By: Brian Beach, Youth Program Intern
Virginia is absolutely the longest state on the Appalachian Trail. I might have had a beard during my 2005 Appalachian Trail thru-hike down in Georgia or Tennessee, but it became a “Grizzly Adams” beard in Virginia. I imagine there was a specific mountain where I snapped due to the solitude. (If so, it was probably Sassafras Mountain. There were at least four or five with that name.) The evolution of a thru-hiker from a “backpacker” to a “homeless person” is less obvious to those residing on the trail. Regardless, it was certainly in Virginia that I became a little more salty than usual. Perhaps it was due to my daily rations of Ramen for over a month straight. Or perhaps it was due to the clouds that had prevented me from seeing my shadow for over a week, or the rain that prevented me from having a single piece of dry clothing for an equal amount of time. Although my backpacking experiences have taught me the joy of having wet wipes in the woods, I blame Mother Nature for turning my last few squares of Charmin into an unwanted experience.
With about six months of experiences along the Appalachian Trail that year, this was not my favorite section. I remember late one day close to dusk along the trail, after hiking double digit miles in the soggy slop, I passed through an over grown grassy knob where I had a close encounter with a wild animal. Tired and beaten by the trail and the weather I was thrust into a fight or flight moment. My logic was lagging behind me by about a mile, so my reaction was complete instinct. I growled, because that’s what feral thru-hikers do. When the beast looked me in the eyes, he knew that he’d been beat. Now, every time I see a raccoon in my backyard, I remember that day. I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure it was sunshine and smiles all day long the next day.
I do not claim to be a purest. When I dig a cat hole, I leave the toilet paper in there as well. Less weight and it smells better in my pack. In fact, when I thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 2006, I usually had ear buds in blasting something. Strangely enough, I usually hiked to the pace of the song. Most of my big mile days were when I was blasting tunes, or trying to out-run a hail storm. (On a side note: hail really hurts when it hits your knuckles.) And oddly enough, some of my worst mileage days were when the batteries would die early in the day. I recall a time hiking through some part of California (close to the Mojave) when my 3.5 miles per hour morning quickly turned into something much less. Have you ever had a song cut out, and somehow you can still hear it playing in your head? Well, the Black Eyed Peas could not be heard in my head, once my brain registered that the rattling sound surrounding me was either the larger Western Diamondback or the smaller (more aggressive) Mojave Green. And the pucker factor continued to increase as I noticed it was in surround sound, meaning EVERWHERE! I counted over a dozen rattle snakes that day. Which only made me think how many I passed when the music was blasting. Ignorance is bliss.
Just because I have hiked a lot of miles in my life, that does not make me intelligent. Just because I consider myself an outdoorsman, that does not mean I am intelligent about wilderness knowledge. The truth is that I have committed equal amounts of ignorant acts in the woods as I have anywhere else. Two of my proudest acts occurred after I completed not just the Appalachian Trail, or the Pacific Crest Trail, but all three of the long distance trails in the US (Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and Continental Divide Trail). Even better, they occurred in the company of my wife (that way she is sure never to let me forget them…. because that’s what we do for those we love.)
The first act of brilliance occurred during a winter thru-hike on the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail. It was our first hike together (in fact, it might have been our first date). After a long, tough hike through the snow, we made a nice warm fire in one of the shelters. We had tarps wrapped around it to hold in the heat, and the firewood was stacked up so we could stay warm throughout the night. I even decided to dry out her boots by the fire so they wouldn’t be frozen in the morning. I probably should have thought that one through. The next day, as we were packing up in the early morning darkness, she informed me that her boots felt tight. After examining them with my headlight, I had no idea why they would be tight, because most of the toe-box was completely melted off. Obviously, she was not able to hike out. So I did, and luckily I had extra boots in our car. She spent the rest of the day hanging out inside the shelter, burning all the wood I had stacked for her and sending farewell texts to friends and family. I trekked out of the woods, hitch-hiked my way to the car, and returned to pick her up. She survived unscathed, but I still suffer from the experience.
If that’s not enough, a few months later she decided it was safe to hike with me again. This time we were on the Black Forest Trail… in summer (not winter). On a side note, I take a lot of pride in my ability to identify local flora and fauna. So, I’m not sure what my excuse is for what happened on this trip. It was hot, so naturally I hiked in shorts. My wife rarely wears shorts, so she wore pants. For those who have never experienced Stinging Nettle, there is a reason they call it that. I correctly identified the plant after hiking through it for at least 300 feet. Luckily, there were only 400 feet remaining of it along the trail. In a stroke of genius, I decided to hike off the trail to avoid it, but only ended up in a bigger patch. Why in the world is there so much of that devil plant on this trail? At this point I was so enraged, and in so much pain, that I tried using my trekking poles to clear a path. (This was such a bad idea). And now I know what it feels like to have Stinging Nettle on my face as well as my legs. I was lucky enough to grow up down in Panama as a kid, and I got to experience awesome things like fire ants. Stinging Nettle is a lot like fire ants. The moral of the story is, my wife is smart because she wore pants that day.