Hiking. Cheaper than Therapy.
J. M. Tanko
The Appalachian Trail (AT) runs 2,200 miles, from Springer Mountain Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. One fourth of the entire AT (550 miles) passes through Virginia, and the AT is one of Southwest VA’s most precious natural treasures. It is close to Blacksburg, and provides access to some of the region’s most outstanding attractions: McAfee’s Knob (possibly the most iconic and photographed site on the AT), Dragon’s Tooth, Angel’s Rest, Tinker Cliffs, and so much more. The AT is an integral part of the Blacksburg/Virginia Tech experience, and many of us dream about doing a more substantial portion of it than is afforded by a day hike. The possibility for doing so presented itself with the completion of my term as chemistry department chair.
My dear friend and #2 hiking buddy (Scarlett, my beloved shetland sheepdog earns the number one spot. Having hiked several hundred miles with me each year, and being in her twelfth year (of a ca. 14-year lifespan), she was retired from long distance hiking in 2018.), Prof. Hervé Marand (who served and was also completing his term as chemistry’s associate chair) and I seized the opportunity to hike a portion of the AT. First, the Headline News version of the story: The original plan was to spend the month of September on the Appalachian Trail, starting at Springer Mountain in Georgia, and ending up in Damascus Virginia (skipping the Smoky Mountains). In actuality, we spent about half a month on the trail. After about 10 days into the trip, Hurricane Florence intervened, and the trip was temporarily aborted and restructured. We resumed about a week later starting at Harpers Ferry West Virginia, heading southbound. After a few days of incessant rain, I aborted just shy of Shenandoah National Park because of foot problems. Herve’ made it to Pinnacles Picnic area in Shenandoah. This story is about the first part of the trip.
So, why do this? For me, it was an opportunity to reflect (maybe recover) from serving eight years as department chair. Recovery, for example, from sensory overload. One of the most interesting, yet challenging, parts of the job was that something unexpected was always happening, and interruptions were constant. No matter what one’s early morning plans were for a “typical” day, fate would usurp those plans—and by the end of a busy day, you’d be tired and have seemingly accomplished nothing. One loses the ability to focus, and develops the attention span of a two year old—which incidentally is an impediment to scholarly activity.
Another element of recovery was from “social exhaustion.” As chair, one does a lot of socialization—and to be honest, this does not come easy for me. I tend to be shy, reserved, lacking in self-confidence, etc.—and of course, anyone who knows me will say this is BS. (I will simply point out that the best way to address a weakness, it to go the other direction, perhaps overcompensate, and make it a strength. And that can be tiring.)
Oftentimes, socialization comes in the form of receptions, which involve tiny bits of cheese or fruit on platters, with toothpicks as the instrument of delivery. Receptions are also characterized by deplorable excess of small talk, and these events are particularly torturous when no alcohol is being served. From this experience, ingrained in my psyche are the barbecued meatballs served by Inn at Virginia Tech. These meatballs are like malted milk balls, which as you may know, are usually sold in large quantities—half-gallon milk cartons. Malted milk balls are not particularly good, but once you start eating them, you simply cannot stop until the box is empty and you are beyond nauseous. Like malted milk balls, the barbecued meatballs at the Inn have a secret ingredient that suppresses the hypothalamus. If you took PSYCH 101, your text may had the photos of rats that ate themselves into morbid obesity because their hypothalamus had been removed. If so, you get the picture.
Finally, it was hoped that the time on the AT would allow for reflection and introspection. In the course of eight years, one make a lot of decisions—and some of these really stick with you. These decisions almost always affect another human being, lack a clear boundary between right and wrong, and you are often derive no satisfaction from the outcome. These are not experiences to “forget” or “get over,” but rather to remember and integrate into one’s reservoir of life experiences for future reference. Okay, enough personal psycho babble… onto the story.
Whatever the reasons for embarking on this mini adventure, I was reminded that one always learns more when someone else is doing the talking. The people I met—and their stories were far, far more interesting than anything I have to say. This story is about them.
There are two general types of backpackers on the AT. Thru-hikers plan to hike the entire 2,200 miles. From the south, a thru-hiker would have started in March or April, and would be in New England at the time of year we began our adventure. The other type of hiker is a section-hiker, who as the name suggests, does sections at a time. Everyone we met up with in phase one of the adventure were section-hikers, ranging in age from 40 - 70. These individuals had a few more miles on the odometer of life, and like us, had a reason for being on the trail—and some fascinating stories to tell.
