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[at-l] Decent AT article.
Merriam resident Bill Finnerty lives less than a mile from Dave and Pam
Western of Overland Park. Little more than Antioch Park separates their
homes, and just a year separates their birthdays. Finnerty is 53; the
Westerns are both 54.
Nevertheless, it took a 2,167-mile trail, a hyperextended knee and a couple
of worn-out ankles to introduce Finnerty and the Westerns to each other in a
tiny Vermont town recently.
The bad ankles belonged to Pam Western, a nurse practitioner at Children's
Mercy Hospital, who decided to take a crack at hiking the entire length of
the Appalachian Trail this year along with her husband, a dentist. The
Westerns, unlike 90 percent of those who set out with the intention of going
the distance, or becoming "thru hikers" on the trail, started at its
northernmost point, Mount Katahdin in northern Maine, on June 10.
North-to-south hikers on the Appalachian Trail can't start much earlier than
that, because Baxter State Park, where Mount Katahdin is located, is
generally closed by snow until June.
But three months earlier, Finnerty, a retired General Motors systems
manager, hit the Appalachian Trail at its southern starting point, Springer
Mountain in Georgia.
That's where Bill Bryson, author of a 1998 best seller titled "A Walk in the
Woods" that introduced the Appalachian Trail to thousands, began his own
trek - one that taught him what a "thru hiker" must go through.
"The woods," Bryson wrote with just a tad of hyperbole, "were full of
peril - rattlesnakes and water moccasins and nests of copperheads; bobcats,
bears, coyotes, wolves and wild boar; loony hillbillies destabilized by
gross quantities of impure corn liquor and generations of profoundly
unbiblical sex; rabies-crazed skunks, raccoons and squirrels; merciless fire
ants and ravening blackfly; poison ivy, poison sumac, poison oak and poison
salamanders; even a scattering of moose lethally deranged by a parasitic
worm that burrows a nest in their brains and befuddles them into chasing
hapless hikers through remote, sunny meadows and into glacial lakes."
Bears and necessities
The Westerns didn't encounter any crazed hillbillies, and they didn't run
across any bears in Maine or New Hampshire, though the latter state is said
to be populated by one black bear for every square mile.
"Finally, in Virginia, we saw a bear," Pam said. "I turned around and saw
this cub shinnying down a tree. It was a cute thing, but we didn't stay
around to look for mama."
By that time, Pam explained, the Westerns had sent their bear protection, a
canister of pepper spray, back home because, at 8 ounces, it had no longer
seemed a bare necessity.
One mistake almost every AT hiker makes is beginning the journey with too
many supplies. Within a couple of weeks of starting his journey, Finnerty
had purchased a lighter backpack, discarded changes of clothes and other
items, and lightened his load from 60 to 40 pounds.
The Westerns similarly shed pounds, but perhaps too late for Pam, who after
a couple of months of hiking through the challenging terrain of Maine and
New Hampshire developed tendinitis in her ankles.
"It wasn't getting any better with short rests," Pam said, "So I finally had
to get off the trail for about six weeks and get physical therapy."
After one those short rests, prior to leaving the trail in Massachusetts for
extended rest and therapy, Pam rented a car in Hanover, N.H. - home of
Dartmouth College and Bill Bryson - and drove down to rejoin her husband,
who had made his way to Vermont.
There, at a hotel in East Clarendon, Vt., last July, they met up with
Finnerty, who was almost in the homestretch but had suffered an injury.
"I had slipped on a rock and my left leg went sideways and kicked out my
right leg," Finnerty recalled. "My weight came down on my left leg, and I
hyperextended my knee."
Deciding he better get to a hotel, in case the injury got worse instead of
better, Finnerty hiked 13 miles to the nearest road, then, failing to hitch
a ride, hiked a good distance to East Clarendon. The next morning, Finnerty
took some Advil and decided he was fit to hit the trail again. But he didn't
much want to walk the span of road between town and the trail again, so
after spotting a couple with backpacks - and a car - Finnerty approached and
asked for a ride.
Long trail, small world
"They were going to drive back to Hanover to take the rental car back and
then try to get a bus or train to come down and get back on the trail,"
Finnerty said. "The husband asked me where I was from and I said 'Kansas
City.' When he asked me where in Kansas City, I said, 'Well, Merriam,
"He said, 'We're from Overland Park' and asked for my name and phone number
and said he'd like to talk to me when he got back."
