Thursday, May 03, 2012

10 Years of Onionism

10 years ago today, I headed north from Springer Mountain. And yes, I get a little teary-eyed thinking about it.

To be honest, I actually headed south for a mile first, because I took a cab to the Forest Service road crossing that's a mile from the summit of Springer. I'd planned to maybe hike the 8-mile approach trail from Amicalola Falls SP, but I was a day behind schedule already, so I skipped it. I rode the dog (i.e., took Greyhound) from Oceanside, California to Atlanta, Georgia. Traffic was bad so I missed my first (of 11) transfers in San Bernardino, and nearly every connection after that was off, so the trip lasted half a day longer than it was supposed to.

When I got to Atlanta I had missed the only bus of the day to Gainesville, the town nearest to the state park and the start of the trail. So instead of waiting around, I took a taxi, first to cash a traveler's check (that's how long ago this was/how naive I was) at a check-cashing place, then to the Amtrak station. Having never ridden Amtrak before it struck me as unusual that the train was an hour late. As soon as the train started moving, an employee came by and looked at people's tickets, while at the same time saying something about how he was not the actual conductor. Only he said it in a sort of goofy loud voice, and I wasn't sure whether he was serious or not. After he went by, I went and took a leak. I only needed to go one stop, from Atlanta to Gainesville. The train soon came to a halt, but no announcement was made, and I didn't see anything out the window, so I didn't get up or try and get off the train. When we started rolling again and the Gainesville station passed by in the window, I flipped out and tried to find the conductor or somebody to help. Instead of helping, he and a bunch of passengers basically laughed at me. "What do you think the train stopped for, traffic?" (Yes for traffic, you idiot. They're called rights-of-way. And now after years of riding Amtrak and sitting still with no explanation in random spots for hours, I'm even more convinced that conductor was a moron.) I had been in the bathroom when the conductor went by collecting tickets, so he didn't know there was anyone in my car needing to get off, and they don't announce stations after a certain time at night since passengers are sleeping. All I could do was get off at the next station, Toccoa. I sat in the empty station for a few hours, but after a shiftless drunk bumbled by I got scared and wandered through the nearby village. No businesses were open, but there was a hotel. I told my sob story to the desk clerk, and he let me hang out on the lobby couch all night. After a while he offered me a room for free, but I didn't want to impose.

I caught the train the other direction the next morning, and the driver I'd been in touch with about a ride to the state park was there waiting for me. We stopped at his house to switch from his station wagon to his Jeep, and then he drove me to the top of Springer. I got out of his car and started running South. He said "Hey, Canada's that way," and pointed North, as if I'd be willing to skip the very first mile of trail.

I made 14 miles my first day. My pack was a Gregory Whitney. 7 pounds 8 ounces empty, 5500 cubic inches of space. I could fit myself inside this pack. My sleeping bag was a four-pound Campmor I'd had since I was 12 (what a shitty christmas present, I thought when I received it; I kept it until three years ago.) I had a one-pound stove (Primus Multi-Fuel) that could cook with any fuel known to man, liquid or gas, and sounded like a jet engine. My rain jacket also weighed a pound, my boots (Montrail Torre GTX) weighed several, I was carrying a 5-pound 2-man tent (REI Quarter Dome) and I had a one-pound lock to keep my backpack safe from roving bandits. The tent and the lock had won Backpacker Magazine Editor's Choice awards, so clearly they were essential to both my survival and my enjoyment of the trail.

On my second day I made 16 miles, and on my third day I made 18 miles, and hiked the last few with Andrew Skurka. He was a Duke student hiking in his summer off, I was a BYU student hiking in my summer off, and obviously I knew the only Mormon kid he knew at Duke, so we hit it off. I never saw him again though, because he took off bright and early, and I woke up with a bum knee. I took a bunch of acetaminophen, to no avail. Some older female hikers told me the drug I needed was ibuprofen. I tried to hitch into town on a touristy road for about an hour, with no avail. I struggled 2 more miles to the next road and caught a ride relatively quickly. The first words the guy said to me were "Not a lot of people pick up hitch-hikers out here after what Eric Rudolph gone done to people." I didn't know who that was, and I was paying more attention to the fact that the guy's shotgun was in the cab, butt on the floor, leaning up against the dash, and every time the mountain road wound to the left, the barrel would slide ride into my lap. The guy was drinking a Keystone Light the whole time, and as we got into town we were the first car in line as a police officer stopped traffic to let the buses out of an elementary school. Yet the driver paid no heed and continued drinking away.

