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Decoding the Appalachian Trail

Thursday, May 10, 2012
In 2009, I set off to thru-hike the 2,178-mile long Appalachian Trail, which spans from Georgia to Maine. I had done some backpacking before, but nothing to this extent. I thought I had it all planned out - from daily mileage to dates of arrival.


That was the first illusion to be broken: dates and daily mileage charts. There was no way to tell what might happen each day, and even on a topographical map, it is impossible to truly judge the work exerted during elevation gain and loss. After the first two full days of hiking, I was already off schedule, not to mention broken, aching, and ready to come home.

Here was the first challenge: coming to terms with the fact that hiking the Appalachian Trail is no small feat, nor is it always fun. What makes a thru-hike fun are the extreme highs (contrasted, of course, with the miserable lows) that are experienced while on the trail. Backpackers learn to quickly forget the bad times, and even more quickly, gain the ability to spin those bad times into great stories.

Next up was making friends with the trail. This one-foot by 2,178-mile long stretch of land has been on this Earth far longer than you or I have. If you try to beat it, the Trail will come back with a vengeance"_ and throw salt on your wounds"_ and then (in a weird, mountainous, omnipotent sort of way), laugh at you for smelling like a troll. But, if you envision this stretch of land as a person, and accept it for not only its good qualities, but also the bad, then you will be friends in no time. The point is, it's about respect. The trail will be your companion, so long as you treat it as such.

The other big key to successfully thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail is adaptability. Things change weekly, daily, and even hourly while on the trail. The weather may turn, a piece of gear may break, you may hurt yourself, or get news from home that shakes you. It is imperative that you have a fluid attitude and adjust accordingly to the many issues you will surely come up against.

Some of the best experiences come from unplanned detours and a flexible attitude. My hiking buddy and I made a wrong turn into a town, where we eventually got picked up by a man in an Audi. He drove us to his lovely house to meet his family, spend two nights in his guest house and eat well. Amazingly, we continue to see him at least once a year. He has become an extension of our family, and all this came to pass because we made a wrong turn.

While there are many aspects to a successful thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, the two biggest factors to unlocking this beast of a trail is respect and adaptability. With these two characteristics mastered, you'll be that much closer to being a thru-hiker. That, and about five million steps.

Submitted by chef, EMT, non-profit founder and Discover Outdoors guide Ian Mangiardi.

Categories: Adventure