The spark first ignited in a kindergarten in London while sitting with some colleagues listening to the stories of Laura, who had recently returned from the trip of a lifetime, ‘thru-hiking’ the Appalachian Trail in America. My friend Marijke turned to me in awe and made a passing comment that we should do it one day. Fast forward two years, one failed and one successful attempt to get a Visa, dozens of people telling me I was crazy, hundreds of dollars spent on gear, many practice hikes and the reading of all the books I could get my hands on, and that passing comment became a reality. Ahead of us was 3,500 kilometres and 14 states worth of white blazes that would lead the way on a journey of a lifetime. I was not sure if I would actually be able to achieve such a task and a couple of people had told me I’d fail, but I was out to prove them wrong and, boy did I have some fun along the way!
Although I had read many books and hiked every incline in a 40km radius of my home, I had never actually hiked and camped overnight before stepping foot on the AT. I remember the butterflies in my tummy and that nervous anticipation the morning before setting out. I had way too much in my pack, mostly through fear of being cold. Someone told me early on that the more fear you have the more weight on your back and I certainly found that to be true. Marijke and I set out in late March, springtime in the northern hemisphere, and the first night was bitterly cold. The Appalachian trail starts at Springer Mountain in Georgia and most ‘thru-hikers’ begin their trek in spring and take 5-7 months to complete the journey north, avoiding the winter months. At the time I hiked (2010), the average yearly success rate was around 15% of those who set out to complete the full 3,500km. A few thousand started the journey and a few hundred completed it. In the first few weeks all the hikers size each other up and secretly wonder if the person they are looking at will still be there in the end. On the third day I had to leave the trail to seek medical advice because I had injured my knee from carrying too much weight. It was at that moment I truly doubted my abilities and had to do some serious thinking. The doctor told me to lighten my load, rest for two days, wear a knee brace and sent me on my way with some high strength Ibuprofen. We hung out at the Walayisi Hiker hostel and watched many fresh faced, enthusiastic hikers come and go and desperately wanted to re-join the pack. After some rest and a ‘pack shake-down’ (a process where they take literally every single item out of your pack and only put back in what you really need) from an experienced hiker, we were back on the trail and ready to move forward.
Along the trail there are three-sided wooden shelters built near water sources for hikers to sleep in. They are a welcome sight after a long day of hiking, especially if it is raining. A tent, tarp or hammock is also essential if there is no space in the shelter or you are not near a shelter when calling it for the day. Also, particularly handy if there was a loud snorer in residence or some weekend hikers who were up for a big night. About 9-9:30pm was known as hiker midnight and after a long day on your feet most thru-hikers would be tucked up and sleeping soundly by that time. I was worried how I would sleep with a thin mattress and exposed to the elements, but I don’t think I have slept as well at any other point in my life! (Especially now with a young child.) It is quite magical sleeping under the stars in the middle of the woods surrounded by nature and the kind of darkness that you do not experience living in suburbia. Particularly special if you are near a water source and fall asleep to the tricking sound of a stream.
There are black bears along many parts of the trail and a new skill we had to learn was hanging our food bags in a tree to keep them away from hungry bears. This turned out to be more difficult than it sounds, and our first attempts resulted in much laughter and many failures. The idea is to tie a rock or something heavy to the end of a rope and toss it over a tree branch, not too close to the trunk because bears can climb. Then you lower the rock down, untie it and replace it with your food bag, which is then hoisted up to a safe height. We were laughing so much that our attempts got worse every time! In my preparation I had read about all the things that could possibly hurt or harm me along the way and it was the bears that had me most worried. I ended up seeing ten bears along the way and I soon realised that they were not to be feared. I just kept my distance and appreciated them from afar. They would stop, acknowledge me, realise I was not a threat and move on their way. Absolutely magnificent creatures that I learned to appreciate instead of fear.
I had to overcome many fears along the way. I was afraid of the dark, heights, being alone, spiders and creepy crawlies, among others. It was a real achievement overcoming those fears and I learnt to believe in myself a little more and know that I could be brave in the face of fear. I was particularly frightened of being by myself out in the woods. One night I purposely stopped short of the shelter that I knew would offer the hum of a campfire and friendly company. I set up camp near a stream and spent the evening journaling and being present in my own company. Admittedly I went to sleep with my earphones in because the silence was all too much, but I did it. I was so proud of myself! That was the one and only night on the trail in six and a half months that I spent alone!
