alone. When you get away from the world and you get away from cell phones and the conference meetings and the business lunches and everything that goes with being busy, and you just take time and you just walk and listen, it's pretty amazing."
Winter is almost here on the Appalachian Trail. Most hikers are at home preparing for the cold, as are many of the birds and animals of the wilderness. But next year when the weather warms, they too will return to the Trail.