Q: What and how do hikers eat?
A: These answers tend to vary with the stage of the Trail. At the beginning of the hike hikers will be carrying everything up to and including the kitchen sink. Their food weight will be really high -- like 15-25 pounds. This weight becomes unbearable really fast -- like in the first hour of the roughly six-month hike. In general hikers will buy food in town about once a week. The smart hikers will fine tune their system to only buy the exact number days’ worth of food they need. If they will be in town in four more days, they only buy four days of food. If they know there are water sources about every couple of hours, they only carry a couple hours of water. Some hikers, in fact, will carry no water if they know sources are numerous that day.
Hikers see food in only one light typically -- the numbers of calories per ounce of weight. Food is seen simply as fuel and only fuel. Oreos, spam, honey buns and potato chips are high on the list in terms of fat and calories. My diet consists almost entirely of tortillas, pepperonis, cheese, cinnamon raisin bread, peanut butter, snicker bars and granola.
In general, food and water are seen as a necessary evil of unwanted weight.
Q: Do hikers lose weight?
A: You bet-ya, between 20 and 150 pounds has been my anecdotal observation. In general, women lose less weight and end up looking buff, while men typically return from the trail looking emaciated and anorexic. I have lost 20 pounds.
Q: Did you carry a gun? Are their guns on the Trail?
A: No I did not and there are few carried. The few people I knew who started out their hike with guns got rid of them quickly because of the weight. Any and all unnecessary weight is usually eliminated by hikers. Guns and gun carriers are shunned on the Trail as well.
Q: Isn't the Trail dangerous?
A: Only if you carry a gun! Kidding. Most animals on the Trail run in the opposite direction when they hear you coming -- including the bears. Yes, you see poisonous snakes but I have yet to hear of a single snake bite. The people on the Trail have been amazing and I have yet to become aware of a single "people problem" of a serious nature. The legitimate "danger" on the Trail is primarily that of falling and breaking bones. One must walk with complete concentration on where each foot is stepping -- each foot, each time, every single step. This week I was five minutes from finishing a 22-mile day and let my guard down for just a second and immediately tripped over a root and was planted nose-first into the ground -- me and my 40-pound pack. I have fallen I think four times in over six months.
Q: What if I get lost?
A: That is close to impossible, because of three things: the large number of hikers always on the Trail; apps that are gps-based and satellite-enabled; and the fact that most of the Trail is really clearly marked with white 2" X 6" blazes painted usually on trees every 20-30 yards.
Q: What is the biggest hiker no-no?
A: Trash. "Leave no trace" is an absolute rule on the Trail, and leaving a wrapper or a scrap of paper even the size of a postage stamp is just not done. You carry everything out in your pack until you find a trash can in town.
Q: Does everyone have to grow a beard?
A: While it is true that it would appear that only the Taliban is out hiking the AT, beards are not required on men or women.
Q: How about tattoos?
A: Butt-ugly tattoos seem to be a core requirement on the Trail - especially on women.
Q: Speaking of women, is it safe for a woman to hike the Trail?
A: Yes. My guess is that 25-35 percent of thru-hikers are women, and 90 percent of those are hiking by themselves. However no one really hikes by them self out here.
Q: Am I too old to hike the AT?
A: No. I have met hikers in their 80s out on the Trail. Some of the strongest hikers I have met were in their 70's. No, you are not too old.
Q: So is thru-hiking the AT really like a walk in the woods?
A: No, it is the hardest, most punishing, most difficult thing you will ever do but also the most rewarding.
Q: How often do hikers shower?
A: Rarely. Maybe once a week or sometimes longer. Hiker-stench is legendary. Not only does it come from you, it also comes from your clothes and especially from your pack.
Q: What do you like least about your hike?
A: Going to sleep in the same clothes that I sweated in all day. Most hikers early on make the decision to send most of their extra (i.e. that which they are not actually wearing) clothes home to reduce pack weight.
Q: Is there marijuana on the Trail?
A: Really? Are there trees? Are there young people hiking? Actually it has been interesting. In the first few months every day and every night was party time. However, as time wore on hikers ran out of weed, money and energy, so those who didn’t drop out were not such big partiers any more.
Q: On the trail did you see books, iPads, Kendall’s or guitars?
A: Almost never for all the above. Hikers disdain unnecessary weight. Yes there were occasional exceptions but they were exceptions.
Q: What was the most important piece of equipment for you?
A: My trekking poles were by far the most critical. I could have done without just about anything else (tent, sleeping bag, clothes) but if I didn’t have my poles I would have to go home. Without them I would have a thousand times tripped, fallen, or otherwise injured myself. Of note, almost no one from the state of Maine uses poles. Go figure.
Q: Most interesting or favorite Trail person encountered?
A: This is an easy one -- Lumpy, the manager of the Standing Bear Hostel outside of the Smokies. He was a cross between lead guitarist for ZZ Top, Eddie Haskell from Leave it to Beaver, Darth Vader and Charlie Sheen. That is, he was a mess, but an interesting one.
Q: Least favorite part of the Trail
A: The Whites in New Hampshire
Q: Most favorite part of the Trail
A: The Whites in New Hampshire
Q: What would you do differently next time (actually this needs to be a column all by itself)?
A: Buy and strap to my forehead the best and newest GoPro made. Also buy a very compact and light-weight chair and also umbrella.
Q: Would you thru-hike the AT again?
A: This week I met a hiker and after he found out I was thru-hiking south to north he immediately asked me if I planned to “yo-yo” (turn around and hike the entire Trail north to south). “Are you crazy?” I asked him, then as the words were going out of my mouth a tiny -- very very very small -- part of my brain was thinking “maybe.”