Burning Calories and Crushing Miles

Dec 15, 2021 | Adam Trufant

By Sean Callahan – Chosatonga Wilderness Staff ’21

Sean Callahan on the Appalachian Trail

It started with a phone call, and ended with 102 miles on the Appalachian Trail. 

Back in April, I received a call from a friend encouraging me to pursue a summer backpacking leadership position down in North Carolina. After researching and noticing the outdoor components of the Chosatonga and Kahdalea program, I applied. Director Jeffrey Trufant offered me the job and the rest was history. 

Among the wild and crazy adventures I experienced this summer, leading eight highschool guys on the trail was definitely number one. 

“Unless you want to kill’em, don’t start off the trip with 12 mile days, and make sure to feed them good food to get them acclimated,” said David Trufant, Jeffrey’s father and owner of Chosatonga and Kahdalea. “Otherwise, they’ll hate the trip and you’ll hate it too.”

The first day, July 18, started out smooth on — my fellow counselor, Noah Graham, and I remembered Trufant’s advice and started off hiking eight miles. 

After the first eight, we pitched camp on the side of the trail. As I scouted ahead by myself for a better campsite, I thought back to a conversation with Graham about meeting crazy people on the trail. With that in mind, I thought I might be murdered in the next 10 minutes as I hiked alone. Thankfully, I’m still here to tell the tale. 

Cooking on a campfire

For our first meal, we fixed bacon, cheddar cheese, and bagel sandwiches over the camp stove that night — the key to success is frying the bagels in the bacon grease. 

Over the course of the trail, we made jalapeno and cheese quesadillas buttered with mayonnaise. One evening, we mixed our hot cocoa packets together with the pancake batter that resulted in a chocolate flavored flapjack. Though we lost our spatula, we instead decided to use a fork until the plastic teeth melted over the stove. 

A particularly memorable meal happened on the fourth day of the trip. Graham was on kitchen patrol for the night and chose to try and cook a spaghetti meal. He wanted more experience in the kitchen, he said. 

It had been a 12 mile day, and after he announced dinner, we gathered around the picnic table as he dished out pasta. When one of the campers took a bite and spit it out, we knew something was wrong. 

“I need water,” Graham said. “It’s overwhelmingly salty and chilly. This is so bad. It’s still in my mouth.” 

Graham had thrown two packages of pasta in with three packets of tomato paste and two packets of chili seasoning. He added twice the amount of chili seasoning and tomato paste than needed for the recipe. As a result, we dubbed him, “Sir Spicy Pasta.”

Another fun meal was the time I cooked spaghetti. Earlier in the trip, we had lost our friend, “Sasquatch the can opener,” so I needed to improvise. The pasta was sealed in a freeze-dried container. I thought I would be innovative and use a dead log to crush it. I unsuccessfully only managed to create a giant dent in the can, and a major safety hazard. We resorted to a pocket knife and a rock as the hammer. 

Hours of hiking

Our longest day on the trip rounded to 17 miles of brush, steep uphill, and ridge hiking. We climbed a 5000-foot mountain called Bald Mountain located along the Tennessee and North Carolina border. 

Though we hiked all day, we were still ready to celebrate. At Chosatonga and Kahdalea, we traditionally celebrate Christmas in July. 

Graham and I broke out in Christmas carols for most of the day on the trail. Later in the afternoon, we surprised the tired group by buying presents in the form of pop tarts, 40 cent snickers, and ramen from a local hostel. 

Each evening, we slept in a shelter. I was rather wary of the shelters given that mice had broken into two of the campers’ snack bags. 

At one pavilion, I thought I was watching cat and mouse. With the head of a shovel, one of my campers was trying to eliminate the risk of future mice invasions. After having his whole snack bag ransacked, he seemed determined to have revenge on the pests. 

Keeping with the trail culture, we also decided to give each other nicknames ranging from Ratatouille and Chef, to Knife Safety and Porky. 

The trail was also a time for spontaneity. On one particular day, we passed by a rock face and reenacted a full blown two minute production of “The Circle of Life” from “The Lion King.” 

Long time Chosman Noah Graham was Sean’s asst. trip leader on the AT

Making friends

After reaching our campsite for a night at Spivey Gap, we stopped at a spring to refill our Nalgene water bottles. Water stations were the place to meet interesting folks on the trail. 

“Yeah, I don’t use a filter,” one hiker said. “I’ve been out here for three months now, and I’ve been drinking straight out of the spring. The other day I finished 30 miles and it wiped me out for the next couple of days. But you know, I met this buddy of mine on the trail and he has been keeping me mentally and emotionally sane.”

Our trip climaxed during the hike up Roan Mountain, which stood 6000-feet in elevation. We arrived at the base of the mountain on Tuesday, July 27 with the aim of climbing it the following morning.

Despite hiking 15 miles, the campers pushed us to continue for a night hike, leaving at 8:30 p.m. 

We opened the evening trek with 80s music, ranging from “Never Gonna Give You Up” by Rick Astley, to “The Rubberband Man” by The Spinners. 

After four hours of hiking, we made it to our destination — Roan Mountain Shelter — at around 12:30 a.m. 

Later that morning, as we cooked and ate PB&J flapjacks, we met another interesting fellow called “Trippy Hippy.” His real name was Michael Polly, but like all frequent travelers of the trail, he received a nickname. His appearance and demeanor struck me as a pioneer. 

“If I had it my way, I would’ve been born in the 1800s,” Polly said. “Everyone is stressed these days. What people need is to take two weeks and come out here. This is peace.”

He thought he needed to quote Scripture every other sentence, but I know he had his reasons.

Another essential part of trail life is camping near a water source. On our last evening, Graham and I had located a spring in the area on the map, but were out of luck. We decided to go on a mission. After bushwacking for about twenty minutes in one direction and having peeled off at least the first layer of our skin from thorns, we heard a running stream. We gave a sigh of relief until realizing that we still had the hike back to our campsite. 

After about three trips through the thicket, we had paved a nice trail for any future inquisitors for the water source. We thought it was an honorable deed given the sacrifice we made with our legs. 

The final view

Our last few hours finished with a 360 degree view overlooking the Appalachians on Big Hump Mountain. It was the last uphill of the trip. The eye can only see miles and miles of endless mountain range on the horizon, and not much beats the silence on the top or the freedom of knowing what it means to be alive. On day one, we thought day nine would never come. Certain days that were filled with hardship or seemed exhausting now had their place. 

July 26 was a bittersweet day for the group, as it was our last day together. I guess we did something wrong, because our smell was not as pungent as groups from past years, or so they said. Now I know for next time. 

Since we felt cheated of our calories on the trail, we ended our drive home with a visit to Little Caesar’s and a North Carolinian food chain called Cookout. 

Everyone devoured a whole pizza and a milkshake, and we successfully accomplished 102 miles on the Appalachian Trail.

Sean Callahan – Wilderness Staff 2021