Editor’s note: In 2001 after overcoming physical problems that repeatedly delayed his trip, Somerset’s Norm Stoldt walked the first 1,100 miles of the Appalachian Trail. He returned in 2003 and finished what he’d started.
This summer, I backpacked the northern 1,000-mile portion of the Appalachian Trail. The adventure turned out to be much more challenging than my 2001 hike.
To put my 91-day walk in perspective, it’s like going from Sacramento to Los Angeles and halfway back again. My travels were a lesson in East Coast geography. The trail wound through Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, and passed over four major East Coast mountain ranges and rivers.
What to carry
I’m a gear geek in my old age and have learned to hike smarter, not harder. Two kinds of people go into the woods, hikers and campers. Campers don’t care about weight. Hikers aren’t interested in luxuries, they worry about weight.
A heavy pack is tiring, puts extra stress on joints and wear and tear on feet. I was determined to travel as lightly as possible.
My sleeping bag, pack and tent together weighed just 7 pounds. My cook stove was about a third the size of a soda can. I had a 16-ounce plastic soda bottle for alcohol fuel and another bottle for a canteen.
The only water I carried was in the 32-ounce bottle. Other water came from streams and lakes along the way using my pump/purifier. A foam pad served as both a sleeping mat and the frame for my pack.
I carried a short- and long-sleeved T-shirt, long underwear, two pairs of socks, a set of briefs, a sun hat, nylon wind breaker, two bandanas (one to wear, one for kitchen use), and two pairs of hiking shorts for when I did laundry.
All clothing was lightweight and wickable. I had a simple first aid kit (mole skin, antibiotic cream, sunblock, ace bandage and bandaids) and a repair kit with duct tape, paper clips, safety pins, needle and thread. I wore low cut, waterproof trail shoes, more durable than tennis shoes but considerably lighter than boots.
I used The Appalachian Trail Data Book and Dan Bruce’s, The Thru-Hiker’s Handbook, for water sources, camp sites, elevation, distances, town locations and their facilities — but carried only the pages needed for the section I was hiking. Several sheets of paper served as a journal and I carried the usual personal articles including toilet paper.
To protect my gear from the elements, everything went in zip lock freezer bags and I lined the inside of my pack with a plastic trash compactor bag. Near the end of my hike, I added cold weather rain gear, replaced my lightweight sleeping bag with a warmer model and my low cut shoes with regular boots. Nevertheless, with seven days of food, the total weight of my gear was only an amazing 27 pounds.
A day on the trail
Days usually began at first light. First I took down the food bag and got out breakfast and lunch. Breakfast was high-energy cold cereal, granola and Grape Nuts, with occasional sweet rolls. For more fire power, I poured a mixture of milk and Carnation Instant Breakfast over my cereal.
Two power bars, a Snickers bar, a couple spoonfuls of peanut butter, a giant-sized cookie and a cheese and meat stick made up lunch, eaten in small portions through the day. After breakfast I packed up and took off. The whole procedure generally took less than 45 minutes.
I walked nine to 10 hours a day, covering an average of 15 miles. In more mountainous sections, my mileage dropped to half of that.
Terrain and weather were not the only factors governing my daily mileage. Campsites and water sources also determined how far a day’s travel would be. In most states, camping along the trail was restricted to designated areas only.
Evening camp began with pumping enough water for supper, breakfast and my canteen the next morning. I changed into dry clothes and footwear, put up a line for my wet things and set my boots out to dry. My clothes and socks were always wet or damp from rain or sweat.
I fired up the stove to warm a double portion bag of a freeze-dried dinner and a high energy tea/coffee packet to go along with a super-sized sweet roll or cookie for desert. My remaining food went into a waterproof bag and hung from a tree for protection against hungry critters.
Finally, I set up my tent with my sleeping mat and bag inside and most of my personal items. After supper, adhering to the old commandment of the trail, “What you carry in you carry out,” I gathered the empty food packages and put them in my pack. Whether camping or sleeping in a shelter, I was generally asleep by 7:30 p.m.
The strangest segment of the trail was in New York’s Bear Mountain State Park. I passed through a huge picnic area on the side of a lake on a Sunday afternoon with people arriving bus load after bus load. The air smelled of barbecue and people ate, swam, or just enjoyed being outside. Dozens of vendors sold everything from ice cream to tacos. Even weirder, the trail then wound through a zoo.
There I was, a bearded, bedraggled hiker with pack and hiking sticks, wandering among hundreds of neatly dressed tourists viewing animals and plant life. After spending over a month mostly all alone in the wild the scene was unreal.
I had resolved to take a day off each week or every 100 miles after my experience in 2001 when a hairline fracture to the top of the tibia in my knee forced me to stop at the halfway point. Too many hikers push their body beyond its limits and are injured.
I spent the off days at hostels and occasional motels. The most novel hostel was “White House Landing” in Maine on the side of a lake. You signaled your arrival and the need for a ferry to cross the lake to the hostel with an air horn tied to a tree. It was very rustic, consisting of several log buildings and an outdoor privy.
My stay in the “dungeon,” a fraternity house basement at Dartmouth University, was the other end of the spectrum. It rained during and for several days before my arrival. The basement entrance was flooded with 4 inches of water, so was the way upstairs to the bathroom and kitchen. There was a strong smell of mildew, closely packed bodies and wet hikers’ clothes hanging everywhere. You couldn’t walk across the room without threat of decapitation from a clothes line.
