Just so you know in advance: I am off the AT and I am not going back. Ever. After completing The 100 Mile Wilderness section of the hike I got off trail and didn’t look back. I had zero remorse over quitting, I had to get the hell off that trail. So what went wrong?
I was feeling positive after a very fun first day on trail. I got my stuff packed up and headed down the trail, hacking and coughing as I made my way through the trees. And this is where things get blurry because frankly, there wasn’t a lot on this trail that I felt was particularly noteworthy. I remember going through some really cool section of old forest, transitioning to just.. forest.. then I walked along a river for a ways until I hit a dirt road at Abol Bridge Campground. I ran inside the general store and grabbed a few bags of cough drops and a handful of packets of alka seltzer, the only form of cold medicine they had to offer. I’d also just read a book recently in which the main character was dying from something and basically overdosed on Vitamin C because it’s supposed to help your body flush things out. I don’t know if that’s true (gonna google that right now.. nope, no definitive evidence), but I grabbed a bag of Vitamin C chews as well. Yay books.
I made my way down a dirt road, across a bridge, and into the forest for a few hours until I hit the first shelter on trail where a bunch of super noisy hikers were yelling and screaming and whistling the theme to Jurassic Park. With a new song stuck in my head I wandered into the forest and found a semi-flat spot to set up my tent.
The next day I just… wandered through trees. That’s essentially it. This is where I started to realize I was starting to feel a little weary about the success of my SOBO attempt, but I tried to remain positive. I stumbled along the trail feeling like shit mostly because when I get sick, no matter what it is, it almost feels like a death sentence to me. My body just shuts down and is reluctant to spare any energy at all. I finished the day by summiting and descending a mountain which offered me a nice view of Katahdin in the distance as well as a lake I’d be camping near. I was hoping to set up near a shelter since it had a water source, as well as it was really the only viable campsite I knew of within stumbling distance of a sick man. But when I arrived I saw only a city of tents and hammocks, nowhere to camp. An entire boyscout troop was set up there with some AT hikers along the outskirts, and the shelter was being used as the camp kitchen. Basically they were hoarding the whole damn thing.
Don’t get me wrong here: I don’t mind sharing the wilderness. I won’t even get a little upset if someone set up their tent basically right next to mine. You just share, that’s what you do. But this kinda pissed me off. They’d basically settled there and owned the place with no room for the rest of anyone ever backpacking their way through the wilderness. I saw a lot of crushed or angry faces going north over the mountain, and to their dismay I had nothing but bad news for them, that there wasn’t much camping the way I’d come either. As I walked passed the shelter I didn’t do so with clutched fists, I just kind of dragged my stubborn sick-self down the trail hoping I’d find something soon and hoping that maybe it was a good thing I didn’t camp at the shelter. When I did eventually find my campsite the sun was starting to set, but I was elated to see I’d be camping right next to the huge lake I’d seen from the summit of the last mountain.
I set up my tent, ate dinner, went through the brush to get some water from the lake where I noticed a big group of teenagers camping on the beach to the left of me doing teenager things like pushing each other into the water and all that. As I filled my bottles I heard them make note of me and listened to them make plans to try to scare me by screaming “OH MY GOD BEAR!”. I heard them snicker and say “Okay on the count of three. One… Two…”, they all started laughing and wimped out. I chuckled and went back to my campsite. I guess sound travels really well across bodies of water because I could hear them clear as day, unknown to them.
I collapsed in my tent and fell asleep.
The following day is where my doubts about this trail started go grow. I didn’t get any views at all, the best I got was crossing some dirt roads and getting some refuge from the ever-growing claustrophobia I started developing being stuck in the trees all day. Beyond that it was all spent walking through deep, thick, boggy, muddy trail. It started to really screw with my head so I started thinking about stopping for the day, though it was still early. I found a campsite in a marginally large clearing of trees near a lake and felt calm there, and set up camp. The lake wasn’t too bad either, but it was just another lake on a trail of many lakes. Before I fell asleep I decided I’d try to do a 30 mile day the next day. I don’t know what this trail is, but I was hoping it’d get better. Earlier I’d talked to a guy and expressed my lack of enthusiasm about it thus far and he was basically shocked that I’d say such a thing about the 100 mile wilderness, and also said “This is pretty much it”, meaning the scenery wasn’t really going to change sans The Whites in New Hampshire. Fuck.
