Love for the outdoors must run in families because why else would Emily Gilbert decide to hike the Appalachian Trail?
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Emily, the daughter of Placerville resident Jim Gilbert, took up the challenge a year and a half ago. Both her parents worked for the National Park Service and for Emily the trip may have been, in her words, “a patriotic journey falling in love with different bits of America.”
The 2,180-mile Appalachian Trail is a daunting trek that stretches from Springer Mountain, Ga. to Katahdin, Maine. A part of the National Park System, it crosses 14 states and annually attracts thousands of hikers. However, only one person in four actually finishes the hike.
Emily picked up the trail in Georgia in early April of 2010 and finished four months later in Maine. Along the way she regaled friends and relatives with regular e-mail updates of her adventures and observations.
Part of her baptism at the beginning of the hike, along with developing blisters, was receiving a nickname. Her nickname ended up being “Emily Maple,” which was a name left over from her high school days. Other hikers were called “Gingersnap,” “Landfill,” “Orange Moon,” “False Start,” “Opus,” “Fig,” and “Mountain Squid.”
The nicknames were part of the camaraderie and general sense of community that Emily came to appreciate during the hike. In what is generally described as “Trail Magic,” she marveled at the unexpected kindnesses shown by other hikers and residents who lived adjacent to the trail. “My first trail magic,” said Emily, “occurred after a 17-mile hike in 85-degree weather when a group of female hikers named the ‘Trail Dames’ made food to give to the hikers passing through. It was actually Easter that day; so exciting to have some chocolaty treats for the road!”
More magic occurred later in the trip when she and other hikers met two women passing out candy bars to hikers, when a Baptist church made lunch for them, and when people gave them rides along the way. “It’s been luscious to be around this kind of kindness,” she said.
Community was also to be found at night when hikers gathered at the three-sided shelters scattered along the trail. According to Emily, there were about 500 of them. Most of the time she slept outside with other campers or in the tent she brought along. Other times she stayed at hostels or occasionally at a bed-and-breakfast in one of many small towns she passed through. Later, when she got to New Hampshire, she stayed in a “luxurious” hut with a real floor and enjoyed hearty meals that were served to those who paid or worked for their meals.
The ever-changing landscape was one of the appeals of the trail and being a keen observer, Emily noted not only the spectacular scenery but the types of plants and animals along the way. At Clingman’s Dome, the highest point of the entire trail at 6,600 feet, she could see the Appalachian range for miles.
“Looking out, the range will seem a blueish-brown up close and ripple out to paler distant mountains.” Then as the trail descended the landscape changed again and “… the oaks were blooming in reddish tips, new bright green maple, birch leaf tips were emerging and from a distance the mountains were reminiscent of fall colors in reds, yellows and greens. In the last few days, the trail has led us up into 5,000-6,000 feet elevations where spring is not out, but I know as I go on the leaves will be coming out and flowers will reappear. The Smokies have a had a sweet flower blooming that seemed to blanket the ground in constellations called wood anemones.”
In Virginia part of the trail turned into a “green tunnel” because of the leafy overgrowth. “I often feel as if I’m swimming under an ocean of green, leaves lit from above,” she said. “We’ve also had miles filled with honeysuckle, heady grass, smelling intoxicating, dreamy. There have been beautiful rivers, rocky overlooks. The rhododendrons have been blooming, as well as an East Coast bush I had never seen called mountain laurel, which has blossoms that looked like pink-folded origami half lanterns.”
As she traveled farther north she could tell she had entered New England because of the change in accents. She also noted that “instead of dusty trucks, we’re glared at by drivers of Lexuses, Mercedes, (and) BMWs. We hiked into money!”
As she trekked through the White Mountains of New Hampshire, Emily commented that they “were definitely the most breathtaking part of the trail, a beauty that you had to squeeze out and earn. From our first view of the mountains, one could peer out for 50 miles in each direction to find these wise mountains like blue breaching whales, saints trapped under the earth or sapphire spires of a steep crown looming with command in the distance. People tear up at their beauty, causing numerous pauses and moments of awe.”
Wildlife was also plentiful along the trail. Emily reported seeing bears, a cardinal, wild turkeys, 5-foot-long black snakes, copperhead snakes, grouse, moose, beavers, groundhogs, newts, fireflies, barn owls, and white-tailed deer. She also had a close encounter with a rattlesnake or two but managed to escape without getting bit. The only time she did hurt herself was when she fell on a slab of granite and ended up with a fat lip and two black eyes.
Aside from the satisfaction of completing the rigorous hike, Emily came away with a new appreciation for those she met on the trail. “I’ve met a lot of inspiring people on the trail,” she said. (People who were) “raising money for cancer, Haiti, clean water in third-world countries. Still, one of the most inspiring people that I met on the trail was a gentleman that was hit by a drunk driver a year or two ago and had a spinal cord injury. … The guy told me that only one of seven people with his injury actually walk again and he was that one. After some thought he decided that he wanted to hike the AT and his doctors gave him the green light. I was struck by his resiliency and turning such a catastrophe into an opportunity for growth.”
Emily went on to say, “hiking the Appalachian Trail, I’ve witnessed human kindness that has reinspired my faith in greater humanity. Weekly we all come across acts of kindness, offers of rides, people hosting picnics in the middle of nowhere for through-hikers cruising through. This week I cruised in to town to get groceries, but didn’t have a nine-mile return ride to the trail crossing. An elderly man pulled his 30-year-old beat up Cadillac over, explaining that he was a trail angel (someone who puts down what they’re doing to help hikers year after year) and asked if I wanted a ride. His old car was full of newspapers, old coke cans, cigarette cartons…. There was barely room for me! Over the nine miles, we swapped stories about our different lives and the trail itself. Expressing my gratitude, the man said, ‘I try to do something nice for people everyday.’ I believe him completely. I was touched by his simple life and the depth of his wisdom to do this, to give back.”