Sally H., The Hiking Librarian, Part II.
Sally H. is a 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! In Part I we spoke with Sally before the event. Part II is an interview after she returned the next fall.
November, 1997: Last time we talked to you, you were just about to leave to hike the Appalachian Trail. What happened next?
I flew to Florida; my sister picked me up at the airport. I went to her house for two or three days and then she drove me up to Georgia, took me to the trail head, and kissed me goodbye.
How did you feel then?
I was sort of teary! It was really emotional, I think because l looked forward to it and planned it for so long, and here it was finally happening. And we were driving up these tiny little narrow forest service roads, where if we had met another car, it would have been really hard to pass. Finally we came to a pretty big parking lot that was a mile below the summit of Springer Mountain, the first mountain on the trail. She walked up with me and we both looked at each other. And I said, "Boy, if it doesn't get any higher than this, I can do it!" My plan for that day was to walk about three miles, and the next day about five miles, and build up slowly. But when my sister left we'd gotten to three miles and it was early afternoon; it was beautiful and there wasn't a soul around the shelter . . . I thought, "I can walk another five miles." So I did my first two days in one day.
When I got to the top of Hawk Mountain, there must have been 30 or 40 excited hikers there. We had all stared that same day! There were lots of people on the trail, and because we were all going in the same direction, we didn't see each other, just trudging along. Nobody really sees each other until you stop! As soon as you stop, people start passing. People were having trouble with their stoves, and people with new tents were trying to get their tents to go up. It was just wonderful. Everybody was excited and had stories and were thinking of their trail names.
Trail names are funny. It's a tradition, to give yourself a name. You can call yourself anything you want And if you don't give yourself a name, pretty soon someone else will give you one. So you want to choose something that you like instead of being something like "Smelly Foot!" One poor guy wanted to call himself "Bear" and he turned into "Snore Bear" really soon, because his snoring was awful. Eventually he had to put his tent up far away from other people. If you sleep in a tiny little shelter that fits ten people cheek-by-jowl, at least one or two of them are going to snore, and you get used to it. But I guess Snore Bear was amazingly loud!
Everybody was new and everybody was comfortable. A few people had hiked the whole Appalachian Trail before. I met one guy who had done it three times! He knew every short cut, every place for good pizza, everywhere that served all-you-can-eat pancakes for breakfast. He was wonderful; his trail name was Pirate. He lives in the woods all the time. He doesn't go home; he doesn't have a home anymore, he sold his house. He just hikes.
I thought about my trail name for quite a long time. I decided to name myself after my great aunt Mabel. She was a hiker in New Hampshire, probably in the teens and twenties. She hiked with long skirts on; I don't think she ever wore pants in her life. She was one of those Victorian ladies who hiked. I think she climbed every 4,000-footer in New Hampshire. She was a lifetime member of the AMC. One of my mother's cousins was a hut master up in the White Mountains. I didn't really know this before my mom told me after I got back. Aunt Mabel was a really important part of our growing up. She was always there for every Christmas and Thanksgiving. When she died, her ashes got scattered over the mountains up there.
So there you were, out of shape. Did you hurt?
Out of shape, with new equipment! It's just a matter of getting up in the morning and keeping going. Anybody could do it. My muscles were fine, but I had trouble with my hamstring and Achilles tendons being pulled because the hills are very steep in Georgia. I had trouble, for almost a month with tendons pulling. I didn't actually get tendinitis, and my muscles were fine, so it was just a matter of keeping going even when I didn't want to.
You just get up in the morning and walk all day! It seems like it would be boring, but somehow it isn't Your mind goes into neutral and you think about all sorts of things. I couldn't tell you what I thought about when I was walking. Quite often my kids and my family and how things were going at home, but mostly I was just in neutral, and pretty soon it would be lunchtime. I'd think, "Wow, that went fast." So you just basically get up and walk for eight or ten hours and cook supper and sleep. And that's it! And then do it again tomorrow.
At night it got dark by seven when we started, and I went to bed then. If it was dark, we slept. I had a little headlamp, like a miner's lamp, and I could have read, but I was too tired! It was really hard work. It's hard work for everybody. I heard young men, twenty-and twenty-three-year olds, saying, "I can't believe I'm going to bed at seven o'clock!" But they needed to. Your body tells you what you need. And sleep is it, especially in the beginning.
How did your equipment work?
The equipment was fine. I found I liked my tent a lot; it didn't leak even in terrible, terrible thunderstorms and wind. I woke up one morning and there was a big tree limb ten feet away. It would have squashed me, I suppose. I liked my sleeping bag a lot; that worked out well. It was a twenty degree bag and it was pretty cool in the south. Since I'd expected it to be warmer, I was glad I had it.
We got reports of you in ice and snow.