I woke up determined the next day, packed up, and flew down the trail passing nothing really worth mentioning sans a waterfall I didn’t even get a picture of. Again I feel the need to tell you: I was just walking through the trees. That’s it. That is this trail. People will say that it has views, all the picture galleries of the trail and trail videos paint a somewhat different picture as well because no one’s going to upload 1,000 images of just forest. I eventually passed a little lake where I heard thunder rumble in the distance, and it started to rain. From there I could see the first mountain I’d be going up and over since Katahdin. It was just a modest round lump in the ground for all intents and purposes. I got to the top, noted that it had little to offer in the way of views, and went back down.
I was still feeling good and was on track to do a 30 mile day time-wise. I was a little over halfway done and it was only noon. But then I met the next course of mountains I’d be going up and over starting with a behemoth called White Cap mountain. As I ascended I started to accept that a 30 mile day wasn’t going to happen, and that was fine. I set a goal, didn’t make it, whatever. My goal at the end of the day was to just hike as far as I possibly could, giving it a number just helped my mental focus/gave me something to do. As I climbed up White Cap the rain died down and blue skies found me, which gave me hope that I’d have a nice view at the top.
I got to the top and was totally stunned with the view. It was definitely better than the view from Katahdin, it may actually be one of my favorite views in general! But I couldn’t stay long as clouds were about to swallow the mountain whole, and I have a rule not to be on top of mountains when a potential storm is on the horizon. In general it spells out a not-so-fun experience. I descended and found a campsite on the saddle between White Cap and the next mountain. With the storm blowing in I was a little unsure of my campsite selection, but it was either this or I continue on and probably get caught in the storm on top of the next mountain so… there I stayed. I didn’t do 30 miles, but I came pretty close at 23 or 24 miles done for the day, which considering how incredibly fucking slow hiking on the AT can be at times was good enough for me.
I ate dinner, got into my tent, and a half hour later I heard people coming up the trail near my camp. They were NOBO section hikers and had the same concerns I did about being on top of mountains under potentially stormy conditions so I offered to share my campsite with them. They were quick to accept.
I got up early the next morning with the same goal: Let’s do 30 miles! Though it would be harder today than the last because I had 3 mountains left on this range, then I had another 3 mountains ahead of me towards the tail end of my planned day. I had my doubts, but I pressed on anyways. I hit my ultimate frustration with the trail here. I have problems with the AT: First off is obvious, the lack of views was driving me crazy. I couldn’t stand being in the forest for that long. Second off: I can’t hike at my own pace. It isn’t like a dirt path going through the woods like every trail I’ve hiked in the history of ever, it’s basically an obstacle course most of the time meaning I can’t start walking and just get into a rhythm (which is a major thing I love about hiking), you’re climbing up and over, down, and around things while occasionally slipping and landing on your ass because all the rocks and roots are damp and slippery. Third off: Where’s the adversity? If the adversity of this trail is basically just “I don’t like it”, then I can’t see myself lasting very long on it. Every hike I’ve done has always had an undertone to it that just gave it life. This trail has none, it’s just me and the woods and that’s it. And lastly: Where is all the wildlife? I became increasingly aware that I’d spend most of my day in complete silence. I’d go long stretches without hearing birds, I didn’t see any deer let alone any signs of moose. There were no tracks in the mud. There were no branches breaking around my tent at night. Nothing. Just a handful of squirrels and a barrage of frogs. The forest seemed dead.