For example, there was Scott and Donna, who we met up with at several of the campsites and shelters in Georgia. In the real world, Donna ran a non-profit organization that her father started, dedicated to helping returning veterans. Scott’s profession dealt with accounting/finance. Actually, many of the folks we met up with on the AT were accounting/finance professionals, and there may be two reasons for this: 1) Stress relief… this is a line of work where one *really* needs to escape from reality for an extended period of time, or 2) this is a line of work where one’s annual salary enables one to take off for an extended period of time. I’m guessing the latter.
Early in the trip, Donna and I shared what was, or should’ve been, the most embarrassing moment of my life (In a state of total physical exhaustion, days without a shower, etc., the bar is raised in terms of what might be considered embarrassing.). Without going into graphic detail, shelters on the AT have these things called privies. I used to think that the words privy and private had a common Latin root or something, but that can’t be correct. Privies are essentially outdoor, unisex bathrooms sans running water, walls, or doors. The omission of the last two amenities in particular can be problematic, and Donna had the misfortune of approaching the privy and catching me at a particularly awkward moment of personal hygiene. Nuff said, other than that at breakfast, it was at least a half an hour before we were able to make eye-contact; a bit longer to talk.
People hiking the AT often have (or because of their actions or idiosyncrasies, are given) trail names. One such individual was a woman, whose real name I never caught, but was affectionately dubbed “Key Lady.” Herve’ and I met Key Lady as we were nearing a shelter in mid-afternoon, early in the trip. She was frantic because she had lost her car keys. Leaving her backpack at the shelter, she was retracing her steps in a desperate, but inevitably unsuccessful, search. For the next few miles as we approached the shelter, we kept a close eye on the ground in order to help—no luck. Further down the trail, Key Lady later met up with Scott and Donna, and went one step further. She asked Donna to check her pants in the backpack she left in the shelter—and then report back via cell phone. When Donna arrived at the shelter, she checked—no luck.
After dark, and after having hiked an additional nine miles in a fruitless search (above and beyond whatever hiking she had already done that day), Key Lady returned the shelter. For the rest of the evening, and the next day during breakfast, she was despondent. Key Lady seemed to be in her 50s, and was trying to recover from some bad life experiences. Hiking the AT was a way for her to regain control of life—and the loss of the keys was a particularly bad setback. From her story, it seemed that misplacing the keys may have been part of an ongoing pattern. Key Lady was tired, exhausted, a bit messed up—and you couldn’t help but like her. She appreciated even the smallest acts of kindness. (She was running low, and Hervé’s offer of some food touched her immensely.)
Fortunately, Key Lady’s story has a happy ending. As she was packing up the next morning—with no clear plan about what to do about her car, or how to get home—she found her keys at the bottom of her backpack. She hadn’t lost her keys at all, or the control she was trying to reassert. Her relief, and the realization that she had the solution to her problems all along was uplifting.
Several times, we met up with a group of three men from Florida who were hiking together dubbed the Three Stooges. The name sounds derogatory, but that is certainly not intended. Admittedly, like us, they were operating out of their usual comfort zone, and were challenged physically and logistically—close to, but not quite, in over their heads. Their real names were Larry, Alan, and ____. We talked about a great deal and shared a number of interests, but it is Larry who I will remember, and who helped me, the most.
When we started hiking the AT, I had developed a bad case of blisters on the top of my toes. Being “fully prepared” [sic], I of course had moleskin—a heavy, plush cotton fabric to prevent, or after the fact, minimize the impact of blisters. This stuff comes with an adhesive on one side and you simply place it on the blister. It works perfectly… unless you opt to actually use your foot for something like walking. And hiking is something like walking. With the slightest bit of perspiration, the adhesive fails, the moleskin comes off, shifts position, and ends up exacerbating the original problem. By day four, my blister issues were getting worse and becoming a very big problem.