Finnerty got back in early September, having completed his thru hike between
April 7 and Aug. 30, and that included taking two weeks off at the end of
According to Finnerty, between 2,000 and 3,000 hikers set off with the
intention of completing the AT each year, and only 200 to 300 make it. "The
average person who finishes takes over six months," he said. "If you take
off the two weeks I was home, I did it in just under four and a half months.
So I traveled a lot of miles every day, over 20."
That may not sound like a lot, but the Westerns will tell you it is,
especially in Maine and New Hampshire, where there are no switchbacks on the
trail and hiking often approximates mountain climbing.
"We enjoy backpacking and had wanted to do a really long trail," Pam Western
said, "and, of course, the Appalachian is the granddaddy of them all. It's
actually the shortest of the long trails; the Pacific Crest and Continental
Divide trails are longer. But both those kind of go up, follow a ridge and
then go down, whereas the Appalachian is more up and down. Finishing the
whole trail is equivalent to climbing Everest 16 times."
Dave Western is on schedule to pick up a resupply box at the post office in
Troutville, Va., today, and is expected to reach Springer Mountain around
the first of December.
"He's gone about 1,400 miles so far," Pam said. "I probably went about 600
End of the road
After her six-month hiatus from the trail, Pam's ankles had improved
considerably, allowing her to rejoin Dave in Virginia a few weeks ago. Then,
after the couple hiked into Waynesboro, Va., to pick up their resupply box,
they decided to partake of an all-you-can-eat Chinese dinner.
That night, Pam was awakened by a sharp pain in her gut. At first, she
suspected food poisoning. Instead, she had developed a perforated ulcer.
The Westerns, like most AT hikers, had spent 90 percent of their nights in a
tent or one of the crude, three-sided shelters along the trail. So it was
unusual, and fortunate, that they were in town when the ulcer finished
eating its way through Pam's stomach wall. She was rushed to a nearby
hospital for emergency surgery about three weeks ago. Now, Pam is back home.
"I'm still sick about it," she said of not being able to finish. "But by the
time I got in shape to go back, he'd be almost done. And now, I really have
to go back to work and pay off medical bills."
Pam doesn't even want to think of how much the trek cost in terms of
supplies and lost wages, she added. But, regardless of whether just one or
neither of them finishes, it was worth it, she said.
"I'm not a morning person," Pam said, "But once you get into the rhythm, you
wake up with the first light, you have a little breakfast and you hike
through this gorgeous country. You pick a beautiful spot for lunch, and when
you get into the shelter in the evening, you meet other hikers, and it's a
nice social time. Everybody's very generous and kind. People share food,
equipment and tips about the trail. And then you go to bed early and listen
to the night sounds, the birds.
"It takes away all of those things you worry about back home. ... Was it
life-changing? I hope so. I hope those unimportant things I used to worry
about will stay unimportant. But I go back to work Nov. 4, so we'll see."
Finnerty, a longtime outdoorsman, wouldn't go so far as to call his trek
life-changing. But he did realize two lasting impacts - a sense of
accomplishment and sore feet.
Sore feet and bug bites
"Your feet are sore from the first week," he said, "and they say it takes up
to a year after you're done hiking for your feet to come back to normal."
Foot problems end more AT hikes than any other physical problem, Finnerty
said, with stress fractures coming in at No. 2. Other physical challenges
include the bugs.
"When you start in the north, you have the toughest part of the trail in the
beginning, before you're in shape, and there are a lot of blackflies in the
north that time of year," Pam said. "They hatch out in May and June and,
along with the mosquitoes, are absolutely thick."
To prevent West Nile virus and other insect-borne illnesses, the Westerns
wore a lot of DEET, Pam said. "But they eat DEET for breakfast, I think."
"Blackflies leave a little hemorrhage instead of an itchy bump," she added.
Finnerty said he quit staying in shelters upon hiking north into
Pennsylvania because "if you didn't sleep in a tent, you'd just be chewed
"I'd stop hiking at the end of the day and, even though it was hot, put on
rain gear, because the nylon of my rain jacket was harder for the mosquitoes
to bite through," he said.
Though the conditions were challenging, Finnerty added, he did not consider
the trek dangerous. But then, as his wife pointed out, Finnerty has a
different concept of danger than most.
"How many kinds of poisonous snakes did you see?" she asked.
Six, he answered, adding only at his wife's prompting that an Army Ranger he
hiked much of the trail with almost stepped on a large rattlesnake.
