After 3 years of backpacking the the Appalachian Trail in pieces, Nikita and I began to get more ambitious with our trips, and in 2014 completed our longest hike ever, in just 2 days.
Before we start, let’s just say that 40 miles is a lot. In 2 days that’s 20 miles a piece- an easy feet for hikers in the later, flatter parts of the Appalachian Trail, but tough going during the steep and rocky trails of the Southern Appalachians.
Being the faithful weekend warriors we were, we giddily awaited a 3 day weekend like a kid awaits Christmas.
With a 3 day weekend, we could have one more night in the wilderness, and one full day of uninterrupted backpacking. Trust me, when you only hike for 2 days at a time, anything more is an opportunity to challenge yourself, and potentially brag about it later.
2014 was an interesting year for the Appalachian Trail, mostly that the summer didn’t quite warm up all the way. Days got longer and warmer, but nights remained at low, spring temperatures well into the summer.
Atlanta, where we lived, lies about 2 hours away from the mountainous terrain of North Georgia, and the start of the Appalachian Trail. It gets warmer much earlier, and spring is a very fleeting season. By May, you can expect summer heat during the day and warm nights. In the mountains by contrast, spring is a long thawing-out process, and summer never really gets as hot as in the city, especially in the woods.
In 2014, spring in North Georgia was coming off of the heels of an unusually harsh winter. Atlanta made national news after declaring a state of emergency when about 2 inches of snow shut down the major highways and roads, and gradually the entire city. While we recovered from being the laughingstock of most of the country, we braced for another freak storm of snowfall and ice less than a month later.
During our first trip of the season in May, we experienced one of the most terrible nights in the woods to date. The weather turned out to be 10 degrees colder than predicted- when you’re packing light, 40 degrees vs. 30 degrees is a big difference- and we shivered our way through the endless hours of night.
That night, I slept a terrible, restless sleep, and woke up every 30 minutes or so to make sure that Nikita and our dog weren’t hypothermic.
2 months later, during our 3 day 4th of July weekend, we experienced yet more cold nights- in the dead of summer. Definitely not as bad as the night back in May, but unusually cold for that time of year, with temperatures colder than forecasted.
On our second day of hiking, we were making great time. Excited by our progress, and the thought of having a short hike the next day and more time to spend at home, we decided to extend our mileage for the day, pushing to a shelter ahead of our initial destination, and adding at least 5 miles to our day’s hike.
About 16 miles into our hike that day, between 2 and 3 in the afternoon, we took a break at a fire tower to eat a snack, see the view and assess our progress.
We ran into the experienced hiker we’d been crisscrossing on the trail throughout the day, and overheard him having a conversation with a through-hiker.
“I have not been prepared for this,” she said, seeming exasperated as much as surprised. “It’s been so much colder than predicted for this time of year. I thought starting in June I’d be fine, but I had to take a few days off the trail to find somewhere I could restock and get some warmer clothes. I even ended up buying this,” she said, holding up a fleece blanket, “just to stay warm inside my sleeping bag at night. It’s July!”
We’d been happily munching on Clif Bars up until this point, when we slowly realized we likely had another night of cold and discomfort ahead.
Anxious, I hurriedly pushed a large amount of treats onto our dog, while Nikita consulted our trail map. He suddenly stopped flipping through the pages and looked up. “What if we finished it all today,” he said, a crazed look in his eyes.
We’d already gone over 15 miles, and would definitely press on, but to finish our 3 day plan that day would mean going another 10 miles from where we stood. Never in our 3 years of hiking the AT had we done so much in one day.
We consulted the experienced hiker, who commented that it was definitely possible. But in the decades of hiking the trail, he’d had only one 25 mile day, because he got lost and ran out of water. It wasn’t an ideal hike by any means.
“You’ll have some opportunities to get water along the way, and once you get over Siler Bald it’s mostly downhill. So that’s good,” he said, tracing his finger along the elevation in our trail book. “You’ll have to hurry though, if you want to make it before dark.”
