Appalachian Trail thru-hikers will not see themselves or their trail friends in the just-released movie, “A Walk in the Woods.”
They won’t be reminded of friendships forged in shared hardship. In the movie, there is no frostbite, no blisters, no bum knees. No pain. No one gets cold or hot. Or hungry. Except for two trained bears, they won’t see any animals, not even a shelter mouse stealing food from a backpack.
As for the movie version of the trail itself, that’s the worst part. “A Walk in the Woods” looks like a stroll in the park. Other than the white blazes that marked the trail, there was not much I recognized.
Earlier this year, I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail from Springer Mountain, Ga., to Mt. Katahdin, Maine, through 14 states, a distance of 2,189.2 miles – and that number doesn’t include the miles I accidentally hiked backward.
Backward? Oh, yes. Three times.
I was hiking alone in New York one day when I saw a privy right beside the trail. I was surprised. It was only the second one I had seen since I left Georgia, and I had used the first one earlier that morning.
Oh, no! Oh, yes. It was the same one.
I guess I was sort of hoping that Robert Redford and Nick Nolte, the stars of the movie, would get turned around, too. But I guess that only happens in real life.
Unlike the actors, almost all of thru-hikers are hurting almost all the time. Their feet are swollen, often blistered. They lose feeling in their toes. Sometimes their toenails turn black and fall off. They get skinned up and bruised from falls. (I fell about 200 times.) Their knees are the biggest problem, sore from too much downhill hiking.
In the movie, Redford and Nolte didn’t become friends with other hikers, or meet a single trail angel – town people who surprise hikers with what we call “trail magic,” usually food and drinks. Other hikers, and trail angels, were the best part of my trip.
Three angels who had read my blog decided to help me and, of course, any other hiker who happened to be nearby:
▪ Vicki took a day off from work, drove from a Washington, D.C., suburb to Harpers Ferry, W.Va., retrieved the girdle I was using to keep my insides inside – I had a hernia – and returned it to me. I had left it in the restroom at the headquarters of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. From Harpers Ferry, she drove north until she got ahead of me and then hiked south until she met me on the trail.
▪ When I got to Port Clinton, Pa., Iceman was waiting for me when I came off the mountain. He took me to supper at a Cracker Barrel and then took me to his home in Lancaster, Pa., about an hour away, where I got cleaned up and a good night’s sleep. He tracked me down two more times and helped me – once in Maine when I was almost out of food.
▪ Hydro parked his pickup on Maine 17, near Oquossoc, and waited in the rain at a trailhead where he thought I just might show up. He was right, and when he saw me emerge from the woods he offered me a ride into Rangeley. Now here’s the thing: My knee was injured and I had already decided I had to get off the trail at that very spot.
‘Not Yet’ and ‘Lucky’
None of the hikers in the movie had trail names.
In real life almost every thru-hiker has a trail name, as do most section hikers. A few hikers wait to get a name more or less assigned to them, as did one man I met whose first day on the trail produced a name. Someone asked him, “Do you have a trail name?”
And he replied, “Not Yet.”
And then he did.
But that strategy is fraught with peril. You could fall in the mud and get a name like “Dirty Bottom.” So most hikers picked their own name.
When I decided to hike to Maine, several friends told me how “fortunate” I was to have the health to at least try and a wife who had said yes. “Fortunate” didn’t resonate with me, so I called myself “Lucky.”
Eat all you want
In the movie, Nolte was still plump after three months on the trail. That tells you right there that “A Walk In The Woods” is not the real deal.
For the first three weeks, I lost almost a pound a day. If I had kept losing like that, by the time I got to Maine my backpack would have weighed more than I did. Like most other real hikers, I had very little appetite at first. Later on, I was always hungry. We all were.
One of the things I liked best about thru-hiking was eating as much as I wanted of anything and still not gaining weight. Thru-hikers burn about 6,000 calories a day, according to the Conservancy. We couldn’t carry enough food to replace that many calories but we tried to make up for it when we got somewhere where we could eat.
