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  • Writer's pictureMarie Smysor Watson

Consider the Mountains: An Appalachian Trail Story (Part One)

Happy first day of September! I've been quiet on here for a few weeks, I see. Unusual for me to be quiet ever, anywhere, but it's been a busy time-o-life. Boys moving, driving, becoming adults - and not caring if it breaks their poor mother's heart (or gives her more gray hair.) But they're all settled into their own lives for the time being, so I finally got to sit down this week a ye ole computer and pen a few lines. I've been meaning to write this for FOUR months... I guess it just needed to percolate. Probably better for all of you reading that it did. So enjoy the first part of my hiking adventure - more to follow in the weeks to come!

***IF YOU'RE WAITING FOR THE RELEASE OF MY LATEST BOOK, I PROMISE, IT IS IMMINENT! Our Own Precious Places will be available for release in two weeks - September 15th - just in time for the last week of summer (or the first week of fall if you choose a slower shipping method; either one will be a perfect time to read it!) Many, many thanks, as always, for reading...

See? All you gots to do is follow the signs...

At the end of Day One, we trudged into camp, wrecked. Not as wrecked as we would be the next day, but still. Good thing we didn't know that. A touch dejected too, both of us. Blue, a guy we had just met at the watering hole, was setting up his tent like it was no biggie, which it probably wasn’t because I could tell straight off that he was a thru-hiker. He looked very clean for a thru-hiker, but he hung up wet underwear on a clothesline he pulled from his pack, so I knew he’d probably been on the trail for a good while. We set up our own tents with only a bit of trouble from the rocky hillside and walked the few steps downhill to the shelter.

“Seven point eight miles,” Dad said, shaking his head. I echoed him, my voice hollow. Seven point eight miles may sound like a hell of a lot, but on this trail it's akin to walking to the mailbox. No matter that we had woefully over-packed, we were not prepared for ten days of this.

In April, Dad and I hiked the Appalachian Trail. Not the whole thing mind you - our simple goal was to hike the entirety of the AT through Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, so not quite 110 miles. Sounds like a monumental undertaking, but the AT officially stands at 2198.4 miles in length as of this year (three miles were added in New York State, the rest in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Maine). Truthfully, we didn’t even hike the 1/20th of it we set out to do. Weather, circumstance, and ill-placed blisters kept us from achieving our goal, but you know what they say about best laid plans. All told, we ended up actually hiking only 52 miles of the 107.7 we had planned, not counting the 11.2 miles we were shuttled in a downpour on Day #3 by the same guy who dropped us off at the trailhead on Day #1 in Waynesboro, Virginia (we did have to hike down to the road and into the next shelter - over two miles total - in a complete gullywasher, so we're not total wimps). Although if we were thru-hiking, I would definitely count those road miles. Honestly, I count them for myself anyway. Fine - 63.2 miles. That 's my final answer.

(Nothing on the AT is every final, by the way, because I'm not even counting the one time we had to backtrack, nor that the shelters are usually so many tenths of a mile off of the trail, or the water source is, or that fact that on our last day hiking we wandered all over Big Meadow Lodge Campground because it is that big and that confusing. So probably 70 miles total. Probably.)

“Hike your own hike,” we were told from the beginning. It took us the better part of a week to understand this, but now we do. It means you can’t compare yourself to anyone else on the trail. There are young people on the trail who are COMMITTED (or should be, at any rate) to hiking at a certain rate of speed, 20 plus miles a day or more. There are old people too, committed to passing every single white blaze (the white blazes are painted on trees, rocks, or posts, and they signal that you are indeed heading in the right direction and haven’t veered off the trail. Believe me, it’s easy to do). There are purists and there are cheaters and both of them are out there hiking. Nothing is considered the best, except in your own mind. It needs to stay there - hike your own hike.

Dad (aka Dennis) at a rehydration station (aka some random spring)

No way were we keeping up with 22-year-olds. We had no desire to, and certainly lacked the ability even if we wanted. I was 45 years old in April, and Dad was 73. Certainly not too old (we met a couple of guys also in their 70’s on the first day), but hopefully too smart to even try to keep up. We figured we could do at least 2.5 miles an hour, even with 35 + pound packs on. In practice at home, we could walk three mph easy, 3.5 if we were hoofing it. And we did practice. We had several trial runs, packs and all, at Mississippi Palisades State Park near Savanna, Illinois, and Jim Edgar Panther Creek State Fish and Wildlife Area near Chandlerville. Double digit hiking miles, packs loaded. Our last run prior to departure was at Starved Rock State Park, near Utica, Illinois. I even fell twice there, almost face-planting on a paved road. Got myself up, brushed myself off, feeling dumb, but unharmed. There’s some steep climbs at Starved Rock and at the Palisades, thanks to the bluffs of the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers, respectively.

Knowing my age, and the considerable weight that I would be carrying on my back, I added weight training to my workout months prior to leaving. I used hand and ankle weights, but also got a specialized strength-training routine written up for me at the local community college, and continued it at home with the used home gym that Dad so graciously gifted me. This is all to say that I was doing what I thought I needed to do to prepare my tall, sturdy, middle-aged body for a long hike. Dad himself committed to daily long walks with his pet beagle, Maisie, and his pack. A lifetime of self-imposed outdoor projects had readied him otherwise. Clearing brush from the woods, felling trees, building yet another deck - he keeps his aging body fairly well-tuned. Good genetics plays its part too; his mother - my grandmother - is still alive and approaching her 99th birthday.

Dad’s the one that also had the time to make sure our gear was up to snuff. He did internet searches for the best gear and most helpful hacks to make sure we were ready. He watched countless YouTube videos, forwarding along the ones he thought might be most helpful. We felt ready, probably over-ready. A typical thru-hike of the AT takes approximately five months. We were only going to be gone for ten days. We could do this; it wouldn’t be that hard.

All we forgot to consider were the mountains.

To be continued...

One of the lovely views we encountered - although all a hiker sees are more damn mountains to climb!

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