Nikita and I locked eyes, in silent understanding. Though we loved the trail, we were not through-hikers. The single strongest motivator that pushed us along each hike was deciding and anticipating what deliciously unhealthy food on which we would gorge ourselves once we were finished. Compared to the through-hikers, who survive without a single luxury day after day, we were soft. And kind of pussies.
“We could sleep in our own bed tonight.”
“And not be cold.”
“And go to the Original Pancake House for breakfast tomorrow morning.”
We hurriedly rearranged our packs, secured all straps and laces and high-tailed it out of there.
An Unexpected Journey
The first mile was a breeze. Giddy on our sudden rebellious decision, we blew through it in no time, stopping at a small spring to get water.
It was here that I made the unspeakably stupid decision to change my socks.
Blisters have always been a problem for me. Even with good shoes, and hiking socks, my naturally slender, almost shriveled, feet and delicate skin rub against any and every contact point, blistering up into watery boils after about 10 miles of hiking.
I had been ignoring my blisters that day for some time. I seemed to get them no matter what, and learned to adjust my gait and step so I wouldn’t rub more or burst them.
I thought changing my socks would help, but I essentially traded a somewhat damp pair of socks (I’d washed them out the night before) for the sweat-soaked, yet broken in pair on my feet.
9 miles to go. I could make it, I thought. As long as I didn’t let them burst, I’d be fine.
We kept our pace, getting tired, yet spurned on by our “craziness” and the waning daylight. Hiking at night was not an option, and no matter the progress we made, we still had so far to go.
Reaching the halfway point of our extended stretch, Siler Bald, was a deceptively tormenting climb that seemed never to peak. Nikita began to realize just how tired he was, and for the first time ever, I had to encourage him to keep going, instead of the other way around.
It was also climbing up the peak that I began to feel the fluid inside of my massive blisters jiggle like tiny waterbeds. Not good.
Nonetheless, the strong beams of light from the setting sun let us know that we still had time. The woods weren’t dark just yet.
Close to the peak, we ran into our experienced hiker friend for the last time as he stopped for the day. He looked very tired, and covered in sweat. Also not good.
“If you’re going to finish, guys,” he said, between breaths, “get water here, because it’s the last place you can before you get to your car.”
We had enough water and no time to waste so we pressed on.
3 Miles In Hell
7 miles from our regrettable decision, and we were well past the last shelter and the point of no return. 7 miles completed makes it seem as though the worst was over. Hubris was the price we paid for thinking such things.
The last 3 miles of the hike was the most painful stretch of trail I’ve ever done in my life.
It was during these 3 miles that the sun set and the woods began to darken quickly.
Also during these 3 miles, I realized that “adjusting my step” for blisters, had now put blisters on the other contact points on my feet. So anyway I stepped and shifted my weight, I had at least 2 frighteningly large and stabbingly painful blisters to contend with.
I remained hopeful, but thought that I probably would not finish the hike without popping at least 1. And if you’ve ever popped a blister and had to keep walking on it, you know how excruciating the pain is. Plus, hiking boots are the least forgiving shoes you’ll ever wear.
From experience, I knew a night of resting wouldn’t cure the blisters, especially not ones of this size. I preferred continuing to hike and recovering for a week or two, rather than stopping, setting up a shoddy camp for the night, and having to put my socks and boots back on in the morning.
My blisters slowed us down a lot and I was reduced to a hobbling gate resembling a hump-backed medieval hag.
At this point, we both became frighteningly paranoid about getting out in time and unharmed.
Not only were we both weak, and prone to stumbling, but the downward slope and ensuing darkness presented yet another threat to us. A wrong step, easy to make in the dark, could send our pack-laden, unbalanced bodies tumbling down a cliff. That would be the end of the hike for sure.
There was also the elephant in the room of bears… uh… the bear in the room, or on the trail. Whatever: bears.
Throughout the trip, we noticed large piles of poop along the entirety of the trail. It was so fresh we could see its composition (almost entirely of berries, a big part of bears’ diet), and the size made it unlikely to be any other animal. So, not only were bears out and about, but they were very close to the trail, actually using the trail and weren’t deterred by the very obvious presence of so many humans.