Eat-all-you-can restaurants, like the one right beside the trail at Pinkham Notch in New Hampshire, were a treat thru-hikers never passed up. When my friends and I stopped there one morning, I ate two scrambled eggs, two servings of hash browns, a blueberry muffin, a sausage patty, 10 pieces of bacon, two glasses of orange juice, two glasses of apple juice, a bowl of fruit, and three cups of coffee. Oh, and four pancakes.
When we got to Maine, we began running into more and more southbound hikers. Because of winter weather on Mt. Katahdin, SoBos, as they are called, have to start a lot later in the year than we did. When we met them, most of them had hiked less than 200 miles; we had hiked 2,000.
I was hiking with Sharon McCray, one of the Hiking Vikings couple, when a SoBo stopped to talk and said to us, “I am so tired.”
Sharon said something pleasant in response and we moved on. But when we were out of earshot, she said to me: “I wanted to tell him, ‘Not as tired as you’re going to be. Do you mind if I take a bite out of your arm?’ ”
A walk in the water
The most stunning misrepresentation in the movie was the trail, part of which wasn’t even the AT. The movie made the trail look flat, smooth, mostly level. Easy.
That’s not so.
No matter where you are on the AT it won’t be long before you’re hiking up a mountain and then down the other side. Then up another mountain, and down. It’s not always up and down, of course. Sometimes it’s up, up, up, up. Down.
According to the Conservancy, the total elevation gain is the equivalent of climbing Mt. Everest 16 times.
There are difficult sections in every state, but New Hampshire is the most challenging. The mud there reminded me of Vermont; the steep climbs, North Carolina; the rock hops, Pennsylvania; and the rock climbs and scrambles, New York.
One day it was so bad it got to be funny, thanks to the Hiking Vikings, who were an hour or two ahead of me.
I was hiking by myself when the trail made a right hand turn into a stream. I’m not talking about water making its way into the trail; that’s commonplace from one end of the AT to the other. I’m talking about the trail making its way into water and staying there for hundreds of yards.
I turned right and started down the first of several waterfalls. There were no white blazes to guide me; there rarely are in New Hampshire, but this time, the absence of blazes made me pause. Did they really put the trail in a stream? No way. They wouldn’t do that, not even in New Hampshire.
So I took off my pack, climbed back to the top, and took another careful look around. The trail had to have gone somewhere else. But it didn’t. They had indeed turned the trail down that rushing, whitewater stream. So I returned to my pack, put it on, and began working my way downstream. In a few more minutes, I came to a rock on which Nate Harrington, one of the Vikings, had left a question for me:
“Are you mad yet, Lucky?”
A ring with a message
I became friends with a number of hikers, including the Vikings, who I met in the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina.
But when I returned to the trail on March 21, after a surgeon diagnosed the problem in my gut, the Vikings were long gone. I was still several days behind when I got a text from Sharon, asking for a favor. They had lost a ring, leaving it hanging on a nail in a shelter. She asked me to check when I got there, and get the ring if it was still there.
I said I would. Much to my surprise, there it was.
Meantime, Nate had asked Sharon to marry him, and she had said Yes!
I texted Sharon and asked if the ring I had found was “a ring“ or “the ring.” She replied that it was “a ring” but, she said, it had a story.
I was still two days behind when the trail entered the Shenandoah National Park, in northern Virginia. Compared to the rest of the AT, the Shenandoah is as flat as a kitchen table, so I pinned my ears back and went all out to catch up. In four days, I hiked 105 miles. And after dark on a cold, rainy, night in late April, almost six weeks after I had gone home, I caught them.
I returned the ring, and Nate told me the story.
He said he believed in asking a woman’s father for his blessing before asking his daughter for her hand in marriage. But Sharon’s father is dead. So, Nate said, he talked to Sharon’s father in his thoughts, and asked for his blessing.
That’s when he found the ring, almost completely covered in dirt, barely visible. It was, to him, her father’s answer: Yes.
The Vikings were married on July 22, 10 days after they finished their hike.
Pat Stith, a former News & Observer reporter, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1996. This year, he thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in four months, 29 days, finishing on July 14. Since the 1930s, a total of 15,524 people have thru-hiked the trail, including about 25 who were age 70 or older, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Stith, 73, became the 26th.