Inspiration from the Appalachian Trail
Updated: Dec 16, 2020
At TripPossible, we're always trying to find new ways of inspiring our followers to discover new places. A close friend of ours recently returned home from the adventure of a lifetime: hiking the Appalachian Trail. Her story was inspiring and eye-opening, and we thought it would be the perfect topic for us to write about.
To protect everyone’s privacy, people mentioned in this interview will be referred to not by their real names but by their trail names. A trail name is a nickname bestowed upon someone by fellow hikers. Generally, the name has some connection to a hiking experience or to the hiker's life. My interview subject became known as Kibbles, and her hiking partner earned the name Smurf.
COVID-19 has made quite a few changes in all our lives this year, and for Kibbles, graduating in-person with her high school class and beginning her freshman year on a college campus became a far-off dream. As she sat in her room watching a series of video calls about what life would be like at the University of Cincinnati, all she could do was dread going to college.
A friend had recently deferred her freshman year at school, and another friend had always dreamed about hiking the Appalachian Trail. Unbeknownst to Kibbles, the seed of adventure had therein been sewn. By the end of the same week, her friend (Smurf, as she will come to be known) had deferred from Harvard and Kibbles had deferred from Cincinnati. The two began talks about hiking the Appalachian Trail, joking that they would become granola hiker chicks and grow out their armpit hair. But gradually the jokes morphed into legitimate hiking plans.
Most people plan for the AT at least a year before their trek begins. With summer already halfway over, their plans would need to take shape rapidly for them to even finish half of the AT before winter began. They met with people who had hiked the trail before and visited with RRT [Roads Rivers and Trails – a local outfitter] to get advice on how the trail life would work and what their best gear options would be. Both young women were inexperienced hikers at best. Accordingly, their outfitting mostly consisted of borrowing what they could find, aside from buying clothes and new backpacks.
No brand new thru-hiker should begin the AT with borrowed gear and zero combined nights of backpacking experience. So, a two-day test hike in Kentucky's Red River Gorge was in order. Within the first 30-minutes they became lost, eventually rejoining the trail, and they constantly battled a swarm of bugs. Despite the near-awful experience they didn’t waver, mostly because they had already told people their big Appalachian Trail plans and there was no way they'd take that kind of embarrassment.
So, Kibbles dyed her hair blue, packed up her mom’s minivan with all their gear, and the two headed out to hike 1,096 miles from Pennsylvania to Georgia, the southern half of the Appalachian Trail. Her story continues below...
Nick: What compelled you to do this?
Kibbles: I was playing “pirates” with the kids I nannied for over the summer, and as I sat in the “dungeon” I flipped open a book on the National Parks and was instantly hooked. It dawned on me how much of the world there was and how little I had seen. My life had become very stagnant and safe, way too comfortable. And I was in a house that was on the verge of exploding from quarantine. I felt stuck.
Conveniently for me, Smurf’s plans to au pair internationally were falling through one after another. I don’t remember the exact moment we both decided we wanted to hike the trail, but it mostly consisted of jokes back and forth, and the trust that neither of us would give up. It was the first time in our lives we had really made a decision that was unexpected and one that was so completely out of our comfort zone.
Nick: How many miles did you hike? Across how many days?
Kibbles: We hiked a little over half of the trail’s distance, starting in Pine Grove Furnace State Park in Pennsylvania on September 1st and finishing on Springer Mountain in Georgia on October 31st. In total it was 1,102 miles across 62 days.
Nick: Describe your daily routine.
Kibbles: Adjusting to the trail life meant we were always changing environments and situations which didn’t allow for much consistency in our routine. We started just waking up with the sun, which was usually around 7am, and we would get our food down from the bear bag, eat breakfast, change into our day clothes, pack our bags and start hiking. As the days wore on we started meeting more people, which gave us more of a reason to go to bed later or wake up earlier to hike with them.
We found the days felt easiest if we got most of our mileage done in the morning so that by lunch we were more than halfway finished. We would stop for lunch and stare back and forth for a while, neither of us wanting to get up. It usually took an hour or so to finally get back on our feet. Then we met Murphy (his trail name came from Murphy’s Law), a very skinny, blonde 24-year-old from Columbus. He would make fun of us for how much our gear weighed and for how slow we were. In a way his bullying made us change from stopping for lunch to consistently snacking throughout the day instead. Without stopping it kept our bodies from resting into a certain position and it held off the after-lunch low. We ate when we were hungry rather than gorging on all of our snacks and then overeating at lunch.
