hiking the at
Song of Hiawatha
Listen to these wild traditions,
To this Song of Hiawatha.
–Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Since my early teens, I have loved the out-of-doors and spent many a good moment there, sometimes in the company of others, often in blissful solitude.
At the age of forty, beset by an unexpected urge to solo trek, I strapped on a JanSport backpack large enough for a bathtub, filled it with fifty-four pounds of gear and sustenance, and hiked north on the Appalachian Trail (AT) out of Damascus, Virginia, bound for the high country of Mt. Rogers and Grayson Highlands. After a schlep of nine miles on day one, mostly uphill, I collapsed and camped right beside the trail, too exhausted to search for a better spot. Each day thereafter, however, I grew stronger. By day four, lugging a pack for fifteen miles seemed the most natural thing in the world, and taking it off at the end of the day occasioned the euphoria of feeling weightless. Dad, who had just retired, picked me up in the afternoon of the fifth day, and we spent a sweet night with Grandma at the family cabin, my halfway house back to civilization. I had knocked off fifty-five miles in all – and had a glorious adventure.
Career and family intervened, and few such opportunities presented themselves until I semi-retired at sixty-four. Hiking the full AT and peddling across country remained on the bucket list, but was I over the hill? Most likely. Certainly my JanSport days were over. The external-frame beast and its archaic gear gave way to an internal-frame North Face, a lightweight down sleeping bag, and a three-pound MSR tent. Much as I loved that faithful brass Svea white-gas stove, it went to pasture, replaced by a 1.7-ounce titanium contraption atop a five-ounce isobutane canister.
In July 2013, the second summer into my retirement, my wife dropped me late in the morning in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, the rough midpoint of the AT, and I naively headed south and uphill from the Shenandoah River with forty pounds of gear, including seven days’ worth of food. I’d hoped to make it one-hundred miles in a week and in the process convince myself that the twenty-five intervening years since my first solo trek had not robbed me of much stamina. Oh, was I wrong.
The route snaked over the infamous boulder-strewn “roller-coaster” that fatigues even veteran Appalachian Trailers, past the delicious Bears Den youth hostel – where thirty bucks gets you a bed, a shower, a washer, a pizza, and a pint of Ben and Jerry’s – and to the threshold of graceful Sky Meadows State Park. I showered at Bears Den at a midday, but left immediately, cognizant that should I remain longer, I’d succumb to the Sirens of Comfort.
On the morning of day five, with thirty-four miles under my belt and a painful blister at the end of a toe, I awakened to terrifying numbness along my right arm. Fearing heart attack, I popped a baby aspirin – always a companion – and called my wife to rescue me at Route 50. With no other symptoms of heart trouble, I calmed and began to explore other possible reasons for the worrisome numbness. In the two hours it took Suzanne to arrive, an alternative theory surfaced. Years ago I’d damaged an elbow from regularly lugging a much-too-heavy briefcase to and from work. While navigating the “roller coaster,” I’d relied heavily for balance on a hiking pole in my right hand, the stronger one. The constant pressure along my arm had revived the old elbow injury and pinched a nerve. It wasn’t a heart attack, but it was time to throw in the towel for this adventure. Three full weeks elapsed before feeling in the arm returned completely.
The next summer, expectations trimmed, I tried again, anticipating a three-day inaugural trek. Two buddies dropped me at Route 522 south of Luray, Virginia, and hiked along for a few miles as I headed up into Shenandoah National Park from its southern terminus. Eight miles and two-thousand feet in elevation later, I set up the tent on rocky trail, just moments ahead of a thunder storm. On day two, I planned for another eight to ten miles, but unwisely extended to twelve, lured by visions of a shower at Matthew’s Arm campground. Knackered and eager to call it a day, I raced downhill to the campground, a descent of seven-hundred feet in elevation, pounding all the way. Alas, there was no shower, only a “comfort station.” Dejected, I rested at a picnic table. Ten minutes later, I could barely walk, my left knee stiff and agonizingly painful. The following morning, after a near-sleepless night of continual pain, I hobbled to the Skyline Drive to meet my long-suffering wife. Rescue two.
