Conquerors of the Useless

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I recently completed a southbound thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, and what I’m realizing now is that the only thing more difficult than walking 2,185 miles is writing about walking 2,185 miles.

One question I’ve received quite a bit since my return has been, “what’s the craziest thing that happened- like one really stand out moment?” And this is the toughest question to answer, because the thing I loved most about my AT experience wasn’t the specific, but rather the collective. To me, a long distance hike isn’t for the ‘thrill-seeker’ so much as for the ‘experience seeker.’ There were definitely some standout moments and truly unforgettable stories, but in many ways, hiking the AT is akin to life itself. There are highs and lows but there is also tedium; waking up each and every morning, putting on filthy cardboard-like socks, taking a bare squat with 30-degree winds shrinking your privates, and knowing that the only thing you’re going to do that day is walk. In a sense, you’re a prisoner to the trail and to its white blazes. But the upside is that you’re the most liberated prisoner around. You do the same thing each and every single day, and yet, you’re never in the same place. You’re always moving. You’re always seeing something different and new, always getting closer to a very tangible end. And it feels good! Simple as that. My time on the trail provided me with the most direction I’ve ever had in my life…. And that direction was south.

The journey begins! Fledgling John and Ry summit Mt. Katahdin on a foggy day.
The journey begins! Fledgling John and Ry summit Mt. Katahdin on a foggy day.

I started at Mt. Katahdin on June 23, 2013. Looking back now, I think the only thing that got me through the ruggedness of the north was sheer ignorance. Maine was an absolute beast! The tagline we created for it was, “Do you like nature and hate yourself? Well then come to Maine.” Rain, mosquitoes, black flies, roots, mud, fog, zero views, steep climbs. You name it, Maine had it. But at the time it didn’t matter at all; we had a blast in those early stages of the trip! Everything was so new and exciting. We were fording high rivers, summiting steep mountains, meeting ex-Navy Seals and bug-eyed ladies addicted to books, and reveling in the adventure of it all.

No footbridges in the 100-mile wilderness of Maine.
No footbridges in the 100-mile wilderness of Maine.

One of my favorite memories from Maine was traversing Saddleback Mountain in inclement weather, almost getting blown over at the top by 60 mph winds, and then descending into the welcoming town of Rangeley after 7 long, wet days in the wilderness. Once we’d showered and fully immersed ourselves in the creature comforts of the Old World, we made our way to the local dive bar for karaoke night. Now, I don’t know how many of you have been to karaoke night at a grungy dive bar in a small, logging town in Maine, but it’s a sight to behold. I sang Elvis Presley’s “It’s Now or Never” and had a horde of tiny little toothless old women dancing about as agilely as they could. It was awesome!

The sun sets over Pierce Pond in Maine.
The sun sets over Pierce Pond in Maine.

Eventually, we made it through Maine, and were instantly planted right in the heart of yet another monster of a section: the fabled White Mountains of New Hampshire. It would be an understatement to say that I was intimidated by this part of the trail beforehand, but it actually proved to be very rewarding! We got some beautiful weather through the Presidentials, and the views were simply stunning. Hiking became a pretty easy thing to do when every step unveiled yet another remarkable photo opportunity. And so we began hitting our stride, bagging our first 20-miler in the Whites, and finally starting to get these ‘trail legs’ everybody kept telling us about….

Getting a little intimated of the Presidential Range in the White Mountains.
Getting a little intimated of the Presidential Range in the White Mountains.

…But then my hiking partner got hurt. We’d heard that around the 500-mile mark the body begins to break down a bit, and that’s exactly what happened to his knees and Achilles. We were forced to take a number of days off the trail, and it was pretty miserable to be honest- aimlessly and restlessly bumming around small New England towns when the trail and all its freedom were waiting just beyond the concrete horizon. Needless to say, once he healed, we made an unspoken vow that we’d never zero (take a day off) again. And we didn’t for a long time.

Facial hair coming in strong. About to cross Bear Mountain Bridge in New York.
Facial hair coming in strong. About to cross Bear Mountain Bridge in New York.

We flew through the Mid-Atlantic flatlands. They were hot and kind of boring at times, but there was still some pretty neat stuff. From East Mountain in New York, you could see NYC’s skyline looming 40-miles off in the distance. (I remember thinking how glad I was to be on East Mountain rather than in the city). We also saw our first black bear- a big ole guy who followed us like a dog after my hiking partner tried scaring him off with a whistle. And we crossed the Mason-Dixon Line in mid-September around the anniversary of the Antietam Campaign of the Civil War. It was pretty neat passing over Maryland’s South Mountain on the 151st anniversary of the Battle of South Mountain- a battle in which two generals were killed (one on each side) and in which two future U.S. Presidents (Hayes and McKinley) fought.

Taking a breather after a steep climb up the Priest in Virginia.
Taking a breather after a steep climb up the Priest in Virginia.

