Sally H. is Librarian in a small New England town. In 1997 she took seven months off for an adventure that few of us ever would try: Hiking the Appalachian Trail - alone! Naturally, we had to find out about it. Part I is an interview before the big event . . .
February, 1997: How come you're going to hike the Appalachian Trail? What first gave you this idea?
I have an acquaintance from high school who was going to do it about 4 years ago. He was talking about it, and I just rolled my eyes and thought, "Oh, my goodness, why would anybody ever want to do that?" And then last year I was watching a program on television and it's sort of embarrassing to say, I watched this TV show and I looked at somebody who was sort of my age and kind of my size, and I thought, "I think I want to do that!" It really was a whim. The more I thought about it, the more I talked about it, the more I thought I really could do it, maybe.
Then what did you do?
First I talked to my husband about it! Jerry said he thought it was a silly idea, but he'd learned over the years that he could tell me "No," but I'd to do it anyway. So he said, "If you really want to do it, go get a check up first and make sure the doctor says you can make it." I think he thought that would be his out, that the doctor would say no. But the doctor said sure, go for it! Then I started reading, and the more I read, the more I thought I wanted to do it.
So it's been a dream for how long?
It's not really a dream. An ambition perhaps. I' ve been thinking about it and planning it for about a year and a half.
You're hiking by yourself?
I am. I don't think that's unusual for people who are "through hikers" [those who are hiking the entire length of the trail]. It's very difficult to find a partner or a group that has the same style that you do. Of course, I don't know yet what my hiking style is, except I'm pretty sure I'm going to be really slow! And it's really hard to accommodate yourself to somebody a little faster or a little slower. Most people who do the trail do it alone. Some start with somebody then they break up, or they meet each other once in awhile. I think I'm going to start at about 5 or 8 miles a day. I know that I have to average 13 in order to get done by the 1st of October. That gives. me 2 weeks extra, because I have off until the 15th. But to begin, I know I can't go more than maybe 5 or 8 miles a day.
You get to know who's walking around you. Who's behind you and who's in front of you. That same old friend I told you about who wanted to go 4 years ago, had to put off his trip, and he's going this year, but he's going north to south. So I should meet him in the middle. He can't start until May because of the weather.
When are you going to go?
The last day of work is March 14th. The Tuesday after that, I'm going to fly south to start that next weekend. On the 21st or 22nd of March, I'll start walking! You start the trail at Sugar Mountain, Georgia, which is in northwest Georgia at a state park.
What's that part of the trail like?
I've never been there, obviously, but I've read a lot. I've read everything I could find that I could use. The whole trail is mountains. It goes through state forests and national forests and state parks as much as possible. About 3% of it goes through private land. All the rest seems to be public land, or at least protected land. You basically follow the ridge line of the Appalachian Mountains, and from what I understand, from what I' ve read, people say, "Whoever designed this? Why did they go over every single mountain? Why didn't they go around a mountain every once in awhile!" So I imagine it's going to be lots of ups and downs, and not a lot of level field.
Is this the time of year to start?
Yes, if you're going northbound, which is the most common way to hike the trail, because you get three months of spring. Most people start in Georgia and work north to [Mount] Katahdin [in Maine]. Usually about 2000 people start, within a month of each other. So there's like this little bubble of people walking together up the trail. So when you talk to me about going alone, it doesn't mean I'm the only one out there! There's plenty of other people, all doing the same thing as I am. You go in tandem with someone for a few days, then they go faster than you do, but then someone else comes along. So most people walk with somebody, at least part of the time.
What do you expect for weather? You’re starting in the south . . .
It can snow. It can snow in the mountains of Georgia right through March and the start of April. It's not usual, but I read about one person who woke up in three feet of snow. So you have to have winter clothes to start. Then most people send their winter clothes home when they get to southern Virginia. Then they can count on it not getting that cold again for awhile. Then they get to Franconia [Notch], in New Hampshire, then they get their winter stuff back because they have to go through the White Mountains, where it’s always cold.
What do you do to plan something like this?
Read! And talk to people. You talk to people who have done it, or who are hikers. I ask lots and lots of questions when I go to a supply store or an outfitter or something. Buying boots was my first thing! You have to have 2 pairs broken in before you can leave. My first questions was, "What sort of boots should I have?" I kept asking questions and trying on boots until I made a choice. Then I went through the same procedure with packs. Read what I could about them, asked lots of questions, then started trying them on!