For a while we followed Murphy. He grew on us and we came to love him so we pushed to keep up. Our mileage went back and forth at the beginning with an average of 14 miles per day but by the end we were at an average of 20. When we got to camp, we would unpack our bags, cook dinner on our stove, and then hobble over to get in our sleeping bags. On the nights we were alone we listened to a nightly podcast to distract us from the fact we were in the middle of the woods where no one would hear us scream.
When we met two boys our age, we started hiking a lot farther and longer so we would often wake up at 5:30am or earlier, or get to camp when it was getting dark. The one thing that was consistent was our journaling; we both journaled each night about our day, who we met, how far we had gone, and about whatever our laughing fit was about that night.
Nick: Did you have any wildlife encounters?
Kibbles: Unfortunately, there weren’t many wildlife encounters for being in the woods every day. We saw several deer, which isn't very remarkable being from Ohio, but we also saw salamanders and tree frogs. We did see a ton of snakes including a rattlesnake and a copperhead, both in Virginia. We met a man that looked like a bear but the only real bear I saw was dead, on a chain, being pulled down the trail by hunters. I would have expected myself to be more upset by the sight, being mostly vegetarian, but for some reason I was just more in awe of how different my life was from the hunters.
I was unexpectedly astonished by what we found at the end of Virginia. We saw the famous miniature ponies of the Grayson Highlands that love to come lick the sweat off you. As we were searching for them in the forest, with moss crawling up the trees and on these magical stairs made from rocks, it felt more like we were looking for unicorns. The Highlands also have a heard of long horn cattle that were grazing majestically on the tops of 6,000-foot mountains.
Nick: What food(s) did you grow to love or hate?
Kibbles: We met a lot of people who found their soul mate on trail, but for me I fell in love with my morning Poptart sandwich. It is a layered delicacy that consists of one fruity poptart, a scoop of roughly four times the serving size of peanut butter, a sprinkle of the most sugary cereal I could find, and capped with the other Poptart. It was my trail version of the classic PB&J and it never came to disappoint.
My breakfast definitely out shined the rest of my traimily (trail-family). Rock-Steady, a redhead from New Hampshire, tried mixing his cheddar grits with a mango energy powder which resulted in him holding his nose in the corner for over 40 minutes trying to get it down. Smurf enjoyed a smorgasbord of Little Debbie's mini muffins and banana moon pies. Mock, a boy that was either singing or talking in an accent, usually created a concoction of brownie mix and oatmeal with a side of a morning parody he had made up. Both Smurf and I came to hate Knorr pasta sides and we instead relied on ramen and instant potatoes.
Dinner was probably my least favorite because it usually was a pile of mush I created to try and stop feeling hungry. The whole traimily loved strawberry sugar wafers after Murphy got us hooked on them. We often shared desserts and dished out a spoonful of veggie powder that valiantly failed at giving us nutrients while we lived off gas station food. Whenever we would get into town, we would gorge on anything cold, hot, or heavy. Pretty much anything we couldn’t carry in our backpacks. We ate at Subway often because it had the most veggies on its menu. I craved fluffy bread and anything hydrated. I stopped carrying fruit snacks because their calorie per ounce was not high enough to be worth carrying on the trail, so anything fruity was my favorite.
Almost all of us at one point ate ourselves so full that we ended up vomiting, which goes to show how crazy your body can act when under a constant calorie deficit. In the end I could eat pretty much anything I wanted and as much of it as I wanted without gaining weight, so why would I pass up that opportunity? There was never enough food until there was too much inside me, and by that point it was too late. Despite this constant cycle every time we had access to fresh food I did it all over again.
Nick: Describe your most difficult moment.
Kibbles: After a long line of injuries (a foot problem, a knee problem, then an ankle problem), we were climbing the 3,000-feet out of the Nantahala River Valley. I went to bed trying to recover from my ankle and woke up to increased pain and tightness in my other calf that I had been trying to ignore for the past two days. I could feel how incredibly slow I was moving with a full bag of food. Every 5-10 steps my calf would get extremely tight and then the front of my shin would feel like it was being cracked in half. That sounds extremely dramatic but even after all the previous pain I was surprised at how much that small part of my body could make me feel so helpless.
We finally summited and after trying to hold in tears I kept thinking about calling my mom. This was the most physical pain I had ever been in, and being only 100-miles from Springer Mountain I called her and told her that I was miserable. I wanted to finish so badly and now only a few miles from the end I felt like I couldn’t go on. Smurf had gone ahead - we had planned to meet at the fire tower and she didn’t know I was injured so badly, so I don’t blame her (I was walking like a turtle).