After getting through the historical town of Harpers Ferry, WV, and entering the longest state on the trail in Virginia, we really kicked on. The wonderfully smooth trails of Shenandoah National Park gave us a nice reintroduction to the mountains we’d so missed in the Mid-Atlantic. We saw plenty of bears and ate plenty of junk food at Waysides sprinkled throughout the park. After Shenandoah we pushed some pretty big mile days while simultaneously managing to experience some pretty neat moments on the trail. Near Blacksburg, we arrived at our designated campsite around nightfall only to find that there was no water source. Luckily, a large group of Virginia Tech students, out for the weekend, gave us bottomless food, water, and alcohol, but most importantly human interaction! Two nights later we stayed at our favorite hostel along the trail: a place called Woods Hole Hostel, located 0.5 miles off the trail near Pearisburg and offering yoga, massage therapy, and local organic meals. A friend of ours met us there, so the next night, after a pretty short day, we camped next to a road that had a convenience store conveniently located half a mile away. We purchased hot dogs, marshmallows, and beer and proceeded to have a really wonderful cookout.

One particularly unhealthy meal in Daleville, VA. What the picture doesn’t show is half a birthday cake and three Mike’s Hard Lemonades on top of this.
One particularly unhealthy meal in Daleville, VA. What the picture doesn’t show is half a birthday cake and three Mike’s Hard Lemonades on top of this.

The next day, after saying goodbye to our friend, we went 24-miles before arriving at yet another really great location: a sports and recreation development called Fort Bastian. Run by a former member of the British Special Forces named Trubrit, Fort Bastian was a big plot of land with big ambitions. Trubrit envisions a camp replete with a shooting range, a ropes course, a paintball course, archery, and all sorts of hiking and mountain biking trails. For us, he supplied a roaring fire on a bitterly cold night and a delicious egg, sausage, and pancake breakfast in the morning.

A couple days later and we were in the famed Grayson Highlands- one of the coolest sections of the entire trail, full of grassy balds and wild ponies. Unfortunately, we were in a cold cloud the whole day, but this did little to curb our good moods. It was a Saturday, so a bunch of weekenders ensured that we were well fed and constantly accompanied by the nostalgic holiday smells of campfires and burning pine. Damascus was the next landmark to come. At a really wonderful restaurant called Blueblazes, we gorged ourselves on Philly Cheese Steaks and Happy Hour beer (the AT is kind of like a 2,200-mile bar crawl). The following day, we crossed into our home state of Tennessee, having made it through the 550 miles of Virginia in less than a month, with only one day of rain. No complaints there.

Hitchhiking to Boone, N.C.
Hitchhiking to Boone, N.C.

Our first day in Tennessee was our longest of the trip. In an effort to make it to our old college town of Boone, NC, we pushed 31 miles over a relatively easy section of trail called the Tennessee Highway and saw 8 bears in the process. After getting one hitch from a chain-smoking, airplane-bottle-drinking Tennessee Vols fan and another hitch from an App State geology professor, we were let out on the edge of an overwhelmingly familiar town. I’d spent four years studying in Boone and four months dreaming about it on the trail. And it was difficult to realize I’d finally arrived. I couldn’t believe it. I found myself shaking with excitement and unexpected nervousness. The first order of business was to calm our nerves with a large Mellow Mushroom pizza each - something we’d been fantasizing over since Maine. Then we spent four lazy zero days in Boone before getting back on the trail for the final 425-mile leg of our journey.

Sunset in the Smokies.
Sunset in the Smokies.

Tennessee and North Carolina proved to be my favorite states. Highlights included the Roan Mountain highlands, the cozy town of Hot Springs, Max Patch, and of course, the Smoky Mountains. Maybe I was excited to be close to home and almost done with my journey, but I remember being very happy throughout Tennessee and Carolina. The cold snap and resulting lack of human traffic on the trail made this stretch refreshingly lonely. It felt kind of nice to feel like the only person on earth. At many places along the trail, you simply do not feel like you’re in the wilderness- road crossings, towns, people, and shelters abound. But in this section, I felt like I did in Maine and New Hampshire: a true adventurer.

John looking pretty miserable due to his Giardia in the midst of a cold snap.
John looking pretty miserable due to his Giardia in the midst of a cold snap.

Georgia was a breeze. Only one day proved to have the steep ups and downs everyone told us about. Aside from that, it was pretty gentle, flat, and easy. It also had some surprising beauty. Our final day on the trail, an 8-miler to the summit of Springer Mountain, somehow took us through all of my favorite things: rhododendron thickets, crystal clear streams, and pine forests, which made for soft, pine-bedded trail. It only took 2,180-miles, but we were finally granted an utterly perfect trail!

On top of Springer, our families met us with champagne and snacks. We stayed on this underwhelming mountain for an hour or so, trying to capture some sort of epic feeling of accomplishment, but nothing came. It was nice to finish. It was nice to see my family. But other than that, it was rather anti-climactic. After descending to the parking lot, I rode 3 hours back to Chattanooga, stepped foot into the home I hadn’t seen in close to 5 months, enjoyed a shower and some lunch, and then watched my favorite soccer team, Arsenal, lose to Manchester United, as if nothing in the past 5 months had happened at all. As Patagonia CEO, Yvonn Chouinard, so brilliantly said, “We were conquerors of the useless.”

It all comes to an end: grief and relief.
It all comes to an end: grief and relief.

Before the trip, a big reason I wanted to hike the AT was to say that I had. Now I realize how shallow, inaccurate, and useless that reason was. When people hear of what I did, they’re momentarily impressed, but don’t really understand what it entailed and might not really care. And why should they? My thru-hike was a pretty useless accomplishment on paper. But I can’t explain how happy I am that I did it. It was the best five months of my life, and I can’t wait to get to the next long-distance trail and conquer some more uselessness…

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