I did not realise it was going to be such a social experience and undoubtedly my favourite part was meeting so many incredible people. The humour, generosity, kindness, and courage that I saw in people was truly inspiring and uplifting. Travel has been a huge part of my life and I feel like I am a better person for all the people I have met. It allows you to see things from a different perspective, be more open-minded and see the bigger picture. If not for travel I would never have met these amazing human beings from all walks of life. I remember sitting in an Irish Pub in a small town in Georgia, USA, just off the trail. There was an Aussie, a Kiwi, a Mexican and an Indian all sitting together at this table sharing our experiences and enjoying each other’s company. The generosity of people living near the trail really showed through in something hikers know fondly as ‘trail magic’. It is a term that basically describes any kind act performed to help hikers on their journey and it usually involves food. I was known for my luck in being in the right place at the right time to soak up all the ‘trail magic’. Sometimes we would be hiking down a mountain heading towards a road crossing and a group of friendly locals or ex-hikers would have a BBQ set up cooking up a storm for all the hikers at no cost. Or we would stumble across an Esky full of cold drinks and snacks with a note to help ourselves. At other times we were welcomed into people’s homes and offered a shower, bed and food. What incredible kindness from total strangers.
Apart from the people on the trail, the stunning scenery, flora and fauna continued to amaze me throughout the journey. Most of the other hikers were American, and they often laughed at my child-like fascination with the plants and wildlife, as I was experiencing it all for the first time. I stopped and stared every time I saw a squirrel or chipmunk or even just to look at the different types of trees or flowers. Many Australian trees have twisted, bendy trunks and branches shooting off in all directions and I was in awe of the tall straight trunks of the trees in the Appalachian Mountains. The spring flowers were so beautiful and abundant, and the lush greenery is so different from the South Australian scrub. There had been severe storms earlier in the year, so we had to navigate our way over fallen trees with enormous root systems that had been ripped out the ground. I saw bears, squirrels, chipmunks, weasels, raccoons, woodpeckers, a skunk, rattle snakes, a dead mole, copper heads, deer, moose, and many spiders and insects. I got stung by a yellow jacket wasp, bitten by ticks and mosquitoes and shared shelters with mice who made many attempts, some successful, to get into my food bag. I also met many wild-looking, hairy creatures along the way who resembled mythical yetis but were just male thru-hikers that hadn’t shaved in a few months.
Hiking a long-distance trail comes with its challenges and the mental challenge is just as tough as the physical. There were days where I wondered what on earth I was doing out there and why I was punishing myself. Those feelings did not last long and were usually fixed with some food, rest, and some encouragement from a fellow hiker. One thing the trail offered in abundance was the time and space to think, be introspective and ponder the meaning of life. Without the hustle and bustle of everyday life your mind has the opportunity to wander and go off on tangents that our usually busy lives do not allow. I had ideas and schemes and thought about the most random of topics. It was totally freeing and gave a deep sense of calm. No alarm clocks, no deadlines, no tasks to accomplish, people to please and no phone or technology. My objectives were simple; hike forward, find water, food, and shelter. What bliss to go seven months in total without a phone! How I would love to escape the reliance on my phone again.
Every 4-5 days we would stop at a road crossing and hitch a ride into the nearest town to resupply. I would call home from a hostel or payphone or update my family and friends via Facebook. Whenever I got into town it would be a tough decision about what to do first. Often my hiker hunger would win, and I would seek food first, but sometimes a hot shower and clean clothes became the priority. Many hiker hostels had a basket of spare clothes that you could wear so you could wash all your hiking clothes at once. We often looked like we were heading to a fancy dress op-shop party in our hilarious clothing combinations, and it became a bit of a contest to see who could look the silliest.