What kind of sleeping bag?
Fiberfill, good to 20 degrees. It's the lightest one I could find, 2½ pounds.
Will you sleep in a tent?
Part of the time. I have a tent. Again I researched, I looked in Backpacker magazine. They recommended mine. It weighs 4 pounds.
Where do you stay at night?
In the tent, any old place on the trail. You have to get 200 feet off the trail; you can't sleep on the trail. There are designated camping areas in some places. There are cabins all along the route. More than one every 10 miles. A lot of people just go cabin to cabin. Sometimes the cabins are actual 4 walls with a door thing, but sometimes they are just a 3-wall enclosure to keep the wind off. In some places, there's a 3-wall enclosure with a 4th "wall" of chain link to keep the bears out! In places like that, everybody gets in the shelter, no matter how crowded it is. If you get really stuck, they say put your pack in behind the chain link and sleep in your tent not very far away.
Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! What animals are you going to see?
There's a list in my guide book. Regular stuff, squirrels, porcupines, 'possums, maybe.
Do we have to worry about our librarian getting eaten by a bear?
Not eaten. The bears sometimes try to intimidate people into dropping their packs and running away. Then they just eat the food in the pack. But most people hang their food in the trees at night, but not right over their heads. Bears are nocturnal and they want that food. I read about one guy who spent a sleepless night with a bear in his bed, jumping up and down on his chest trying to reach his food! There might be bears, but no mountain lions. They are shy of people. Lots of snakes, though. Two or three kinds of rattlers, coral snakes, cottonmouth, garter snakes, black snakes...
Do you like snakes?
I don't mind them. I don't like the thought of stepping on a rattlesnake, but they don't really scare me. They might startle me. But they will run away if they see you coming; they don't want to see you either. I've been reading about snake bites and such, snake bite kits and sucking the venom out of the wounds... The kits haven't been proven to be effective. Some people feel better when they have them, but they aren't any better off than those who don't.
In some places, there are domesticated pigs that went wild a couple of hundred years ago and they can be a problem, just because they're kind of big and mean.
How are the bugs?
Mosquitos aren't bad. I won't be in the north during black fly season, so I won't have to worry about that. But gnats can be troublesome, so if I'm having a lot of trouble with them, I'll wear my little head net. And I'm allergic to bee stings. So I have to carry bee sting kit.
I know you can't carry enough food for seven months. What are you going to eat? Do you have to kill animals and gather berries?
I’m not going to eat squirrels! I have food prepared at home. I spent last summer dehydrating fruits and vegetables. I have a freezer full of dehydrated stuff. I'm planning about 200 days of meals, and I've got that almost done. I put my food into "one-day-at-a- a-time" packets. Usually I'll have oatmeal for breakfast; in the summertime I'll eat granola because I don't have to cook it. I made my own oatmeal. I ground some, so I don't have to cook it for a long time. I added dried milk and brown sugar. I have snack foods. Then I have supper, usually rice, a whole lot of mashed potatoes with bacon bits in them. Each one of the little meal packets goes into in a g packet for each day, Monday, Tuesday, etc.
To eat, you take the stove and a pot and spoon and a cup. No plates. You cook in the pot and eat with your spoon. And the cup and spoon fit down inside the pot.
Where do you get water?
In towns you take it from any spigot. In the woods you have to filter it. I have a water purifier system. You have filter everything that you don't actually see bubbling out of the ground. Water can be a problem. You have to drink a lot, and re-hydrate all your food, but it's heavy. So you don't want to carry more than you need, but you have to have enough, because you get sick if you don’t Water can be a problem. I have a water bag. The guide books tell you where to get water.
How many calories will you burn?
About 7000 a day. You're walking 8 or 10 hours a day, up and down, which takes more than walking along a road, and you're carrying a pack. It's almost impossible to eat as many calories as you burn. Food weighs about 2 pounds a day. So if I go 5 days between stops, that's 10 pounds of food I have, then I eat it down to nothing, then I add 10 pounds of food again.
My husband will help me refuel with food from home. He'll have a list that says "Box number 1 goes to such and such an address and it needs 6 days of food in it." He'll also send battery refills, toilet paper, whatever I think I might need by then. He'll just put it all in a box and mail it to the post office where I'll pick it up.
So you'll be able to get to a post office?
