Friday, May 14, 2010

The Thru-Hikers

We have spent today preparing for a weekend trip.  We aren’t taking the Everest this time, but instead will be staying in a motel.  We don’t often travel without our home, so we had to really concentrate on what we needed to take for a couple days away from home.

Our trip will take us to the southern Virginia town of Damascus for the annual event of Trail Days.  Actually, the festivities started on Wednesday, but I think Saturday and Sunday will be about plenty for us.

Trail Days is all about the AT thru-hiker so just let me offer a brief description of what that beast is.  In any given year, there are about 1500 folks who start the AT with a goal of hiking to the other end.  Most start at the southern terminus, Springer Mountain in Georgia, but there are a few who start at Mt Katahdin in Maine.  Of that number that start, a hundred or so leave the trail at or before Neels Gap in Georgia, 30 miles from Springer.  Another couple hundred have left the trail by the Smokies. Only about half who start reach Harper’s Ferry at 1,000 miles.  About 27% who start will finish the 2,174 mile trail.

By the time they reach Damascus, they have hiked through three of the fourteen states along the trail--Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina, and have completed 460 miles.    Most have taken about 2 months to make the journey, stopping about every 4 or 5 days in small towns along the way to resupply their food, get a shower, and do laundry.

The hikers generally fall into three age categories.  The young ones are typically just out of college and are the largest of the three groups.  It is a time in their lives when they can spend 5 or 6 months on the trail before being immersed in career and family responsibilities.  Some have a clear idea of what they want after the trail; others seem to be drifting with no clear purpose.  We’ve met young nurses, engineers, environmentalists, and accountants on the trail.  When in town, they stay at the hiker hostels and they eat pizza, burgers, and beer.  As you might expect, the young ones like to party.  There are a few clusters out there that seem to want to make this 2174 mile journey one big party.  I would venture to guess that these hearty partiers would be among the 50% who drop out by Harper’s Ferry.  Either they give out or their money gives out.

Another group consists of the “mature” hiker--those that are retired.  Again, the group is made up of people from all walks of life.  Being older, they don’t have the responsibilities of jobs and young families, so have the time for a thru-hike.  This group has the financial means to support the hike a little better than the young ones.  Although there is no fee to hike, the hiker still has to eat and when in town they have lodging and restaurant bills.  Good boots, sleeping bags, packs, and tents are not cheap.  When in town, they opt for the B & B or a motel.  Although they like pizza, burgers, and beer, they also have an eye out for salad.

The last group, perhaps the smallest, consists of folks at some juncture in their lives--perhaps laid off from a job, a divorce, mid-life crisis.  These men and women, again, come from every area of society.  We met a man three years ago, who was walking the trail to find some relief from the grief associated with losing his daughter.  That same year, we met a college president who was hiking to raise money for his school.

There are some hikers who come back year after year.  They are kind of in a group of their own, I guess.  Some come to raise money for one cause or another.  One of the young men we took into town yesterday is raising money for a children’s charity.  Some just like to be on the trail.  They worked seasonal jobs and spend the summers hiking. Some are authors and are hiking for their research.

The AT thru-hikers, regardless of age, are traveling by foot on a 2174 mile journey, living in the wilderness with just what they can carry on their backs.  Their hair is long, their beards are unshaven (usually), and even if their clothes were new when they started, they are beginning to show some serious wear and tear, and the smell does not easily wash out.  Many of these people are gathered in Damascus to celebrate Trail Days.  We’re going to join them.

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