I made horrible time that day because it was spent in the ever-expansive obstacle course that is the AT. I wasn’t upset that I didn’t do a 30, I was just frustrated that I can’t just walk down a trail. I love scrambling, I love making my way through natural obstacles, but I was getting a god damn overdose of it on this trail. At some point I started to recognize that I might end up hating hiking if I stay on this trail any longer, so I said “fuck this trail” and decided I’d be getting off when I reached town, which still seemed like an eternity away, though in reality it was only a couple days away. Again I did 20+ miles, but I wasn’t in town yet. I wasn’t even really camped in a proper campsite, it was more like a resting spot wedged between two mountains. It was lumpy and slanted downhill, but it was the only place I could set up my tent. The silence here was pretty deafening, the lack of any sign of wildlife was starting to bother me so I turned on a podcast while I finished setting up/making dinner. This place is fucking weird.
My last long day on trail was pretty much nothing. I walked through some forest (surprise!), walked over some mountains, and went through even more forest, blah blah fucking blah. I thought a lot about why I didn’t like the AT. I even had like this deep hatred for it and it didn’t make any sense to me despite having actual reasons I could put into words. I spent most of my time on this section feeling panicked and desperate to just get out that I was trying to push myself to do 30 mile days when I really should have just been keeping it to 15 to let my body adjust. I worried that maybe the magic of long distance hiking is just over for me, that I’m not thru-hiker material, that I need to move on with my life and forget about it. The thought that my time hiking last year was just a one time thing made me incredibly sad. I don’t want to hate this, I want to keep hiking… I just can’t do it here. My last view on the AT was on one of the last real mountains I summited (I believe), and it was hands down the best I’d had all trip. I didn’t stick around to enjoy it.
I found a decent campsite near a shelter and went to bed without eating. I felt drained and just done. I just wanted to get to town and ultimately go back to my favorite side of the United States with all its crazy-cool rocky mountains and deserts that inspired me to get into this lifestyle in the first place. The east held absolutely no inspiration to me at all. I’m never gonna try to hike this trail again. I already had zero aspiration of hiking the triple crown because it means fuck all to me, but now I really don’t care about it.
The next day I threw everything into my pack and hiked the 2 miles out to the highway, got a ride into town, got a private room at a hostel so I could be alone with my thoughts. I spent the first day sleeping mostly, the next day I kinda stayed in my room the whole time aside from meandering around town here and there to get food and check things out. I left the following day and I went to Missouri to stay with my aunt to sort my plans out, which also gave me the opportunity of seeing the total eclipse which was well worth getting off the trail for alone.
I’m reverting back in my plans since the AT didn’t work for me (that’s an understatement!). I’ll be hiking the Oregon Coast Trail with my dad, and if there’s enough time/money possibly the 100 mile stretch of the Pony Express Trail in Utah. I could use some desert hiking again.
I want to be clear: I’m not making any definitive statements about the Appalachian Trail here. It’s pretty much the most popular long distance trail in the United States, tons of people enjoy it enough to hike the whole thing. I personally couldn’t stomach being in the forest that long among other things, that’s basically all there is to it. My emotions on it are definitely an overreaction, and again I really don’t understand why I was in such a frenzy to throw in the towel but.. hey, whatever. Now I know for sure that it’s not for me, and that’s fine. If you want to hike the AT, give it a shot and see if it’s for you, don’t just take my experience as fact. You may enjoy it, you may not, you won’t know until you try. I don’t want to discourage anyone from hiking it. It sucks that I didn’t like it, especially after everything I went through just trying to get to Maine in the first place. I didn’t want to hate it but… eh.
One thing I will say is don’t look at the pictures and think “What’s this guy talking about, he got views!”. I was out there for 8 days (I think?). That amount of time on the PCT would give me 100-200 images of view after view after view. I got maybe 4 or 5 in 115 miles. Make no mistake, you are mostly in the forest the whole time. All those trees you see from the top of the mountain: That’s where you are all day. I knew that when I started, what I didn’t know was that I had no tolerance for it. I’m not trying to shit-talk the AT, that’s just how it is.
I’ll be leaving for Washington tomorrow, hopefully I’ll be starting the Oregon Coast Trail within the next week or so!