Bears are diurnal, meaning they are active both in daytime and at night, but are most active in the very early morning and at dusk.
Basically right now.
We avoided talking about this.
Uninvited Pants Guests
It was also during the last 3 miles that Nikita threw his pack down suddenly, grabbed our dwindling role of biodegradable toilet paper and took off into the woods.
He returned looking pale and with a strange, dainty walk: my poor, walking sensitive digestive system of a boyfriend got a sudden case of diarrhea.
“It must have been the Indian food,” he mumbled, shouldering his pack back on. My vegetarian diet forced us to sometimes make questionable meal choices. In this case, a canned, “heat and serve” Muttar Paneer entree we’d cooked for lunch earlier that day.
The next 2 miles were fragmented and slow, as he stopped to heed nature’s call, and pushed me to go ahead while he would catch up.
Long-distance hiking with more than one person is not widely done, partly because it’s so difficult to maintain a pace with another person for long periods of time. While hiking together, we’ve had many instances of splitting up to accommodate our different speeds, usually while Nikita makes shaky descents on bad knees, and while I labor up steep hills because I am in poorer shape than him. We almost always catch up to the other once the incline/decline is reversed.
I’ve always hated leaving him behind, however. Mostly because I become paranoid about being attacked by a bear within about 2 minutes of being alone.
After one of his breaks, as he caught up to me, we heard loud footsteps and the sound of a very large animal crashing through the woods as we approached.
Terrified, we made a fumble of an emergency stop, and probably took much longer than is needed to retrieve our can of bear mace. But by the time we had it at the ready, the crashing grew quieter and the animal was gone.
Whatever it was, it seemed to be running away from us. Still, disconcerting to say the least.
The Very Last Mile
Nikita’s diarrhea subsided and we hiked the last bit together, though weakened and at a measurably slower pace.
Even as our eyes adjusted to the darkness, the woods became too dark too quickly, and we hiked the last excruciating mile with headlamps.
We were both very worried, but knew we were on the homestretch.
That being said, yet another symptom of long-distance hiking revealed itself to us: once you know you’re close to the end, the trail seems to never end. The anticipation of some familiar sign of closeness is a cruel case of temporary insanity, like seeing mirage after shimmering mirage in the desert.
At this point I gave up on being strong, whimpering with each step and whining exasperatedly.
Eventually we passed the campsite of our first night, covered the last bit of trail, and made it to the road.
26 miles later, I’ve never been more relieved.
As I staggered to the car, I turned to take a look at where we’d come from. It was dark, but the massive, black outline of the mountain loomed into the moonless sky.
It was one of the most ominous things I’ve ever seen in my life, and an important reminder about the brutal harshness of life outside of civilization. As humans, we too often live inside of our own heads, caught up in the nonconcrete, almost hypothetical existence of modern living. We are stupidly ignorant of the power of the natural world, and just how lucky we are to have survived for as long as we have.
On our way back to Atlanta, we stopped at a mountain town undergoing the process of fast modernization, and full of any and every major fast food chain location known to the Southeastern United States. Nikita and I stopped at a Sonic, Dairy Queen, and even a Bojangles (a hokey Southern fast food fried chicken franchise, renown for their lard-baked biscuits) before heading out.
The drive back was long and dark, but we were kept awake by swells of pride. Curiously, I’d spent so many hours that day moving forward at walking speed, that I kept asking Nikita why he was driving so fast, even though he was going under the speed limit.
When we finally got home, we forced ourselves to shower, and caught a glimpse of our bodies in the bathroom mirror. 2 days and 40 miles later, we were both noticeably thinner and more taught than when we left. It’s frightening that your body can change so quickly, and what you have to go through to make such a change.
To put it in perspective, the average time it takes to hike the entire trail is a little less than 6 months, that’s an average pace of about 13 miles a day. We kept this pace during our first day of hiking, and then doubled it on the second day. Needless to say, the 26 miles essentially crippled us, so I don’t feel like it’s sustainable- at least not for weekend warriors like us.
While the trip expanded our understanding of what our bodies are capable of, the kind of torture we endured that afternoon is something we’re not in a hurry to repeat.