Oh yeah. In April, in North Carolina! It didn't seem possible. Locals said it was the coldest spring they'd had for a long time, sixty or sixty-five every day. Since fifty years ago. It was unusual. I ran into somebody who had hiked in the same area three years ago who said that then it was the hottest spring they'd had in ages, ninety or ninety-five every day! So I was happy with the cold. Fifty or sixty degrees is perfect for hiking. You don't sweat too much and you can keep going.
I did enjoy being in the woods and outside. Sleeping outside was fine. It wasn't scary! The first week or so, I think I slept in my tent every night, because I was a little uncomfortable about going into a shelter by myself. But after that, especially if it was raining, I said, "Why not?" I'd just go in. It was fine. People were respectful of other people's privacy.
What kind of people did you meet?
Oh, my gosh. Somebody said along the way that everybody seemed happy. There was no grousing. We might complain some about how sore we were, or something, but basically, everybody's out there because they want to be. And there are not many places in the world that everybody's doing just as they choose. So we were basically a happy group of people, except that most of us hurt most of the time! Nice, really good people. A really wide mix, too.
There was a guy who was a postal worker, nice fellow, probably in his forties. He had really big feet. He hiked in combat boots, because he couldn't find shoes big enough. He was from Pennsylvania. We ended up going at the same speed for three or four nights. His name was "All The Way." All The Way eventually gave me the name of his wife, saying that she lived really close to the trail. He told me to call her if I needed something when I got near his house. He only knew me for a couple of days, but she had said to make the offer if he met somebody that needs help, and would be O.K. with the kids in the house. I didn't go to Pennsylvania, so I didn't call.
We met people who were young, lots of young people, who were between high school and college, or college and life. They were giving themselves six, eight or ten months to figure out what they were going to do with themselves. Some people were getting over a divorce, so they were trying to straighten their lives out. I thought that was little unrealistic, but it put them in neutral for awhile. Most people weren't there because they were running away from anything, they were just doing it as a personal challenge, or because they loved it outside.
There were probably more young people than old. Not too many young-mother-age women, just because they had children at home and needed to watch them. Not a lot of young-father-aged people either, because of their responsibilities. Maybe a third of the people were retired or getting retired or comfortable enough that they could leave their jobs for awhile.
How did your food go?
As you remember, I spent all last summer dehydrating vegetables and making up a lot of food packages and I had pretty much, oatmeal for breakfast, and a couple of snacks and Power Bars a day.
Was what you planned right?
I found, early on, that I really hated oatmeal! And I had to have it every day! I found that I didn't want to make a fire in the morning to cook it, so I was eating this dried oatmeal with water in it, cold. It was horrible! I just hated it, but it was all I had for breakfast, so I had to eat it or go hungry. One morning I really couldn't face it. I think it was snowing out and I was miserable. I had a big Kit Kat bar that my mother had sent, and I thought, "I don't have to eat oatmeal, I don't want to," and I ate a candy bar for breakfast. It was much better.
But otherwise the food worked out fine. I had enough. I was really worried about how much I was going to eat. I knew I would eat more than I normally do, but I didn't know how much more. I had a little trouble planning, but it worked out fine. I only cooked at night I had a little wood stove to cook on.
I remember; you were going to burn your books . . .
Yeah, the kids asked me if I did that, they were horrified. No, I did not burn books. What I did is rip off a section as I finished it, and hand it to somebody else who would read it And we left books for other people. I never did burn a book. I found that it was hard to start the fire with paper anyway! I bought some of those wax and sawdust blocks that you just light with a match, it goes quite awhile, and that would get my fire going.
I was pretty happy with the food. I guess I don't love re-hydrated vegetables! I think the stuff that you buy commercially is a better quality than what I made. It was O.K., and the vegetables were good for me and I needed them, but I didn't love them. I ate them anyway because that's all there was. It got so I didn't really care what I was eating. I could have easily just eaten a Lipton package of noodles or something like that. They cook fast. The rule was, you cook them until you can chew them, and then they're done, and that's it. Never mind what it tastes like, what it looks like or anything else. If you could chew it and eat it, that's it!
Normally I just eat whatever's around anyway, but if I didn't carry it in, I couldn't have it So I just ate what I had. And I lost a lot of weight I lost, I think, about forty pounds. It's because you use between four and six thousand calories a day if you're carrying a pack uphill! And there's no way to carry that much food with you. For me it was fine, my body just ate itself. That was good. It was pretty hard for the young men who were already pretty lean. It was hard for them to carry enough to eat. So they were carrying heavier packs just so they could have more food.
So not carrying forty pounds was probably a big improvement?