I hung up as my mom tried to look at a map for me because I didn’t have access to one at the moment. I decided I was going to have to keep walking anyway so I got up and hobbled along. I started thinking I was feeling better because I couldn’t feel it every step. My hiking poles became my crutches, right as I started feeling okay the worst pain I had felt so far shot up and down my shin. I jumped on to the other foot in surprise and burst into tears again. The pain was bad but I think most of the tears came from knowing how close my goal was, and how I might not be able to get there after all the hard work I had put in.
I knew the only thing I could do would be to keep going. There weren't any roads for three miles so I kept walking, jumping back and forth between feet while crying hysterically. For a second I started laughing at myself because I knew how silly I looked. I could barely breathe; my inhales came in short bursts of three, overcome with sniffles and phlegm. As if matters couldn’t get worse a hiker came up the trail from around the corner towards me. I tried to look down at the ground and balance my breath as he said, “lookin good!” I was puzzled obviously because I was not looking good at all, which he quickly realized. He started asking me what was wrong, and I asked him if he had seen Smurf. He told me she wasn’t too far ahead. Through my gasps for air, I tried to explain what was going on, though I am pretty sure he never fully understood why I was crying.
I zoomed out on my situation and realized I had come on this adventure to find something. Something life-changing, and here I was falling apart, crying, and this withered man with a camouflage bandana somehow made me feel like it was all ok. He asked me if I wanted to sit with him, and I thought why not. We sat down on the side of the trail. He asked me where I was from, about my life, I think mostly to try and distract me from the pain so I would calm down. He told me how proud he was of us for coming this far and for all the things I did back home. His eyes were tired and kind, like they had cried a lot of tears.
I don’t know how the conversation got so deep but he ended up telling me that he had been a drug addict for 31 years. He told me about how he had lost everything; his wife, his children, everything. He told me how much he hated rehab and how they have you come in and identify as your problem, “Hi I’m Rob and I am an alcoholic”. I sat and listened as I watched the tears drip down his wrinkled cheeks. He sniffled and wiped them away saying with a chuckle, “Here I was thinking I was going to help you, but now you have helped me more.” He smiled looking at me and asked if he could give me a hug. At this point there wasn’t much reason to say no. He hugged me and started to cry harder. He said, “you remind me so much of my daughter, pretty blonde hair and blue eyes. I haven't been able to see her in years.” I started to cry, and for the first time in my life I found them oddly comforting.
We said goodbye, and I kept hobbling along where I eventually met back up with Smurf. We walked together to the closest road where I waited for a shuttle to pick me up and she kept walking with the boys. I took two days of rest to try and recover at a hostel. While it did help, I was still hurting by the time I got back on trail but decided I was so close to the end that I would just walk through it. The first day or two were rough but by the time we summited Springer Mountain I was finally feeling good again. I was happy that I had met the challenge, pressed on, and decided not to quit. I learned that there will be a point where you want to give up – everyone has one – but it’s whether you decide to push through it that makes the difference.
Nick: What changed once you returned home?
Kibbles: It was strange going from being completely on my own to having my parents drive me back home from the hike. Being in my bedroom was weird; I didn’t feel at home like I expected. I had changed out on the trail but was then thrust straight back into the same stagnant environment, so of course I had to change my home routines. I gave away most of my belongings cleaned out my room to the very bare minimum. I started reading instead of watching TV, and after months of processed food I started eating an almost plant-only diet. I cooked a ton, made new recipes and dabbled in veganism. But I love cheese and yogurt too much so that died pretty quickly.
The thing that did stick was that I started listening to my body more, rather than listening to what diets and workouts I thought were going to give me a desired physique. The trail helped me to see food as fuel rather than something I was trying to avoid in order to lose weight. It also reinforced how much happier I am when I exercise regularly, so I changed my lifestyle by focusing on what made me feel my happiest and best.
Nick: What's the most beautiful thing you saw?
Kibbles: My favorite part of the trail was the Grayson Highlands. They were almost magical, the views were gorgeous as you move in and out between bald mountains and forested areas. It's crazy how fast the landscape changed, and there were cattle and tiny ponies! Before the Highlands I hadn't seen anything yet that totally took my breath away. If you decide to do section hikes, my favorites were the stretch from Daleville to Dragons Tooth, the Roan Highlands, the Smokies, and Blood Mountain. I also really enjoyed Uncle Johnny’s hostel in Erwin, Tennessee and the climb out of town is gorgeous in the morning.
Nick: What surprised you the most about the journey?
