June 26, 2008
This is a 5-month long series of blog posts that are the entries in my journals written on most evenings as I hiked the Appalachian Trail in 1993. The journal entry appears first — indented — and then any additional commentary from my 15-years-removed perspective follows.
6/26/93 – Sat.
Ah, I’m rested. A full day off in Bastian — one night at the James Burke Inn B&B in Burke’s Garden and one night at the Comfort Inn in Wytheville. When it came time to leave this morning, Julie and I literally could not stand to part. I almost took another day off, but instead we settled for Julie hiking in with me for an hour. One hour became two hours, and two hours became Julie turning around, hiking back to her car, driving up to the next road crossing, and then hiking 3 miles into Jenny Knob Shelter to spend the night. We were alone here until about 8:30, when a father and son (good ole’ boys, both of them) from Pennsylvania (southbound – Rockfish Gap to Damascus) showed up. So much for the quiet romantic evening! Tomorrow, I’m shooting for about 21 miles to Docs Knob Shelter, and Julie is going to meet me a couple of miles from that shelter, and spend the night again. Yes, we are pathetic, but today was the first day I seriously considered leaving the trail early. I could not hike for long with a lump in my throat like the one I had today. Around Julie, I laugh, smile, and am content all of the time. We sat and listed the more spontaneous things we have done in the less that two years that we have been “together, ” and it made me realize how much Julie has enhanced my life. I am more sure now than I have ever been that she is the one I want to marry and spend the rest of my life with.
In today’s salt-sensitive, cholesterol-conscious, calorie-counting, fitness-fanatic society, long-distance hiking provides a welcome escape from the frenzy. Anyone who undertakes to backpack the 2,144 miles from Georgia to Maine on the Appalachian Trail quickly learns that modern dietary conventions are as useful on the trail as fine China.
Weight loss is unavoidable in long-distance hiking, regardless of diet. Exercise is a constant; 8 to 10 hours a day carrying 40-60 pounds of weight on one’s back is significantly more calorie-burning that an hour spend on a stationary bicycle, a treadmill, a stairmaster, and the like. “Strider,” so named due to his utter lack of a fast hiking pace, weighed 292 lbs. when he started hiking the Appalachian Trail and was down to 262 lbs. a month later.
Not only do hikers not worry about what kind of food they take in, they actually look for foods that are high in salt, sugar, and fat. The salt is necessary to replenish the salt lost during excessive sweating. If enough salt is not ingested by a hiker, the result can be muscle fatigue, muscle cramps, and heat exhaustion (nausea and fatigue). Many hikers even carry salt tablets to supplement their food intake.
Sugar, in the form of candy bars, is an excellent source of quick energy, and hikers often eat as many as two a day to help them get up steep climbs or to reward themselves at mountain summits. Still, there is no weight gain.
Fat is the body’s second source of energy after carbohydrates, and no hiker can eat enough starchy foods to keep his/her body from dipping into this fat “reserve.” So, over a long haul, fat becomes important, and hikers crave it, even going so far as to drink the oil in their can of sardines they eat for lunch — it sounds disgusting, but it is very hard to throw away something so useful, especially after carrying it on your back for several days.
The “perfect” trail food? Few hikers will argue that it is peanut butter — salt, sugar, protein, lots of fat, and tasty! Not to mention, it comes in a lightweight, re-sealable plastic container!
Does the weight stay off? I do not know, but to many that is not important. The fun part is spending 4-6 months eating foods that would make Richard Simmons frown and Jenny Craigh cringe…and still take off the weight!
A final thought: one worry I had had about this whole dream of being a writer was that I would not be able to come up with something to write, day-in and day-out. So far, it hasn’t been a problem. Part of me says, “Well, sure, but you’re having all of these experiences to write about thanks to the A.T.” the other part of me responds, “What is everyday life but a bunch of experiences strung together, and whose to say that they don’t have literary merit?” Maybe I can write.
Okay, so I left some of the Julie stuff in rather than editing it out here. As I’ve been typing up these entries, it’s interesting for me to read the parts that I remember super-vividly, as opposed to the parts that are certainly familiar, but for which I cannot recall completely to my mind’s eye (having read Stumbling on Happiness last year, I realize how fickle memory is…but I still say there are many parts of this trip that I remember quite vividly). Bastian — particularly my attempt to get back on the trail and my serious consideration of getting off the trail — I remember.
I’m also realizing that I apparently did not record in my journal the decision I made to propose to Julie at the end of the trail. This happened within the first 1-1.5 months of the hike. I let my mother know at the family reunion in Georgia, and she then ran point when it came to scaring up old jewelry and tracking down a jeweler in Beaumont who would be willing to work with me remotely to make a ring.