When we met the Stooges at Mountain Crossings, GA on day four, Larry was the last one of his group to arrive. He hobbled in tired, exhausted, limping, and sat down on the bench across from me to remove his boots and socks. I saw that his feet were covered with several black patches of what I soon learned was heavy duty, maximum strength, black Gorilla Glue duct tape—which was being used to hold the moleskin in place. Eureka! I knew that AT hikers often carried duct tape because of its myriad of uses and flexibility (repairing fabric, tent poles, etc.), but I had never appreciated that there were medical applications as well. Larry gave me a few feet of his black Gorilla Glue duct tape, and over the course of the next few days of hiking, my blisters were essentially healed to the point of being a non-issue. (And like REI, Home Depot is now a critical supplier of backpacking gear for me… heavy duty, maximum strength, black Gorilla Glue duct tape.) Thanks Larry!
One of the days in Georgia was filled with the constant threat of rain. We managed to finish early, and make it to the shelter before the rain hit. At the Tray Mountain Shelter, we met two other people: George, who I will talk about later, and the Georgia Peach (GP). GP arrived around four in the afternoon, and it was pouring. She was wearing one of those $1 ponchos that you can get at Dollar General (or for $20 at Disney World). This did a good job of keeping her dry, but her shoes/socks were soaked. Inevitably, she sacrificed a portion of the poncho to fabricate a make-shift protective layer between her shoes and socks.
GP had a heavy southern accent and was a local. Her goal was to section-hike the entire Appalachian Trail in Georgia, and there were two things particularly striking about her story. In stark contrast to Key Lady, GP was on the trail because she had too much control over things in her real life. She craved the unpredictable, to cede control, and to have some adventure. To do this, GP told us that she had just purchased a used camper van, and was driving to various points of the AT to section-hike.
The camper apparently needed some work. The power in the camper was not working properly, so she was using flashlights. I asked her some questions about the black and grey water reservoirs, and she had no idea what I was talking about. If you’re not familiar with RVs, grey water is waste water from showers or sinks, and black water is something much worse. As she was utilizing the camper’s “facilities” regularly, I tried to impress upon her that it would be good to learn more about about the black water in particular, lest she have far more adventure than she was counting on. GP only hung around for the afternoon, and once the rain settled a bit, was off to continue her adventure.
There were of course other people we met along the way. Jarret, a Texan now living in Arkansas was one of the youngest. He had just inherited some money, and figured if he was ever going to do the AT, why not now? (He was section hiking, and particularly enjoyed venturing into town—especially if there was a liquor store). And there was a fellow named Mark, who was acting on a bet that he could section hike a portion of the AT in three days. I don’t remember the starting point, but the terminus was Unicoi Gap—and he was only three miles away when we met. There was little doubt Mark would be $500 richer… unless of course he went for double or nothing.
Jarrett proved to be inventive and a problem-solver. As might be expected, on the AT there is wildlife, and in particular black bears. They are more of a nuisance than a danger (if you exercise common sense). The nuisance aspect is that they really, REALLY want your food. To keep them from getting it, at nighttime the food needed to be suspended from trees with ropes. Or, in some of the slightly less undeveloped areas, there were cables and/or bear boxes. Jarrett was acutely aware of this, and his 3 - 4 days of hiking expertise gave him the confidence to lecture everyone incessantly on the topic of proper food storage. Yes, there is a dash of sarcasm in that last sentence, :-)
These protective measures are quite effective against bears, but not for mice—which sometimes would get to and eat through the packs—especially in search of nuts and fruit. Jarrett, however, devised a solution. He hung his food out of reach like everyone else, but at the bottom of the cable, left some nuts and fruit for the mice. To those of us “less experienced,” there seemed to be several potential problems with this approach. First, wasn’t the whole idea of suspending the food to avoid attracting bears? Leaving food on the ground did not seem to capture the spirit of that intent.
But perhaps Jarrett was onto something. Maybe this was some sort of “peace offering” to the mice. If they were given a bit of food, perhaps they would be satisfied and not scamper up the cable to get some more? At the end of the day, well actually, the next morning… of the five or six food bags suspended on cables at the Woods Hole Shelter, only one had been compromised by mice—Jarrett’s.
Most memorable though, was George who we met at the Tray Mountain Shelter. To borrow a line from Star Trek II, “of all the souls I have encountered, his was the most human.” This is what Kirk said at Spock’s funeral, before they torpedoed him to the planet Genesis, where he was rejuvenated (sans memories because he mind-melded them to Dr. McCoy before he died) and they performed some sort of ceremony to restore his Katra… but I digress. George’ story touched me more than anyone I had met on the trail.