This time the injury was severe. I’d mangled the meniscus in my left knee. For two months I limped in pain, then recovered from arthroscopic surgery for another two. It seemed my backpacking days were at an end. One orthopedist said: “No more; take to biking instead.”
That was no doubt good advice from a physical point of view, but deadly from a psychological one. Fortunately, my general practitioner recognized the dilemma and gave tentative blessings to continued hiking, with provisos. During the spring of recovery following surgery, I pondered options. A reasonable compromise emerged. Were I to limit the number of days per trek to three, the maximum pack weight to thirty pounds, and the maximum distance to eight miles per day, I might, just possibly, keep trekking long enough to complete the Virginia AT, a full quarter of the 2200-mile footpath. More to the bargain, with distance expectations diminished, there’d be plenty of occasion to stop and “smell the flowers” along the way.
The plan worked. The third summer, I completed five short section hikes, each of about twenty miles, finishing all the AT through Shenandoah National Park. By the end of each section, the troublesome knee was sore and stiff. But each time it recovered after a few days of rest and acupuncturist-recommended exercises to open the joint. A little prophylactic ibuprofen before hiking also helped tamp down the swelling. And sure enough, a turtle’s pace has distinct advantages. The experience became richer.
By the end of the fourth summer, having turned sixty-eight, I had completed all sections of the AT between the Shenandoah and James Rivers. Most memorable was the high country near Cole Mountain, where the trail winds through open meadows. I traversed this section in rain and fog, however, no vistas to be had. True confessions: summer four also required a rescue, this time due to August heat and a ten-mile section of trail without water. Thanks again, Sweetie.
Sometimes I hike with friends, but often alone. I enjoy both modes, but I admit, the unexpected becomes more threatening when alone: a heart attack; dehydration, heat exhaustion or heat stroke; copperheads and rattlers; stings; and bears to mention just a few of the things that can get you. But the scariest hazard is a fall. In season four I dodged a bullet, and learned an invaluable hiking lesson the hard way.
The trail, slightly downhill, cut along a steep slope. Like always, I relied on a hiking pole for balance. But I had the pole in the wrong hand, planting it with each step at the precipitous edge of the trail. Without warning the pole cut through the berm. Instantly shorn of support, I tumbled off the trail, stopping about ten feet down the embankment. As I went down my left calf cramped, the most painful part of the episode. Mercifully there were no rocks where I landed, only brush. I crawled back to the trail, bleeding from deep contusions on my right knee. I’d sprained a wrist too, which manifested after the fact as the joint slowly swelled. My first-aid kit, carried unopened for years, was finally put to good use.
By now the reader is surely wondering if the writer is a masochist. In addition to the aforementioned hazards, I have walked for multiple days in the rain, endured thunderstorms in a tiny tent and packed up wet, been chilled to the bone, and been consumed by blood-sucking insects. I don’t think I am a masochist, but I cannot honestly proclaim that these hikes are fun. Truth is, seven to eight miles a day – on rocky terrain, with considerable elevation change, while carrying a load – is mostly an ordeal. A wet moss-covered rock or boot placed in the wrong spot can spell disaster. One is constantly on alert. Were I able to remain out longer than three days, my body might adapt and slip into a routine where constant exertion, vigilance, and deprivation become “natural.” But age and knees no longer allow longer excursions.
What I can say is this: my soul craves wildness. While backpacking, the daughter of a friend observes, one is simultaneously “physically miserable and spiritually happy.” And then there’s the intriguing observation by my poet and beach-loving friend Michele: “Salt cures all things–sweat, sea, and tears.” A good sweat is medicinal. In the recovery period after a trek, I sleep well, I am a more peaceful, and I am happier. Admittedly, this enhanced state of being fades within days. But by planning and implementing a section-hike each month during late spring, summer, and fall, I can telescope the benefits throughout much of the year. I’ve also come to recognize that the worst thing one can do to any machine, including the human body, is to not use it. I conclude that the risks of not anticipating and undertaking these hikes are worse than the risks of doing them.