Yes. There's a list of where post offices are which are closest to the trail. Most people stop every 5 to 7 days in a town. The post offices that are close to the trail are really nice about saving stuff. The boxes are marked "Hold for AT hiker" and send it General Delivery. They'll hold the packages for months if they need to. So that's how I'll get mail back and forth. I'll send post cards (probably not letters), to the library and the school.
Can we send you things?
You can. I'll have a list of post offices. I may need some "hang in there" mail. The mental discipline of the hike is difficult, especially around in the middle, around Virginia (in June). At the beginning of the trail you're crossing state lines every couple weeks, and you think "I'm really getting there," but Virginia is a big state and it takes months! You're in good physical shape by then, but you're missing people, sick of being dirty all the time. It will be nice to hear from folks, but please don't send me anything I have to carry! You have to carry out all your trash. A lot of the books I've read really stress responsibility - picking up somebody else's trash if you see it, plus carrying your own. That's a big responsibility when you're dealing with the weight question. It's hard to decide what to take and what not, it's a balance.
What are some choices?
I'd really like to take a camp chair. Just a little piece of nylon really that my sleeping bag sits in, but it weighs 10 ounces. That's not much, just over half a pound, hardly anything. But when you add it to 6 ounces here and 8 ounces here, it's a pound or 2 pounds or 4 pounds and I'm into a 40 pound pack which I can't carry. This weekend I'm going to pack what I really have to have and see how much it weighs, and then take away.
Will anyone visit you?
I have a nephew who's going to walk with me when I get closer to home. My sister may come see me for a little while, along the way. If anyone wants come walk with me for a week, if they're in shape, they could do it! They say that everyone who hikes the trail is in the same physical shape after a month, so even though I'm going seemingly unprepared, or less prepared than I might be, after a month I'm going to as fit as I'll ever be. And if somebody comes to walk with me, they don't have that month. So it would be hard to walk together. But it will be really nice to meet them in a town. My sister says she won't walk with me, but she'll take me to a motel and get me a bed and a bath . . . take me out for a meal that I didn't prepare myself.
Have you been doing anything to get shape?
Not much. I have a treadmill - I really hate that thing! It's so boring. I put it front of the television and try to make it through a program. It's awful. I’m a cross-country skier. But I haven't been on a big trail regimen. I'm going to start walking with the pack maybe, on the treadmill pretty soon, because I need to get used to carrying it.
About how much does your pack weigh?
Between 25 and 30 pounds. It's a nice teal blue and my "polar" jacket is red. My tent is white with purple trim. Very colorful. I don't have a hat yet, but I will have to wear one. I don't worry much about the sun. Some people get sunburned in Georgia because there aren't leaves on the trees yet, and because they're used to northern climes, being inside.
Are you taking anything to read?
I'm going to take paperbacks. My stove is a little teeny camper stove, but it doesn't run on gas. It's a little teeny wood stove, about 6 inches in diameter. It has a little motor with a fan attached. You get the fire started and turn on the fan and it works like a blow torch kind of, to make it hotter, faster. So my books will end up as kindling! I'll read a page and burn a page. People pick up sticks and pine cones . . . it burns just about anything. I'll have a back-up supply of those self-starting briquettes. I'll take a half dozen of those, just in case it's wet and rainy and I get stuck.
Are you nervous, scared, excited?
Yes. The closer you get, the more unreal it seems. I keep thinking, oh my goodness. But I don't want to stay home, I want to do it. I know that I might not make it the whole way. Only 10% of the people who start the trail finish it. So 2000 start, 200 finish. Half the people have dropped out by the quarter-way part. So I want to say to myself, I'm at least going to make it to the quarter, about 500 miles. Someone counted 5 million steps, but that's a standard length person and I'm short, so I'll do more than that. All I can do is start and keep going until I can't go anymore. What I really want to do is finish. But all I can do is try. I think it's going to be really beautiful, very difficult physically. I'm not too worried about my mental capacity to keep going. Maybe I should be, but I feel like I'm the sort of person whose a plugger; I put my mind in neutral and keep going. Besides, if I get back early, I'm going to have all that time off to hang around!
Anyone seeing you off?
My sister. She lives in Florida.
Is she going to sing "Happy Trails to You?"
I hope not! All the attention surrounding the hike makes me uncomfortable. I thought I'd just get my stuff together, tell who I had to, and go . . . but everybody tells somebody else. I guess it's exciting for the whole town, but it makes me a little uncomfortable. But when I'm there, getting postcards will make me feel good.
We all wish you happy trails, Sally . . . until we meet again.