In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that this post was scheduled rather than created tonight. I’m currently on the Pacific Crest Trail, hiking for the International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society. You can read more about my PCT thru-hike here.
When you’re living away from Internet and television and don’t want to carry heavy books in your backpack, you have quite a bit of time alone in your head. And, my head has a tendency to use that alone time to get organized. Sometimes, this organization looks really productive and creates grown-up things like future employment and grad school plans; other times, it creates things like the bears-to-falls ratio.
The falls I’m referring to are of the more mundane variety than cascades of water.
I’m not a clumsy backpacker, per se, but I do have a tendency to struggle with staying upright. I think it’s the combination of roots and rocks and large boots and a heavy pack and long days and tired muscles, but I’m not sure. I just know that I tend to be a relatively coordinated hiker and tend to save the falls for backpacking.
As a result of this tendency–as well as the frequency with which I see black bears on the trail–sometime early on in my thru-hike, I decided to keep track of both my bear sightings and my falls.
To do this, I needed to operationalize a fall. If I were to count every trip or stumble, there was no way that the bear sightings would have a fighting chance. (And, I’d probably be discouraged.) No, to count, a fall would have to involve my butt or both knees touching the ground. Even then, the AT didn’t lend itself well to fall tabulation; in the case of very steep slopes (where one is likely to need to lean or scooch), I had to adjust my criteria to focus on instances when resuming hiking from a given position required unusual effort.
With the rules in place, I was ready to begin my count.
As the southern half of the trail allows Verizon Wireless’s coverage to shine, so, too, did it allow my bear sightings to dominate the ratio. All through the mid-Atlantic, my bear sightings continued to outnumber my falls. But, then I got to New England.
I’ve hiked a lot in the White Mountains. I know that there are nice carriage paths and trails that contain a fair amount of dirt or needles from softwood trees. Those who determined the Appalachian Trail’s path through the White Mountains seem to have been unaware of these trails. Instead, the AT sends backpackers up dramatically steep, alarmingly eroded trails, across rocky ridges, and down slopes as rough as those we’d climbed. As a result, I helped out the falls’ side of the ratio considerably all through the Whites and the Mahoosucs.
And, the last bear I saw on trail was in Massachusetts.
By the time I reached Katahdin, I’d racked up a grand total of 19 bear sightings and 42 falls. Oh well.
When you’re hiking the Appalachian Trail, there are a few questions every non-hiker you meet wants to know. The question set is so predictable that Low Rider, a former thru-hiker who often attends Trail Days, created a handy sticker that provides the answers to these FAQs.
First come the questions about logistics: How long is the trail? Where does the trail go? The first question is a little complicated, as the Appalachian Trail is constantly undergoing changes that affect its mileage. The year of my thru-hike, the Appalachian Trail was 2184 miles long. It stretches from Georgia to Maine, and those who hike it pass through 14 states.
Walking those miles in 4 to 6 months and at a rate of 15 to 20 miles a day is pretty typical. During my hike, I loved putting in “marathon days” of 26+ miles, but I also did my share of low-mileage days, often known as “neros.” (There will be plenty of time to discuss the AT lexicon in the months to come!)
People are always interested in the wildlife that we see along the trail. While I laugh every time I read Low Rider’s “saw a bear once, it was eating garbage,” I actually saw 19 bears over the course of my thru-hike. And, I saw snakes galore but didn’t “get bit.”
A 30- to 60-pound backpack is too heavy for my taste; I keep my baseweight at 18-20 pounds, and rarely let food and water take my pack over 35 pounds. I’m a vegan (of the non-hostile variety), so I tend to steer clear of mac and cheese, Ramen, and Snickers in favor of food that I dehydrate before my long-distance hikes. Mom (my support crew) sends resupply boxes to me every 3 to 5 days.
I’m sure I’ll elaborate on my choice not to carry a gun in the future. When non-hikers strike up conversations with me (a young, “blonde and blue” female), I am nearly always asked about what I carry for protection. There’s no gun in my pack.
As for the “a hole in the ground or a privy,” Low Rider nailed it. I’ll never forget being asked the question of where I “use the restroom” in Damascus, Virginia, at the end of a thirty-mile marathon day to Trail Days. I was using a public restroom, in which I found a mother and her child. They took in my sweat and dirt and then saw my backpack and began the barrage of questions about the trail. The conversation soon turned to the bathroom.
“You must be so happy to see one of these!” the mother said.
I laughed. “Always! We call them ‘flushies’ on the trail, and people usually start talking about them a few days before we get to them.”
“What do you do when you’re out in the woods?”
“Oh, I just dig a hole or use the privy at a shelter,” I answered matter-of-factly.
She looked horrified. “But, you’re a girl!”
What a keen observation, I thought to myself.
If you’d like to check out Low Rider’s fabulous collection of stickers, click on the image I posted above, which will take you to his website.
And, if you have questions about the trail that aren’t answered by Low Rider’s sticker, let me know. In a few weeks, I’m planning to begin featuring readers’ questions on Mondays.