As we were huddled in the shelter avoiding the rain, I asked George “where are you from?” His answer completely caught me off guard. “I guess I would have to say I’m from nowhere.” George was homeless. And there were clues that clearly showed he was operating on the budget plan. Whereas Herve’ and I had ultralight everything (backpacks, sleeping bag, etc.), dehydrated food, and more courtesy of REI, George’s backpack looks like something that might have been used in the Civil War (perhaps even surplus from Revolutionary War.) His gear was far from ultra-light, and as a result, he was carrying a lot more weight than anyone else, and his daily mileage was well under 8 miles/day. To put this in perspective, regardless of direction, an AT thru-hiker will need to hit about 18 miles/day to do the entire trail (to avoid the ravages of winter on one end or the other.) Most of the people we had met were doing about 10 - 14 miles/day. George was an extraordinarily gentle person, and nothing about his attitude or demeanor gave the slightest inkling of the hardships he had endured.
George began his journey in Damascus, VA with the intent of going to Springer Mountain—over 460 miles. He had never hiked before, and by the time we met him, was only about 60 miles from achieving his objective. You see, rather than pine as the result of his misfortune, George wanted to do something, to put up a fight, to live. And if that wasn’t enough, there’s more to the story. It turns out that when George passed through Hot Springs, NC, the owner of the hostel he stayed at was similarly impressed, and offered George a job—which included lodging. When George finished his AT adventure, he would be getting on a bus to Hot Springs to begin the rest of his life. George’s story touched me beyond words, and enriched me with joy and hope. It also gave me a new perspective on homelessness, and the individuals whose life circumstances put them into such an unfortunate situation.
In the days approaching the “Top of Georgia,” a hostel just west of the AT near Dicks Creek Gap very close to the Georgia/North Carolina border, Hurricane Florence was threatening the continental US—and by all predictions, was headed directly towards us. We doubt it posed any serious risk, but days of sustained heavy rains would be unpleasant, and if the high winds resulted in downed trees, this could put us behind schedule. But the real danger posed by a natural disaster is the Weather Channel. Their 24/7 coverage induces panic, overreaction and worse. Of course there is a danger with hurricanes… in the costal and otherwise low-lying areas. And Florence did some terrible things in North Carolina. Most of the experienced folks we talked with along the AT however shrugged it off.
Because of the Weather Channel-induced panic, though, Herve’ and I were getting regular text messages from concerned family members. We had received word that the National Park Service had closed the Blue Ridge Parkway, Skyline Drive—and of note, a number of trails. All this was dispiriting. So, on a warm, bright and sunny day in September, we caught a shuttle to Hiawassee, Georgia and ended phase one of the trip. Two important notes: First, Hiawassee had one of the best Mexican restaurants I’ve ever been to. Thirty two ounce mugs of beer for $5, and I loved their Chile Rellenos. Second, we were told that if you used more than syllable to pronounce Hiawassee, you were clearly not a local. Apparently the film Deliverance was filmed nearby, and for some reason, we felt particularly obliged to be linguistically correct.. (I must confess however, to some apprehension about Marand’s French accent.)
During the second phase of our adventure (Harpers Ferry heading south), we overlapped more with the thru-hikers who had started in Maine, hoping to end up at Springer Mountain. With some notable exceptions, this group tended to be much younger (<30). I thoroughly enjoyed talking with these people, but their stories tended to be a bit more homogeneous… taking a gap year between college and work, etc. I think they were also a lot better at roughing it, having not yet reached the level of resources that some of the older group enjoys, i.e., they were not missing the cooked meals and comfortable beds nearly as much. They were also in much better shape—and well on track to complete the trail before the onset of winter weather.
But this story has to end. In closing, I’ll mention that during the second phase of the trip, we also met up with a fellow named Tom, and his dog Geronimo (an adorable Jack Russell terrier.) Tom was from Tennessee, a member of the Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association, and had thru-hiked the AT eight times. He was a wealth of information, and we talked at length on topics ranging from the trail, to dementia, to gardening, and more. And there was Ethan, who was recently divorced—and taught finance at UT Dallas. And the Swiss lady traveling with the guy from Kansas, and more. All of these people also had a story.
And by now, you may be wondering what *our* trail names were. For me, Moleskin Jim—though I prefer Darth Vader. For Hervé, the One-Eyed Pantry—and he’d prefer just about anything else! All these are stories for another day.