Rhododendron tunnels, ever-changing rock formations, unencumbered vistas, rippling brooks, nighttime chirps, musty smells, and immense silence: these beckon my soul when reason and comfort say “no.” Still, for safety sake, it’s a relief to encounter other hikers on the trail, and a bit of human interaction is appreciated. On the AT, there are day hikers, section hikers, and thru-hikers. Thru-hikers complete the entire AT in one long walk of four- to six-months duration. Two-thirds of those who set out never finish. If you’ve never attempted a multiple-day trail hike with a load, you cannot imagine how arduous the task.
The demographic distribution of thru-hikers is distinctly bi-modal. There are the young Turks in their twenties who haven’t started careers, and there are us retirees in our fifties and sixties with time on our hands. There are precious few in between.
Over the past four hiking seasons, I’ve developed some impressions of thru-hikers. They come in waves. The young, fit, and gregarious head north from Springer Mountain, Georgia, in late February or early March. They boogey, often knocking off twenty to twenty-four miles a day. Their wave crests near Roanoke, Virginia, in May. The last time I camped near a trail shelter, I encountered about twenty-five of them. It was hard to find a spot on the ground even for a 2’x6’ tent. This bunch can be rowdy and profane. I’m no prude, but somehow the constant F-bombs grate on me when sitting at a picnic table deep in pristine woods. Still, these guys, and almost as many gals, look after one another. They aren’t a bad lot.
The older thru-hikers – and the more introverted ones, young or old – come in the second wave. They tend to start later (say, in April) to avoid the mobs in the first wave, and they pass through central Virginia late in the month of June. I admit I like these folks better. They’re not as likely to be burning up the trail. They’ll stop, make small talk, give you tips, and most of all warm you with a smile.
On the last day of my most-recent section hike, I encountered “Rusty,” resting on a rock during a water break. He looked to be about fifty, with a lean build, a bandana, and longish brown hair flecked with gray. We were headed in opposite directions, so I asked him if the trail to the south crossed the Blue Ridge Parkway. I was due to meet my wife at milepost 74.9 around three p.m. My trail map was inconclusive about whether the Parkway and footpath physically crossed or were only proximate. Rusty happily opened the Appalachian Trail app on his iPhone to address my concerns. It revealed that, although the road and the trail did not quite cross, they were just yards apart (rather than miles) at the rendezvous point. As Rusty navigated the iPhone with dexterity, I noticed his malformed hands, and that he sometimes used a knuckle to tap the screen. I couldn’t help but wonder if his feet were similarly afflicted and how that might affect long-distance travels on foot. I did not ask, of course. Still something exchanged in both the silences and the words between us, and I felt a kinship. On that day I met several like “Rusty,” each a kind soul, a lover of “the haunts of Nature.” Given a chance, nature can redeem the hearts of men (and women).
Two years previously, at a trail shelter, I had met two brothers from Pennsylvania whom I still recall with fondness although I cannot summon their names. The older brother, then over sixty, was a warmed-over hippy who’d hiked half the Appalachian Trail, north to south, in his twenties. He’d stopped at Harpers Ferry and had longed ever since to complete the southern half of the trail. His brother, a few years younger, was an engineer in a titanium manufacturing plant. He’d lost several ribs to a childhood cancer, but had survived and stayed fit. The older brother had talked the younger one into section-hiking the not-yet-completed lower half of the AT, nibbling off a sizeable chunk each summer. The brothers were clearly close, and they readily took me in. I camped with them one evening and hung with them for most of the next day, but we parted when my daily mileage limitation required me to stop. Distance backpacking is so taxing that each must follow his or her own drummer.
The kindly brothers were well-provisioned and well-prepared. They were the first to introduce me to an ultraviolet steri-pen for water purification. I now use one religiously. Impressively, they’d freeze-dried their own camp food and processed their own beef jerky. Like most distance hikers, forced to jettison every non-essential ounce to shrink the ever-oppressive load, they’d realized they were over-supplied and offered me a pack of jerky. It was the best I’ve ever eaten, better even than Melton’s jerky from the Mennonite market in Dayton, Virginia. I sure hope those guys are nearing Springer Mountain by now. They so deserve to finish and celebrate.
