It was cold. Luckily the water in my portable water filter hadn’t frozen overnight. I was laying in my tent, comfortable enough in my sleeping bag, wondering whether or not to let some air out of my sleeping pad.
It was a little light; probably around 6 or 6:30 in the morning. I was dreading what was awaiting me: an ice-cold stream crossing. Well, at least the sun was coming out. Time to get a move on.
Just another day on the Appalachian Trail. On this specific day I was near the end of my journey in Maine’s Hundred Mile Wilderness, the last section of the trail. The Appalachian Trail is a 2,192-mile hiking route that winds from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. It’s one of the most popular trails for thru-hikers, folks who complete a long trail from beginning to end within a year. In 2018 alone, over 4,000 people tried to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, with just over 800 achieving their goal.
Why the Appalachian Trail?
Why would someone want to become a thru-hiker? That’s a good question, and one that isn’t answered easily. For me, it was a collection of reasons. Primarily, I love backpacking, and I love to challenge myself. I have a great respect and enthusiasm for the outdoors, our public lands and their conservation and preservation. However, taking a selfie in the woods to post on your Instagram is not going to get you through the trail. There are many logistics to consider. It took me more than a year of planning to make the trip happen. Leaving my job, family and friends was a real jolt. Many times I wondered if I had made the right decision.
The first few days were tough. I wasn’t sure if I could complete the trail. To add insult to injury, I fell flat on my face on the first day. It takes a while for a hiker to gain hiker legs, but after a few weeks, I entered a new realm. A simpler – yet extremely demanding – one. I woke up, packed up my gear, ate, walked, drank water, walked, had a snack, walked. You get the picture.
Dinner is a hiker’s favorite time of day. Some days, it was all I thought about. My mind would play tricks on me – somedays I could smell a hot meal hours before I arrived at camp and started cooking. When I finally stopped for the day and completed most of my chores, I would cook and chow down. Sleep came shortly after: Most hikers are out cold when night comes.
A (Hot, Hungry, Cold, Buggy) Walk in the Woods
Walking in the woods is fun, but it can be monotonous and lonely at times. I was always facing down to watch my step. Uneven ground was twisted with roots and scattered with rocks. I spent all day walking up and down hills, sometimes with an occasional breathtaking vista as a reward. I listened to audiobooks, or albums I downloaded in town, and sometimes just mulled things over in my head. I took in the world around me: the trees, plants, birds and sounds of the woods.
Of course, there was also rain, and cold, and burning heat and incessant mosquitoes. I started to miss life’s simple pleasures and couldn’t wait to get into town for a shower, a bed and beer! Hostels line the Appalachian Trail, and I would see all my fellow vagabonds when I arrived at one. We ate lots of food. Calories are important when you exert as much energy as we did. I would eat my food, more food, and everyone else’s food if they didn’t finish their meals. Which is how I earned my trail name: Two Dinners.
Bedtime was always early, since I needed to hike 15 to 20 miles a day. I soon felt like a professional hiker. This was my job, my life.
The Social Network
The Appalachian Trail is a very social trail. Thru-hikers travel together daily for almost 2,200 miles. Trail families, or “tramilies,” form as certain groups of hikers become close to one another. Some grow so close that they’re inseparable. I considered myself a loner since I hiked alone most of the time. This allowed me to chat with different types of hikers. We’d meet at camp, exchange trail names, and exchange words about ourselves, our gear, and our hopes and dreams. Perhaps I’d see that cool hiker again the next night. Or maybe I’d see them hundreds of miles down the woodland corridor. The trail allows you to get to know people of all different origins, life experiences and world views, which was a great perk of my journey.
I started the trail full of expectation. The excitement and fear I felt standing on top of Springer Mountain followed me for a while. Eventually I got used to the daily grind, and then suddenly, the beginning felt so far away. The months passed by in Virginia and the Mid-Atlantic states. I briefly stopped in Vermont and visited home for a week. When I returned the end was in sight, and before I knew it, I was in Maine. One afternoon I could see Katahdin, the final mountain, looming in the distance.
There and Back Again
Now, my journey is over and I’m back in Rhode Island. I lost 40 pounds and am in the best shape of my life. The trail taught me that doing what you want matters, and that it’s important to take chances. We can get caught up in society’s expectations. We worry about what is expected of us, or about what we think is expected of us, and lose a bit of ourselves in the process.
It was important for me to experience a change. It was necessary to be the hero of my own journey and to face it and persevere. I now make decisions carefully and tailor what I want for my life. I recommend that everyone put themselves out there and take on the unknown, no matter how big or small the journey.
One way to do this is to get out there for a hike yourself. For the past six years I’ve been taking day hikes and weekend backpacking trips around New England. It’s not hard to get out there, even for just a few miles. Local trail organizations, books and trail-finding apps are full of resources.
Maybe one day, you’ll even take a chance and drive down to Georgia to start your own epic journey.
Jonathan Cipriano is a AAA Northeast member from R.I. He departed Georgia’s Springer Mountain on April 16, 2019, and reached Mount Katahdin in Maine on Oct. 5.
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