"I saw one bear, rummaging through a state park in New Jersey," Finnerty
said. "But bears are herbivores, and no wildlife want encounters with
The only bear-encounter story he heard while on the trail, Finnerty said,
involved a hiker who had left out his food, which was promptly swiped by a
black bear. Because hikers carry only as much food as they need between
resupply points, he said, the suddenly foodless hiker decided to track the
culprit down and, upon locating it, tried to scare the beast away from his
"But the bear wasn't about to give up that food," he laughed.
Blazing away calories
When you're hiking the AT, Finnerty said, you burn 6,000 to 7,000 calories a
day, while consuming only 1,500 to 2,000. Considering that 3,500 calories
equals a pound, he said, one can do the math and see why he dropped from 203
to 163 pounds during his trek, even though he gobbled down pizza,
cheeseburgers and other high-calorie foods whenever he reached a town.
While on the trail, Finnerty's standard fare was dry cereal for breakfast;
beef jerky, candy bars, cookies and crackers during the day; and instant
noodles plus a three-ounce tin of chicken for dinner.
According to Pam Western, who came home 16 pounds lighter, she and her
husband ate instant oatmeal, Pop Tarts and granola bars for breakfast, and
nourished themselves during the day with nuts, sunflower seeds, cheese,
crackers, jerky and high-calorie gorp. For dinner, they enjoyed freeze-dried
meals, like chicken braised in wine and beef stroganoff, that they made up
at home to be mailed to 24 resupply points along the trail. "We were pretty
fancy," Pam said.
Water generally wasn't a problem along the northern and southern extremes of
the trail, the local hikers said. The Westerns, in fact, gave themselves the
trail moniker "Wakarusa," an Indian word for "knee deep," upon embarking on
the Maine portion of the trail, where 30 streams must be forded.
But because of this year's drought, added Finnerty, who was dubbed "Irish"
by fellow hikers, the springs and streams near shelters along more central
portions of the trail were often dried up.
Fortunately, Finnerty said, "ridge runners" hired by the nonprofit club that
maintains the Appalachian Trail left jugs of tap water at shelters and road
crossings. And according to Pam Western, "trail angels," who are often past
thru hikers or their relatives, often left iced-down soda and other treats
along the trail.
"It was so dry this year," Finnerty said, "that I don't think I got rained
on 10 times."
On one particularly hot and humid day, however, he reached a shelter at
about the same time a thunderhead did. Standing on a picnic table in the
driving rain, he said, he took off his shirt, squeezed dirty brown water
from it, then proceeded to do the same with his shorts.
"So I'm standing nude on this picnic table and one of the three guys who
were at the shelter said, 'You better put something on; there's a girl
coming around the corner.'"
The girl, who was in her 20s, heard the warning, Finnerty said, and shouted
not to bother on her account. "People on the trail aren't very modest," he
explained, and the girl didn't want to rob him of his moment of exhilaration
in the cooling rain.
Been to the mountain top
The varying, majestic scenery along the trail also was exhilarating, said
"Most of the time, the trail is literally in the woods, so your view is
trees," he said. But the trail also traverses countless mountain tops.
For those interested in a weekend hiking trip, Finnerty recommends the
Franconia Ridge in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, "where you hike
from peak to peak above the tree line."
For those who express an interest in following in his footsteps as a thru
hiker, he added, "I tell them to try it."
But be careful, Pam Western added.
"The most dangerous part is the trail itself," she said. "We worried more
about falling than we did about West Nile, bears or anything else. It's easy
to slip and fall, especially if it's wet. And we did fall, several times a
day," though fortunately not off of any cliffs.
After getting past the rugged mountain trails of Maine and New Hampshire,
the Westerns hit their stride, traveling 14 to 15 miles per day past
countless points of natural and historical interest.
"Greystone, the highest peak in Massachusetts, is an inspirational place
where authors once went to write their classic American stories," Pam said.
"And at one point in Shenandoah, we passed a stone wall that marked a
boundary that George Washington surveyed at the age of 19.
"You also go through several mountain passes where Civil War battles were
fought," she said.
Near its midway point, the trail also passes through Harper's Ferry, Va.,
site of Kansas abolitionist John Brown's ill-fated raid on a federal armory
on Oct. 16, 1859 - that's 143 years ago today.
Fortunately, her husband is well past the midpoint, Pam said, because, even
on the final, southern leg of the trail, it's likely to start getting pretty