The only dry place was where the hikers slept using mattresses on the floor, the room’s two sofas, tables and chairs. One small enterprising individual linked end tables together as a bed.
As in my previous trail adventure, I met many interesting individuals. I’m particularly grateful to the trail angels who aided my fellow hikers and me, making our travels much less arduous.
My first day out, I grew fond of a tough looking young man carrying a long knife outside of his boot. Both arms were decorated with rather violent, grotesque tattoos. He looked more like an inner city gang member than a hiker, yet graciously informed me how to avoid a flooded section of the trail ahead. That night at the shelter I was the only one with dry footwear.
My all time favorite trail angel was Butch Cassidy and Sundance. Butch wasn’t his real name, but everyone associated with the trail uses a nickname. He was a seventyish gentleman from New Jersey. Sundance was his dog.
Butch had wanted to hike the trail, but couldn’t because of a major heart attack. For 11 springs he and Sundance have driven to Georgia in his van and met hikers at road intersections as he worked his way back home to give them cold sodas, fruit and water. I met him in New Jersey and he drove me 3 miles into town to spend the night at a hostel.
As I stowed my gear, he returned with two boxes of donuts and drinks for all the hikers in the hostel. He did this all on his own volition and cost, even volunteering to come the next morning to take another hiker and I back to the trail head. His actions and those of many others made me reflect on what I could do to help others. I resolved to be less selfish and more generous and compassionate.
I have to call attention to the thousands of trail maintainers. Most of the AT was built by the CCC and state and federal forest personnel, but it’s maintained by volunteers. Since it was first built decades ago, volunteers have literally moved millions of rocks to reduce erosion, cut thousands of fallen trees blocking the trail, and constructed untold numbers of log walkways to protect endangered plant life and assist hikers across low lying areas.
In addition, they maintain and refurbish hundreds of shelters along the trail and keep up with the never-ending job of clearing brush. Without their Herculean efforts, the trail would soon disappear into an impenetrable malaise of brush, trees and boulders. Every hiker owes these individuals a debt of gratitude.
This wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Bud, Kerosene Charlie, Big E and Itchyfoot, all senior hikers and close companions on the trail. I met Bud and Kerosene Charlie early in my adventure and we traveled together for several weeks. Bud serenaded us every evening with tunes on his penny flute. Sadly, neither of them was able to finish the trail. Later, I joined Big E and Itchyfoot. We called ourselves Team 180-plus for obvious reasons.
New Hampshire’s White Mountains was the most rugged and arduous portion of the trail. Much of the 75 miles of terrain is above tree level. In one place there’s a sign that reads, “Do not proceed beyond this point in times of inclement weather, or if inclement weather is forecast to occur. Numerous persons have died on this mountain during periods of severe weather.”
The trek through the mountains required nine days of food, but my pack only held seven days worth so I depended on a series of lodges or huts for a safe and successful passage.
The huts were all remote with no road access. Everything was brought in by helicopter or packed in by foot. They were extremely environmentally compatible, using wind, solar or water to generate electrical power. Most had composting toilets and food waste was composed or packed out.
The huts were booked several months in advance, and were generally full and quite expensive but offered free room and board in exchange for work to two thru-hikers per night. To help my chances of being one of the two selected, I came up with the following lyric:
“Stormin’s my name, thru-hiking’s my game. I’ll follow your wishes and wash all your dishes, so please make my day and let me work for my stay.”
It worked. I hiked and worked my way through this potentially dangerous part of the trail waiting tables and washing dishes. It reminded me of walking on the moon — except for an occasional hiker, it was total desolation.
The most inspirational scene appeared in the heavily forested Green Mountains of Vermont. It was early morning, had rained all night and the air was very heavy and humid.
The sun broke through the clouds and the foliage overhead scattered beams of sunlight that struck the forest floor covered with pine needles, dead leaves and young green plants. Altogether, the different elements produced an amazingly beautiful cathedral-like effect — like walking down the aisle of the “Grand Church of Mother Nature.”
The highlight was when my daughter Melanie joined me on the last day to climb Mt. Katahdin, the trail’s terminus in Maine. Katahdin is the Abenaki Indian word for “Greatest Mountain.” It certainly lived up to its name — in terms of the effort it takes to reach the crest and the truly magnificent views from the 5,200-foot peak.
Except for a brisk wind, the weather was perfect when we arrived at the summit. I encountered several fellow thru-hikers and we congratulated each other for completing the 2,100 mile ordeal.
Forgotten were miles of slogging through mud and water in rain-soaked clothes and footwear, hours of climbing hand over hand up steep rock embankments, knee-wrenching, toe-jamming descents, hoards of blood thirsty mosquitoes, the high temperatures and stifling humidity of the mid-Atlantic states, weeks of high stepping over and around rocks and roots, and nights trying to keep warm in a lightweight sleeping bag ill-suited for the cold.
I basked in my victory — the culmination of seven years of struggle and planning — and that of my fellow hikers over all these obstacles. After taking photos and a quick lunch, we descended. I worried about my daughter as she hobbled into the parking lot at day’s end. Her legs were so sore she could hardly walk or bend her knees.
That was not the time to ask her if she would like to accompany me on my next adventure — hiking a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail. I waited and brought it up on our flight back home.