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[at-l] Thruhiking - Reality?

Episode 6 came out of a dark period of Springer fever - and not
enough time on the trail.   All I've changed was "96" to "97".
After reading it again, I realized that it doesn't all fit as well as
I thought it did when I wrote it - but - c'est la vie, n'est-ce pa?

Walk softly,

I'm gonna ramble for a while about reality - Trail reality.
I'll start with the standard caveats -

1/ I'm only talking to the 97 thruhikers this time around
2/ This will be my personal opinion, experience and observation.
3/ Advice is worth what you pay for it - and this is free.
4/ I won't guarantee you'll like everything I have to say.
5/ I may wander off in strange directions
6/ As a thruhiker I am, by definition, insane and cannot
be held responsible for anything I say.

OK - so what's the point here? Just that I'd like to meet all
the 97 thruhikers on this list at the Gathering  - after you
finish the AT. There's an assumption here that you'll all
make it. But there are also a few mountains between here
and October - for all of us.

Reality is that only about 50% of those who start at Springer
every year make it past Damascus. And only 10% make it to
Katahdin. NOT nice numbers - but reality.

The question is - which 10% will make it ??? No one knows -
there is no "standard profile" of a successful thruhiker. I know
people who've tried for years to determine who will make it
and who won't. They don't know - neither do I. I know that age,
sex, experience and physical condition don't make any apparent
difference. Being young, strong and fast is no guarantee. I was
passed in Tennessee by a large group of college students doing
20+ mile days - one of them finished 1 day ahead of me, most
of them finished a week or more later than I did and some of
them didn't finish at all.  My Trail family had 2 people who
celebrated their 60th birthday on the Trail, a 76 year old 4
time thruhiker, 4 of us in our fifties and some younger folk.
Only 2 didn't finish - 1 due to injury and her partner.

There's no consistency in the reasons for hiking the Trail. Among
other reasons - some are out there for "fun" (whatever that is),
some to see how far they can get, some to prove something to
themselves, some as a "different" way to spend the summer,
some just go to keep a friend company, a few are out there to
party, and some are committed to go to Katahdin. A lot of us
hike at a change point in our lives - graduation, retirement,
divorce, death in the family, etc. Some start out not caring
about Katahdin and change their minds along the way. Some
start out committed to Katahdin and change their minds.
Personal opinion is that all of us are looking for something.
Some find it.

A lot of thruhikers (including myself) spend months sorting,
evaluating, weighing, refining and agonizing over what to
carry on the Trail - our equipment. And when we get out there,
we discover the most obvious of truths - the equipment doesn't
walk the Trail - we do. We just get the "privilege" of carrying
it. The equipment doesn't get anyone to Katahdin. What WILL get
you there is what's in your head and your heart - your attitude,
determination and commitment. I know - you think you need the
equipment. But most of us find that we don't need ALL of it.

And there's little consistency in the reasons people get off the
Trail. Some quit because of injury or illness. Shin splints,
stress fractures, muscle pulls, sprained ankles, tendonitis
and knee problems are common and to a large degree, preventable.

Some quit because they run out of time or money. The Trail can be
expensive, especially if you spend a lot of time in town - pizza,
beer and ice cream are expensive. The $1 per mile number is at
least 7 years old - don't count on it - it'll probably cost more.

But the main reasons for not finishing are head and heart
reasons - what some call lack of will. The Trail is a head game.
And a heart game.

Some of the reasons for quitting are related to pack weight,
speed and distance. It's not a lot of fun dragging a pack up Blood
Mountain or Shuckstack - and the heavier the pack, the less fun
it is. Some people find out it's not what they thought it would
be - sometimes it's hard and sometimes it hurts. Part of the
solution is obvious, isn't it? Lighten the pack.

Some get discouraged by the rain, snow, sleet and hail - not to
mention the mud. I was reading my log last night. I had all of the
above - in one day. I had one period when 19 out of 23 days were
rain, snow, sleet or hail - or some combination thereof. And you
may, too. There was one young lady who asked that "whoever
pissed off Mother Nature - please, please apologize".

Some get discouraged by sore legs and shoulders, by blisters
and chafing and foot pain and numb toes. All long distance hikers
get those - it's part of the package. Pay attention to your body,
fix the problems before they become serious and take aspirin or
Tylenol or Motrin at night so you can sleep. Just don't take
painkillers for hiking - too much painkiller can cause other
problems - like kidney failure, perforated stomach, ulcers, etc.!!
Not to mention additional damage because the painkiller masks
what your body's trying to tell you.

Some quit because they can't stand to live 3 or 5 or 10 days
without a shower. Or because they can't stand the thruhiker
smell - or because they can't face putting on that "toxic
T-shirt" in the morning.

