Last year, my Chos-man Aaron Miller and I hiked the Appalachian Trail. For those who are unfamiliar with the AT, it is a 2,194-mile trail stretching from Springer Mountain, GA to Mount Katahdin, ME. Every year, aspiring thru-hikers start at one end with the intention of getting to the other before the snow starts blowing. On average, 25% of people who start a thru-hike of the AT finish it. Aaron and I were 2 of that blessed 25% who made it to the end. Along the way, we went by trail names, his being “Flippers” and mine being “Worm.”
Getting a trail name is a long-standing AT tradition, and the names usually come from a personality trait, characteristic, or event on the trail. Aaron was deemed Flippers because of his only-slightly-scary double-jointed ankles. I was named Worm thanks to a worm-pink sun shirt that I wore every day on a different long hike. Our friend Tenacity was on her 3rd attempt at an AT thru-hike (and she finished this one!). Snow Plow was the kind soul who start breaking trail after a long night of snow in the Smoky Mountains. Kidnapper was a dad on his 3rd thru-hike with his 3 daughters. Mozart carried a harmonica and Sunflower always had on his sunflower pajama pants at the end of the day. Special shout-out to Condor, 12-Below, Sunshine, Smiles, Miss Moss, Gumby, Faramir, Fruit Ninja, Prince, Smoky the Bard, the Jenneral, Road Show, Barba Rossa, Glue, Hot Mess Express, and everyone else in the AT Class of 2022.
One would think that on a 5 ½ month wilderness excursion, quality time with nature would be the most substantial takeaway. And we did appreciate the quiet. It was lovely to be so far from the noise of traffic and phones and television. We treasured the stillness, the chance to listen to the wind through the trees and the birds chirping. The oneness with the weather, being in the clouds, and always keeping a close eye on what the sky was doing. We noticed all the details – learning about different edible plants and watching the trees in the forests change as we moved north. Picking out bird species that we didn’t have at home, or noticing who we had followed north for the summer and left behind for the fall.
Aaron standing on Franconia Ridge, looking out over the White Mountains, NH.
The time spent marveling at God’s creation is something I deeply treasure, but the thing we find ourselves remembering the most fondly is the hiker culture. Just by thru-hiking, we were bonded with everyone else chasing springtime up to Maine. And by having thru-hiked, we have a connection to all past and future hikers. The culture of thru-hiking seamlessly blends self-reliance and community. All hikers are there to “hike your own hike,” but at the same time, we are all friends simply because we’re sharing this crazy experience. Even though everyone was hiking for their own reasons and at their own speed, we were brought together by the weather, terrain, wildlife, water sources, town stops, and constant hunger.
The insatiable hunger makes for a lot of weight in food to carry, but this burden is lightened by the generosity of trail angels. Trail angels are kind people who maintain a connection to the AT by doing charity for thru-hikers, usually by offering food. These food stations are called trail magic. Why it isn’t angels and blessings or magicians and magic, I don’t know. No one knew. But trail angels had a lovely habit of showing up in a time of need. I’ll never forget the little old lady who gave us oranges and Mountain Dews at the bottom of our last big climb of the day. So many kind people had burger stations set up at road crossings. Sometimes canned sodas could be found cooling in icy mountain springs, left behind for hikers to grab while stopping for water. A kind couple at the very end of Tennessee offered us a whole box of doughnuts and all the electrolyte mixes we could ever want.
Our most interesting trail magic happened on Aaron’s birthday. We were trying to complete 23 miles for his 23rd birthday, but it seemed that we wouldn’t succeed. Dejected, we plopped down in the middle of the trail to rest before going up the last mountain of the day. We were both a little bummed, but more than anything, we were exhausted. While we rested, a man came hiking down the mountain, wearing a bike helmet and carrying a squat, fat backpack. He offered us some water, and we chatted. Then he offered us some cinnamon candy, which we gratefully accepted. Finally, he took off his backpack and pulled out a Walmart bag. Placing the bag in my hand, he asked, “Is this still warm?” It was, much to my alarm. “Good, it’s a rotisserie chicken. Y’all are welcome to it.” I still believe this strange man was an angel sent from God, and that was the best rotisserie chicken that an angel has ever given us. Probably the only rotisserie chicken that an angel will ever give us.
Four months later, it is still difficult to find all the right words to describe this adventure. It was so hard, yet so easy. I’m glad it’s over, but I miss it every day. We had so few things, yet we always wondered if we were carrying too much. We were alone but also surrounded by people. It was a simple life of endless contradictions. We try to hold on to the values we had while hiking as we get our lives set up at home.
- Keep your pack light.
- Be kind to strangers.
- Don’t quit on a bad day. If you quit, you’ll just be back where you were, wishing you were here.
- Take some time to just listen. God speaks to us in silence.
- Brush your teeth and say your prayers. Drink lots of water and don’t forget to stretch.
- Wool socks are the only socks worth your money.
- Watch squirrels eat pinecones.
Seriously, it’s pretty neat watching a squirrel shuck a pinecone in under a minute.
Aaron and I owe a lot of our success to camp. He learned to backpack at Chosatonga, and then shared what he knew with me. Thanks to camp, we had the backcountry skills to stay safe, the stubbornness to not quit when it got hard, and the confidence to take the leap. We were very blessed to have the time to make this journey, and we’re so grateful for all the support we got along the way.
We got engaged on McAfee Knob in VA 🙂 No big deal, ya know.
Aaron on our snow day in NC. We caught the last snow of the winter as we approached the Smoky Mountains.
This bumblebee landed on my thumb while I was tying my shoe and that was pretty cool. This happened on the AT and otherwise has nothing to do with the trip but I thought it was special. 🙂
The Rollercoaster is a 13 mile section of Virginia notorious for a rapid succession of climbs and descents. After going nearly 1000 miles (we actually hit the 1000 mile marker during this section!), 13 hard miles didn’t seem so bad anymore. 1,193 miles to go from there!
The Appalachian Trail is perhaps 30% rock climbing instead of walking (PA shown below)
The rock climbing continues in Maine.
Aaron crossing a river in the 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine. The 100 Mile Wilderness is neither 100 miles nor completely wilderness, but it is one of the most remote sections of the trail.
”Hiking” / staring at the Appalachian Trail in disbelief
At the end of the trail, on top of Mount Katahdin. The ground was covered in ice and the wind was blowing like crazy, but the clouds lifted just in time for us to catch one of the most amazing views of the entire trail.