The Appalachian Trail
What is trail magic? Where does one find the motivation to walk 20-25 miles a day?
How do you prepare for torrential rain and chronic shin splints? How do you justify the need
to keep going? Sam Conley was 18 years old when he decided to tackle the Appalachian Trail, all
2,200 miles of it. Some people thought he was crazy, maybe he was. But from the sounds of it, his
experiences on the AT and the people he met changed his life forever in the most beautiful way.
"The trail really proves that it's all about the journey, not the destination."
Have you ever been extremely motivated to do something when laying in bed, but the next morning you have no motivation to do so? The trail was like that, except that motivation never vanished from this 18 year old kid's mind. Some time in November 2016 the idea popped into my head after reading an interview from a NOBO (northbound) thru-hiker. When scrolling through that interview all I could think was, this man is crazy...
The first time I heard of the trail was on my first hike up Mt. Greylock with my two friends. We were sleeping in a cabin and about midnight we heard a knock on the door. "Anyone in there?" the voice asked. We let him in. The guy looked around and asked if he could sit down and pulled out a book called The AWOL Appalachian Trail Guide. I would later get to know this book very well. This guy was a section hiker (one who does the trail in sections instead of all in one year). He was on his last section, MA-ME. After he left we all had the same thought: Who the hell in their right mind would want to walk that far. We barely hiked five miles and want to drop dead. My thought process in the next two years would drastically change to who the hell wouldn't want to walk that far?
Some day in November 2016 I walked into the cafeteria and sat down next to all my friends and said, "Hey, so I might want to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. Who wants to walk 2,200 miles with me?" They all looked at me like I had two heads. A few nights later my buddy Trevor asked, "Are you serious about the AT?" Fast forward to June 14th and we're all packed up. I said goodbye to my friends, my dogs, my ferret, and my girlfriend at the time for the next five months. We piled into my mom's car at about 11pm and drove from Belmont, MA to Baxter State Park.
We arrived at about 7am at the bottom of the Helon Taylor trail to hike up the summit of Mt. Katahdin, the northern terminus of the AT. We reached the summit about five hours later around noon, taking our first official steps on the legendary white blazed trail. Our first night in Baxter I vividly remember thinking I had just made the biggest mistake of my life. How the hell am I going to manage walking miles on miles everyday? I can barely run a mile.
The first 100 miles changed my view on that so much. We met so many amazing people I will never forget in those first ten days alone. On the AT/PCT/CDT most people will earn a "trail name." All it is is a name that they earn one way or another. Mine was "Ramen King" because I lived off of Ramen Noodles for the first month or so, carrying about two gallon bags of it at a time.
The people I'll never forget
Troll, Ser Blue, and Broadway were some of the funniest people we've ever met. We hiked with them for about 50 miles all the way to Monson, ME. They never failed to make us laugh. Whenever we heard stories from other hikers who met them and had the chance to hike with them, all they had to say were amazing things and even their stories were hilarious to listen to.
Fuzzy (because he couldn't grow a beard) and I got hit with our first bad storm after the Saddleback mountain range. We were in the shelter when this 25 year old runs around the corner dripping wet. "What are you supposed to do if you're above tree line and lightning starts striking?! I nearly stopped walking and wrote my will in my journal!" This was Walker, and we would get to know him very well over the next few weeks. Turns out he lives a town over from us in Massachusetts. During all those miles we hiked together we cooked some of the best dinners I ever had on the trail. We would all throw in some random stuff (I always threw in Ramen) and made a huge potluck. I miss those.
DATA, a triple crowner (one who has completed all three of the big trails: PCT, CDT, and AT) would later help me move out to Colorado. We met at a water source in Pennsylvania for the first time and talked very little there, but over the next few months we hiked on and off with him. This guy let us poke his brain about the other trails, giving me inspiration to one day also become a triple crowner.
And finally there was Waker. The first time we met I remember him flying past Ducks and I on the trail. "There's no way in hell we'll ever see him again..." we said. Well, we didn't, not for a long time until we got hit with our worst storm on the trail. In the Shenandoahs in Virginia it rained 15 inches in three days. After a 21 mile day in trails that turned into rivers, we got to the shelter to see Waker sitting there reading his Kindle. He decided to take a zero day due to the torrential downpour.
Then there are the strangers that I'll never forget for other reasons...some strange, some kind, and some who I just don't know how to categorize.