I couldn't tell the difference. My pack weighed forty pounds, so even though I lost the forty pounds on my body, my pack didn't feel like it weighed nothing. It still weighed forty pounds! But my knees weren't carrying it, and my feet weren't carrying it, so it was better.
Did you hike alone the whole trip?
No, I met my hiking partner, Sandy Longlegs. She's a wonderful, person. She's 64 and lives in Georgia. She's a retired nutritionist She was a little worried about eating enough vegetables, so she made me eat my veggies. She's six feet tall, and has really long legs! It was hard for me to keep up with her, because her strides were so much longer. Every time she took three steps, I took four. Going uphill, she just walked up and I was panting along behind and had to stop and rest She'd get to the top and she'd wait for me. In her case, she wanted a longer rest at the top and I wanted a lot of short ones along the way, so we were pretty compatible that way. We had compatible senses of humor, too, and that helped. She was a really nice lady. I've talked to her two or three times since we stopped walking.
Where did you meet up with her?
I'm not exactly sure, in northern Georgia, about three weeks into the hike. She had a partner who had decided to go home pretty early on, and she didn't really want to walk alone. We found that we got along well enough that we stayed together all the way, which is pretty unusual. Most people walk for a week with somebody and one person will want to stop in a town an extra day, or someone will want to walk further in a day, or needs to rest, and they split up. But Sandy and I could accommodate each other's speed and wishes.
What about stopping in the towns?
That worked out really well. When we were in the South, her husband would meet us. That was really lucky for me. He would drive back and forth from Georgia to trail heads. Some places we just walked into town ourselves; some places, her husband Paul would meet us right as we came out of the woods, take us to a motel. We'd shower, do laundry, pick up our food drops.
Both of us were uncomfortable about thumbing into town, but everybody else did it. It's accepted. People near the trails are really nice about giving rides. One day we were waiting for Paul and three different people stopped to see if we wanted a ride. We weren't even thumbing, just sitting waiting. People near the trails were very helpful. Sometimes people would leave things for the hikers, like a bag of oranges. One person's parents were near the trail, and they brought up twenty pounds of bananas! They just left them beside the trail and each hiker would take a banana until they were gone. We missed fresh fruit and vegetables as much as anything.
What else did you miss?
I didn't have as much trouble as a lot of people did. A lot of people just wandered around fantasizing about cheeseburgers. All The Way wanted a head of lettuce. He wanted the whole thing. He said he was just going to pick it up in his hand, start at one side, and eat his way through it! I didn't get those cravings. I missed my family. I missed my grandchild a lot. It was hard. Each had a birthday while I was gone. It was hard not to be around.
How about mail? How did that work?
That was great! I got mail. I got some letters from people I didn't even know or knew casually. Every time I went to a mailbox, the postmaster or mistress would hand me this stack of stuff, six or seven inches high. One post-mistress looked at me and said, "You must be loved." That was so nice. It was so supportive of the people in town. To think that there were all these people out there wishing me well. Some days it kept me going. I'd think, "I can't go home. I have all these people watching me." It worked. Even kids in the third grade wrote me a letter at one point. They sent me pictures.
It was fun to do. I had fun writing to you. I got a big kick out of thinking what would be some chatty, newsy, silly piece of trash you might like to read.
It was wonderful. One person wrote to me about how her grandchildren were doing. One person, who had just bought a new house, wrote about how the house was coming. Some people wrote every week. The Boy Scouts sent me an "Atta Girl" card, signed by the whole troop. It was so much fun. It helped me keep going. The town was really supportive.
So, how far did you get?
I went from Georgia to southern Virginia. That was 570 miles. Then I came home for a month because my knees and my feet were really in bad shape. The area where the tendons attach to the bones in my knees was over stressed. So I came home. I had some nerve damage in my feet. But it's all reversible; I didn't do any permanent damage. I was here a week or two and took some medication, saw the doctor, and I was bored! So I called up Sandy and said, "Gee, Sandy, I'm feeling really bored here." She had gone home, too. I left a message on her machine.
Two days later she called and said, "Yes! Let's hike!" She was just as bored as I was. She'd seen her grandchildren, visited her daughter and was feeling better. It's really hard to stop. We talked it over and decided to come to New England and hike here. Jerry could help us like her husband had, so when we needed a food drop or if we wanted to go home for a day, we could do that. We went to southern Connecticut and started north. I don't know how many miles we did in New England, but it totaled 944. Then, last weekend I was feeling antsy and I went back to where we stopped in Crawford Notch and I went over Mount Washington. That was twelve miles. So the grand total is 956!
And I'm thinking I might be able to get up to 1000 this weekend, or this fall, if I can find someone to go with me. I don't want to be in the woods alone for a couple of nights this time of year because there aren't many people out there. It's icy and not safe to go by myself. I went over Washington by myself, but there were so many people out last weekend. So if I find somebody who wants to climb for 44 miles, I can make 1000 this year. It's a lot of miles. I feel really pleased that I got as far as I did, but I really wish I could have done the whole thing.
