When Nick and I decided to walk the Appalachian Trail, I don’t think either of us had any idea what was in store for us. After weeks of planning and packing, mapping our route and deciding which towns to visit along the way, we found ourselves on a plane to Virginia. Our ignorance led us to believe we needed to bring everything but the kitchen sink with us. As we began our route in Roanoke, Virginia, the magnitude of what we had signed ourselves up for hit me like the weight of my backpack.
The trail itself encompassed the height of Mount Everest seventeen times over, which was a gruelling feat in itself, even without the addition of blistering heat, freezing temperatures and sleepless nights in thunderstorms. Though Nick and myself are both keen campers and hikers, this challenge was greater than anything we had ever experienced before. I speak for the both of us when I say that we rapidly learned how crucial trekking poles are when undertaking a hike of this magnitude - they are an absolute necessity. We chose to bring the Ascent tripod with us, as well as an extra leg. This not only provided us with our trekking poles, but also our tent frame for the 10 weeks we spent in the wilderness. Carrying your tent, stove, sleeping bag and the rest on your back for this amount of time isn’t good for anyone, and so you really appreciate just how important your trekking poles are. We also learned how imperative it is to be able to trust your gear fully. If we lost a pair of trekking poles, that would not only be our walking support gone, but our tent gone too. We had complete trust and belief in the system, and it didn't let us down.
Not wanting to sound too millennial, but walking for hundreds of miles without phone signal or wifi was quite a shock to the system. Of course, we were trekking through some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, something that I would never take for granted. But, the awareness of how alone we were and thus the lingering prospect of danger would cloud my mind from time to time, especially on the days that combined lack of signal with isolation from any other hikers. We were both eighteen at the time of the trek, and this was our first prolonged period of time spent away from home. Though the Appalachian Trail is remarkably safe, we did get wind of a very grizzly murder happening just 100 miles south of us, and the murderer’s wearabouts being unknown for the next two weeks. Since 1974 there have been 13 murders on the trail. With over 3 million people walking some of its distance every year, this should definitely not put you off.
Food really loses its enjoyment on a 10 week hike. After a rotation of ramen, couscous and tinned tuna, you lose the prospect of flavour. For a week, we had no stove after ours broke just after leaving a town. We learned about ‘stoveless cooking’ in which you hydrate your food for multiple hours instead of heating it, which tastes as good as you can imagine - not very good at all. Because of this, every time Nick and I reached a town, we ate like it was our last meal on death row. Steak with all the American trimmings was a regular, and being significantly under the legal drinking age here, we had no risk of overspending on booze as we would on a hike at home. This became our once a week splurge if we were fortunate enough to find ourselves in a town.
What really surprised both Nick and myself, was the community spirit of those you met on the trail. You wouldn’t dream of passing someone without speaking to them, and being given a trail name really makes you feel like you’re on an adventure. One night in a hostel, I was discussing my resentment towards Ricky Gervais and cinnamon, to which I was named Cinnamon Ricky. Nick was christened Bullseye after a tick bite left him with the characteristic bullseye mark indicating Lyme disease was on its way if not treated imminently. We met such interesting people from all over the world, one guy we walked with for well over half the trail. Don’t get me wrong, Nick and I have been best friends since nursery, but having another person to chat to for a considerable proportion of our trek made all the difference.
Walking the Appalachian Trail, you never really knew what you were going to encounter each morning that you opened your tent. The constant unknown of what the day would bring, in terms of meeting new people, changes to the weather, and what you would find on your path. During our time in New Hampshire, we crossed through the White Mountains, known for having the fastest changing weather in the world, and the worst weather in all of the USA. There is snowfall all year round at least once a month, and for a third of the year, the wind is above the speeds of tropical storms. I unfortunately found myself alone in a storm for one of the most terrifying moments of my life, certainly the closest I have ever been to death. On this particular day Nick’s fitness prowess overtook mine and he was half an hours walk ahead of me. I was at the peak of a mountain when within a minute, the skies changed from sunshine to rain falling sideways and the thickest fog I have ever been in. I hid behind a cairn (a pile of rocks) to wait out the worst, in which time the huge gusts of wind took off my glasses and my backpack rain cover. Seconds later, 4 lightning bolts hit the ground in a square, closer than I have ever seen lightning in my life. I realised the gravity of the danger I was in, and decided the best option was to sprint as fast as I could. My boots were entirely flooded and I have never feared for my life as I did whilst running down a slippery mountain in a storm. I found Nick in a shelter, who had believed he would never see me again. There is a sign as you enter the White Mountains, reminding you that people die each year on these mountains. Although a terrifying experience and not one I would even wish on my worst enemy, I think it is important to be reminded that we are not as invincible as we sometimes believe we are.