Saturday, June 18, 2011

Walking the Appalachian Trial is No Euphemism

In 1948 Earl Shaffer of York, Pa., made history. He walked 2,181 miles from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Mt. Katahdin, Maine, making him the first person to hike the entire Appalachian Trail. This is the time of year that "through hikers" are traversing the Keystone state.  With notoriously rocky trails, hikers say Pennsylvania is a great test of their determination to get to Maine.

An early morning lightning storm pounds at the wooden roof of the "Kirkridge" rock shelter near the Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania. Three Appalachian Trail through-hikers are dry and sleeping soundly. They are eight miles shy of finishing the state and have been hiking for three months since beginning this spring at Springer Mountain, Georgia.
"The rain really slows me down," said Zack Joiner of Carthage, Mississippi, who adopted a trail name Facejacket.  "When its raining it's no fun to pack up a tent, or in my case a tarp."
The night before Joiner built a fire and told me a story of one of his more difficult moments on the trail.
"Sure enough one of the roots that I thought I was stepping on turned, and proceeded to bite me," said Joiner. "It turned out to be a copperhead."
Thankfully he was wearing a hiking gaiter that protected his leg. One of his traveling partners, Harry Netzer, will soon start college.  He has wanted to hike the AT since his mother read him "A Walk in the Woods" by Bill Bryson, as a child.
Netzer had his trail name, Shorts, given to him.  
"In the beginning we had a few snowy days, ice over night," said Netzer.  "I would always be in shorts, other people would put on rain pants and long underwear, so I'm Shorts."  
Dave Childs is a chairperson of the hiker's center, a free hostel at the Holy Church of the Mountain in Stroudsburg. He says typically two in ten through-hikers make it to the end, but those who conquer Pennsylvania are beyond half way, and have a good chance of summiting Mt. Katahdin in Maine before fall weather rules it out.  
"Right about now, in early June through July they start coming through the state," said Childs. "The latest they can pass through Pennsylvania is August if they're get to Baxter State park before it closes on October 15th."  
Life on the Appalachian Trail always involves some hardship, but Pennsylvania, called Rocksylvania, is one of hikers least favorite sections.   
"My feet are very angry," said Joiner.  "To be honest, I'm excited about getting out of Pennsylvania and on to flat ground again, so that the entire bottom of my shoe actually hits dirt."
Anna Jeffers, who has been hiking sections of the AT for a decade, is a 57 year old lawyer from Baltimore. 
"It just became rockier and rockier, and there's parts of it where the trail goes over knife edges of rocks," said Jeffers. "You're holding on with a 35 pound pack on your back."
Yet Netzer and Joiner say they are having a great time and are determined to finish. 
"I definitely see myself making it through to the end," said Netzer. "It's been 1,200 something miles so far, I have a pretty good idea of what I have left."
"I have a lot of friends out here and I want to hike up Mt. Katahdin with them," said Joiner.  
Red Ryder is from Illinois and only wants to be known by his trail name. He says the AT isn't just a trail, it's like a society in the woods.
"To me the trail is about the people out here," he said. "We have a language of our own. You're a sobo, you're a south-bounder.  You're a nobo, you're a north-bounder"
"Blue blazes, are side paths," chimes in Netzer.  "Yellow blazes are shortcuts, like a taxi cab.  Steel blazing is taking a train. Aqua blaze--apparently there a few places where you can ride a raft."
It doesn't take long before through hikers' conversations turn to trail food:
Ramen noodles,
Candy bars
Tuna fish
Preservable cheese. 
"I've packed out Little Debbies, I've packed out beer, and whole subs," said Joiner.
Walking more than 2,000 miles does weed out a lot of people.  The Appalachian Trail Conservancy says only about one quarter of this year's 1,500 through hikers will finish.  

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