The first person that comes to mind was hands down the nicest person I have ever met in my life. Ducks, Fuzzy and I hitchhiked into Gatlinburg, TN in The Great Smoky Mountains to resupply and I needed to pick up a new pair of shoes because the ones I had were eating the back of my foot. So we went into the outfitter there and they had a thru-hiker registry. Inside that registry there was number: Call for a place to stay. So we did, and this woman picked up and informed us that her house was under construction but we could sleep in their camper if we would like. We declined. About 30 minutes later she called back offering to buy us a motel room. Her kindness didn't stop there. Later that night her daughter and her drove to pick us up and took us out to some of the best food I had on the trail at a really nice BBQ place. We talked and ate and when dinner was over she drove us back to our room. "Ill be back in the morning to drive you back to the trail! You boys want breakfast?" She went out of her way again the next day to pick us up, give us Krispy Kreme donuts, and drop us off at the trail. But wait, there's more! She asked for us to write what we would like in our resupply. She then mailed all three of us a resupply filled to the brim with Poptarts, tortillas and peanut butter. Oh you think it's over? Nope. When they closed 37 miles of the trail, she drove two hours out of her way to shuttle us around those fires and get us breakfast again.
The next person was a trail maintainer who once thru-hiked and attempted a second. We were at the Fontana Dam shelter, which is right next to a road and a parking lot. As Ducks and I were eating our two-day-old Subway sandwiches, this guy comes over. "Hey! You guys want Mexican food?" I informed him I didn't have enough money so I couldn't come along. "What if I told you it was on me? When I thru-hiked, so many people did so much for me I'll never be able to pay it back, but I'll try." And he does. He maintains the trial and takes hikers out for dinner. That is one thing I also learned: I will never be able to payback what random strangers did for me. The generosity from people to complete strangers on the trail is mind blowing. If you ever have no faith in humanity and think people are terrible, you're not looking in the right places.
In the first 100 miles we encountered our first trial magic (defined as an unexpected act of kindness along the trail). We met this older man who had a cabin a few hundred feet off the trail. We slowly approached the cabin not seeing anyone, until this man comes out and invites us onto his porch. On this porch he had a grill, seats, beer, soda, hot dogs, and chips. The view from this cabin was a beautiful mountain about five miles back on the trail.. We sat and talked for a while with this man and he explained why he did this. His son thru-hiked the trail a few years back before passing away at a young age. He told us that he always thought the thru-hiking culture was crazy until his son showed him some trail magic. He learned that you don't need to be a hiker to be part of the culture, and he wasn't; he thought we were insane. We kept talking to him and when we learned about his son, he pointed to that mountain and told us his son's ashes were spread up there, and then said, "He was supposed take me up there one day. I wasn't supposed to take him." That shattered my heart, but you can see why he does what he does. He honors his son the way his son would have wanted to be honored.
There were dozens of others. There were random strangers who let us let us stay in their houses, people who left water were there was none for miles, people who gave us food, people who talked to us for hours about the trail, and one that I love: two ladies who tried to give me 50 dollars in a KFC because we looked homeless. We declined. The last two strangers I'll mention were at the Doyle in Duncannon, PA. One of them drunkenly stumbles into our room and tells us to go to his room. Why not? So Fuzzy and I do, Ducks stays behind. We go up to this very tiny room with a desk, hiking gear, bed, and most likely a brown recluse in the corner. The Doyle wasn't the nicest of places. Well this guy and his friend, who looks like Santa, have thru-hiked before and knew a bunch of trail legends. They were very close friends with Ms. Janet and the one and only Baltimore Jack. They spent the rest of the night telling us all of these trail stories, pranks they pulled, and just how to stay positive. One bit of advice that stuck with me and that I tell people whenever they tell me they want to thru-hike one day is, "You can be wet and miserable, or you can be wet and happy." This not only helped me with the trail, but gave me a better outlook on life; make the best out of a shitty situation.
The places we slept
The Doyle was a place we heard to stay away from all the way back in Maine; rumors of bedbugs, brown recluses, and just how filthy it is all around. How could we not see it? The owner offered us 15 dollars for a room with two beds, split three ways. Why not? We investigated the beds before putting our gear and clothes anywhere near it, and it seemed good. We never saw a single spider (besides in that guy's room). All lies you're thinking right? Nope. Definitely a filthy place. The showers had mold on the curtains up to your shins, the toilets were gross looking, and parts of the hallways look like they just dumped their old furniture there. At least the food wasn't awful and was decently priced.