I took lots of Vitamin-I, I survived the hitch-hiking, and I survived the hike. 2,168 miles later I had none of the gear I started with, and I'd gone from 14 miles a day, getting serious tendonitis in my knee, and a 50-60lb pound pack, to a castaway 2000 cubic inch Kelty Redwing day-pack of my dad's, regularly doing 25-30 miles a day, and a pretty impressive beard. On August 23, I reached Katahdin, having walked the entire way except for 9 or 10 miles due to a fire closure. (If I did the hike now I would clearly just walk through the fire closure (Petites Gap to the James River footbridge), since the fire wasn't anywhere near the trail, or at least roadwalk around the fire, but at the time my dad happened to be visiting, and I was young and a goody-goody, so I accepted his ride. I went back the next summer and hiked the missing miles with my sister.) It wasn't all easy. I called home crying from Pearisburg, Virginia. I like to blame this on the fact that I had walked out of town with a gallon of chocolate milk in my hand and drunk it all within a few hours. But really the hiking was just hard. But I ate a half gallon of ice cream in one sitting, I saw beautiful rolling green mountains, I met cool people like DaddyMention, MeTree, UTree, Pacence, and Moon, and then I convinced my buddy Fillmore to come and hike the last third of the trail with me, and I kept with it.

On top of Katahdin I started talking to a lady with her kids and her father. I took a photo with her kids because they were wearing really bright clothing, and my Mom had mentioned something about liking photos with all of the colors of me and bunches of kids. The next summer I worked in DC and happened to notice a few articles about the Appalachian Trail in the papers--one in the WaPo about how much it sucked to hike in 28 consecutive days of rain, and this one in the NYT Travel section where I was described as "frenzied." Also in the summer of 2003 I went to my high school 5-year reunion. I had a lot of fun catching up with old friends, but when I mentioned the AT to one guy who, exactly as everyone predicted since I met him in junior high, had gone to business school and then into investment banking and then set his facebook profile photo to one of him in a private helicopter, asked me, derisively, if the AT was a life-changing experience. I responded no, and downplayed the significance of the hike because the guy was being a douche. Douche perhaps, but correct. Some things started right away--I took a bus trip into NYC to pick up my friend Fillmore (now Flatfoot) who got on the trail in Connecticut. I stopped at Schnapp's place, smelled really bad, ate the trunk of a stalk of broccoli, several Entenmanns and a dozen Krispy Kremes, and watched the musical Urinetown. I credit this trip and Urinetown, despite it being a send-up of socialism (after the rebels win and let everybody pee for free, they all get sick because there really wasn't enough water for everyone to pee. Turns out murderous capitalism is best) with starting me on the path to socialism (road to serfdom, if you will). I realized after living for free on government land for four months that my libertarianism was hypocritical bullshit. I was in favor of government-provided programs that support almost exclusively middle or upper class whites, so how could I be opposed to programs to benefit people who actually needed assistance? Other things took more time (religion), and other things I'm still working on (a career vs. dropping out completely and walking home from Patagonia), but a lot of it started with the AT.

Props to Boy Scouts for getting me into backpacking, whatever troop leader was willing to go along on my quest to hike the big 5 peaks at Lenhoks'in High Adventure camp at Goshen, my brother's buddy RH down the street who tried to thru-hike when I was in junior high, and Ciszek for telling me about Bill Bryson's Walk in the Woods and our buddy Ben's successful thru-hike as soon as I got back from Korea.


  1. Awesome. Really enjoyed this post. Stirs up some great memories of my AT thru... I had some interesting hitches, but never the shotgun and open container variety!

  2. A lot is packed in here. nicely done.

  3. It wasn't the derivative Broadway musical you saw, or the mountain majesties of the East, but the magical broccoli stem I tricked you into eating that made you into a liberal.

  4. Thanks Dave and Zoom.

    Mike--Derivative? I don't know my historical musicals very well, but of what?

  5. This is a good start for a book.