Some quit because they don't like the mileage-consciousness
and competetiveness they see. The trail makes demands in
terms of time and mileage and a lot of us get all uptight about
making it to Katahdin and forget to stop and smell the roses.
I know people who planned to get to Katahdin in October so
they could see the leaves turn - and then hiked fast enough
to finish in mid-September. And then complained because
they didn't see the leaves turn. And I know 20 mpd hikers
who slowed down to 5 mpd in the Wilderness. Slow down.
Enjoy what you've got - it won't last forever. And for
some - it's better than a job.

I had to make some decisions about mileage too. My contract
said I didn't have to do 20 mile days to get to Katahdin - and
I didn't. But I changed my contract in Virginia to read that I
could do 20's if I wanted to. And I did. But it was my choice,
my timing, my contract, when I was ready for it. It was my

There are some who quit because they lose sight of their goal.
Katahdin is a long, long way when you're in Georgia or Virginia
or even New York. It's sometimes hard to believe you can walk
that far, or that Katahdin even exists. So I used the things I
could believe in to draw myself up the Trail - one day, one mile,
sometimes one hill at a time. Some days it was Hot Springs or
Damascus or Delaware Water Gap. Sometimes it was the next
shelter, or the top of the hill - or the next 100 steps. Or a
shower - or ice cream.

Personal opinion is that some go home because they see
themselves changing in ways they don't understand, didn't
plan or can't control - and they're not ready for those
changes. Or can't tolerate them. Or don't want them.

Barring injury (watch out for wet roots and rocks - and
bog bridges!!) those who get to Damascus have the physical
conditioning and knowledge to make it all the way. So why
do so many drop out after Damascus?

North of Damascus, a few drop out because of illness, injury
or pain. But most quit because they're tired or bored. Almost
all of us get tired or bored at some point. WHAT?? You mean
the Trail can be boring? Yep, grinding out 20 mile days in PA
and NJ and NY can be a drag - even when it's where you really
want to be. Not that you have to do 20's, but what else are
you gonna do with those long days?

And we all get tired. A surprising number of people quit at
Gorham, NH. Some even quit at Monson. Think about it - 5 to
6 months on the Trail - How many mountains? How hot was
it? How much snow? How bad is your vitamin deficiency?
How hungry are you? These are serious questions - when
I got off the Trail, I couldn't drive at night because of a
vitamin A deficiency. By the time they get to Maine, some
people can't carry enough food to keep their bodies going.
Some of them don't keep going.

The Trail isn't all fun and sun. But it's not all doom and gloom,
either. There's a bumper sticker that reads - "No Rain, No Pain,
No Maine". So what gets us through the rain and the pain?

Sometimes it's optimism - after 6 days of rain, at least you
know the springs won't be dry. When you're swarmed by the
 mosquitoes in NJ and Mass, you can be thankful they're not
wasps. After 3 weeks of drought, at least you won't have to
 put on wet socks in the morning. Experience teaches that
change is constant - tomorrow the sun will shine, tonight I'll
have a full stomach, in 2 days I'll get a shower. And after
1200 miles of fog, rain and smog at every overlook, one
clear night on Pleasant Pond Mountain made it all worthwhile.
Each state brings it's own people, features, events and emotions.

Sometimes it's humor. Have you ever looked at yourself after
6 days of hiking? Do you know what the word "smelly" means?
Or "trudge"?  Do you know how much thruhikers love pain?
Do you care?

Sometimes it's common sense or knowing the answers. But
none of us knows ALL the answers. So sometimes it's learning
from others - they have answers that we don't.

Sometimes it's your friends - you know - those dirty, ragged,
 smelly people you hike with every day. What would you do
without them? Could you stand the thought of them climbing
Katahdin without you?

Sometimes it's getting off the Trail for a day or 3 and getting
a good night's sleep and filling the gigantic hole that's caused by
"hiker hunger". And then finding that we miss our friends and
the Trail - and the pain and the rain.

Sometimes it's Katahdin - especially after you've seen it
for the first time.

And sometimes it's just the faith that God really does know
what He's doing - and that He might explain it to you someday.

So now you know a few of the things you'll run into besides
cantankerous stoves and broken pack frames (yeah, that
happens too). And you know there are solutions to everything
you'll run into. No, I didn't give you all the solutions - I only
gave you a few of mine - they work for me. They might work
for you - or they might not. You need to find your own. Then
it becomes your choice to use those solutions or not. For
those of you who decide to solve the problems and keep on
truckin' - I'll see you at the Gathering. You can tell me about
it there.

Go all the way - it's worth it.
Jim Owen
Bald Eagle, AT-92

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