Kibbles: I was surprised at how much physical pain I got from walking. Going into the hike I forgot that it’s hard to climb up a hill, and in my mind it was only walking so I didn’t think a stress injury was possible. By the end I realized I was very stupid to have endured four different stress injuries, each becoming worse than the last. I don’t remember the pain, so it slips my mind sometimes that the injuries were a part of it. Through the physical toll it took on my body I realized that pain really is only temporary. Once you get to the top of the mountain you just forget the pain you were in during the climb.
Another thing I didn’t expect, and probably the most important thing, was how good of friendships I made. The thing I was looking forward to most was the Appalachian Trail atmosphere and it was better than I ever expected. We met so many interesting people; the trail towns were overflowing with kindhearted people, all with different stories. I became best friends with people that, if I had met them in real life, I don’t think we would have been friends.
I got really close with four different people on trail who were all so completely different. One was a 42-year-old, ex-military nomad who went by Kramer. He was out trying to write a novel while waiting for his military pension to come in. He was the first real friend we made and the first person on trail to remind me what it was like to die laughing. His book will be called An Appalachian Tale and Smurf and I have a whole chapter, so when it hits the shelves check it out!
Next was Murphy, who made fun of us terribly for anything he could find. At first, we kind of hated him, but being the only person for a while we stuck with him. We stayed at a hostel together and he came out wearing women's clothing from the town clothes box and since then we started becoming close friends. We jumped back and forth with each other on trail for a while, but we never went more than a few days without seeing him again. He loved Latin, his spreadsheets from back home, and ate bags of candy instead of meals.
The last two were Rock-Steady and Mock. They were friends before the hike and besides their love for running they were very different. Mock liked to sing at all hours of the day and night, he can’t take a shower without falling (I guess because porcelain had become such a foreign thing to him), and he enjoyed sleeping on the side of the trail waiting for us to catch up. Rock-Steady was probably the leader of our crew, or just the most impressive of the bunch since he came all the way from Maine. He did not sing quite as well as Mock, but he is gifted when it comes to impersonating Napoleon Dynamite.
Smurf and I weren't super close before we left, so getting to know each other was fun. We fed off of each other's laughter and wheezing almost non-stop. We only had two fights, both lasting about 5 seconds and ending with us laughing about how we just had a fight. I expected that I would be the most uncomfortable and also the happiest I had ever been. Both ended up being true.
Nick: What advice do you have for someone hoping to hike the AT?
Kibbles: First, talk directly to someone who has hiked it or watch YouTube videos of people who have done it. This way you’ll get the best tips about gear and the process of getting used to the trail life. Take a test hike before you leave so that you know what gear you won’t use; you can leave it at home.
Second, listen to the famous saying “hike your own hike”. This can refer to how fast or slow you hike, but more importantly it’s about your mindset. Everyone hikes differently but everyone thinks differently too. Smurf likes to plan and do a lot of research, and to be honest I really just threw myself into it and winged it until the end. But it doesn’t always work like that for everyone; prepare, hike, and live your life on trail in the way that works best for you.
Third, remember that there is always something good waiting around the corner. If we had given up when we considered it, we never would have met Rock-Steady and Mock who I now consider best friends.
I only have fond things to say about the trail, but if you had asked me these same questions while I was on trail my answers probably would have been different. When I think back, I rarely dwell on the parts where I was so extremely uncomfortable mostly because the good parts were so much more impactful. The founder of Patagonia defined true adventure as “a journey in which you may not come back alive - and certainly not as the same person.” I think that best explains the kind of adventure we are all looking for. My words are not as inspiring, but my hope is that you do what excites you and never hesitate; if it's crazy you have the right idea.
Nick: What's next for you?
Kibbles: Hiking the south half of the AT has probably been the best time of my life so far. After a week of enjoying the perks of civilization I already missed the trail, the community, and most, my friends. I don’t have definite plans for the future, but my hope is to finish the northern half this summer. In between I have been creating a plan to explore the western USA using Amtrak services, though the technicalities of that plan still need to be worked out. Right now, the most solid plans I have are to live with family in Portland, Oregon and work there until April. Hopefully I’ll go to visit my cousin at college while stopping at Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks along the way. I plan to start the northern half in late May so I can intercept the northbound hikers of 2021 when they pass halfway.
I can confidently say that hiking the AT was the best decision I have ever made, and the experience was the best time of my life so far. The Appalachian Trail is a community I hope everyone has the privilege of experiencing at some point, whether you’re a day hiker or a thru hiker. Know that it is not easy, coming from someone who really underestimated it. Like I said, there will be a point where you want to give up – everyone has one – but it’s whether you decide to push through that makes the difference.