Being out in the woods was inspiring and I wrote a few poems whilst I was hiking. I have always had a love of poetry but finding time in everyday life to write can be tricky. In each shelter there was a shelter log, and each hiker would sign their name and sometimes write a message. It was great to read messages from hikers I had met who were ahead of me. I often left a poem in the logs and on occasions a hiker would catch up to me and tell me how they had enjoyed my poems. It was such a nice feeling. (See pages 22-23 for some of Tara’s poems– ED). The Appalachian trail is a well-defined path in most parts and is marked by white blazes, which are strips of white paint usually found on trees but sometimes on rocks or signs. Most of the trail is in the woods surrounded by trees. The reward for reaching the top of a mountain is often a spectacular view and a great sense of accomplishment. You are almost always walking either up or down and very little of the path is flat.
Scattered between the woods are balds, waterfalls, lakes, farms, road walks, ridges and occasionally the trail passes right through a town. Most hikers carry simple maps that show where the water sources and shelters are, but detailed topographic maps are not required.
I have a terrible sense of direction and only got lost a couple of times on my journey. A trail that leads off from the main path to water or shelter is marked with a blue blaze and I always took note of which way I turned onto the side trail. Left in, left out! I came across a couple of hikers who made the realisation they were accidentally hiking back the same way they had come, resulting in much frustration. Most people tended to hike by themselves during the day and then spend the evening socialising around camp. People with similar hiking paces and interests tended to group together and I formed many friendships along the way. I was pleasantly surprised by the number of females on the trail and whilst it was not even, there were more than I had anticipated.
By halfway I was feeling confident in my abilities and making it to the end was feeling like a real possibility. Each state brought different challenges and rewards. In Pennsylvania the water was scarce, but the rocks were plentiful. Virginia is the state with most miles and to some felt never-ending. Vermont is known for its beauty and greenery but also the incredible amount of mud to squelch through. New Hampshire offers punishing terrain and big climbs. There was something to love about every state and section too. The warm hospitality in the south, the spectacular views and the Hiker festival, Trail Days, in Virginia, the boardwalks in New Jersey, the gorgeous autumn colours in the New England region. As we approached the final weeks and days of the journey, I had conflicting feelings and emotions. I was weary and longing for the finish, but I was also dreading the completion of such an incredible experience. I was no longer Tara, but Lift’n Step, the poem-writing, Aussie in the pink dress who had hiked from Georgia to Maine. I loved my new identity and, although my hiker name was given to me due to my clumsiness and number of falls, I became quite fond of it.
On the very last day we arrived at the Ranger’s Station at the bottom of Mount Katahdin. The finish line is at the top of the mountain and it is one of the most difficult climbs on the entire trail. There is a system in place to warn hikers of the potential weather dangers on any given day. There are three ratings, basically a green – all clear, yellow – proceed with caution and red – not safe to hike. The weather was not looking particularly friendly on our summit day and we were given a yellow rating. A small group of us began our final ascent to reach the coveted end point, adorned with a sign to take photographic proof of reaching the trail’s end. Below tree-line, the weather wasn’t too bad and we walked with great anticipation. The rain began to fall and the temperature dropped significantly. Then the wind hit as soon as we emerged above the tree line. The rain turned to sleet and was stinging our faces as the wind whipped it sideways. A few hikers had turned around and decided to summit another day. We were pressured by time limits and flights and decided to press on and stick with our plan. The hiking turned to rock-climbing and visibility was poor. I had to lean into the wind so it didn’t knock me over. A fellow hiker had abandoned her poles because she needed her hands to hang on and climb the rocks. Another hiker had her beanie whipped right off her head and completely disappear into the storm, never to be seen again.
When we finally reached the sign at the summit, there was not much time to enjoy our accomplishments and celebrate. I was seriously worried that the effects of hypothermia would kick in if we spent any more time than necessary at the top. It was so cold and wet that some of our cameras would not function. It is obligatory to have your photo taken with the sign, so I snapped everyone’s summit photos with my working camera and then we began our descent. I was on a mission and wanted to get off that mountain as quickly as I could. The adrenaline was pumping through my body and I got down with impressive speed. By the time we reached the bottom we were all soaked through and I couldn’t feel my hands or my feet. The rangers in the station said to us that it probably should have been rated as a red day!
What an epic end to an epic adventure!! Six and half months, 3500km and 14 states!
Pilgrims on the Camino wIll identify those feelings described by Tara of pleasure, discomfort, friendship, adventure, and accomplishment. EDITOR