Each passing year brings more “vintage” hikers onto the trail. With the recent publication of Grandma Gatewood’s Walk, the numbers of older hikers will likely continue to swell. If you haven’t yet heard the story, Emma Gatewood was the first woman to thru-hike the AT, completing it in 1955 at sixty-seven years of age. She carried her primitive equipment in a sack slung over her shoulder. The next year she did it again. Then, for good measure, she section-hiked the entire trail the year after that.
Thru-hikers assume trail names, losing their given names and non-trail identities. A trail name, I suppose, offers a useful blend of familiarity and anonymity. No one signs the log book at a trail shelter with their given name, and when you meet another hiker, you ask only for a trail name. Some trail names – say, “Montana” – associate the hiker with where they’re from. Other hikers get tagged by an item of gear or clothing, say, “Bandana.” Most earn their trail name in Native-American fashion, from some random trail event that seems a defining experience. The Appalachian Trail thru-hikers register of 2015 features “Wistful,” “June Bug,” “BonBon,” and “Dream Catcher,” among hundreds of others. The memorial Appalachian Trail “Foot” Bridge over the James River is so named, tongue-in-cheek, for William Foot, a dedicated Appalachian Trail maintainer and promoter. He and his wife, both thru-hikers, were collectively “The Happy Feet.” I’ve forgotten most of the trail names encountered this season. But among these are the long-haired, helpful “Rusty,” “Ramble On Rose,” and “Madiera.” A forty-ish woman, “Madiera” is thru-hiking the entire AT a second time, this time with faithful companion “Ramble On Rose.”
And I’m eternally grateful to “Greeter,” who introduced me to the GutHook app for my phone, a wealth of information and a great comfort for a solo hiker.
Not being a thru-hiker, I don’t have a trail name. I’ve toyed with a few, but until recently none seemed to fit. My camping buddies sometimes call me “Dave of Tucson” in reference to where I went to graduate school thirty-five years ago – and my fondness for deserts. But having lived the second half of my life entirely in Virginia, “Dave of Tucson” doesn’t quite cut it.
Five years ago, two of those buddies and I were driven off the trail by a raging downpour in Grayson Highlands State Park. As we slunk to shelter in defeat, we encountered a sixty-year-old woman thru-hiker, plowing along, happy as a clam, in raingear. The following day we ran into a seventy-year-old former coach and long-distance section hiker. Acknowledging our lack of the Right Stuff, we good-heartedly dubbed one another “Wuss1,” “Wuss2,” and “Big Wuss.” But, damn-it-all, I can’t go through trail life with the moniker “Big Wuss.” A couple of years later, I bestowed upon “Wuss1” a far more fitting appellation: “Brave Fart.” He’s as good a trail companion as one could ever ask for, a solid rock in an emergency. Oh yeah, and at over seventy, he’s admittedly an “old fart,” but only in age, not disposition.
When I was a child, younger than the age of three when memory sets in, Mom would read to me from Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha. Although I’ve no conscious recollection of those moments, what the epic poem now evokes in me is primal. I have absolutely no doubt that it is connected in some mysterious way to both my affinity for all things Native American and my love of nature.
As I was parting from “Rusty,” having just learned his trail name, he enquired of mine. “Well, I don’t really have one,” I confessed, then added almost in the same breath: “But, I’m thinking of ‘Hiawatha’.”
“Hiawatha.” I like that.
- Images: All of the photos in this story were taken by the author, © Dave Pruett.
The author's book Reason and Wonder: A Copernican Revolution in Science and Spirit (Praeger, 2012) further explores the interface between science, mythology, spirituality, and meaning. According to Ursula King of the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Bristol, Dave Pruett's Reason and Wonder (Praeger, 2012) "opens up [an expansive worldview] of true audacity and grandeur that will change your thinking forever."