How long is it?
2160 miles. I almost made half. You don't even think about it. The time goes by. The days go fast. The time just passes. All that punctuates it is stopping for food, and town visits.
Any encounters with bears or -?
No, I was really disappointed. I saw no bears. I didn't want to see one up close, I just wanted to see one cross my path or something. When we were in the Smokeys we had to stay in shelters that had chain link fence across the front so that the bears couldn't smell your food or you. But I never saw a one. The people an hour before us, and those two hours behind us did. I guess I made so much noise I scared them away! We saw bear scat, bear tracks, but no bears.
We did see a couple of Copperheads in the south, a huge black snake that had just eaten a rat or a mouse or something; it had a big bulge in its belly. It was in the middle of the path sunning itself and it was not moving, thank you very much, it was full. So we just walked around it They're not poisonous. But it was six or seven feet long! We saw a lot of deer in the south. They weren't tame deer, but they were obviously used to hikers and knew that we weren't going to bother them. They'd be forty or fifty feet away, just browsing their way through the woods, not bothering to run away. We'd sit quietly and watch them go.
The chipmunks in New Hampshire are a pain in the neck; they chewed through my food bag in about thirty seconds when I turned my back on them. They were really obnoxious. Cute, but a real pain. There were lots of mice in the shelters, so we'd have to protect our food. We hung it in an upside down can on a string. They could be a real problem. Not only do they take your food, but their droppings carry disease.
You just walk. Some days are harder walking than others, but it's just a walk.
What are you going to do, now that you're back?
I don't know. I thought that when I came home, I'd burn my boots. And my husband said, "No, you're going to bronze those boots!" They are worn out. But now that I'm home for a while, I feel kind of antsy. I feel I need to hike or do something. I'm feeling like I'm not done yet
How does it feel to be in shape?
It feels really good; I'm really strong. I have muscles. It's kind of nice. If I keep eating like I am, I'll be right out of shape really fast You get this hiker appetite, that people joke about, but it's real. Hikers, when they get to town, can eat huge amounts of food. It's almost as if, when they say "All-You-Can-Eat," it's like a challenge to see how much you really can eat We've been walking around with a deficit But the appetite doesn't go away when you get home, so I've gained probably ten pounds already. Hiking for a weekend doesn't do it. So I'm stuck with this appetite.
I heard about one girl who goes to Dartmouth, who finished the whole trail. Her name was Yahul. I've heard from a few friends who finished, kids we met the first few days. I almost feel as happy for them as I would for myself. It's nice.
How's your family? Are people treating you different? Have you changed?
No, I'm just the same as I ever was. No changes of heart, no sudden epiphany. No bolt of lightning or bushes burning! It could be, for some people, a life-changing experience. But for me, I'm just the same, except I'm in better shape. It's nice to know that I could do it I wish my knees were strong enough that I could do the whole thing.
I was thinking the other day that I could go back and start over, and with what I know now, maybe I could actually do the whole thing. Not to fill in the pieces, they call that a "2000-miler," but to do the whole through-hike. I think Sandy Longlegs is going to fill in the pieces next summer if she can find someone to go with her. When she gets up here, I'll meet her in town. I don't know, there's something about doing the whole thing in one breath. I think the way for me to hike would be to go for four or five weeks and then plan a week off. It seems like I go home for a week and wish I were back on the trail. So if I planned in a week off, that might do it. If I had rested my knees and not gotten so bad that I couldn't walk. I was bad; I couldn't get up and down the stairs. That's mostly why I came home in the first place, just to be sure I wasn't doing permanent damage, and it was just a case of rest and go back.
I don't actually think that I'll ever be able to take off so much time again. It was a real gift from the Trustees and the School Board to let me go. It was a real sacrifice for Margaret to take over; she's done a wonderful job. Probably, if you were just a casual library user, you wouldn't have seen any difference between when I was here and when I was gone, because Margaret did such a good job. Stitching up all the bits of volunteers and fill-in workers. It's because of her that I was comfortable going. I am also grateful to Gail Donald and Denise Wheeler for their help to Margaret in keeping the library going while I was gone.
Were you surprised at how the library looked when you got back?
It was almost done when I left. It had been painted, and the floor done. The furniture wasn't moved back. But gosh, doesn't it look nice? I still come in every day and think, "This looks good!" The rugs have added so much. It's just right. We're very fortunate to have such a beautiful building, but the most important thing is good service. The building isn't the library. If you can accommodate the building to what you do, that's great.
And so our talk with the hiking librarian ended -- back at the library, where it all began! Thank you, Sally, for telling your story.