The most common places we slept were in shelters/lean-tos. Some are much nicer than others with wood furnaces, some have doors, some have porches, some have mice, most have lots of mice. These are nice because you can just throw down your sleeping pad and sleeping bag and get right in after dinner; not too much to pack up. My worst experience in one was when I woke up to a mouse on my forehead because the guy next to me was sleeping with a bag of nuts in his hand. But you get used to the constant scurrying of paws in the logs and just learn to deal with it.
We also used our tents, but towards the end, due to the fact that it was so dry out and never rained (besides five days), we would just cowboy camp under the stars. Much like shelters it makes things easier because you don't have to set up and take down a tent. Most nights we cowboy camped I would actually sleep with my glasses on so I could see the stars.
In the White Mountains in New Hampshire there are also the AMC huts where you can ask for work to stay. Luckily we got that the one time we desperately needed it. At the bottom of Mt. Madison, we got hit with a huge storm. Once it died down we thought we were in the clear; most of the clouds vanished and the sunshine hit us. We got to the first peak and the sky darkened again and the rain got worse, much worse. Those mountains aren't smooth, they're all rock, so we were running on wet rocks in the pouring rain when we saw the hut. Once we reached the hut we could barely see out of the windows the storm was so thick. We asked for work to stay, and they told us no because they already had five people and they're only supposed to have four. But they let us stay they until the storm passed, except it didn't. It just got worse and worse until finally lightning started striking all around us and one of the hut mangers told us we could stay because it was too dangerous to let us go. There was no way I was leaving that hut in that weather.
And finally there are hostels and hotels/motels. I feel like I don't need to explain what those are.
First there were the mental challenges. This was the toughest aspect of the whole five months; getting up day after day to walk 20-25 miles, not seeing loved ones, dealing with pain, walking in what seemed like monsoons, walking when it was 90 degrees and extremely humid, etc. All of those things are extremely physical and most of all mentally draining. I'm going to categorize weather under the mental challenge. There were definitely times where I asked myself why the hell am I doing this? But those fade and you move on. When it rained for three days straight in Virginia we all stayed together; I don't know if that was on purpose, but it made it a whole lot easier to stay wet and happy. To help take my mind off the rain, I remember one storm where my phone got so wet I couldn't change the playlist for 27 miles. After a few hours I was able to see how far I'd gone by how many songs I went through. I listened to that playlist five times that day.
Another major challenge is physical pain. Everyone got shin splints, bad. To this day I still have a few foot pains here and there and I still have to wear compression sleeves when I stand for too long, run, walk, snowboard, or just do anything leg related. Be prepared to mess up your body; you're going to experience pain in one form or another. The first 100 miles Fuzzy had too much weight in his bag and his hip straps started to rub into his bones. It looked like he got hit with golf clubs on his hip bones, not fun.
Another challenge that people run into is gear and weight. If it's too heavy, you're going to feel it. If it's light, your wallet's going to feel it. If you can't afford the ultra-light gear, choose wisely. Know your gear and know it well. Test and know how to use your gear before you hop on the trail. The first three nights I had the hardest time setting up my tent because I never bothered doing it before, big mistake. My stove, the MSR WhisperLite, was only used once or twice, and it was not a very straight forward stove. Another thing is gear organization; you want to make sure your pack's weight is distributed evenly so that one shoulder doesn't take more of a beating than the other.
One of the biggest reasons people have to call it quits on their hike is because their funds dry up. I left my house with $2,600 planning to spend $100 a week. I was doing great until we reached PA/NY where there were delis at every road crossing. We didn't even bother carrying that much food because we could just resupply so often in the delis. I didn't check my bank account until we got to the Shenandoahs in Virginia when I realized I only have $300 left. I made it all the way to Gatlinburg, TN before I ran out of money. Luckily my dad was able to deposit $200 more into my bank account and I was able to finish on that, but if you're not careful, you can burn through you're money very quickly.
Not a day goes by where I don't think back on those five months on the trail and smile from all of the memories that I'll never forget; Fuzzy chasing a raccoon around a field at 5am because it stole his food; all of the people I talked about earlier, sleeping in public bathrooms in National Parks because there was the worst storm we'd ever seen outside; and of course, the overwhelming feelings of reaching the summit of Mt. Springer. Going to sleep that night, I was just thinking about how the past five months had been the best days of my life and I'll never forget them. There was sadness of course, but the trail really proves that it's all about the journey, not the destination.
To read the rest of Sam's memoir about his experiences on the Appalachian Trail, check out
his blog Mountain Man Photos where you can read more on the food he ate and the gear he used and wore.