It’s a long walk, lonely at times, crowded at other times. Day after day, 147 of them to be exact, some so dang hot and breezeless that a backpacking traveler had to seek shade where he could crash on a soft spot and wait for the cool of evening.
Temper that with other days when it got so cold that a hiker would seek shelter where he could join a group of equally suffering souls so they could all shiver in unison, waiting for the sun to chase away the snow drifts.
It was those extreme days that thin the herd, according to those who do the whole hike, an impressive 2,190 miles of up and down, weather be darned.
It’s part of the experience, expected but still a surprise when it happens, said David Defer, our Appalachian Trail hiker who we met on these pages back in March when he set out at the trail’s most southern spot, Springer Mountain, Georgia.
Defer has earned the right to be a called a successful Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, joining a select group of international hikers who do the whole trail nonstop.
The Appalachian Trail, said Defer, is nothing to take lightly, not a walk in the park for sure. “The Appalachian Trail will kick your butt if you aren’t ready for it,” he said, flashing a photo of his own bleeding heals and the world-class blisters he suffered before discarding his second set of hiking boots and turning to more comforting Trail Runners.
Asked about gear and prepping for the trail, Defer said the best of backpacking gear is a start, but no one or no place can prepare a hiker for everything.
You learn as you go, he said, and it’s amazing how word of mouth is fast and true as it passes like a spark along the Appalachian Trail.
“That’s how I found out about the best water filtering system for stream water,” the source of everyone’s drinking and cooking water.
In just weeks, he found that nearly everyone he met along the trail was using that same water filter. Good might not be good enough for the Appalachian Trail, according to Defer.
But the right gear is easily trumped by personal resolve, he said, suggesting that the best of everything on a hiker’s back is no match for the resolve a hiker needs to complete a thru-hike.
Waking up in a damp sleeping bag, soaked, miserable and lonely, makes one wonder if this ultra-challenging adventure is really worth it, but Defer said he never seriously considered quitting the trail.
Defer said hikers might be lonely for a while but then you fall into a group of thru-hikers and the conversations, the song, the pace, and stories make it better.
In fact, Defer said, the best memories of his 147 days on the trail were the evenings and the social time with new friends, soon to be old friends.
You might hike and camp with the same people for days and weeks or maybe just hours. He treasures the people he met on his adventure, like-minded outdoor enthusiasts from Japan, England, Belgium and Australia, as well as the States.
According to Defer, the trail is known worldwide as a must-do for serious international hikers.
Defer’s daily schedule was simple enough and revolved around recording 20 miles each day, up to 10 miles before a lunch break and another 10 before dinner and his all-important social time.
He also described what he called Trail-Magic, the occasional opportunity to leave the trail for a night in a dry bed, a shower, maybe a pancake breakfast, and, well, some fun with trail friends, college friends, family, and a big, everything burger.
Defer described an Appalachian Trail thru-hike as a very a personal experience.
“My life-long friend Chris Smith who did much of the trial with me describes his experience very differently than I do,” Defer said, adding that he’ll never forget the Appalachian Trail and the summer he spent on it.
When asked if reaching the end of the trail was as rewarding as one would expect it to be, he answered that question this way, “I miss the trail and the people I met.”
Indeed, the Appalachian Trail and his five-month thru-hike claimed an indelible mark on Defer’s being and was a life-changing experience for him, one that he holds close but eagerly shares with those who might ask.
Defer is already counting the days until May 2019 when he and many of his new trail friends will meet again at the annual Trail Day Festival in Damascus, Virginia, a kind of mecca-sized reunion of thru-hikers new and old.
And yes, they will carry their rooms and energy bars on their backs.
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